I’ve had this quote scrawled on a piece of Christmas wrapping paper that I’ve been carrying around since, well Christmas. Boxing Day to be precise.
It comes from Neil MacGregor’s A History of the World in 100 Objects, chapter 19, The Mold Gold Cape. He describes how the removal of the skeleton at the dig site meant that they lost so much more potential information about the way people lived at the time. The story of the cape was only half told.
“For although the precious finds will usually survive, the context which explains them will be lost, and it’s that context of material – often financially worthless – that turns treasure into history.”
You might say that for our records it’s what turns documents from Peter and Jane into Shakespeare…
We’ve already spoken of the importance of context in managing information, but this is IMPORTANT. So let’s explore further. A few days after I was leafing through someone else’s Christmas presents, The National Archives released a set of Margaret Thatcher’s files. One of the elements that caused so much attention was her hand written notes in the margins of the papers. They bring so much more context to the documents, an insight into her thoughts and personality.
But you can’t write on a digital document. It really messes up your screen and your IT department will not be happy. So where are these hand-written notes of the digital age? How will we be able to tell our stories in the same depth for Tony Blair, Gordon Brown or David Cameron?
We now scratch our comments in layers within our digital objects when we track comments and changes. Which we then obscure in the final saved versions. We send them in emails, or SMS messages. We add them to collaborative workspaces. We spread them across a range of files and formats, many of them seemingly trivial, or made so by the random sprawl such as our email inboxes. It could be argued that the mass of digital information being created is context in some way or other, floating around a smaller mass of key data.
We have no way of understanding the importance of the ephemera we create, nor the need to keep it. No more so than those who disposed of the skeleton at the Mold dig. And history has always made do with what it has been left.
In our digital world we have the opportunity to tell so much more. And the possibilities of telling so much less than we could have.