Public history centre hopes to get the records straight

Digital archives must balance outreach, financial viability and scholarship, Matthew Reisz hears

Researchers at a new centre devoted to public history have warned that spending cuts and ill-conceived digitisation programmes pose a major threat to the archives essential to much academic work.

Kingston University’s Centre for the Historical Record was launched with the aim of promoting “collaborative research, knowledge exchange and discussion between historians, archivists, curators, heritage providers and the public”.

A conference held to mark the opening was devoted to the challenges and opportunities of preserving and presenting public history in the 21st century.

Nicola Phillips, a lecturer in history who co-founded the centre, said that libraries, archives and heritage organisations that faced budget cuts were often tempted to allow commercial companies to “snap up” the rights to archive data.

Although these businesses make the material available to anyone who is interested, it is often at a considerable price and in a form “more geared to people looking to investigate their family trees rather than academics looking at more in-depth trends such as occupations or migration”.

The effect, Dr Phillips said, is to “restrict their full education and research potential”, while any royalties to the archives tend to dry up quickly.

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