David Blackburn

Spreading the word | 4 July 2011

At the end of last month, the British Library signed a deal with Google to digitise 40 million pages from its collection. Today, Tristram Hunt has written a piece in the Guardian welcoming the change, but saying that, when it comes to history, it’s best to dirty your hands in an archive. He has set Twitter-tongues wagging, with critics branding him an intellectual snob and worse.

It’s quite a storm; but, Hunt and his detractors seem to be talking at crossed purposes. Hunt is right: I took a History degree and throughout my studies nothing matched pulling on some protective gloves, donning a face mask and digging around in a musty archive.

Trouble is that it takes an eon to get there. Archives are the terrain of dons, researchers and very occasionally their students, while the great unwashed rarely meet the requirements of jealous archive custodians. That is why the British Library’s deal with Google to open resources to a wider public, to democratise history if you like, is so important. The subsequent research may not alter our understanding of the past, but that’s not really the point. This resource could be used in schools, prisons, remedial centres etc. as a tool to ignite interest and forge understanding in something greater than the minute present. That can only be a good thing. 

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