The Politics of Digital Reproduction: A Case for Scottish History

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Although it might be suspected that someone specializing in eighteenth-century Scottish popular printing and culture would have an aversion to the tactile-free medium of a digital reproduction, the truth is quite the opposite.  The digitization of historical records and their subsequent utility (and malleability) in electronic formats provides a major impetus for historians in a wide array of sub-disciplines to engage dynamically with materials that might otherwise remain unused.

Nevertheless, several major problems remain in the development and use of digital images for historical scholarship. In the recent past, the demand for digitized material has been met unequally along national and linguistic divisions in terms of both the type and number of digitized sources available. 

For British history, this has been most visible in the disparity between efforts to catalogue English and Scottish historical records. Cases in point include the lack of comprehensive Scottish digital collections for news media and legal records to match the mostly English 17th and 18th Century Burney Collection Newspapers and the Proceedings of the Old Bailey (POB).  Additionally, even collections that purport to include a broad array of ‘British’ sources, such as the Eighteenth Century Collections Online (ECCO), actually contain very few Scottish titles.

If this is the case, then what are its causes? Is this simply the result of insufficient funding, or has the digitization of Scottish social and culturalrecords been derailed by other factors? In short, what are the political factors in play in the preservation and digitization of Scottish historical sources? 

One of the most memorable recollections from my first visit to the National Archives of Scotland in September 2004 were the sheer number of professional and amateur genealogists. Indeed, one of the pervasive (and profitable) aspects of the ‘Scottish Myth’ has been the impetus it has given to the recovery of family histories. 

Beginning in 2001, the NAS began digitizing records, completing a total of six million by 2006. Aside from those related to an ongoing project to document records of the Church of Scotland, many of the preserved records relate in some way to family history and include hundreds of testamentary records and sasine registers (records of property transfer). Shortly thereafter,  the NAS announced in December 2007 that it would begin to digitize and index its holdings of Valuation Rolls, an important source for tracing family history.  

At this point I began to wonder about its methodology in choosing records for digital preservation. Was the frequent use (and therefore degradation) of documents related to family history a factor in this decision? Or were questions of cost and future revenue more important? Ultimately, a major question about the role of users (fee-paying or otherwise) settled in my mind. Is preserving a set of records of personal and particular interest to a series of individualized researchers more important than those with less ancestral relevance, but arguably greater cultural weight? What portion of what we keep from the past is driven by the demands of the present?

G. Cades "Judgment of Solomon" (Wiki Commons)

While the  family history ‘industry’ has had a significant impact in prioritizing the types of records that are preserved through digitization, other factors have also been felt. Until fairly recently, the field of Scottish Studies was narrowly focused on the study of politics and religion. Although there has been recent resurgence of interest in Scottish social and cultural history, two of the largest digital projects –  publication of parliamentary acts and minutes from 1235 until the union of 1707 and records from the Church of Scotland – reflect this longstanding tradition of scholarship.

More recently, a new wave of social and cultural historians has promised to take digitization in several innovative directions. Whether working alone or in partnerships to realize larger scale projects, several institutions have begun to address the problems of inaccessible or scattered source material to support new scholarly investigations areas such as Scottish food history, Scottish women’s history, and the history of the book in Scotland.

Perhaps one of the most interesting applications of the digitization process has been in relation to studies on Scottish print culture in the early modern period. Over the past several years the University of Glasgow has compiled the Scottish Chapbook Catalogue, an online resource with reference to nearly 4000 individual items. Bringing together sources from the Glasgow University Library, the National Library of Scotland, Stirling University Library and the Edinburgh Central Library this project represents an initial effort to collect and make available information related to Scotland’s rich printing tradition. Although not as ambitious as the Broadside Ballads project at the Bodleian Library with its representative high-quality digital images in a collection of over 30000 works, the Glasgow project has demonstrated significant advances in employing online resources to thematically integrate formerly disparate holdings.

With a surplus of fragile documents, a great deal of future Scottish historical scholarship will be conditional on the selective application of reproductive technology. While impractical to ask historians to engage with archivists and policy-makers at every stage in the preservation process, serious questions about the priority, diversity and utility of sources chosen for digitization will have to be asked – sooner rather than later.

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One Response to “The Politics of Digital Reproduction: A Case for Scottish History”

  1. research AND writing | method AND narrative « History Compass Exchanges Says:

    [...] changes might mean access to archival sources without traveling, as the result of many digitization projects; or access to information that is searchable and sortable as data; or new ways of collaborating; or [...]

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