Re: Creating the disruptive digital archive by John Sheridan of National Archives


Wrestling with digital archiving at a local level – in a very unique city

A couple of blogposts have been posted on digital archiving of late. This one on the hidden costs of digitising archives, via The Fitzwilliam Museum is sobering reading,  while the head of The National Archives in the UK, John Sheridan writes about their digital strategy.

“Yes, but you’re in Cambridge and Cambridge is loaded and the streets are paved with gold so it’s not like Cambridge has a problem…is it?”

Let’s get this straight: ***Cambridge is not just a university***

If we were to get all town-vs-gown about it, Cambridge University is only there because us townies say they can be there. We took them in when they fled the other place because we are ***nice***. (We did the same when the Belgians fled The Kaiser in WWI, and our first woman Mayor of Cambridge, Mayor Eva Hartree welcomed refugees fleeing from the fascist dictators while UK newspaper proprietors were hob-nobbing with them.

Actually, it’s more serious than that. We’re living in a time where The University of Cambridge is in the process of raising £2bn while our defunct system of 2-tier councils cannot afford to pave the roads and pavements properly. Homes in my childhood neighbourhood, built as family homes in the inter-war period are hitting London prices – a 3-bed semi in Coleridge Ward (which gave Puffles 89 votes in the city council elections in 2014) won’t sell for less than half a million pounds. Which is stupid-crazy-stupid.

“Can’t you just ask Cambridge University for some spare cash? After all, one undergraduate has got money to burn – literally”

A negative stereotype hitting the headlines due to the stupidity of one individual. What the news wasn’t reporting were all of the students in Cambridge collecting donations, food and drinks, then going out to take food to the homeless on cold, wet, dark evenings out of sight of the media lenses. I saw them with my own eyes on my way back from various meetings and events – and still see them now, long after the storm has gone away. The real 21st Century Cambridge is one where town and gown unite and work together to solve the shared problems of our city – as wonderfully demonstrated by the Cambridge Hub.

“What’s this got to do with archives?”

That level of co-operation hasn’t yet reached our archives – and as a city we’ve got more than most inside our civic boundaries.

“Ask the University for some cash and job done!”

If only it was as simple as that.

“Isn’t it?”


For a start, nominally we have two civic public archives: The Cambridgeshire Collection on the third floor of the central library, and the County Archives. Then there is the Cambridge and County Folk Museum – now called the Museum of Cambridge.

I’ve been speaking to a number of people in the local history scene and it’s clear that our civic museums and archives are being run on an absolute shoe-string. It’s testament to the work of the people volunteering and working in the sector in the face of such cuts to their resources that they can keep things going. Digitising anything is the last of the priorities at the moment – and I don’t blame them. Part of the problem is political, part of it is cultural.

“Politicians again?”

While the people of Cambridgeshire continue to vote for politicians that prioritise council tax freezes or cuts ahead of public services, the consequences are inevitable – especially in the face of Whitehall cuts – something tweeted by Labour’s Cllr Dave Baigent (although he made a typo with the year).

If I were a party political type, I’d have that statistic plastered up over every other billboard across the county – in particular in those rural areas struggling with the cuts. But I’m no, so there.

Fortunately, someone in Cambridge far wiser and more sensible than I will ever be, summarised the challenge for voters, councillors and council officers.

The basis of all social life is co-operation, and it is certainly the basis of our local government. In the council itself, it calls for co-operation between voluntary committees and expert officers. This is a matter of careful adjustment, possible only to a people with a real faculty for self-government. It calls also for co-operation between the electors and those whom they return to their local parliament. This can be best exercised by a vigilance that is not mere fault-finding but supplies constructive criticism and occasionally goes so far as to mark its appreciation of honest effort for the good of the community

The above quotation was from Mayor Florence Ada Keynes in her mayoral acceptance speech in November 1932, courtesy of the Cambridgeshire Collection. Basically, tax rises are not without consequences (neither are cuts). She goes on further.

“Underlying the many subjects to which the Council will have to give anxious attention during the year, is the expenditure of public money with that true economy which avoids waste and parsimony.”

I’ve given Mayor Keynes the title: The Mother of Modern Cambridge. She arrived as an undergraduate at Newnham College in the early 1880s. At that time Cambridge University constables were still throwing women they thought might be sex workers into their own prison (until 17 year old hero Daisy Hopkins stood her ground and metaphorically castrated the Vice Chancellor), and the town suffered from multiple deprivation on its doorstep – as another Cambridge Hero and the best MP we never had, Eglantyne Jebb (Mayor Keynes’ mentee, who founded Save The Children) wrote in her epic 1906 study, cited our town’s infant mortality rate as being 1:8 (as opposed to about 3:1,000 today). When she died, she left us with the record of being the first woman councillor, second woman mayor, first woman magistrate, and gave us the Guildhall in Market Square, resolving an 80 year dispute about what to do for a new guildhall. Oh – and her son, John Maynard Keynes gave Cambridge the Arts Theatre.

“What’s that got to do with digital archiving?”

The funding is political. If people want their local archives to be looked after, someone’s got to pay for it. Hence why I’ve taken the issue to full council.

Interestingly my line of questioning got cross-party support

The council’s written response is here.

The problem is that our local archives are in no position to digitise, let alone commercialise the resources that they have. Think of all of the old photographs of the streets of Cambridge they could digitise and sell digital copies of, just as the Francis Frith Collection has done here.

Interestingly, Mr Sheridan of the National Archives hints at an answer.

Collaboration between archives and other memory institutions is essential as we move forward. We’re looking forward to further contributing to the Digital Preservation Coalition (which is a national treasure!), sharing what we’re doing, learning from others, and working together.

The above is from Mr Sheridan’s final paragraph of his blogpost.

From my perspective with their equipment, expertise and resources, the University of Cambridge’s Library (The UL) is in a unique place to be the lead organisation for digitising Cambridge’s civic history – which is a shared history for better or worse. When I tabled the idea of such a project in a public Q to the Vice Chancellor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz at Homerton College recently, he remained non-committal (as he had to be in such a situation).

Given that Cambridgeshire County Council – who are responsible for our civic archives – have their four-yearly elections coming up in on 04 May 2017, now is the perfect opportunity to make this an election issue – niche an issue as it is.

But it will be a very, very long time before Cambridge – and other local civic archives are in a place to become second generation digital archives that Mr Sheridan talks of. That’s not his fault. That responsibility lies with politicians elected to public office. And perhaps collectively too with the rest of us responsible for electing them.


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