Digitising long forgotten historical documents still in copyright

Summary

Trying to work out how much the cost of digitising dozens of long lost dissertations, theses and publications will be – and the first estimate is eye-watering

I asked the county council staff how much it would cost them in order for them to publish, and they quoted me their current standard fee of £5 per page – which seems extortionate. Essentially their rules need updating because otherwise I face a five-figure bill. And that’s before looking to secure consent from the copyright holders.

The county library services online search engine is a temperamental beast at the best of times, but clicking here searching for ‘Study’ I come up with 84 different entries. I described in this Lost Cambridge blogpost how I stumbled across the lists of the studies that historians past had completed and deposited in the Cambridgeshire Collection in Cambridge’s Central Library – many of which have long since been forgotten. And for me therein lies the problem: All that work finding that knowledge has been done, but nothing is being done with it.

Current copyright laws prevent the digitisation of these works in their entirety without the consent of the copyright holder

Those of you who studied an arts/humanities/social science degree will be familiar of the 5% / One chapter photocopying rule. Whereas my take is ***just digitise, publish, publicise and make the damn things searchable***. Especially for the ones that are proper old. Actually, not quite. That would be illegal.

My take is that the digitisation is not something that some random bloke and his dragon should be doing independently: this is an institutional, if not city-wide issue. Overhearing a couple of historian acquaintances discussing all things digitisation revealed that small, independent operations have trouble keeping things online available – for example the costs of maintaining subscriptions. The other thing is that in the grand scheme of things, I’d rather people went to the county archives and got engaged in what they had rather than hitting my blogs and stopping there. Simply because one creates a proper revenue stream for a cash-starved service. And remember I couldn’t do what I do without the existence of the archives and collections.

Why has Cambridgeshire County Council been so slow to monetise and grow the activities of its archives?

This was something I sort of hinted at in my public question to executive councillors today. It was unfortunate that a bad-tempered debate on council expenses followed my question. In response to my question we heard about limited budgets yet in the next one, the Conservative-run council were coming under heavy political fire from their opponents over their decision to vote through significantly increased expense allowances for councillors – in particular executive councillors who, as a result of the recent elections are all Conservatives. It wasn’t the council’s finest hour.

My take is that the council and its archives have a host of buried assets in its archives – in particular its extensive photograph collection. Essentially the archive should have a setup that the Francis Frith Collection has here. I’d like to think that it wouldn’t be beyond the county council to use some of their reserves to invest in digitising then automating the function that would allow people to select the images that they want, and either download or purchase prints through a local third party, meaning that they create an automated revenue stream without the burden of an extensive maintenance operation.

Bigger the better

Given that they have so many negatives and glass lantern slides in their collection, they also have the ability to create fairly detailed large prints which, from my perspective are much more interesting and inspiring, while being more expensive and generate more revenue than smaller prints. Dare I say it, with old large photo prints the people featured in them feel that much more…human. You also have the growth of artists that specialise in providing colour to black and white photographs. It’s a bit of a hit-and-miss thing, but the option is there.

Curating and collating already-digitised works

The Internet Archive based in the USA has already digitised a whole host of works, including:

And those are the ones that stood out in a brief search of ‘Cambridge, England’.

Each of the above books have their own stories to tell. One of the other interesting local publishers is the Oleander Press – a list of their books on Cambridge the town over the decades can be found here. The bookshop Heffers also used to be a publisher – have a look at their list here.

So…in attempting to write a modern history of Cambridge the town, you get an idea of just how much reading material there is for me to plough through.

Minutes of past council meetings – now these *can* be digitised.

I browsed through some of these earlier. From just after the First World War, these minutes – and their contents, were typed. The manuscript minutes are works of art in themselves, the handwriting absolutely beautiful. But not so good for an Optical Character Recognition machine/software. The typescript minutes however become instantly searchable with key words even if you are only scanning the pages of the contents for each year. With that in mind, they are civic gold dust.

But before I get out the cameras and scanners, we need to know where all of these digitised documents would be stored online for people to use. And until we’ve sorted that out, I don’t want to start ploughing through voluntarily scanning things myself, even though doing so would be of huge benefit to me. Learning from scanning the minutes included finding out Florence Ada Keynes as an Alderman (senior councillor) was responsible for elections in Romsey Town – in those days each ward had a returning officer. Also the local park to me, Coleridge Rec (in Coleridge Ward where Puffles stood for election in 2014) was bought by the borough council and secured as a park in 1925. This was after the land – previously fields, was sold off by one of the university colleges for housing Cambridge’s expanding population.

 

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One thought on “Digitising long forgotten historical documents still in copyright

  1. I have a spare set of the books THE CITY OF CAMBRIDGE: A Survey and Inventory by the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments, Parts I and II and Map, : which you can have. Are you interested?

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