sue watling

The collected letters, notebooks etc of Siegfried Sassoon are for sale –


I don’t know how monetary value (£1.25 million) is established but I do wonder how much technology is destroying work for future archivists.  Recently in the British Library for the Henry VIII Man and Monarchy exhibition I looked at the floor to ceiling bookcases housing the Kings Library and wondered what we are sacrificing to have the speed and ease of electronic communication – if anything at all. Should we celebrate or challenge the digitisation of the book?  Is the demise of the craft of book binding on a par with baking daily bread on hot stones; is achieving an outcome faster always an improvement to be applauded? Political response to the Luddites was the Frame Breaking Act whereby those guilty of challenging progress could be sentenced to death. What is the Internet equivalent in terms of resistance and sanctions? Occasionally the work network is down; a useful reminder of the extent to which our lives are online – as we tidy our desks and make coffee and feel redundant without our digital connections.

Technology may mean less to preserve in the future. Turning the Pages uses technology to preserve the work of the past and makes it more widely available by digitising some of the rarest books in the world.  The digitisation of the works of Siegfried Sassoon would make them accessible to a wider audience. Art needs to be visible. Sassoon’s notebooks from WW1 have additional value for their first hand experience of the madness of war and the later problems of psychological damage and rehabilitation. For this alone they should be preserved and made available. We can all learn from the creative work of others.

But does instant Internet access to the product of human labour devalue it?  Are we losing sight of the difference between the real and the replication? Seeing a digital image of a page from the Book of Kells is not enough; we need to know about the hours spent crafting a single letter, the conditions under which it was produced; the cold stone floors, the poor light, the preciousness of the gold and coloured pigments. Poetry is a product of the environment; Sasssoon was a man of his times. The digital page is only ever a part of the story and a danger of digitisation is the increasing separation from the human element – as well as the lack of  letters and notebooks and other documents that still retain the human dimension and touch for future generations to reflect on.

3 Comments so far

  1. Profile photo of Joss Winn   Joss Winn on June 28, 2009 9:54 am      

    Technology has always increased the output of human labour and resulted in more to preserve, not less. Archivists have more work to preserve, conserve and curate than they have ever had and the challenges of digital preservation, preserving artifacts that are born digital, are a necessary ‘growth’ area for the profession.

    Digitisation, which may be part of a digital preservation strategy, can make otherwise inaccessible objects, accessible. I wouldn’t place too much value on the original or ‘real’ object. Books, paintings, buildings, etc. are constantly being rebuilt, remade and maintained in the process of conservation to ensure their preservation. The real object is a transient thing and digitisation is a tool by which we can preserve these objects and continue learn from the past for a little longer.

  2.    Julian on June 28, 2009 3:47 pm      

    I suspect that our current use of technology might result in us preserving more, not less. Surely most of what has survived today has only done so because someone somewhere thought it was worth preserving. (Or, because it just got lucky, and didnt’ happen to get destroyed through war and by natural decay).

    The question is really how will future generations select stuff. I think we will lose much of the “curated” past, but it will still be out there. (Actually, there’s some evidence that this is already happening – there was a story on Radio 4 the other day about some old episodes of Hancock’s half hour that had been found on some ancient recording medium in somebody’s garden shed. The practice at the time was to re-use the media use to make the programme, so these shows had been thought to be lost.)

    My point is that now, there are so many portable data recording sources, there will be a much greater number of “lost” data, lurking in cupboards, in various nooks and crannies. There might be an interesting debate among future historians about how this data was intended to be viewed as the recreative technologies of the future may not quite work as we envisage.

    None of this takes anything away from the original point about the beauty and artistic value of the original artefacts though. Commenting here has been a nice diversion from my doctoral thesis work – which frankly isn’t ever going to be produced as a leather bound illuminated vellum manuscript! If it does survive into the future it will almost certainly be in some electronic format. But if it is to survive at all it first needs to exist, so I’d better get back to it!

  3.    sue on June 28, 2009 8:49 pm      

    I was reflecting on what the 21st century might have to leave behind to match ‘objects’ such as the Book of Kells, the documents in the Henry VIII exhibition and Seigfried Sassoon’s hand edited texts. If all that is left is digital media then I would miss the ‘realness’ of these objects. To me they are far more ‘real’ than their creators who are irrefutably transient and I place great value on them. In rapidly changing technological times, it is the human touch that seems to be the quality that digital data lacks.

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