Web archives: a new class of primary source for historians ?

On June 11th I gave a short paper at the Digital History seminar at the Institute of Historical Research, looking at the implications of web archives for historical practice, and introducing some of the work I’ve been doing (at the British Library) with the JISC-funded Analytical Access to the Domain Dark Archive project. It picked up on themes in a previous post here.

There is also an audio version here at HistorySpot along with the second paper in the session, given by Richard Deswarte.

The abstract (for the two papers together) reads:

When viewed in historical context, the speed at which the world wide web has become fundamental to the exchange of information is perhaps unprecedented. The Internet Archive began its work in archiving the web in 1996, and since then national libraries and other memory institutions have followed suit in archiving the web along national or thematic lines. However, whilst scholars of the web as a system have been quick to embrace archived web materials as the stuff of their scholarship, historians have been slower in thinking through the nature and possible uses of a new class of primary source.

“In April 2013 the six legal deposit libraries for the UK were granted powers to archive the whole of the UK web domain, in parallel with the historic right of legal deposit for print. As such, over time there will be a near-comprehensive archive of the UK web available for historical analysis, which will grow and grow in value as the span of time it covers lengthens. This paper introduces the JISC-funded AADDA (Analytical Access to the Domain Dark Archive) project. Led by the Institute of Historical Research (IHR) in partnership with the British Library and the University of Cambridge, AADDA seeks to demonstrate the value of longitudinal web archives by means of the JISC UK Web Domain Dataset. This dataset includes the holdings of the Internet Archive for the UK for the period 1996-2010, purchased by the JISC and placed in the care of the British Library. The project has brought together scholars from the humanities and social sciences in order to begin to imagine what scholarly enquiry with assets such as these would look like.

Britten at the BL

I have an ambivalent relationship with exhibitions. Not so much with art exhibitions, since all I ever expect to do with a painting is look at it. But exhibitions of books and manuscripts, like this excellent (and free) exhibition on Benjamin Britten by my British Library colleagues, feel fascinating and frustrating in equal measure. There is a fascination in the object, made sacred, as it were, by the touch of the great man’s hand; and I had not realised how many of Britten’s autograph scores the Library holds. There are also recordings here, of Britten himself in conversation with broadcasters, and also of Peter Pears.

The frustration comes from what one instinctively expects (as a scholar) to be able to do with a source, but cannot due to the inevitable clear glass box that separates viewer from viewed. I’ve seen and handled a good few of Britten’s letters in relation to his Rejoice in the Lamb (1943) in amongst the Walter Hussey papers, and so one instinctively wants to begin work on these manuscripts and other artefacts straight away; to turn the pages, and follow the thoughts that present themselves as one views.

That aside, there are many rewarding things on display. There are films, such as the Crown Film Unit production Instruments of the Orchestra (1946), for which the piece known as the Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra was written. Malcolm Sargent had a deserved reputation as a showman and populariser, but after nearly 70 years of media history he appears as from a quite different age, so stiff and didactic is his delivery. Also showing is Night Mail (1936), Britten’s collaboration with W.H. Auden for the GPO Film Unit.

There are items related to Britten’s sacred music as well, including the autograph short scores for both the War Requiem (Add. MS 60609) and the Hymn to St Cecilia, another collaboration with Auden. (Add. MS 60598).

I was also reminded of the connection between Britten and the Peace Pledge Union, set up before the war by Dick Sheppard, rector of St Martin-in-the-Fields. Britten signed the pledge, and was accompanied by Canon Stuart Morris, general secretary of the Union when he appeared before a tribunal as a conscientious objector in 1942, at which his Pacifist March was offered as evidence of his pacifism before the war. Shown here is a printed chorus part of Pacifist March, written for the PPU in 1936-7 with words by Ronnie Duncan. The Union disliked it (and a quick sing through it, sotto voce, shows why) and so it was withdrawn, and this is one of the few surviving copies. Britten’s Canticle I was later given its first performance at a memorial service for Sheppard in November 1947.

The exhibition continues at the Library’s St Pancras site until 15 September. If you’re in London and have a spare hour, I would heartily recommend it.

[Additional information from Humphrey Carpenter, Benjamin Britten. A biography (Faber, 1992)]