Tuesday, 5 April 2016

Don't forget your local!

To my utter shame I rather neglected local studies and archives in my last post. Which is a shame as these parts of the service are essential to the sense of identity of communities and the individuals in them. Whether it's family history, local annals, contemporary datasets with their proper contexts or whatever else illuminates the journey taken to get to the here and now it all has more than just a frivolous value. The content of these collections is the very personal experience of the communities the library service serves.

All those adverts for Ancestry and Find My Past in the breaks during the re-runs of "Who Do You Think You Are?" tell of the value of this content for that sense of identity. More than that, the collections don't tell of a straight-line lineage of connections over time. People, groups of people, come and go and some come back again, each wave of immigration bringing in something new and fresh stories to tell whether they're Beaker Folk or Flemish weavers, Irish navvies or Somali refugees, exiled princes or people looking for a fresh start. If your family came to Britain any time after the last glaciation you're an immigrant so get over it and share in the story.

Less obviously, these collections can provide significant scientific data. Epidemiology has benefited from the mapping over time of disease outbreaks. Climatology draws upon the seemingly-trivial stuff like the first records of primroses and swallows of the year as much as the dramatic chronicles of great storms and little Ice Ages. Astronomy, biology, geology are all the richer from having data sets available that stretch back over the centuries and which often describe that which has been lost to extinction, war and development.

Reminiscence events drawing on local collections have considerable therapeutic benefits which chime well with libraries' wider contributions to the health and well-being of their communities. And they're fun. In fact, a lot of these collections are fun; because they're about people and people like having fun and often record it.

New, digital, technologies provide challenges and opportunities — how to usefully preserve digital content, how to make it more widely available and present it in exciting and interesting ways whilst preserving the authenticity of the material. And when it works, it's brilliant: if you want a good example of getting it right and getting archives out of the cellars and attics of our buildings, go and have a look on the ground floor of Manchester's Central Library. The pity is that this is only possible at a large city or regional scale. And then for how long before somebody insists it gets sent to London to be properly looked after because us provincials don't know no better? The neglect and dissolution of small local collections in community (not "community") libraries feels more and more like Doctor Beeching is in charge of our heritage.

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