Archives then and now: Local history in the digital age

John West's website

John West, local historian, author of Village Records and Town Records amongst other titles, and a past contributor to Local History Magazine, has created a wonderful website which examines the merits and limitations of using the internet as a source of information for researching local history. This is a must-visit site for local historians.

The best way to capture the spirit of John's website is to quote from his home page: 'In October 2008 a Symposium on Northumberland’s Collections, skilfully organised at the Woodhorn Northumberland Museum Archives and Colliery Park (more properly Northumberland County Record Office) inflicted a painful intergenerational shock. The sheer range, content and polish of the material offered was startling. Much of this high standard was explained in the presentation of “Digitalisation and Restoration” and the archivists’ frequent reference to the Internet and their Electronic Catalogue brought me suddenly up-to-date. “This,” I thought, “is the end of the book as I knew it!” This over-excited view was cheerfully confirmed by several young computer-literate friends. How much, in fact, has the internet changed the scope and methods of the modern local historian?

'In olden days the pre-net student’s route started from the Victoria County History in the local library, re-tracing its footnotes, and leading to index cards, printed collections and microfilm at the County Record Office. Other resources were found in municipal Reference Libraries, the indexes of County Record Societies, the British Library at Boston Spa, and the National Archives at Kew. Distanced learning involved travel, telephone calls, letters, photocopies, and postage. Has this old long distance route now been bypassed by the internet? Where does the newcomer begin today — out of doors, or at home on the internet?

'It is in fact quite easy to combine the two approaches. Certainly we can now begin at home. Exploration of a multitude of websites is reassuring, offering as it does an additional library and archive at home. In fact, www offers, not the end, but a new beginning of the book as we now know it.'

We would recommend John's website to you even if his home page didn't end with a section headed 'Getting Started', where he directs beginners to Local History Online, because, as we think you will agree when you visit the website, it provides an invaluable guide to what can be found on the world wide web which will be of use to the local historian.

15 June 2009

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