Preserving Our History

By Peter Lacey Events over the past 12 months have dramatically highlighted the need to digitise as many local histories as possible, and then to make these widely available on the internet – and for this to happen as soon as possible. First, digitizing histories will be of immense value to historians – not just now, but for centuries to come. And in doing so, we will simply be moving from using now-outdated 18th, 19th and early 20th century ways of recording and storing history and history sources to adopting modern, 21st century thinking and employing up-to-date (21st century) technology and now widely-used (21st century) methods of making information accessible. And, it will be an acceptance today that this is how history will be routinely recorded and will be made accessible into the future. The recent bushfires on the South Coast demonstrated, once again, how threatened our local histories are … ‘histories’ in this case including both history studies from the past (be they published or unpublished) and the all important source documents relating to our history (things such as letters, business records, meeting minutes, etc.). These histories are scattered throughout the South Coast area – some in libraries or museums, but many extremely valuable ones also in family libraries or archives. Most of these local histories and source documents are on paper – but paper is not a permanent medium. It degrades, is prone to insect and fungal attack, burns easily and is seriously affected by moisture. And, in many cases (for example, histories and documents held by old-established families throughout the South Coast), if these (paper) histories were to be destroyed (which, inevitably they will be, as were many during the recent bushfires!) then they will be effectively lost forever. That, simply, is tragic. The irony is that obtaining digital copies of these histories is so easy – as easy as scanning or taking a digital photograph. And then we will have that permanent digitized ‘back-up’ copy, with all the information it contains, available forever. The recent, Covid19-caused, prolonged closure of all libraries and all museums also dramatically highlighted how inconvenient and outdated it is to only make history (and other books or documents) accessible when libraries and museums are open. Unfortunately, these are the only places where many local histories, many documents are stored – so if the library or museum is not open, then the information being sought is simply not available. Again, outdated 19th and 20th century thinking needs to be replaced – and access to our histories (which, after all, are public property!) should now be available to the general public 24 hours a day, 7 days a week via the internet. Again, this is an easy process. The National Library of Australia’s remarkable Trove facility makes many documents (for example, copies of many newspapers, copies of hundreds of thousands of photographs) instantly available via the internet; local libraries and museums already have some documents (but only a relative few) available via their websites; and, as the Tomakin Community Association recently demonstrated (see ‘Recollections’ issue 20) [and South Coast History Society repeatedly demonstrates with ‘Recollections’], it’s an extremely easy process to make histories and documents readily available, at no cost, utilising widely used internet sharing facilities such as Bitly. Basically, what is needed, and what we are now seeking, is funding to start the process of digitising (i.e. electronically copying and storing) as many South Coast histories and historic documents as possible so that these can immediately be uploaded to (and be available on) the internet. If South Coast History Society were to receive that funding, we’d immediately employ someone or some people to get the work underway. The digitized copies of local histories would all be available (at no charge) to local libraries and museums to add to their on-line collections – so they too would benefit from increasing their collections, and would be providing greater service to their ‘customers’. And the (paper) originals would simply remain with their current ‘owners’. So, who should be providing the funding to start digitizing our local histories? Public funding (from Commonwealth or State governments, from local Councils) would be the ideal but, being realistic, it’s more likely to come from grant(s), or from a philanthropic organization or individual that appreciates the need for and benefits that will flow from digitization of our histories. Oh, to be a rich man … and to see this dream of digitizing all our local history being realised! Peter Lacey

Further reading: Help Us Get the Moruya Examiner digitised and on TROVE

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