An Observation on Digital Archives

During the research stage of my project I was confronted with a situation regarding archives which I think would be fairly typical in community history organisations.


The archives, while well maintained, were largely un-digitised. Coming from history research in which the situation is that what isn’t archived is usually in readily available book form, this at first presented a roadblock. The Balmain Association, as well as Leichardt Library have large collections of digitised maps, photographs and publications, such as newspapers and periodicals (including the history focused Peninsula Observer and News Sheet, published by the Balmain Association). Digital archives in my experience often reflect these types of materials, which are easier to index, such as audio-visual content or pre-indexed publications. What is unfortunately neglected are the more specialised documents, letters, etc. that provide a more nuanced understanding of historical issues.
Both through my research, and as part of my ongoing role at the association involves going through the paper archive and determining which sections would be valuable for digitisation. I have found that the lack of easily searchable indexes require the user of these materials to engage with them at a deeper level, looking for meaning rather than matching keywords. Throughout my project this approach has yielded particularly fascinating anecdotes, which for the purpose of providing a historical walk have proved extremely valuable, much more so than the factually correct but rather dry information provided in the digital archives. I implore anyone doing historical research to dedicate extra time to paper archives, exploring the lesser travelled documents, as they are invaluable for providing the colour which is vital for great history, especially community history.

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