Sunday, 17 June 2012

If only they would crowdsource! – Diamond Jubilee - Royal Archives at Windsor Castle

Many years ago I worked for a software company installing the first archive management systems into large UK archives such as the London Metropolitan Archives, Cumbria Archives at Carlisle Castle and the Royal Archives at Windsor Castle.  It was a challenging time for archives going from paper systems to computer systems, in fact very similar to the challenges archives now face transitioning from managing paper records to born digital records.  Ironically I have just returned again to the archives sector and am now working at the National Archives of Australia on the second challenge.

When the first computer systems were installed in archives it often came as a shock to archivists to discover that when the system was installed it would be ‘empty’ and their records would not somehow miraculously appear in the system. This was the first piece of news I usually had to convey in training before showing an online process for acquisitions. I particularly remember that at the Royal Archives they estimated with their current staff of 4 it would take them 700 years to record their archive collection into their new system, and they were somewhat despondent to say the least. Nevertheless the Queen was pleased with the install of the first computerised system at Windsor Castle and awarded the software company I worked for the Royal Warrant, which meant we could use the Royal Coat of Arms on our letterhead.  The warrant is more often seen on pots of jam and pickle than on software. The celebration of implementation party at Windsor Castle with members of the Royal Household and staff was one to remember. 

The Round Tower at Windsor Castle contained every hand written record every monarch and members of their household had ever created. Queen Victoria’s collection was particularly large.  The Royal Archives could only be contacted by letter and each year less than 10 well vetted members of the public were allowed to access a very restricted and pre-agreed part of the collection under strict supervision.  Because it was largely uncatalogued, described or known there was a terrible fear of what a member of the public might find in the archives. This was understandable since household records such as the cost of banquets were intermingled with personal letters and diaries.  From the public's point of view the archive is that of our Kings and Queens and we would like to access it, but from HRH's view it is her private family archive. Although it is now more acceptable to expose skeletons in the family closet and programs such as "Who do you think you are" promote this, there is probably a reticence from aristocracy and royalty to do this. The Royal Archives is one of the richest, most interesting and significant collections ever created.  It could aptly be described as a pot of gold – an absolute treasure trove. The archivists were aware of this and some of the treasures within it.  The Royal Library at Windsor Castle was in a similar situation and also had extremely restricted access.  Because I have always championed access to archive and library collections I felt very sad whenever I thought of the treasures locked up and hidden (literally) at Windsor Castle.

I was very interested therefore to read about a new development at the Royal Archives timed to coincide with the Diamond Jubilee.  The Queen released this message:

“In this the year of my Diamond Jubilee, I am delighted to be able to present, for the first time, the complete on-line collection of Queen Victoria's journals from the Royal Archives. These diaries cover the period from Queen Victoria's childhood days to her Accession to the Throne, marriage to Prince Albert, and later, her Golden and Diamond Jubilees. Thirteen volumes in Victoria's own hand survive, and the majority of the remaining volumes were transcribed after Queen Victoria's death by her youngest daughter, Princess Beatrice, on her mother's instructions. It seems fitting that the subject of the first major public release of material from the Royal Archives is Queen Victoria, who was the first Monarch to celebrate a Diamond Jubilee. It is hoped that this historic collection will make a valuable addition to the unique material already held by the Bodleian Libraries at Oxford University, and will be used to enhance our knowledge and understanding of the past.”

I was intrigued by this and immediately found the website which tells us a lot more about Queen Victoria’s diaries and that this was a project undertaken in conjunction with the Bodleian Library at Oxford and Pro-Quest.  However on looking further it was a bit disappointing since although every page of all the journals has been scanned they have not all been transcribed.  Because they are all handwritten, they won’t be fully text searchable until they are all transcribed, a process which at present is most effectively done by the human hand and eye.  The website doesn’t give any indication of when or how they will be transcribed that I could see, although it says it ‘is in progress’. So far only the first diary has been transcribed, by whom I am not sure. I bet the project is only letting academics do it, who will be paid lots of money and progress very slowly. There is a lot to do: 1832- 1901 since Queen Victoria wrote her diary every day.

If ever I saw a collection that was so well-suited to crowdsourcing for public transcription this is it!  I could guarantee that in a few days or weeks all of Queen Victoria’s diaries would be transcribed by a willing and fascinated public. The handwriting is hard to decipher but with thousands of eyes, and amateur/professional genealogists and historians used to reading old writing, that are highly motivated I am sure it could be achieved. I feel excited just imagining it.  But why stop there?  What about the rest of the collection - the offical royal records and the personal records?  When is that going to come out of hiding? It’s just crying out for public description, tagging and transcribing. If only.  If only.

Extract of Queen Victoria’s diary.

Then thinking I would come back later and have another look I was most disappointed to read that following the example set by the British Library with its UK digitised newspapers the intent is to restrict access to the UK only, and to charge for access from July.  So loyal British subjects living in Commonwealth Countries, and academic researchers – you only have 14 more days to look at this for free, or at all.  Great shame!  But congratulations to whoever it was behind the scenes that convinced HRH to release the diaries from the Royal Archives, and who set up and managed the project with the Bodleian and Pro-Quest.  Bravo!!  Perhaps we just need to beg and grovel for more content and offer our unconditional help to get it for free.

Photo by Rose. June 2012. After participating in Trooping the Colour for the Queens Birthday in Canberra, Irish Guard Cliff Doidge (who plays the clarinet in the Royal Military Band and is on exchange from London to Australia for 4 months) stands beside Lake Burley Griffin with the National Library of Australia behind.