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Bright spots for digital history

September 1, 2012
St Kiltda

Old St Kilda through the prism of a digital camera. Picture courtesy of RCAHMS

(This post appeared first on the allmediascotland site)

Amid all the gloom that hangs over traditional news media, there’s one bright spot from an unlikely source.

Digging up old stories and putting them on the web is flourishing. The fancier name is ‘digital history’, and, don’t say it too loudly, Scotland is doing rather well at it.

It’s not just text – photographs, audio and video also make up what we now call ‘content’. Older journalists like me, recoil at the term ‘content creator’, but once you‘re over the initial gagging reflex, it is actually good fun.

And maybe it’s not that surprising – the words story and history both come from the same Latin root. Every story becomes history the moment it’s published and we all know that news is the first draft of history.

What is startling is its phenomenal growth. You can hardly move for history on mainstream broadcast schedules.

I don’t know what this that says about us as a society – baby boomers on a nostalgia trip, an atavistic desire to connect with previous generations or oldies showing digital isn’t just about playing games..

The biggest explosion has been in history-related activity on the internet – ordinary people tracking their family tree, local history or sharing any number of interests.

This thirst has been slaked by new fountains of knowledge. Unlikely as it sounds, the clear web leader in Europe is the Royal Commission of Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland.

Hand-held recreation of an old image outside St Giles. Picture courtesy RCAHMS

RCAHMS has innovated with great online resources like SCRAN, the national aerial photography archive and Scotland’s Places.

Sport is another huge growth area. Digital history offers a key to a football club’s soul.

Football Memories is a ground-breaking project involving Alzheimer Scotland to help people with dementia.

Scotland has also led with very good examples of public sector collaborations. Tobar an Dulchais is one of the most recent – bringing together decades of song and speech from all over the country.

Film archive has become far more accessible, such as STV on YouTube or the British Pathe collection.

Of course, it’s not all rosy. There are still the problems of websites starting on a wave on enthusiasm and dying from apathy or running out of funds within a year.

But is any of this commercially successful? West Lothian-based Panamint, working with the Scottish Screen Archive and others, does well offering an extensive range of film on DVD.

Arguably, the most successful international enterprise has been brightsolid in Dundee. It has produced Scotland’s People (with The National Archives of Scotland), Findmypast, and is now digitising UK newspapers with the British Library.

If this continues, the past’s future looks bright and solid. And soon it may be time to change the old Dundee mantra to Jam, Jute, Journalism…and Javascript.

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