Archives in the news

Archives are in the news as the First World War commemoration gets under way. In the past these have been secret places only penetrated by the eager family researcher or academics working on some obscure thesis. Archives have changed, not only have they become visitor friendly with special exhibitions and helpful staff they have also moved into cyber space so you don’t even have to go there to find what you want. The British Library Newspaper Collection used to be in rather a sad office-block at Colindale in North London – completely uninspiring on the outside but reasonably visitor friendly inside with thousands of newspapers and periodicals, some you could read there and others on microfiche. Colindale closed last November and all print is now housed at Boston Spa, where millions of newspapers are stored. What’s available now is all online, managed by a company called brightsolid (part of DC Thomson and based in “the clouds”). You search for free and pay a fee to view a wide range of digitised newspapers. By March this year there will be a new News & Media Reading Room at the British Library at St Pancras where you can access digitised newspapers and also microfilm for free. Printed newspapers held at Boston Spa will be available again later in 2014 when they can be ordered and delivered within 48 hours. Out of 750 million publications held by the Library, 40 million are being digitised by brightsolid, 7 million searchable pages are available so far. At the National Archives I plodded through the rain the other day to the National Archives at Kew. A solid but bleak building as those of you who have been there will know. Inside it’s nice and warm with a lovely café and a small exhibition space. Here it’s all about the First World War of course, with the digitisation of war diaries and recently released the records of conscription appeals from the Middlesex Appeals Tribunal and much else. I felt particularly safe at the National Archives even as the rain pelted down. I had discovered by chance, in pursuit of my own research that the Cologne Archives collapsed in 2009. It was in a relatively modern building, after all most of Cologne was reduced to rubble by Allied bombing during the Second World War. The staff and public had 5 minutes to get out when a tunnel under construction underneath the building filled with water from the river. A twisted heap of rubble sunk into the tunnel, thousands of records were destroyed or damaged, sad and ironic as they had survived the onslaught of massive bombing during the War. Salvaging work is under way but will take “decades”, plans for a new building has apparently gone on hold as part of a government cost-cutting programme. Sounds familiar? Monument Men More on the Second World War when from Mid-February, Hollywood hero George Clooney will be saving European art from the Nazis in a new film about The Monument Men. For some reason this is billed as a “comedy” when most of us would regard it as something quite different. This group of international curators and military men did actually exist. They were charged initially with saving Italian works of art and minimising damage to historic buildings as the American troops worked their way up the Italian peninsula in the last years of the war. They then continued their work in Munich tracing owners of looted art and returning it to them where it was possible. Several years ago I watched the documentary on this subject, “The Rape of Europa”, at an ICOM meeting at the Museum of Docklands. An unforgettable experience – I don’t think the Clooney film will make the same impression. Who do you think you are? Family research is big business and the annual event bringing them altogether, at Who do you think you are? Live at London Olympia from 20-22 February. TV historian Dan Snow will be there to launch the Imperial War Museum’s “Lives of the First World War” and the National Archives team will be on hand to discuss their project “Operation War Diaries”. The television series by the same name has proved a great favourite with audiences. But it’s not all as easy as it sometimes seems on television. I am sure family and history researchers have hit unexpected brick walls, sometimes human and sometimes, as I have just found – a disaster. While more and more information is available online, it’s clear from this Live event that people also enjoy the contact and the chance to speak to experts. Just the ticket for museums and archives!