An Archival Treasure Trove—And All Online

“My dear Ben and Barbara . . . Thick snow here until today,” wrote the painter Sir William Nicholson from the French seaside town of La Rochelle. “The first for forty years. Many of the Rochellaise had never seen it before. All went to bed to keep warm.

“We can’t send presents from here, besides there was a mad dog in a toyshop who bit a maid who is still barking in Paris. Nothing much to do here, cannot work and fingers too cold for that and inspiration nipped in the bud.”

On the first page of the letter, written on December 29, 1938, Sir William has sketched La Rochelle’s round harbour towers and a cheery New Year sun.

“Ben and Barbara” were Sir William’s son Ben Nicholson, also a painter, and Ben’s wife Barbara Hepworth, a sculptor. Sir William’s trip to the toyshop, stopped short by the mad dog, would have been with Ben and Barbara’s four-year-old triplets in mind.

Until a few months ago, if I had wanted to read this letter with Sir William’s blunt-pencil script and his sketch of a Rochellaise fisherman in clogs and a thick-knit jersey, I would have had to register with the Tate Britain archives in Pimlico, central London, request an appointment to visit (only between 11am and 5pm), make travel arrangements, and wait for the right box to be brought up.

Instead, on the first sunny Sunday in March, I read Sir William’s letters to his son at my kitchen table with a cup of tea. If I had spilled it, only my laptop, and not Sir William’s letters, would have been ruined.

At the end of last year, Tate made 6,000 items from its archive—the largest relating to British art in the world—available online. There are letters from William Nicholson to Ben and Barbara (“picturesque—a bloody label which often poisons lovely things”). There are love letters from the First World War artist Paul Nash to his wife Margaret (“my little rosy Beauty”) and a picture of Nash cuddling his protesting cat Pooh while smoking a cigarette. There are 45 volumes of Barbara Hepworth’s handwritten sculpture records and a photograph she took of Ben Nicholson in skimpy swimming shorts on the beach at Dieppe.

Half the current online archive—around 3,000 items—consists of black-and-white photographs by documentary artist Nigel Henderson. One image, part of a series on the East End in the 1950s, shows two boys—one in short trousers, the other in long—standing in front of a goal they have chalked on the wall. Next to it is the legend, “Down the Spurs. Up West Ham.”

Material relating to a further 40 artists will be put online this summer as part of a continuing effort to digitise the Tate collections. It is the most wonderful resource and you can click from exhibit to exhibit long after your tea has gone cold.

The success of the Tate’s enterprise strikes particularly forcefully at a time when there has been much breast-beating and brouhaha about the dangers of the internet. In the polemical The Internet is Not The Answer (Atlantic Books, £16.99), published earlier this year, the Silicon Valley entrepreneur and businessman Andrew Keen makes the persuasive argument that far from being a force for good, the internet has had a detrimental overall effect on our lives.

We have surrendered our personal details to Google and Facebook; Amazon has killed the high street; Twitter has created its own lurid brand of online bullying; real jobs—both skilled and unskilled—have been lost to “robotisation”.

While we are right to be wary of the “winner-takes-all” internet monopolists described by Andrew Keen, there are reasons to be cheerful.

Research and scholarship have benefited enormously from the digitisation of archives and libraries. Whereas once a reader might have had to make an appointment to visit an archive or university—possibly abroad and involving great expense of time and money—it is now possible to rifle through diaries, letters and photographs on a computer at home. No white gloves, no anxiously hovering librarian, no danger of sneezing on an annotated first edition.

Of course you do not feel the weight of the paper or the ribbons used to bind the bundles, or sit in the library where the Great Man or Woman would have sat, but unless the reader is writing a biography, this degree of immersion may be beyond the call of duty—and the practicality of the deadline. 

With any piece of research, I now look for a relevant digital archive. There is a delight in the intimacy and insight that comes from reading personal letters and faithful diaries, rather than second-hand in a biography. There is the sense of the serendipitous find, of discovering something others might have missed.

Curious, for example, about Kathleen “Kick” Kennedy and Deborah “Debo” Mitford, after Debo’s death last year, and what it might have been like for them to marry William and Andrew Cavendish, the heirs to the Chatsworth estate, I read the letters Kick wrote from England to her ambassador father, Joseph Kennedy and mother Rose during the Second World War. They are available on the website of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston.

Staying with the old Duchess of Devonshire, Kick despaired: “It’s odd how people in this country who possess so much have so little idea about things which Americans consider quite essential to the ordinary way of life. There is no soap in one’s bedroom, sugar or butter at breakfast . . . My lovely, historical Elizabethan bed is most uncomfortable.”

As well as papers—thousands of them—relating to the 1960 John F. Kennedy campaign and subsequent Presidency, there is a detailed inventory of every item to have been found in the Oval Office, including the foam pad the President had made to support his back when sitting in his black leather “executive chair”.

There is also a series of increasingly fraught letters between the editor of US Vogue and Jackie Kennedy’s social secretary arranging an appointment for the First Lady to sit for the society photographer Cecil Beaton. “Mr Beaton photographs very quickly, and the sitting should not require more than an hour or an hour-and-a-half of Mrs Kennedy’s time.”

On this side of the Atlantic, the website for the Margaret Thatcher Foundation gathers material from the National Archives at Kew, her personal papers in Cambridge and the Reagan Library in Los Angeles. Anyone interested in the night of her election victory in May 1979 will be tickled by a scrappy, scribbled aide-memoire of the St Francis prayer in blue ink, which she quoted on the steps of Downing Street, having clutched it in her palm and studied it in the car from Buckingham Palace. The note reads: “Discord—harmony. Error—truth. Doubt—faith. Despair—hope.”

For a cynical view of prime ministers and their works, read the letters—more than 50 years of them—in the Gertrude Bell archive on the University of Newcastle website. Bell, who helped in the founding of modern Iraq, wrote pertly from Baghdad on January 3, 1921: “As for statecraft I really think you might search our history from end to end without finding poorer masters of it than Lloyd George and Winston Churchill.”

Digitisation is a colossal effort for any institution. It relies on volunteers or cash-strapped doctoral candidates scanning, photographing, or typing word-for-word existing documents. The National Archives, which hold 11 million historical government and public records, are in the habit of proudly posting photographs on their Twitter page of volunteers scanning Great War Service Records. And it is expensive. The Tate project was possible only with a Heritage Lottery Fund grant of £2million. A project to digitise the Vatican Library’s 82,000 manuscripts—the first 4,400 were made available online last October—is expected to cost more than $50million (£34million)

Happily, the UK leads the world in what is called “Open Data Readiness”—archival material that is free to access, searchable and online. The 2015 “Barometer Report”, commissioned by the World Wide Web Foundation, puts us top for Open Data  Readiness. The US is in second place, followed by Sweden, France and New Zealand.

The records of Hansard, the daily transcription of proceedings in the House of Commons and the House of Lords, for example, have been put online. The earliest entry is from 1803.  Meanwhile, the National Archives, are being—painstakingly—digitised. On one recent rummage through curiosities I came across an 1866 patent for an ornamental bar of soap shaped liked a plucked and trussed chicken.

Some historians and biographers fret that today’s politicians, writers and artists will not leave behind the correspondence and diaries their predecessors did. There will be nothing to compare with the literary estates of a Virginia Woolf, a Ted Hughes or a Winston Churchill. Modern men and women may, however, instead leave extensive email records,which will be searchable by keyword, sender and date.

Efforts are being made to ensure that access to this material is not lost. Google, one of Andrew Keen’s big bad internet wolves, is at the forefront. In February, the company’s vice-president, Vint Cerf, warned at a conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, that we were facing a “digital dark age” as the software required to read digital storage devices—microfilm, floppy discs, CD-Roms, USB sticks—becomes obsolete. He is promoting a project to preserve examples of every piece of information software so that old formats can still be referred to even hundreds of years in the future. He has called the idea “Digital Vellum” after the soft calfskin parchment of medieval manuscripts.

Libraries and archives have been quick to respond to the transition from paper trails to email inboxes. In 2011, the poet Wendy Cope sold a cache of more than 40,000 emails, sent and received since 2004, to the British Library. Such digital resources may lack the romance of love letters scented with perfume, but they do offer hope that our age will not go unrecorded.

Zadie Smith, author of White Teeth, wrote an intriguing essay earlier this year explaining why she had never kept a diary. As a teenager she had concluded that “the writing of life will take longer than the living of it.”

She observes that her Yahoo! email account, “opened circa 1996 and still going”, is a more accurate record than any diary. “In there (though I would rather die than read it all over),” she writes, “is probably the closest thing to an honest account of my life, at least in writing . . . With all the kind deeds and dirty lies and domestic squabbles and bookish friendships and online fashion purchases . . . When I am dead, if my children want to know what I was like in the daily sense, not as a writer, not as a more-or-less presentable person, but simply the foolish human being behind it all, they’d be wise to look there.”

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