What would a UK Digital Collection look like? Or why we don’t really need one.

What would a UK Digital Collection look like? A glittering digital library or museum, with informative stunning, collections that represent the UK? A series of artworks, scientific discoveries, images, poems, documents, performances and programmesthat have played an essential role in shaping and informing UK society.

But that word ‘represents’ is a really thorny one. Who decides what the key items are? How do you reflect Britain’s and Northern Ireland’s myriad interests and communities? Do you focus on the long history or concentrate on the twentieth century? How is something selected that appeals to countless cultural and political groups but still retains a sense of Britishness (whatever Britishness is)? Like all histories, there is no neutral point of view.

Moreover, should such a Collection represent the width and holdings of UK cultural and educational institutions, or should it be drawn from the large national libraries and archives? And how is a balance achieved between the UK’s four nations? And should material be drawn from institutions outside the UK?

(Try thinking about this for yourself – I got stuck thinking about the Bayuex Tapestry)

Perhaps an even more question concerns the audience – Who would the Collection be for? For secondary schools? For undergraduates? For researchers? For the general public(s)? For an international audience?

Plenty of different international and national bodies are tackling these questions – the World Digital Library, Europeana,, Digital New Zealand, the Digital Public Library of America, Trove. In the UK we have the admirable Culture Grid and the BBC, along with JISC and others, have been considering an ambitious Digital Public Space.

Looking through all these projects, it seems clear they most are moving away from worrying about this issue. Trying to mimic, however unconsciously, a pre-digital notion of an archive with a defined set of collections seems to create unnecessary boundaries in the Internet age.

What is much more appealing is a framework within which different indiviudal, communities, organisations can work, contribute and engage. A more open kind of place where there are fewer difficult top-down decisions about what content should be in there (those old pre-digital worries) and more thought given to how that content can be shared, discovered, used and curated (the digital worries of today and tomorrow).

Such a place has its foundations in an infrastructure that is flexible and allows people to add content, and then builds different ways of accessing for different audiences on top – to present a series of UK digital collections rather than just a single entity. Thinking about a UK Digital Collection doesn’t quite work on the World Wide Web.

Having said all that, let’s not ditch the concept of a UK Digital Collection without any further thought. The notion appeals to politicians and the media, and they tend to be very useful channels for getting funding and generating interest. But if we do have that conversation we need to make sure that it’s not just a highlights package of UK society and history, but that our valuable content is situated within an infrastructure that allows us to build many sustainable UK digital collections, rather a restrictive pre-digital one-off Collection.

2 replies on “What would a UK Digital Collection look like? Or why we don’t really need one.”

It feels like a look back at the origins of public museums (and other collections?) might be helpful in thinking about these issues – even if just to say “digital is different”.

It’s not an area I have any detailed knowledge of, but my impression is that many of our national collections were built around a core that was originally private in some way – and certainly many have incorporated private collections over time.

Why did this private->public shift happen? What were the triggers that led to collections being opened up to the public? Was it pure philanthropy, or were there underlying economics that meant this shift had to happen for the collection to persist?

I may be off track here, I just have a gut instinct there are lessons to learn, and parallels to draw.

This is an interesting question. The answer will be different depending on where you are situated.

Here in Wales, as opposed to in London, the value of a national [Welsh] ‘collection’ is more obvious, since it’s linked to powerful (positive) notions of identity, language and politics. Britishness, on the other hand, for good or ill, is now unravelling as rapidly as it was invented (as described in Linda Colley’s ‘Britons’): your phrase ‘whatever Britishness is’ is revealing. ‘Englishness’ may be equally problematic.

It’s worth adding, though, that for us legal deposit libraries a ‘national [UK] collection’ has a real and present meaning – and a legal duty we cannot escape. (With luck this duty will soon extend to digital publications throughout the UK.)

Having said all that I’ve been sceptical for some time about the ‘showcase’ or ‘exhibition’ view of digitisation, whether nationally conceived or otherwise (what you call a ‘highlights package’). It seems to me that digitisation should have two roles: it should take its (important but subordinate) place in other programmes and projects, eg research projects, where appropriate; and/or it should continue to hold a starring role as ‘big digitisation’.

The latter approach seems to be consistent with the traditional role of a large general research library: to provide a large, miscellaneous and free reservoir of knowledge to a wide variety of users, without imposing a preconceived view of which fish will appeal or which fishing method the anglers will prefer. In the 21st century this has to be digital/online if the library is not to transmute into a museum.

In Wales we have a well established programme called the ‘Theatre of Memory’, which aims to give free online access to the entire print output of Wales, within copyright restrictions. Big digitisation is critical to this large ambition, and the National Library, with financial support from JISC, the Welsh Government and others, has already treated millions of pages of journals and newspapers, in and out of copyright. Re-use rules will be liberal, and we have no circumscribed user groups in mind.

The National Library is also a contributor to the ‘People’s Collection’, a distributed collection of digitised cultural objects from all over Wales, which allows users to upload their own material to the site (and do various other interactive things) as you advocate.

So, as you say, a ‘UK Digital Collection’, whatever that may be, needs to take account of a wide range of pre-existing collections and services. It can’t begin with a tabula rasa.

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