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, http://www.france.fr/, 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.