Benefits Of Digitising Historical Archives

19th century pantomime audience


The Internet is the largest experiment involving anarchy in history.   Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen, 2013

What is the future of education as more and more courses, programmes and projects move across regional and national boundaries? How will different cultures ensure that they pass on their values and beliefs in a digital age?

As Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen explain in interviews and press releases, the three-year project of writing The New Digital Age (2013) involved visiting thirty countries. Nothing less would do for them as Google executives, facing the impending opportunities and threats in the next decade of an expected 5 billion new people joining the Internet.   I look to understand how Schmidt and Cohen’s views on the future of the ‘online world’ (a term they often use in their book) might affect the areas I am most passionate about in education, of creativity and attaining excellence. 

Ironically, I focused on similar issues when I decided to leave the classroom and do doctoral research on the influence of theatre managers and entrepreneurs. After a decade of working as a teaching artist with young people, I found myself desperate to understand how the theatre culture I worked in and educated others about, had been shaped by technologies that created spectacular effects and drew in mass audiences.

Was there a relationship to be made between the entrepreneurs I researched, who set up the West End and Broadway, and those who have created the internet? Was there a similarity between the 19th Century theatre managers of Sydney and Melbourne, who created importation businesses rather than production companies, and what was happening today in Australia?

According to Schmidt and Cohen, The New Digital Age stands as a unique moment in human history.  This makes me uncomfortable as I realise my views on education are based on drawing links between what has worked in the past and continues to be valued in the present. Furthermore, I believe I know from first-hand experience how time is a major factor in human cognition, in order that concepts and skills are learnt in ever-increasingly complex ways. I want to know more about how the benefits of the internet are evaluated, not because I’m technophobic but because, as an artist, technology has always been something I’ve needed to calculate in judging the effectiveness of what I do. Perhaps this is what everyone is facing now as they attempt to learn to communicate online.

Access reigns supreme

In the early 1990s, as a mother of three small children, the only way I could access the major Australian theatre archives in Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra over the five years of my doctoral research (3 years F/T and 2 years P/T)was physically travelling to them from Western Australia: this meant time away from my young family. Only on one occasion did I managed to get materials sent to the Performing Arts Museum at His Majesty’s Theatre (thanks to Ivan King).

Once in an archive, I was required to observe all the strict protocols of viewing primary archival sources (white gloves etc) as I opened the dusty boxes of defunct theatre companies. Any photocopying that needed to be done was through special order and I worked mostly alone, except for meetings with my supervisor and attending the occasional post-graduate seminar and conferences.

As for accessing overseas materials in the UK or USA, the prohibitive costs and family demands meant I had to limit my searches to combing through the special databases held by my university library, making special Library requests and waiting to see if I’d found useful material once it arrived in photocopied form. If you read the foreword of my thesis, you will note my gratitude to all the scholar librarians I was supported by in State and National libraries and in Performing Arts Museums around Australia.  

Today, many of the same ‘rare’ documents are available online. For instance, the two images below which I used in my thesis and which I viewed in the State Library of NSW’s collection of photographer A. J. (Albert James) Perier, 1870-1964 is now online. What difference does it make to me as a drama educator that I viewed the theatre images in the collection as photographic glass plates, under strict supervision, while today Perier’s theatre images, together with his extensive work of 684 images, can be ‘googled’ and viewed instantly? 

Set for George Rignold’s 1895 second pantomime “Jack, the Giant Killer”, Her Majesty’s Theatre

stage images

“Woods” c.1900 pantomime [probably Peter Pan], Her Majesty’s Theatre

The extent of global connectivity, as Schmidt and Cohen point out, however, is only part of the change which is occurring:  they also call on us to consider the impact that such accessibility has on institutions and their hierarchies. Again, from personal experiences in Australian and UK libraries and museums, I have seen how these institutions have been transformed by incorporating new digital technologies. For instance, after spending hundreds of eye-watering hours reading nineteenth-century newspapers on microfilm in the 1990s,  today I effortlessly access newspapers on the National Library of Australia’s Trove and through an online subscription to the British Newspaper Archive.

There’s no disputing that savings in cost and time are significant due to the digitising of cultural assets such as historical record by public libraries. However, a more interesting issue for me as an educator comes from the creation of cultural value through physically or digitally viewing cultural artefacts.  For instance, to what extent would theatrical images created on glass plates allow me to give students a unique understanding of the late-19th-century theatrical space? Arguably, how might the technology used in creating the photograph contextually informs us about what was photographed? Similarly, despite the deterioration of the second image which impairs the full display of the advertisements that run across the top of the proscenium arch, how might the commercial value of on-stage advertising relate to the online advertisements on Foxtel and YouTube?


Tentative conclusions about accessing and building knowledge through online resources

As a teacher, accessing digital archives gives me a powerful way of showing very specific shifts in cultural practices over time. However, that is only half the story, since my insight is now contained within a context of on-going change, fueled by internet searches that almost instantly call up once ‘rare’ knowledge almost instantaneously.

As Google executives, Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen are key players in the online world: Google globally has 67 % of the current search share, compared with its rivals Bing and Yahoo at 18% and 10% respectively.  Consequently, The New Digital Age provides us with a watershed moment to reflect on how digital technologies are impacting on all sorts of services and relationships in the ‘brave new digital age’. 

In the conclusion to their book, Schmidt and Cohen draw a vision of ‘two civilizations’.

One is physical and has developed over thousands of years, and the other is virtual and is still very much in formation. These civilizations will coexist in a more or less peaceable manner, with each restraining the negative aspects of the other. The virtual world will enable escape from the repression of state control, offering citizens new opportunities to organize and revolt; other citizens will simply connect, learn and play. The physical world will impose rules and laws that help contain the anarchy of virtual space and that protect people from terrorist hackers, misinformation and even from the digital records of their own youthful misbehavior. The permanence of evidence will make it harder for perpetrators of crimes to minimize or deny their actions, forcing accountability into the physical world in a way never before seen.

Interestingly, I note the number of times the authors use the term ‘actor’ throughout their book to describe their concepts around personal, political, ethical and cultural identity and agency: there are local and outside actors; nongovernmental and non-state actors; smaller and larger actors; political, civilian, state and company actors; lone actors; underappreciated actors; independent actors; good and bad actors; illicit and unauthorised actors and independent actors.   I experience Schmidt and Cohen evocative writing of the ‘two civilizations’ like a dramatic encounter of actors playing their roles, in different plays, in different time zones and locations. Of course, using theatrical metaphors for real world events is nothing new, but only highlights, as Shakespearean world-stage metaphors do, that theatre is the most life-like art form and is fit for purpose.

Imagining how ‘virtual civilisation’ might have a life of its own, however, is a serious question for educators. Once we might have imagined that we would educate our students so that they might face reality on their own terms as they matured into adulthood. Now, we must educate so they can deal meaningfully with information which can be sourced online that might have originated at any time in history from any place on the globe. George Rignold’s 1895 productions take on new meaning in a digital age.


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