By Dr Marta Musso (@martamusso)
For Historical Archives, investing in digitisation is an extremely expensive, time consuming, and complex endeavour. It is well worth the effort, but it is fundamental to implement all the opportunities that digital technologies offer to archives. Since the beginning of the millennium, archives and cultural heritage institutions have started to reflect on the new challenges and opportunities brought about by the digital age. The guidelines created in 2002 by the International Council of Archives indicated full digitisation and online availability of archival material as the main objective for archives in the digital age. Now, even in a utopic world where archives had infinite budget and resources, this is a very long-term and ambitious goal – we are talking about millions, trillions of paper and analogue documents that need to be digitised and indexed online. At the same time, opening its heritage to everyone in the world is the goal of any archive; and for national and public archives it is part of their mandate.
In 2018, there is hardly a national archive in Europe and beyond that does not have a website which includes a portal for direct research. None of the archives have reached 100% digitised capacity already, so not every collection can be accessed directly online. But many have completed the process of digitalisation of their catalogues, making it possible to understand what material is available in each archive before planning for a visit. The advantages for researchers are obvious. Hardly anyone engaging in archival research today does not start by looking for the digital space of the archives they plan to visit.
Still, this is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the opportunities offered by digital technologies. Since 2009, in parallel with the creation of national or local research portals (think of PARES in Spain, FranceArchives in France, Archives Hub in the UK), countries around Europe have started to design a system to integrate these online spaces into a single catalogue that would allow access to the whole of the European archival heritage through one single research portal. In 2012, after three years of research, Archives Portal Europe was published as the online repository of all European archival catalogues. Currently, 7026 institutions from 32 countries participate in the project, with 270 million descriptive units searchable on the Portal, making it the largest archival repository in the world. It is a massive work in progress for the years to come, but it has the potential to unlock entire new strands of historical research, tapping into global, transnational, and comparative history in ways that were previously unthinkable. The Portal allows multilingual keyword searches (more here) of thousands of archival materials across Europe at the same time. It is possible, for example, to find out about a large collection of documents on Winston Churchill at the National Archives of Estonia, or look into the material created by the 1848 revolutions as held in all of the archives participating in the project (each of the 32 countries involved have material on that).
Furthermore, Archives Portal Europe is creating a community of archivists and researchers that share information, best archival practice, and know how on their research topics, combining workshops, online meetings, collaborations with other aggregators like Europeana or digital history tools such as Transkribus. To join the network, simply log in or subscribe to the newsletter on the website of the Archives Portal Europe Foundation, which manages the Portal. You can also follow the Portal on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.
Like all things digital, Archives Portal Europe is a constant work in progress, and it needs the participation of as many contributors as possible to fully reach its potential: a single digital entry door to the heritage of all European archives.
Dr Marta Musso is a former member of the Doing History in Public editorial team and now works as a Teaching Fellow in Digital Asset & Media Management at King’s College London.
Images: featured image – Lithuanian State Historical Archives, fragments from Pope Gregory XIII’s Bull Confirming the establishment of the University of Vilnius, 1579; in text – National Archives of Estonia, Krusenstern’s Circumnavigation of the globe, The Taiohae Bay on the island of Nuku Hiva in Japan, 1803-1806. With permission.