Monday, 25 June 2007

Old trains and digital archiving ...

I like railways. Or more accurately I like the social history of railways and the changes they brought, and they were, in their time, as much a world changing technology as the internet. So while I admit to taking pictures of trains when I was twelve, I was always more interested by the station buildings, the posters, the advertising and the changes in people's lives.

It made tourism possible, at least for the middle classes. It made travel possible. One of the more bizarre moments is that John McDouall Stuart, the man who endured terrible privations surveying the route of the transcontinental telegraph line from Adelaide to the north coast of Australia, in the the 1860's, announced his return from the unexplored outback by sending a telegram from the railhead at Burra and getting the morning train back to Adelaide.

So railways were a world changing phenomenon. And their relics are all around, but rapidly disappearing as the world increasingly forgets railways. Equally their social history is also understudied, perhaps because of the unfortunate association of an interest in railways with the sad men who stand at the ends of station platforms in England with notebooks and flasks of tea, collecting engine numbers.

Now I must admit that during the time I travelled extensively by rail for business in England, I didn't pay much attention to this interest of mine. Too close to work, too many other things to do. Since moving to Australia it's become a greater interest if only because one looks at abandoned train stations and realises whoever designed them copied designs already in use in England. In fact following up on this is the sort of project I could imagine myself spending some of my declining years engaged in, after all in encompasses my interests in history, archaeology, bushwalking and in playing with computers and digital cameras. Not to mention a professional interest in digital preservation and archiving

And, I thought, there must be a wealth of material on the web, enough sad buggers who have assembled collections of source material and photographs.

There isn't. As a totally unscientific test I tried looking for pictures of Callander station on the web. Callander was a jumping off point for the Trossachs, a favourite Victorian tourist destination, and had a big white wooden station. I found exactly one picture.

This was puzzling to me at first. It was a popular destination, people must have taken pictures of it. I remember taking pictures of the derelict station sometime in the late sixties/early seventies when I was all arty and into photography the way teenage boys sometime are. Of course I don't have these photographs now, or if I do they're unclassifed and as good as lost, rather in the same way that Roman coins found by metal detectorists and stripped of their context have little historical value.

And then I realised why. The train line at Callander closed in 1965, meaning pictures of the working station must be forty years old. The station stood derelict for some time thereafter, and people other than me must have taken pictures of it, but they're probably in people's sheds and attics gently decaying, and the person who took them dead, or at least pretty old.

Now the site is a car park and there's no opportunity to reconstruct the original building.

And because no-one documented these things some of our history is being lost.

However not all is doom and gloom. In the course of checking this out I came across the website of Great North of Scotland railway association who are actively trying to archive (and by implication, catalogue) their members' holdings as a resource for future study.

Equally at the other end of the world, the State Library of Tasmania has an eHeritage initiative, working with local historical to digitally preserve historical records, documents and photographs to ensure that they don't get lost.

And that's the key. Digitisation without a preservation strategy is valueless. Preservation without archiving, ie adding context to the items preserved is valueless. Properly digitised and preserved they're a resource for future study.

They may seem mundane, but to a first century Roman clay lamps seemed mundane. Now their distribution tells us a lot about Roman trade routes. Similarly by preserving today's and yesterday's common place, it gives us a picture of how life was lived ...

No comments: