Much as I like to emphasise that archives contain huge amounts that are not online, there are an ever growing number of wonderful resources out there in internet land. Obviously for genealogists there are the specialist subscription sites whose business includes digitising as many name-rich documents as possible. Archives rarely have the resources to carry out such large scale digitisation themselves, as it is time-consuming and therefore expensive, but they are sometimes able to secure grants of funds for specific projects to make part of their collections available online. This Hidden Lives project from the archives of the Children’s Society of the Church of England makes available a great deal of material relating to children during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including photographs, case files and the histories of the various children’s homes run by the society. Online archives are not limited just to documents: here the Essex Record Office explain their Heritage Lottery Funded project to make their sound and video archives available online.
Most archives now prioritise getting their catalogues online. Where they have detailed catalogue descriptions this can be extremely useful. For example, a search through the North Yorkshire County Record Office catalogue last week produced a nice addition to my family history, with entries revealing four offences committed by my great-great-grandfather in the space of two years in the 1870s: two for being drunk in charge of a horse and cart, and two for driving furiously on the highway, in one case also endangering someone’s life. We can only be grateful he wasn’t around in the age of the motor car! While the original documents may well give more information, the catalogue alone has given me a good amount to be going on with.
These days most archives will also have a social media presence, using Facebook and Twitter accounts to engage with people online. Some may use Flickr or Instagram, or post YouTube videos, and many write blogs – we have two chronicling the experience of the county during the First World War, one looking at military experiences and the other at life on the Home Front.
One aspect of the internet that people tend to forget is that the world wide web itself needs to be archived. So much is now published only online, and websites are constantly appearing, disappearing and evolving. In the UK the National Archives are responsible for a UK Government Web Archive, preserving information posted online by government departments. The British Library now routinely crawls UK websites to collect online publications for preservation, and runs the UK Web Archive which curates special collections of websites on particular themes. The Internet Archive Wayback Machine has now preserved over 462 billion web pages, and allows you to view sites as they were at a given date. Anyone who writes a blog, saves all their photographs digitally, or wants to keep their emails for posterity, should give some thought how they intend to preserve their digital memories. The US Library of Congress gives useful advice on personal archiving here.