The Industrial Revolution

Henry and Rodney Dale, 1992, ISBN: 0712302891 Metal manufactory can often be a complex subject and a good old school textbook such as this is often the best and most useful starting point.

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We need to establish a 'National Memorybank

At a time when family history has never been more popular, it is a sad irony that the digital age poses the greatest danger to Britain's rich oral history

The success of BBC's series Who Do You Think You Are? has helped to generate unprecedented interest in family history. Visitor numbers to archives have increased sharply; requests for online information have risen even more steeply; and the Office of National Statistics has been overwhelmed with requests for certificates. However, the most encouraging consequence of the series has been the recognition that genealogy is not just about 'collecting names on a piece of paper', in the words of Jeremy Clarkson. Instead, the programmes have collectively demonstrated that an interest in our ancestors can reveal a far greater insight into the society in which they lived, and how their actions have shaped today's world.

It's certainly true that new technology has revolutionised family history. Since the advent of the internet, access to records has never been easier. We can search indexes and datasets online, download images of census returns and wills, and contact lost friends and relatives around the world via message boards and websites. Yet there is a dangerous price to pay for this progress.

The impact of all this new media has resulted in a dramatic decline in face-to-face communication; even with mobile phone technology, it's often easier to avoid talking to our nearest and dearest altogether by sending a text or email, which are often immediately deleted. We live and work further away from our older relatives, and often take an interest in their lives only after it's too late to ask them by Nick Barratt questions. Compare this to our ancestors, who, only a century ago, travelled around less and corresponded in writing when separated - often on a daily basis; these are the treasured letters passed down to us as family heirlooms. What can we give to our grandchildren, a SIM card or Hotmail account?

Even worse, we are exporting our 'bad habits' abroad. Meera Syal's story highlighted the importance of oral history in Indian culture, yet even now there is a noticeable decline in the number of traditional storytellers as the lure of Western society draws people away from their communities. In many parts of the world, this threat has been recognised and projects have been set up to capture these precious yet unwritten links with the past before it is too late. For example, in Jamaica and the Seychelles, an effort has been made to record the thoughts and experiences of as many of the indigenous population as possible in an attempt to preserve their culture and traditions, before they are lost forever. It is time we harnessed the wonders of the digital age here and started to create the means to preserve these amazing stories. A real opportunity has arisen to harness the current momentum and provide the means for people to 'deposit' their research in a National Memorybank.

As a concept, the idea is simple. The creation

On a new online archive people could upload their memories, not just of their own lives, but also the stories passed down by their ancestors"

of a new online archive would give people an opportunity to upload their memories, not just of their own lives, but also the stories passed down by their ancestors and verified by their research. Images of personal memorabilia could be recorded, thus creating a digital archive of documents and artefacts that would normally never see the light of day. It would be an understatement to describe the logistical challenges of creating a new archive as 'difficult'. Imagine cataloguing and categorising the information coming in, and creating uniform standards by which data would be uploaded. Yet digital archives are already with us - witness The National Archives' DocumentsOnline - and the National Sound Archive has already tackled some of the cataloguing problems associated with the project. Indeed one of the most popular aspects of Who Do You Think You Are? was the series of digital workshops, sponsored by the BBC, whereby people simply turned up and recorded their stories and artefacts, having had no previous experience. (See issue 18).

This is a unique opportunity, and one that will not present itself again. Within a generation or two, our links to personal recollections of the past will have dwindled still further. Let's seize this chance to create a unique legacy for future generations, before we are remembered simply as the generation that let oral history die. • •

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