Mind over matter: Preservation in a digital age

As a consequence of continual developments in the digital world, the way in which we acquire and document knowledge is changing. The arrival of the Kindle has revolutionised how we see books; iPads and netbooks have changed how we function in the work place and social media is fast changing how we communicate.

It is pretty amazing, but these new ideas should not make us blind to how important it is to keep recording history. Just because we now live in a fast-paced world where everything can be saved to a hard drive in an instant or tweeted for all the world to see does not mean that we shouldn’t work to record what we are doing and take time to look at how we got to where we are today. These technologies can actually help us to preserve history. I am talking about the importance of archiving.

There are so many amazing theatre collections out there and many wonderful people working to preserve our theatre world and make it available to the public.

Visiting theatre collections is often possible by booking in advance and giving a reason for your visit: the National Theatre, the Shakespeare Centre, the V&A theatre collections and the Globe all work like this. I personally love the Bristol theatre collection. Although they do not have a searchable online archive, they are extremely friendly if you contact them and they do have a list of their collections online so that you can see what they have before requesting to visit. They also hold lots of events and exhibitions. I contacted them regarding the history of sound in theatre and they invited me along, let me read in their library all afternoon and spoke to me at length about the history of the Bristol Old Vic.

I have also been lucky enough to pass through the doors of the Garrick Club which is home to a very extensive theatrical library and I was given a guided tour of their theatrical paintings and drawings. If you like theatrical art, they are definitely a good place to look and they have a great online searchable art collection.

However, if you don’t have the time to make a visit to a collection, there is also a lot you can find out online. Good examples of online searchable resources include Liverpool’s Everyman Theatre, the Royal Opera House (a favourite of mine, with lots of pictures of historical costumes) and the V&A, which has a selection of archives available online. The Rambert Dance Company is also currently undergoing the process of cataloguing and digitising their material so that it can be available for public use and they have received Lottery Funding to do so.

There are loads of really great ways to preserve digital material too. Storify in particular is quite fascinating. By pulling together interesting topics and building “social stories” – collating them into a narrative – it allows you to kind of document twitter. Many libraries and collections also now catalogue audio and digital material, for example The Routledge Performance Archive.

So, if you want to know a little bit more about how we got to where we are today in the theatre world, don’t be afraid to make contact and explore all the free resources that are available. It is a bit geeky, but hey, also really interesting!

Image by Anne G.

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