ICHORA 2020, DAY 1: Michael Riordan, “Copying and Surrogacy in English Archives”

Note: This presentation was part of a three-person panel entitled “Re-Imagining Materiality: Three Histories of Archival Technologies.” The panelist is also a member of Archival Discourses, an international research network for the International Intellectual History of Archival Studies.

Michael Riordan (Oxford University) provides a fascinating review of the history of copying of archival documents in a presentation entitled “Pre-digital Digitization: Copying and Surrogacy in English Archives.”

Riordan begins by stating that the question he most frequently gets asked as a working archivist is “When are you going to digitize the archive?” Comparing this question to what might have been asked of his archival predecessors thirty or forty years ago —  “When are you going to have the archive copied out?” — Riordan believes there are three reasons why digitization is less feasible than it appears to the researcher in the reading room. 

  1. It is assumed that digitization is cheap, quick, and easy. Yet practitioners know that this is not true.
  2. The digital must have fundamentally transformed everything. However, digitization is not a new record-keeping principle or function. Rather, archivists have been copying by many different means for as long as records have existed.
  3. Digitization is regarded as being better than copying, that is, an improvement. Thus, it appears erroneously that digitization is worth doing, but copying would have been a waste of time and effort.
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Riordan then reviews the history of copying of archival materials, such as charters and deeds, which recorded events in England during the medieval era. Copyists produced versions of the record known as cartularies. Many of these copies are not exact as they often contain differences in length or in the spelling of names. Exemplification meant that an officially authenticated copy had been produced which could then be produced in court as a valid and authentic document. Most people who were working in the early English State Archives were first and foremost copyists. 

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At the turn of the 18th century, Thomas Maddox, a clerk over the records of sales of land from the monasteries when they were dissolved be Henry VIII 200 years early, went a step further and published the charters preserved in his care. Others followed his example decades later. Most copies were of dry scholarly works. However, in the latter part of the century, county histories became hugely popular. They were not used to prove anything in court but to provide information on local sites including sketches of landmarks. 

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During the early nineteenth century, the Records Commission sold off 16 tons of its own publications as wastepaper due the inability to sell them. Dissolved in 1837, the Commissions finally birthed the Public Records Office in 1838. Instead of making copies of all the records, they created finding aids to facilitate the finding and accessing of the records in their possession. Over the next hundred years, national and local publication societies began to appear with the intent to publish particular sets of publications or records “to perpetuate, and render accessible, whatever is valuable, but at present little known, amongst the materials for the Civil, Ecclesiastical, or Literary History of the United Kingdom.”

In summary, digitization, as a means of copying archives in England, appears to be just another form of making copies of records as has been done over the past 750 years. Does it, as a technology, give us something else missing from the other technologies? Any copying of a document preserves some of the information being copied and usually loses some of the metadata along the way. Back then, as now, users of records have to trust that the copyist is creating a reliable and authentic copy of the original document.


Dainan Skeem

Curator (21st Century Mormon and Western Manuscripts) and Assistant Librarian, Brigham Young University

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