The memory of a nation in a digital world

Act quickly or our intellectual record will disappear down a black hole.

It is an irony of the digital age that at a time when we are used to having easy access to seemingly endless information and knowledge, so much of it is disappearing into a digital black hole. For 450 years the concept of legal deposit has helped to preserve the nation’s intellectual record. The requirement for publishers and distributors to send one copy of anything they publish in print to the British Library has been vital in building up a collection which now contains some 150 million items. 

In 2003 the Legal Deposit Libraries Act extended the same principle to cover digital content. However, nine years later we are still waiting for the legislation to be implemented. We have just come to the end of the third consultation on new regulations in just two years. While all the talking and redrafting has continued, vast amounts of our digital heritage have disappeared for ever.

People’s thoughts and experiences are increasingly recorded on websites, blogs, Tweets and other social media rather than in the diaries and letters which have survived from the past. Given the ease with which websites can be updated the lifespan of anything that is written online is considerably shorter than the printed word. 

The oldest example of writing can be found on clay tablets that are over 5,000 years old. We recently acquired the oldest surviving European book, the St Cuthbert Gospel, which is over 1,300 years old. The average life expectancy of a webpage is less than 75 days.

The London 2012 Olympics is generating a great deal of comment and discussion. Much of the story is being told through the websites of sports associations, cultural organisations and online contributions from the general public. While we have been waiting for the new legislation to be implemented we have done what we can to save as much of our digital memory about big stories and events such as the Olympics. This has meant working with publishers to make voluntary agreements to preserve as much digital material as possible. However, until the legislation is implemented the majority of these websites cannot be legally captured and preserved.

It has been estimated that less that 1 per cent of all online activity related to the London Olympics will be saved. Future generations of researchers will also search in vain for much of the reaction to major events such as the 7/7 bombings, the 2009 Parliamentary expenses scandal and the London riots. 

A lot of what appears online may appear very trivial and unimportant. However, we have learnt that it is not possible for any generation to accurately predict what those who come after us will deem to be important. Sometimes what seems insignificant or even goes unnoticed proves to be the gems unearthed by later researchers. Who would have thought that the diary of a young Dutch girl would have become so important? However, if Anne Frank’s thoughts had been kept as a blog or Tweeted rather than written down in a journal, what are the chances that we would still be able to read them today?

It would also be ironic if the web pages and blogs of our media-savvy political leaders were washed away almost as quickly as the ink on Thomas Cromwell’s letters took to dry. Despite the ease with which we can record and communicate our thoughts today, the historians and novelists of the future may struggle to find much of this material and therefore be unable to gain the same insight into today’s Thomas Cromwells.

It is a matter of great regret that it will never be possible to plug the gap in our understanding of UK opinion about major social and cultural issues at the very beginning of the digital age. Will academics in the future feel the same sense of loss about some of this material that we feel today about the missing works of Ancient Greece’s greatest writers and thinkers?

The UK has been in the slow lane when it comes to preserving digital material. Non-print legal deposit is now widespread internationally, including much of Europe, Canada and New Zealand. It is two years since the United States Library of Congress announced that it would be keeping copies of every Tweet. The latest version of the UK Government’s proposed regulations is less than perfect. It would exempt start-ups and micro businesses from depositing offline publications or the need to provide passwords to enable us to harvest their websites.

Given that these businesses account for 80 per cent of publishers, a great deal of information would continue to be lost. The British Library would like to see this exclusion waived completely.  However, the priority now is to implement the legislation without further delay. We must avoid any more of our heritage disappearing forever into the digital black hole and ensure the British Library continues to be this country’s collective memory long into the future.

Dame Lynne Brindley is CEO of the British Library

What are social networking sites doing to our collective memory? (Photo: Getty Images)
PHOTO: URSZULA SOLTYS
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Othering, micro-aggressions and subtle prejudice: growing up black and British

Afua Hirsch’s memoir Brit(ish) adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK

As every economic or political immigrant knows, the real enigma of arrival is to look in two directions. Immigrants gaze back at the homelands and family they have left behind; and they look anxiously at the customs, language and laws of the country they have adopted. Making sense of both can take a lifetime.

Afua Hirsch, the author of Brit(ish), who has worked at Sky News and the Guardian, was born in Norway to a British father and Ghanaian mother and grew up in prosperous Wimbledon, south-west London. She studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford before graduating in law. Her experience of violent racism seems to be limited, but she writes of the cumulative toll of regular infractions while studying and working as a lawyer and journalist, described as acts of “othering”, “micro-aggressions” and “subtle prejudice”.

Of visiting a shop near her home, she writes: “The harshest lessons came in my late teens, visiting my best friend at work at a boutique in Wimbledon Village. The manager told her I could not come in. ‘It’s off-putting to the other customers,’ she said, ‘and the black girls are thieves. Tell her she’s not welcome.’” On another occasion, a man on the Underground threatened to beat Hirsch with his belt because “you people are out of control”. The incidents coincided with a growing curiosity about her mother’s homeland, which is common to many second-generation children. Hirsch first visited Accra with her mother in 1995: “I don’t think I had realised that there was a world in which black people could be in charge.” In the early 2000s, she worked for a development organisation and was based in Senegal for two years. A decade later, as recession and austerity gripped Europe, she returned to Accra as the Guardian’s West Africa correspondent.

Half a century ago, Hirsch would have been described as a “returnee”; in 2012, the changing nature of global wealth and identity saw the brief rise of a more assertive term, “Afropolitan”.

But Ghana failed to provide Hirsch with an enduring sense of arrival. “For someone like me, Britishness contains the threat of exclusion,” she writes. “An exclusion only made more sinister by discovering – after so many years of searching – that there is nowhere else to go.” Like Filipinos returning home after decades in the Arabian Gulf, Hirsch felt like a privileged outsider who ostensibly viewed a poor country from the safety of a guarded community.

This section of Brit(ish) provides some of the memoir’s most valuable insights. It also could have benefited from more detail; I would have liked to have learned if, like expat Indians who have returned to Mumbai or Bangalore over the last 20 years, Hirsch considered immersing herself in Ghana’s roaring economy by opening a business. She is currently collaborating on a clothing line inspired by Ghanaian culture.

In the end, personal safety prompted an abrupt withdrawal from Accra. Hirsch and her partner returned to the UK after they were attacked on a beach on the outskirts of the Ghanaian capital. In the harrowing incident, her earrings were ripped from her earlobes and her ring was stolen. The attack also marked an introduction to an under-resourced and inept justice system. On the day of the first court appearance of the assailants, Hirsch’s partner was asked to pick them up and drive them to the hearing.

The most interesting segments of the book aren’t those that dwell on racial theory; Hirsch has yet to coalesce her views on her British and Ghanaian heritage into a unified argument. That usually takes most writers a lifetime. Brit(ish) has more in common with memoirs by other immigrants and their children whose search for education and prosperity transitions to a longer quest for identity. ER Braithwaite, the author of To Sir, With Love, wrote about what it felt like to be a second-class citizen in the UK, despite decades of service to the education sector:

In spite of my years of residence in Britain, any service I might render the community in times of war or peace, any contribution I might make or wish to make, or any feeling of identity I might entertain towards Britain and the British, I – like all other coloured persons in Britain – am considered an “immigrant”.

Hirsch’s book is also less sure about how other immigrant groups view their British experience. For instance, she cites the return of present-day South Asians to the subcontinent as being partly due to racism, but a departing diaspora, resettling in India and Pakistan for reasons such as accumulated wealth or community, has been a fixture of British life since the 1950s. A more interesting detour would have seen an exploration of British Muslims, often wrongly charged with disloyalty to the UK by commentators such as Trevor Phillips, who selectively pick out the most extreme views on integration and religion.

Instead, the memoir offers clearer ideas on how the UK could do more to acknowledge its role in the slave trade and colonialism. In the book’s most searing sections, Hirsch rightly suggests there is more to be achieved in correcting Britain’s memorials to empire – those permanent exhibitions in museums, statues and plaques that fail to acknowledge the sins of colonialism.

For instance, for 300 years, every British monarch gave direct or indirect support to the transatlantic slave trade until it was abolished in 1833. Of the 12 million slaves abducted from Africa, 40 per cent were transported on British ships. We are told slavery was outlawed on humanitarian grounds in a campaign fought by abolitionists. In reality, an overproduction of sugar crops led to reduced profits.

In Capitalism and Slavery, published in 1944, Eric Williams, the first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, described the idea that slavery was abolished because of an appeal to humanitarian principles as “one of the greatest propaganda movements of all time”.

Hirsch argues these old ideas continue to hinder diversity. In 2013, only 23 students of black British African heritage were given paces to study at Oxford University. In 2016, one third of all people stopped by the police in England and Wales under “stop and search” laws were from ethnic minority backgrounds. Hirsch also highlights the worrying uptick in violence after the Brexit vote in June 2016. In the four months after the referendum, there was a 41 per cent increase in racially and religiously motivated crimes.

British public life is full of the talented children of Ghanaians who have written about racism and the push for acceptance, including rappers such as Tinchy Stryder, Dizzee Rascal and Sway. Just as Peter Fryer’s groundbreaking book, Staying Power: the History of Black People in Britain, did in 1984, Afua Hirsch’s memoir adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK. As she writes, an island nation that has benefited from centuries of immigration should reframe the question it asks some of its citizens: “I can’t be British, can I, if British people keep asking me where I’m from?” 

Burhan Wazir is an editor at WikiTribune and former head of opinion at Al Jazeera. Afua Hirsch will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Sunday 15th April.

Brit(ish): on Race, Identity and Belonging
Afua Hirsch
Jonathan Cape, 384pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist