Artillery Row

Executing the wills

The destruction of Britain’s probate records archive must be averted

The Ministry of Justice has announced a consultation on “a reform that will enable older wills and [probate] documents to be converted to a digital form and then destroyed”. That is to say that in a proposed MoJ cost-cutting push, huge numbers of irreplaceable historical documents from the 1800s to the present day will be scanned and then thrown away, lost permanently to researchers. Historians of all stripes — from academics to hobbyist genealogists — have raised the hue and cry at this wanton destruction of the historical record.

One of the more historically illiterate provisos of the consultation document promises that the wills of those people who are presently famous (among them Princess Diana) will continue to be preserved in physical form. Apparently the MoJ recognises the imperative to keep paper copies of the most important documents. The problem with this ought to be obvious even to the dimmest bureaucrat: important to whom and for what — and who makes that determination? These questions are not answered in the consultation document; its “case for reform” doesn’t even mention historical research as one of the reasons wills might be kept or consulted.

Wills are a fantastic source of information about cultural and social history. They can be the only source of information we have about people whose lives have otherwise not been preserved in the historical record. What people owned, who they loved, what they cared about, and other such deeply personal information is embedded in wills. For that reason, it is often the wills of those who were not otherwise famous that are most useful in understanding the past.

Historians are asking different questions of our historical sources than they were even a decade ago. This is how history comes to be better understood. Historians in future years will ask different questions again, in an attempt to respond to the challenges of their days. Simply put, it is not possible to determine once for all which historical records are “important”. Present fame is no guarantee of future historical interest, and vice versa. Destroying documents that may seem unimportant now will only constrain our ability to do innovative research in the future.

Digitisation is fundamentally about enabling wider access to documents, not preserving them. As anyone who remembers the days of Zip drives or Betamax tapes can tell you, storage media change. Files become corrupt or unreadable. Scanning technology improves, rendering the high-resolution images of the past blurry and unusable by comparison. The recent hacking fiasco at the British Library — which has rendered all its online systems (including their vast collection of digitised documents) inaccessible for months — should tell anyone who cares to know how fragile digital archives are. The MoJ may claim that once digitised, these documents will be “preserved forever”, but reality tells a different story.

Paper documents, on the other hand, will last pretty much indefinitely if properly stored, and never become obsolete. I’ve handled paper documents from the 15th century that are still as fresh as the day they were written. Medieval parchment and vellum documents can last even longer — as of course can papyrus. The Dead Sea Scrolls, written as early as the third century BC, were still perfectly legible when discovered in the 1940s. Try burying a USB drive in the desert for two millennia and see how far you get.

Scanning hundreds of thousands of sheets of paper is no small undertaking. Past projects (like the mass scanning of historical newspapers, which were also then thrown away) have produced uneven results, not least because no human being can sit in front of a scanner eight hours a day and take as much care with the last paper they scan as they did with the first. Historians like me who have worked with digitised documents will confirm that scans can often be illegible and require recourse to the original manuscript or document in order to determine what the thing actually says. Unless, of course, those originals have been thrown out. Colleagues who try and fail to read newspapers of the 1970s from rapidly decaying microfilms (the cutting-edge technology of their day) can tell you precisely why the MoJ plan is such a disastrous idea.

This great push to destroy the nation’s historical record comes, as many of the worst ideas do, in the name of cost-cutting

This great push to destroy the nation’s historical record comes, as many of the worst ideas do, in the name of cost-cutting. Of course, cost-cutting is the last thing this project will achieve. Digital documents require servers to store them, networking to connect them to the internet, staff to maintain the machines and databases, and massive amounts of electricity and water to keep the whole enterprise humming. Servers and storage drives will need to be replaced as they come to the end of their useful lives, further adding to the costs. Those costs grow as the digitised archive grows — and unlike with paper archives, the documents disappear instantaneously if those bills are not paid. At each replacement cycle, there is the possibility of more data getting lost or purged.

Despite the costs, digitising our nation’s probate records is a good thing, which if done properly will enable researchers unprecedented access to material. As Richard Ovenden of Oxford University said, “The cost of storage of originals, and the cost of digital access should be regarded as part of the infrastructure of an open society.” It’s been postulated that, having committed to such a programme, the MoJ must have realised how expensive the undertaking was and decided to save a few pennies by junking the physical records after scanning them. Perhaps their grandmothers never taught them the phrase “penny wise, pound foolish” — but it’s time they learnt it. Of course, they might have learnt it had they done an impact assessment of the project — but no such assessment was done. The cost savings are merely assumed, and never mind the impact on historical research.

The proposed mass destruction of our nation’s probate records archive is a colossally short-sighted exercise in culturally and historically illiterate cost-cutting, which will achieve the opposite of the purpose for which it was intended, whilst making everything permanently worse. Par for the course with this Government, you may think, but at least in this instance there’s still time to stop it.

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