The value of digitisation projects is often framed in terms of broadening access to rare, unique or otherwise difficult-to-access material. Our project is no different – the archive of the Board of Longitude is a major source for 18th Century history of science, but also has much to tell us about the great voyages of discovery, the natural world, and the whole cross-section of British society in the period. Despite Dava Sobel’s bestseller and the accompanying TV series, the archive itself is little-used, and the wealth of information it contains remains comparatively obscure. Our experience with the digitised Newton Papers tells us that making this kind of material freely available on the web (and now on an established and stable platform) increases not only the number of people able to access the material, but also the type of people – with feedback from schoolteachers, children, amateur historians, and many other groups who would be unable for one reason or another to see the originals.
However, we want to do more than simply increase access to the material – the context of the digitised material, and how it interacts with the wider world of web resources is equally important. The project itself is a partnership with the National Maritime Museum and an AHRC-funded project researching the history of the Board. We are taking some of the outputs of the research project (summaries, essays, bibliographies) and embedding them into our presentation. And we are linking through from the Archive to relevant objects from the National Maritime Museum’s online collections to draw out the complex connections between our documents and their artefacts. We are also highlighting connections with other material in our own digital collections – connections which will grow as our pool of digitised content grows. We are using standard vocabularies for names, places and subjects, and releasing metadata in standard formats to facilitate connections with other digital collections. And we will contribute metadata directly to cross-collection discovery sites such as Manuscripts Online and 18thConnect.
In short, making the material available online is only part of the challenge. We want the Archive to come alive in the digital world – to be intimately connected with related material (whether it be ours or held by others), to be firmly embedded in research and educational contexts, and to be open for reuse. And in a sense, we see this as the real route to sustaining the output of the project in the long term. By adopting practices and approaches which integrate the material into the wider world of research, education and the web, we are hoping to ensure the long-term use of the collection. And it is this ongoing use, this interest from and connection with many spheres, which will do more than anything to ensure its long-term life.