This month at the Social Scholar seminar we will be joined by Dr Nick Barratt, director of collections and engagement at Senate House Library. The medieval historian, who will be talking about personal heritage and the use and limitations of digital resources, has agreed to answer a few questions for us.

Could you tell us a bit about yourself?

I am an academic medieval historian (state finance and fiscal history) who has spent my career to date working in archives or involved with more public aspects of history in the media. It is therefore a refreshing change to be in my current role at Senate House Library.

How do you think digital technologies have enabled non-professional researchers to interact with content, and what might the implications be for professional researchers?   

It’s a bit of a paradox. If we take the field of ‘personal heritage’, a fusion of family, house, local and social history, the accessibility of name-rich searchable datasets coupled with high profile media exposure to the benefits of research, has created a new online data economy, much of which is now commercialised, aimed specifically at non-professional researchers. In short, it should be much easier to ‘find’ data.

However, the reliance on constructed search engines based on pre-determined data fields potentially runs the risk of eroding some of the analogue research skills that personal historians have traditionally honed in archives, libraries and museums. Put simply, there is a world of difference between searching for a name online, and researching a person or place with all the associated nuances of source appraisal, context and relevance. In many ways, it runs the risk of misunderstanding and thus undermining the importance of the professional researcher and their skill set, while generating an even greater need for the professional researcher as a direct consequence.

What can we expect from you at the Social Scholar?

I will explore these themes in more detail, as well as some of the practical examples of personal heritage and digital search/research in wide-ranging fields such as education, rehabilitation and tourism.

To find out more about this event please check our Eventbrite page and register your interest to attend. The Social Scholar seminar is a free lunchtime seminar which investigates the ‘social’ aspect of academic work including social media, public engagement, and the digital humanities.

Title: Personal heritage and the academy: the challenges and benefits of researching and archiving in the digital age
Time: Wednesday 16 December, 1–2pm
Location: Room 243 (Senate House)
Speaker: Dr Nick Barratt
Abstract: What is the potential of user-generated ‘public’ histories for the academy? In this session we shall look at the challenges of personal archiving in a digital world, the rise of genetic connectivity and the dangers of search versus research.