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Britain may lose its memories in age of the email
Nick Barratt, Family Detective: 'When was the last time that any of us created a permanent record for future generations to look at?'

London Telegraph | November 4, 2006
By Ben Fenton

A leading family historian urged Britons yesterday not to "wipe our collective memory" by relying on electronic means to communicate.

Nick Barratt's appeal came as a senior MP repeated warnings that, in a few years, digital records of government business might be unreadable because of the accelerating pace of technological change.

Mr Barratt, The Daily Telegraph's Family Detective and the researcher behind the BBC's Who Do You Think You Are? series, said that the throwaway nature of modern society meant that this generation was in danger of leaving behind an inadequate legacy of memories.

He wanted Britons to write to each other, keep diaries and journals or even print out emails and internet diaries, or blogs, that they feel explain a lot about their daily lives.

Launching a new internet family history service for the Telegraph, Mr Barratt said: It's ironic that when we are blessed with new technology that allows us to peer into the past as never before, we are at risk of losing sight of our own legacy for future generations. Text messages and emails are easily deleted, phone calls leave no trace.

But personal contact between family members and friends is what we look for when we are trying to determine who our ancestors were and how they lived.

"Their letters and their diaries are among the most important artefacts we can find but when was the last time that any of us created a permanent record for future generations to look at?"

His words were echoed by Ivo Dawnay, the director of communications for the National Trust and the man behind the History Matters campaign's project to encourage thousands of Britons to write an internet diary, or blog, of their day on Oct 17.

"Having received an astonishing 46,000 blogs for our One Day in History project, we are now concerned as to how they are going to be preserved for posterity," he said.

"We are in talks with the British Library about the best way of preserving them and ironically it looks as if they might end up being printed."

There are wider concerns about the preservation of digital records. During the summer, in evidence to the Commons constitutional affairs committee, Natalie Ceeney, the chief executive of the National Archives, led a team that told MPs of their worries.

They said that the pace of technological change was such that, even in a few years, records as little as 10 years old might be irrecoverable.

Alan Beith, the Liberal Democrat who is chairman of the committee, said that even putting aside the concerns of researchers and historians, that would severely affect the workings of government.

At present, vast quantities of government records are automatically kept for at least 25 years on the basis that they will be needed for reference, Mr Beith said.

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