INNOVATION : History comes up to date

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Technology is reaching backwards to change history. By providing powerful tools for storing and searching archives, CD-Rom technology is transforming the face of historical research, says Brian Brivati of Kingston University.

Dr Brivati is spearheading a project by the Institute of Contemporary History to put historical records on CD-Rom, in collaboration with the electronic publishing company Context. Transcripts of the institute's Oral Witness seminars, in which people who were involved in important historical or political events of the second half of the 20th century discuss those events, are being recorded on CD-Rom.

The seminars cover a range of subjects, including the Winter of Discontent 1978-79; the fall of the Heath government 1973-74; decolonisation in Africa 1945-65; the 1976 International Monetary Fund crisis; the launch of the Social Democratic Party 1979-83; and Northern Ireland 1964-72.

Researchers analyse the seminars using Context's text-retrieval system, called Justis.

"Complex text searches and analyses will now be possible that were not possible before," Dr Brivati says. "It would take a human lifetime to do what the machine can do in seconds."

CD-Rom (compact disc read-only memory) uses the same technology as audio CDs. A 5in disc can store 650 megabytes of data, or the equivalent of 250,000 pages of text. CD-Roms can store any kind of information - text, sound, photographs, graphics or video - provided it is in digital form.

Dr Brivati sees the CD-Roms of the Oral Witness seminars as only the beginning of what the technology can do for historical research. The institute would like to add other sources, such as newspaper cuttings, photographs, cartoons and television news clips.

"Although there are a wealth of sources for contemporary historians, most of them are useless at present because they are in unmanageable or inaccessible formats," he says.