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Canterbury Cathedral in the 21st Century: Digital Archives

Canterbury Cathedral in the 21st Century: Digital Archives

Author: Cressida Williams, Head of Archives and Library

2020 should have been a landmark year for Canterbury, with events to mark the major anniversaries of St Thomas Becket. It is 850 years since his martyrdom, and 800 years since the ‘translation’ of his remains to a new shrine; it may be 900 years since his birth. The Lambeth Conference was also due to take place in the city this summer. Because of anniversaries relating to other cathedrals, the year had been designated by the Association of English Cathedrals as ‘the year of Cathedrals and Pilgrimage’, with a full programme of events emerging. This piece, the last in the series, would have highlighted some of this activity. 

Instead, because of COVID-19, 2020 has been significant for very different reasons. The year has provided a lesson for humanity in just how fragile and unpredictable our world can be. Across the globe, 2020 has brought fear, uncertainty, sorrow and pain. It has also brought dramatic and sudden change, affecting the pattern of our daily lives.  

Right at the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis in the UK, on 17 March the Archbishops of Canterbury and York issued a letter stating that ‘Church is Changing’. The change for Canterbury Cathedral was profound, with the buildings closed to all, including for the daily pattern of worship. Very quickly, the cathedral clergy adapted, and recorded daily services from their homes and gardens, made available through YouTube. These have attracted high watching levels, with thousands finding comfort in the continuity of worship at Canterbury, a cathedral which has survived many periods of turmoil and disruption. Services resumed in the cathedral in July, with restrictions in place, but the online worship continues. For church life, as for so many aspects of daily life, the digital has taken centre-stage.  

The Cathedral Archives will endeavour to preserve for future generations the story of how COVID affected the cathedral and its communities. As the archive has always done, we aim to document the life of the institution, the decisions its governing body makes, and the lives and experiences of the individuals who work, worship and visit here. Building a COVID-19 ‘collection’ challenges the traditional concepts of archives. The majority of documents will be digital, not physical objects we can hold in our hands. Preserving digital documents in the long term is, ironically, much more complex than preserving 1000-year-old parchment, such as the ‘Dialogues’ of St Gregory’, with which this series began. For example, digital documents are susceptible to software obsolescence and file corruption. Managing digital documents for long-term use is more challenging than hard-copy documents. With no need to keep them physically tidy and sometimes no storage pressures to encourage disposal, they can rapidly become an uncurated muddle. Digital documents also exist as multiple and dispersed originals. There is only one original of a medieval document, such as Henry II’s charter to the City of Canterbury. The Archives controls access to the original very carefully, to keep it in good condition. Digital documents, on the other hand, are born for sharing.  

To illustrate some of these points, and to reflect on how COVID has affected Canterbury Cathedral and its communities, the last document in this series is the video produced by the Girls of the Cathedral Choir. The Girls’ Choir was formed in 2014 and has been an integral part of the cathedral’s worshipping life. The video speaks for itself; the music is beautiful and comforting, and the video provides a touching insight into daily life during lockdown. As of August 2020, it had been viewed nearly 15,000 times.

Any comments on this series of articles are warmly welcomed; please send them to archives@canterbury-cathedral.org

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