When my heart skipped a beat

I am writing a paper about an economist that was at the Treasury in the second half of the 1950s and 1960s. In 1965 a new Labour government changed the status of the economist in British policy making by creating the “Government Economic Service”, from two dozen economists working in the Treasury there were soon two hundred in all branches of government. [Alec Cairncross writing to the Lloyds Bank Review in 1970 offers an insider’s and compact exposition of this change] The Public Record Office listed in its online finding aid two items by this person. Although the items would not be essential for my argument they could provide some clues and color to a formative part of his life that was less documented than his later academic career. I asked the Public Record Office for estimates of digital scans of the two documents.

A week ago I got a reply, the total: a chest constricting 2,051.20 pounds (but it includes the first DVD, not the second, that’s 5 more). In their defense, each of the documents runs over 355 pages, which I had failed to notice when I made the request. Still that is 2.80 pounds a page, in my currency: two espressos a page. The median wage in UK public sector is £554 per week, does that mean my request is a four week job? Probably it isn’t, even if you take really zealous care in the digitalization and you have a scanner running on coal. Archive and record offices are now taking digital requests but I am sure they look upon them with concern for the future. Even if it pays well it does not pay up. And it is a self-fulfilling prophecy because at these prices, I can’t afford it, no one can afford it, and it doesn’t get done.

It goes to show that doing history is an expensive business. The conventional imagination has the historian in slippers sinking in an armchair under rising piles of books. Sometimes it’s like that, if your library is wealthy enough to carry the books, or has a decent inter library loan service. Google books is great, but has so far not greatly helped the historian of the past 50 years, because of copyright laws and Google’s business model won’t have it for free. Google books most of the time compounds the problem, because it is effective at revealing additional sources that I don’t have access to. And then there are archives. They will promise you scans and copies but often asking prohibitively expensive sums. The outcome is that the historian is a nomadic species, having to bid for travel funds to visit the archives and do her work on physical copies, often with the outcome that the archive holds nothing of real interest, except the stuff for a couple of meaty footnotes. Who could have guessed history was a high-adrenaline, high-risk job?