The Amazingness of Imperial British Record-Keeping

Would you like to know who passed their driver’s license exam in Uganda in June of 1912?  I know, who wouldn’t?!?  Well, thanks to the amazing thoroughness of Britain’s colonial records as well as the fantastic Africana archive at Northwestern University, now you can!

Uganda May 1912 Driver's Licenses - Cropped.jpg

I find it interesting that while the historian in me loves the completeness and detail of records preserved in old archives, the civil libertarian in me is aghast when the U.S. government collects infinitely larger troves of such data today.  If the NSA simply recast its mission as one of aiding future historians, I would be way more on board.  It will be fascinating to see how historians 50 years from now will view the present era with the help of Big Data.

(Also, when did “motorcycle” become a single word?)

3 thoughts on “The Amazingness of Imperial British Record-Keeping

  1. I sometimes wonder what kind of mundane current record-keeping will become of use in the future. Maybe some future PhD student will write a dissertation comparing spreadsheets found in the then-archaic computers from the pre-Trump U.S.A.


    1. Yeah, I ask myself similar questions. When you think about how much the Annales School of History was able to contribute to our understanding of medieval history despite a glaring paucity of non-elite records, future historians should have a much easier time but also a higher bar to meet. My personal money is on Google’s records proving invaluable – eventually increases in computing power will allow historians to have de facto access to every search history ever, and since people (incorrectly) believe their Google searches are private, it will be seen as a treasure trove of unfiltered, genuine behavior. Articles along these lines are already coming out.


      1. Yeah! Good point. My phone already tracks the places where I’ve been, so at the moment it has comercial value –of which I’m not particularly fond of– but in the future, when aggregated with millions of other data points from other people and dozens of other types of data recorded about each of us, it may have descriptive value.

        Places like YouTube will prove instrumental too. Our machine learning is not there yet, but once we can easily search through videos we will have a wealth of information there — not just from the intentionally informative videos but also of the daily vlogs et cetera.


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