This is an extract from Charles Moore’s Notes in this week’s Spectator, out tomorrow. Subscribe from just £1.
In a few weeks, I shall have finished the second volume of my threepart biography of Margaret Thatcher. I am now at the checking and revising stage — 3,000 endnotes to be made shipshape, 2,000 quotations to be cleared with interviewees, 300,000 words to be re-imagined as if read fresh. This involves the exchange of scores of emails every day.
The question arises, ‘How did enterprises of this kind ever happen before computers?’ The answer, I think, is that the sources used were much narrower than they are today. Authors were extremely dependent on where archives physically were. Interviews were a rarity. Press, radio and television records were restricted, unobtainable or nonexistent. International exchange was much harder.
We live in a golden age for historical research. It won’t last. My own work depends heavily on the fact that those involved in government kept excellent, confidential, largely truthful, written records. Now, because of emails and the Freedom of Information Act (FOI), they daren’t. No. 10 Downing Street has a system, quietly introduced just before FOI, in which all emails self-destruct after three months unless ‘actively saved’. For a brief period in history, a window opened and I have been able to climb through it. Now it is closing again.