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How digitization may help save more heritage buildings

The implementation of a document digitization service may be invaluable in helping preserve heritage buildings, not least by highlighting their status.

document digitisation - heritage building

How digitization may help save more heritage buildings

The importance of having heritage data digitized is well known to anyone who has been involved with retrieving data for any practical purpose.

An obvious instance where that is required is historical research for academic purposes, to assist in the development of heritage tourism, or to highlight legal protections in place that preserve a building against developments that might threaten its character or even existence.

Much of that information is now easily accessible online; the use of document digitization means it is often very simple to ascertain whether a building or plot of land is protected and to what extent. Examples of this include the Archaeology Data Service and the Historic England Archive in the UK, or the US National Archives.

However much these databases can hold invaluable information, digitized copies of irreplaceable documentation, photographs and more, there is always the danger that their scope is not great enough and that there is more relevant and important information that has not been documented.

An example of this arising in the UK recently, which made news across the world, was that of the Crooked House, a public house in the Midlands that was originally a farmhouse when built in the 18th century, but developed a distinctive lean due to subsidence caused by local mining.

This led to it becoming a themed pub with ‘wonky’ windows and furnishings set at strange angles and various optical illusions, but after Marston’s Brewery sold it earlier this year, the building was soon burned out in a suspected arson incident and then demolished without council permission two days later.

A campaign is in place to have the pub rebuilt, but one problem that was swiftly established was that, despite its obvious cultural and heritage value, the building did not have the ‘listed’ protection that would have given it legal protection.

This was only discovered – and an application for listing made – a few weeks before the sale, and the matter was still pending when the fire and demolition occurred. This leads to the obvious conclusion that a lack of knowledge of what buildings in the area were listed meant the Crooked House slipped under the radar.

Such points have been raised in the corridors of power in London. Marco Longhi, a local member of Parliament supporting the campaign to rebuild the Crooked House, recently led a debate in the House of Commons over potential changes to the law to protect public houses of heritage value.

He said: “Not enough heritage pubs have any listed protection, not least because everyone – the system, MP – presume that pubs could be listed when, in fact, they are not.”

Noting that this is exactly what happened to the Crooked House, he added: “Our system does not compel local authorities to keep a register of heritage pubs; it is voluntary.“ He called for a new law that local councils would have to review and update a list of protected heritage pubs on an annual basis.

Evidently, the solution lies partly in tightening up listing rules. If this happens, the presence of a digitized heritage database can ensure all interested parties can swiftly establish if a building is protected or not, without incorrect assumptions leaving historic properties unprotected.

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