History Day 2017

On Tuesday I was lucky to be invited to History Day 2017. This annual event brings together the cream of academics, archivists and librarians specialising in history. Although aimed at a specialist audience, it was a friendly day and all the stall holders and guests were keen to promote their resources as widely as possible.

I was able to attend three talks held through the day and visit several stalls.

Digital History

Digital history is a subject that fascinates me. It will also become a big part of the BA History program offered by City from next year and so I was keen to attend this talk. This first talk of the day looked at digital history from the viewpoints of practitioners of history.

Professor Jane Winters introduced the topic by historicising it. History’s involvement with computers began with the cliometrics revolution of the 1950s to the early 21st century focus on Digital History. She argued however that we should stop calling it Digital History as “we’re all digital historians” now. As a term it doesn’t elucidate a unique practice. To some degree this is true, given the ubiquity of digital technology.

Professor Winters defined digital history in four broad groupings:

  • Communicating through digital tools
  • Using digital sources
  • Research history of digital
  • Using digital tools to exploit new ways of conducting historical research

Communicating through digital tools has a lot of overlap with public history. These could be things like The Great Fire of London website which are aimed at the public or Zooniverse (a citizen research website) which co-produces research with the public. Professor Winters also said that in the case of Zooniverse, the general public could become experts in certain areas in their own right.

Professor Winters stressed the need to develop a sophisticated understanding of context of digital sources, the material culture of the digital and a need to do oral histories of the digital history. An example of this is the recent work to record the stories of the people involved in Minitel, the French computer network.

As more and more historical research will be done digitally, she reminded us of the importance and the need to start with historical research questions and then ask how digital technology can solve them. Digital history offers us the chance to do Big History (a combination of big data and the longue durée) and microhistory (by foregrounding the voices of ordinary people). An example of this combination of the big picture and the individual, is the Digital Panopticon which explores the history of Australian convicts.

Jonathan Blaney focused on the tools used in the practice of digital history. He began quite reasonably saying not to overestimate the simple tools we use on a day to day basis for more “advanced” or new tools. His suggestions for working out whether to use specific tools is a really useful model for many things. He also shared two links for finding tools Bamboo Dirt and Alternative to.

Judith Siefring discussed the importance of sources to historical research and the growing prevalence of digital resources. Yet, she argued, very few academics or students cite digital sources. For example, several scholars may have just used Google books to search for a subject and then cite the print book. To some degree she had a point but students, and researchers, are forced to conform to the citation standards which often do not include this information. There is such a fear of being marked down for incorrect referencing, that I cannot see how we could expect students to cite that they have found sources through an online search engine. Her solutions to this problems were reasonable and if followed could be wide ranging. She suggested a new standard should be reached and that digital sources should take responsibility for creating downloadable citations.

Public History

The public history discussion was very interesting. Justin Bengry began by discussing his engagement with Queer History. He helped on a project called Pride of place: England’s LGTBQ Heritage. This was a crowd sourced project that engaged with members of the LGTBQ+ community, asking them to map their experiences. This project led to the creation of new information. For example, the queer history of St Ann’s Court was re-revealed as part of this project.

Catherine Fletcher discussed the importance of academic historians engaging with the public to drive interest in the field and to support the employability of students and increase the impact of research. She differentiated between Public History as co-production (history by/with the public) and commercial (history for the public). She is (possibly) in a fortunate position to financially exploit her knowledge of history. It is questionable how many other historians might be able to do this. She understood this tension and did not hide from it. She argued that public history can be most the privatised form of history. The process of commercialisation is limiting and liberating. Limiting, in that market forces may lead to specific topics being chosen and liberating in that it offers different encounters that may stimulate new interpretations or questions. Her enthusiasm for doing this was contagious.

David Langrish from the National Archive at Kew, discussed how their Public Engagement Team works. The National Archie says “Public history is open and accessible to all”. Examples of engagements they have been involved in, include the recreation of The Caravan “a queer-friendly members club” with the National Trust earlier this year. This recreation was based on documentation from police raids. Such an event not only told the story of the LGTBQ+ community of the time but also engaged with the contents of archives which told this story originally from a different perspective.

An interesting and important aside to this talk was the value of social media to engage with the public but also the potential dangers it offers to historians either from minorities or who work in controversial areas. Sarah Churchwell, who discussed her experiences after criticising Donald Trump on TV, argued that a historical understanding of such prejudices inoculates against much of its power. This is true, but ultimately more must be done to protect academics from such attacks.

Lord Bragg’s brilliant Public History resource #InOurTime helped me win this prestigious prize and demonstrate the skills and knowledge of CityLibrary staff.

 

Discovery in archives and Library

Anne Welsh (UCL) began with a discussion of Ranganathan’s five laws and the importance for librarians and archivists of making the resources of their libraries open to readers. Today we tend to approach these questions from the paradigm of the Pullman’s Dust, but Ranganathan’s model is still valuable.

Claudia Mendias (SOAS) discussed how hard it can be for some users to know where to go for what. She mapped the resources at SOAS and realised there was five separate areas (archives, research online, library, online resources and digital collection). Her solution was to create a “purple umbrella” which brought these five search tools together as closely as possible.

Christopher Hilton (formerly of the Wellcome) discussed how users preferred single search but that this was problematic with archives materials given the ways that such materials are catalogued. He argued that there was a constant balance between putting as much information as the reader needs and as little as you (as a cataloguer) can get away with. He also pointed out that cataloguers often catalogue according to pre-exisiting research needs and do not always take account of future research needs. One way out of this may be the use of crowdsourced tagging of records.

Geoff Browell (KCL) discussed the general field of archives. He said that the main skill is knowing in what to destroy or what has been destroyed, as much as it is in knowing what is kept behind. He argued that archives are predominantly about people and the value of their resoruces is what they tell us about people.

Christian Algar (British Library) discussed the importance of printed materials, including printed catalogues. He argued that digital resources have not always made print resources obsolete and he recommended making use of as many printed resource tools as you can.

Stalls

Several archives and libraries set up stalls including the Lambeth Palace library, University of Westminster archives and the Slavonic Library. An interesting stall was that of the IHR, which had a 3D printer which was slowly printing out the cogs for a clock.

It was also interesting to speak to the archivist at the Goldsmiths stall. Goldsmiths’ archive specialises in 20th century art and art practice from communities including women and people of colour. One such collection is the Daphne Oram Collection. Daphne Oram is a central figure in the development of British electronic music. She worked briefly at the BBC Raidophonics workshop before leaving to develop a new system, called Oramics. During her life she built a massive system which played electronic music. She always intended to create a smaller Oramics machine but never got round to it. A PhD candidate at Goldsmiths recreated the machine, using the notes held in the archive.

I also met some Library dinosaurs at the Geological Society Library stall. 

Themes of the day

The main themes of the day seemed to be around the importance of digital resources, the growing centrality of public history and the need to use as many libraries as possible to support your research. It was a very inspiring day. I learnt a lot about the sector and how CityLibrary might be able to support history students and researchers from City and across the country.

I also scooped a bevy of prizes including a great Tote bag, best tweet prize and a quiz on UK parliamentarians.

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