This post was written by Stella Wentworth, Local Studies Librarian at the Oxfordshire History Centre reporting on the CILIP Local Studies Group attendance at History Day 2018. It is cross-posted from the CILIP Local Studies Group Blog.
After eight months of semi-retirement and occasional judicious use of off-peak rail transport, catching the 07:25 train on a foggy morning in late November came as a bit of a shock to the system. The friendly welcome from the reception team at Senate House when I arrived an hour and a half later with bicycle, heavy pannier bag and A3-sized portfolio case, followed shortly afterwards by a reviving tea and instant porridge from the Senate House cafe, were therefore very welcome.
CILIP LSG (and CILIP Library & Information History Group) were among the 66 organisations attending this year’s History Day at Senate House, a one-day event bringing researchers together with information professionals from libraries, archives and research organisations. In addition to the ‘history fair’, there is a series of drop-in talks throughout the day. To see this year’s talks programme and list of participants, go to https://historycollections.blogs.sas.ac.uk/history-day-archive/history-day-2018/ .
LSG’s representatives are, naturally, multi-talented. Will Farrell was also promoting the local history collections of the University of Leicester whose table we were sharing. I was quickly trained in the key message: their large specialist collection covers the historic counties of England, not just Leicestershire. If you are not already familiar with this collection, do have a look at https://le.ac.uk/english-local-history/about/collections and their various online collections https://elhleics.omeka.net/ and http://specialcollections.le.ac.uk to find out more.
Our other rep, Tony Pilmer, collected our new banner and some bookmarks from Ridgmount Street then spent the morning as an advocate for the Engineering Institutions’ Libraries before taking over on the LSG stand, allowing me to attend the series of talks on ‘Digital tools and methods’. I was interested to hear about the online, map-based history project Layers of London (www.layersoflondon.org ) and about “training” computers with Transkribus software to transcribe handwritten historical documents as part of the UCL’s Bentham project (www.ucl.ac.uk/bentham-project/ ).
We had fairly detailed conversations with around thirty enquirers – probably more. Recurring themes included the value of local newspapers as contemporary sources of social and historical information, and the advisability of contacting specialist local history collections in the local authorities adjacent to the area you are primarily researching as well, because of boundary changes and anomalies over the years.
To give some idea of the breadth of topics mentioned, they included:
- the post-1964 diaspora from Tanzania
- a “lost” Oxfordshire ancestor
- women’s history and women pioneers with particular reference to Croydon
- the Burma Campaign and its impact on Yorkshire
- advice on routes to a career in archives management
- population movement in WWII and its impact on Worcestershire
- the suffragette movement in south-east London
- statistics and pre-war experiences of BME communities
- history of medicine
- Occupations and industries: blacksmiths, knitting, the fur trade
- trade union records for tin and aluminium foundry workers
- navvies’ accommodation while building the Bridgewater Canal.
London-based research facilities, including the Guildhall Library and London Metropolitan Archives, were naturally well represented, but the day was a useful opportunity for LSG to promote local studies collections from further afield. We spoke to people with research interests relating to Croydon, Dorset, Ealing, Hounslow, Leicester, south east London, the Midlands, Worcestershire and Yorkshire over the course of the day.
It’s important to have a “hook” to encourage passers-by to come close enough to your stand to engage in conversation. Will had brought a range of postcards and some pencils which were invaluable in this respect, as had quite a few other stands (if the collection of postcards and bookmarks I came away with is any indication). A number of tables had tubs of sweets; one had a free quiz (to be done on the spot for a prize draw); another had a free raffle for a copy of one of their publications. The Geological Society’s Library had a “lucky dip” in a catalogue card drawer with beautifully-folded notes labelled “Discovery of Dinosaurs”, “Earth’s History” and so on, which unfolded to reveal several paragraphs of interesting facts about a scientist and their work in the appropriate geological sector. I was intrigued to learn that the most well-known historical example of an early dinosaur bone appeared in the 17th century antiquary Robert Plot’s book “The natural history of Oxfordshire”.
I had taken a selection of books and pamphlets, wondering whether they would justify the effort (weight?) of doing so, and was pleased to find that several did catch people’s eyes sufficiently for them to make a note of the titles. Most frequently commented on was Historical research using British newspapers by Denise Bates (Pen & Sword 2016, ISBN 9781473859005), but Catherine Exley’s diary: the life and times of an army wife in the Peninsular War edited by Rebecca Probert (Brandram 2014, ISBN 9780956384799) also attracted attention. Joan Grundy’s Dictionary of medical and related terms for family historians (Swansong 2006, ISBN 9780955345005) was spotted by someone who exclaimed “that’s just what I need!”.
I had also put together a portfolio of photocopies and leaflets to try to show the range of resources typically available in local studies collections. With hindsight this probably took up rather too large a share of the limited space available, and it was a serious embarrassment when the handle broke just as I was lifting it up to the luggage rack on the train home, but I did refer to items in it myself quite a few times as examples, and Tony said people were browsing through it in the afternoon.
We did not have access to electricity so my multi-way extension and numerous chargers were redundant, but I was pleased to find that my tablet connected to the wifi with no problem, the connection speed was good and the tablet’s battery held up well. I forgot to take a tablecloth (useful for concealing surplus baggage and boxes) but fortunately Will had brought one with him – an additional advantage of the table-sharing arrangement!
Hearty thanks are due to Tony for all his efforts beforehand in arranging for our new publicity material, and to the graphic design expert at CILIP who devised an attractive banner which won’t date too easily and which should help us to promote local studies libraries at this and similar events for several years to come. We also now have a supply of bookmarks and postcards with the slogan “Searching for treasure? Unearth the gems from your local area”.
They would be even more useful as outreach resources if they could cite a single gateway web address leading to a list of all the local studies collections / libraries / history centres in the country, or if there could be an obvious button on www.cilip.org.uk/LSG linking to a directory of local studies libraries etc., but that’s a whole new challenge – particularly in keeping such a list up-to-date! [Editor’s note: see a forthcoming blog post on the Local Studies Group blog on this issue.]
I was let down by my usually-trusty bicycle which picked up a puncture on the way back to the station, but nevertheless I enjoyed the day. It was good to exchange ideas and enthusiasm both with researchers and fellow-practitioners from a wide range of institutions, and a useful opportunity to publicise local studies collections to researchers who might otherwise have overlooked their potential value.