This post comes from third year undergraduate student at the University of Gloucestershire, Jenna Pateman.
On 31st October 2017, I attended the History Day hosted by the Institute of Historical Research at Senate House, London. The event consisted of many different libraries and archives from across the UK, and featured various talks on the topics of digital history, public history, and current historical research.
Using the subject of digital history as a starting point, the first talk explored the use of digital tools for historians, how they can be used for research and networking, and how they can allow greater public access to historical materials. For example, a virtual experience in Minecraft of the Great Fire of London has recently been built by the Museum of London, allowing visitors to learn about a historical event through play. At the end of the talk, Judith Siefring from the Bodleian Libraries discussed the way that digital materials, collections, and works are often the least preferred choice for academics who favour physical materials. In my opinion, this is something that the academic community needs to get away from, as the use of digital methods of accessing primary and secondary sources has allowed greater and helped to add new and diverse voices to historical research.
The topic for the second talk was public history, and was opened by Justin Bengry from Goldsmiths. He explained the importance of using digital tools to make history more available and easily accessible to the public, and detailed how in his own research he has used a digital platform to allow people from the LGBTQ community to volunteer their stories. His aim in this is to change the public perception of LGBTQ history from just the “bad, mad and sad” stories of the community, and bringing it closer to one of everyday life in Britain.
As with every research method, there have been some problematic aspects of using the data sourced from the public. For example, using the data that Historical England received, they have been able to create a map of England’s LGBTQ Heritage, which shows Nottingham to be second only to London for LGBTQ activity. This, in turn, raises other interesting questions: for instance, were there many more events in Nottingham that were hidden from the public eye? Or is that the LGBTQ community in that area is more passionate about recording their history? As historians, these are the kinds of questions that we must consider as our usage of digital methods for gathering information increases.
One of the other key topics discussed during the talk was the relationship between academic and public sides of history. Many universities have been changing their courses to focus on issues of “employability”, and getting students ready for the world of work. For example, the Cheltenham Lower High Street Project at the University of Gloucestershire allowed students to get hands-on with projects and learn “on the job” skills that will be transferable after they leave university. In some circles it is believed that “public history is just the illegitimate child of employability,” and that it is not of importance. However, improved access, along with the abolition of some paywalls, could help change the dominant public perception that history is simply “facts and dates”, and reveal the discipline’s more creative and interpretive characteristics that allow for multiple explanations and perspectives.
There were over thirty stands of different publishers, universities, libraries and archives covering a wide selection of the institutions across the country. The fair allowed attendees to speak one-on-one with representatives from these institutions, and discover the many possibilities open to researchers. Thanks to some of these conversations, I have had quite a few ideas for my dissertation as well as new ways to look at my research, and discovered new places where I can hunt for sources. I therefore highly recommend attending next year’s event for all those studying history at either undergraduate or postgraduate level. The conference was amazing, with very interesting talks, which gave me a lot to think about afterwards. It also allowed me to network with other researchers, and best of all, it was free!
Note: For those unable to attend, the talks were recorded and will be released on their website soon.
 Quote from Sarah Churchwell (SAS), chair at the Public History talk