Tower Hamlets

Opening up Archives – Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives

bancroftlibrary_cvalino03Summary of activity

A twelve month traineeship was established in 2011 to enable Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives to develop new collections and engage with local community audiences which are currently underrepresented in the archive.

To facilitate this, a partnership with local Bengali cultural heritage organisation Swadhinata Trust ( was set up. Their involvement ensured ownership of the project by stakeholders from within the Bengali community. The Trust helped to mentor and support the trainee, brokering meetings and promoting the project within their networks.

Archive staff provided training in work-based heritage skills including cataloguing, digitisation, oral history, preservation, and responding to public enquiries. This enabled the trainee to  acquire new collections and conduct oral history interviews with Bengali community members on behalf of the service. Towards the end of the project, the trainee curated a programme of events across a number of library sites and a final exhibition which showcased highlights from the newly acquired archival and oral history collections.


The traineeship was funded by Heritage Lottery Fund and managed by The National Archives as part of their national placement scheme ‘Opening Up Archives’. Funding is in place for a second and third year which will target different community groups. The focus for Year 2 is the local Somali community.

The Year 1 traineeship April 2011-March 2012 is described in this case study.

Challenges and opportunities

a) Challenge – participation and ownership by Bengali community
The principal challenge was to ensure that local Bengali people participated in the traineeship, from recruitment to the post to audience development. People of Bangladeshi origin make up at least 36% of the borough’s population, yet the service had not collected widely within this community – its relevant collections comprising mainly publications and press cuttings – and with few local Bengali users of the service.

b) Opportunity – create new archives
It was very important to capture as much of the available heritage as possible whether document-based or in non-tangible form. Non-Western communities do not always have traditional paper-based or even digital archives so it was felt the service had an opportunity to adapt its collecting methodology to ensure better representation of more recent residents.

c) Opportunity – engagement with the Bengali community
The communication of this heritage to the Bengali community was also very important. Many or most Bengali residents are unaware of the archive service or  feel it offers nothing for them. As most of the archive service’s current users do not live in the borough it was important to increase the numbers of users who are local residents. Younger people were also targeted, as traditional service users tend to be 50 or over.

Responding to challenges or opportunities

a) Participation and ownership by Bengali community
The partnership with Swadhinata Trust was key to ensure word of mouth within the Bengali community and to open doors with local charities, organisations and businesses whose heritage the project wanted to capture. Representatives from Swadhinata Trust sat on the recruitment panel for the trainee and mentored them throughout the year as well as contributing to events and exhibitions.

The traineeship role description included two essential criteria which reflected that the candidate had to have good knowledge of Bengali cultural heritage and the experiences of Bangladeshi people living in Britain. This was not only a genuine occupational requirement but ensured that applicants with a Bengali background could compete on a level playing field with the many applicants seeking paid work in archives who may typically have had a more extensive or traditional work experience background. This helped to ensure that the traineeship met one of the funding scheme’s priorities, to diversify the heritage sector workforce.

b) Creating new archives
Oral histories were collected as well as traditional organisational archives. Several hundred photos were loaned, scanned and added to the digital collections before being returned to the owners. The new collections were all catalogued onto CALM (though the catalogue is not yet available online). A user guide to the Bengali collections was produced and will be published online before the end of 2012.

c) Engagement with Bengali community
A month-long festival of events was planned in the last month of the traineeship, which took place in partnership with the Idea Store (public library and lifelong learning) service across four different sites in the borough. These events included the launch of a new exhibition at the Local History Library which showcased highlights of the new collections acquired entitled ‘The Bengali East End’.

A forty-four page A4 colour booklet ‘The Bengali East End: Histories of life and work in Tower Hamlets’ was also produced by the trainee with the support of staff. This incorporated personal histories of men, women and organisations that had made significant contributions to the establishment of the Bengali community in the local area.


One thousand copies of ‘The Bengali East End’ publication were printed and all were distributed free of charge at festival events during the month.

  • Over 160 people visited the exhibition at the Local History Library & Archives, the highest number of attendees since we began hosting exhibitions on these premises last year. The exhibition incorporated six banner stands and over 30 printed panels as well as oral history audio clips and a display of original archives and ephemera which had never before seen by the public
  • Approximately 500 people attended Bengali Heritage Month events in total across all sites. Approximately two thirds of these were of Bangladeshi origin
  • In the six months since the project was completed the archive service has hosted ten researchers. They studied this particular community history and accessed the new records collected. Tower Hamlets Archives have also hosted a visit from a local Bengali youth group as part of oral history work they were undertaking
  • Ten oral histories were collected digitally
  • Over a dozen paper-based collections were acquired including records relating to the Banglatown Restaurants Association, the Kobi Nazrul Centre and the Bangladeshi Youth League and Brick Lane Mosque
  • Some 25 collections of digital material have been added to our collections, from individuals and representatives of organisations such as the Brick Lane Business Association

What went well? What didn’t go quite as well?

The outreach events such as the guided walk around the Spitalfields area, the Bengali East End exhibition and the Bengali Heritage Month programme were particularly successful in engaging new audiences.

The trainee was very competent and highly motivated, working independently on many of the activities. Ideally there would have been greater capacity in-house to provide closer supervision and support for some of the core activities such as cataloguing and volunteer management. Some objectives were perhaps over-ambitious and as a result some of the cataloguing of new collections and oral history summaries are as yet unfinished.

Our collections have been greatly enriched by the breadth and diversity of material acquired.

Partnership working with Swadhinata Trust provided the trainee with access to local Bangladeshi individuals and organisations. The project would have been virtually impossible without this. The ability to be able to pay the Trust (a voluntary organisation) a consultancy fee for their support ensured that their contribution was compensated appropriately.

The Swadhinata Trust felt that the promotion of Bengali Heritage Month did not adequately reflect their contribution to the project. So lessons have been learned regarding the importance of the close involvement of stakeholders in all project outputs.

Developing this work

Currently Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives are engaged in the second year of the traineeship which has a focus on the Somali community, and funding is in place for a third year.

The service is working with the council’s Idea Store Learning department to develop an apprenticeship scheme which would be based on this model. Unfortunately the lack of an appropriate vocational qualification for the apprentice to work towards is a hindrance.

The OAU trainees work towards the EDI Level 2 qualification in Libraries, Archives and Information Services, tailored to accommodate the work-based learning that the trainees undertake at their specific placements. Options include:

  • adding new modules to the existing qualification, allowing for specialism within the existing framework
  • developing a new vocational qualification which is specific to work in archives and local studies libraries
  • or to develop a new qualification to focus on a broader concept of Community Heritage Skills with modules on oral history, memory and reminiscence work, historical research, digitisation, exhibition curation and event programming

This would ensure that archive services are able to collect from and cater to communities which have not yet or tend not to develop more traditional document-based archives.

The service intends to continue to collect material from the Bengali community. This is on a reactive basis at the moment, due to staff capacity, but further external funding will be sought for specific projects targeting sections within that community with whom there was insufficient time to engage extensively during the year-long traineeship project – for example, women and younger people.

Further information

You can download the Bengali East End booklet as a PDF.

For more information about Tower Hamlets Local History Library & Archives, visit