Click on the headings below to read this year’s case studies, based on the themes of Archives Unlocked:
Advocacy and reputation
‘This is so much more than a dry business archive, it is a window into tastes and fashions over the last one hundred and fifty years … a treasure trove for the social history of health, medicine and wellbeing.’
Professor Anna Greenwood
University of Nottingham
In 2021, Boots Archives completed their five-year Wellcome-funded project to re-catalogue their entire archive collection. The result is a catalogue containing over 61,000 entries and almost 25,000 digitised images, providing a cohesive and comprehensive view of Boots’ varied collections.
The cataloguing project is part of a larger ambition to transform the service from an archive focused on internal business use into an internationally recognised resource for academic research. By fully opening up the collections and inviting researchers from a wide range of disciplines to engage with them, the aim is to secure a more prominent role for the Boots story in both academic studies and the public eye.
This journey started with the archives inviting an academic from the University of Reading to evaluate the collections’ research value, followed by an open day for University of Nottingham academics to explore potential research questions. Having these independent voices proved invaluable for demonstrating the collections’ untapped potential, and also helped the archives team to identify additional partnerships and angles to explore.
The Wellcome-funded project also established an academic advisory panel, meeting twice a year to provide diverse points of view, champion the collections’ importance, and help forge new links with other institutions and partners. Over the course of the project, the archives have taken part in funded collaborative projects with academic institutions including the Universities of Nottingham, West London, Leeds, Exeter, Bath, Oxford, Keele and Glasgow. These have explored topics ranging from the international history of Boots and the No 7 brand to attitudes towards ageing and rejuvenation and the therapeutic benefits of multi-sensory memory boxes for people with dementia.
By opening up its re-catalogued collections, the archive team now shares research findings across the business, has improved its core archival offer, and is making the most of its rich collections.
‘It’s been good for the whole team – people aren’t scared of or nervous about digital stuff in the way that they were.’
Archivist – Digital Lead, Museum of Freemasonry
The Museum of Freemasonry has developed a new digital strategy, which they linked to the museum’s archive plan from the start. Firstly, the team assessed their archive and consulted researchers to review the service’s strengths, weaknesses and future priorities. Simultaneously, the Archivist (Digital Lead) managed a museum-wide project that used the Digital Culture Compass to review the museum’s digital activities and decide their next steps. They then joined a consortium to purchase the software Preservica and used the ‘Plugged In, Powered Up’ peer mentoring scheme to help develop a digital preservation strategy and policy. These strands came together to form an overarching digital strategy covering museum, library and archive collections.
The new strategy drove the team to use new digital tools, which allowed the archive to respond to lockdown, such as running webinars and subtitling online events for accessibility. They collected digital material for the first time during lockdown, including websites and videos from across the country. The team also focused on making the catalogue more accessible, with the Archivist (Digital Lead) learning the basics of the programming language Python to clean up the data and add 450 new catalogue records to the online catalogue Discovery. Determined to find multiple uses for their work, they then added these records to the AiM25 catalogue and plan to add to Archives Hub.
The digital strategy covers every digital element within the museum, and requires staff to consider whether digital will benefit any project, from marketing and exhibitions to collections management and payment processes on site. These considerations have made the whole team more confident to try new approaches. The next step is to continue increasing the collections’ accessibility, including through online exhibition platforms and a digitisation programme. The team will be continuing a dual approach, and advocating for digital and archival best practice.
Diversity and inclusion
‘This website is one way for us to share the very interesting, and often exciting, material we have in the Disabled People’s Archive…It is important for us that the website is accessible to as many people as possible.’
Archive Lead, Disabled People’s Archive
Since its establishment in 1985, Greater Manchester Coalition of Disabled People (GMCDP) has documented and preserved its own history together with that of the wider Disabled People’s Movement and its trailblazers.
The Disabled People’s Archive contains thousands of historical documents and photographs, video and audio tapes, banners, posters, placards, badges, t-shirts, reports, rare books, and leaflets spanning many decades. All the collections have been donated by individuals and disabled people’s organisations. The archive continues to grow and, in partnership with Archives+, it is safely stored at Manchester Central Library.
GMCDP is proud to preserve this unique and invaluable resource. It brings together records from a range of organisations, demonstrates the power of collective action and highlights the achievements of the Disabled People’s Movement.
GMCDP want to ensure that as many people as possible can access their significant collections and their work towards this began during lockdown when they used funding from the National Lottery Heritage Fund’s Covid Emergency Fund to develop an accessible website.
This work will be developed through a three-year Wellcome-funded project to systematically catalogue the archive. As this takes place, GMCDP will make parts of the archive available via open viewing, exhibitions, publications and web access, including adding material to the website. One aim of the project is to develop accessibility guidelines for archive collections, especially digital archives, where there is currently a gap.
The project will employ a team of disabled people to work in partnership with Archives+, combining the knowledge and experience of disabled people with professional archiving expertise to work in a new and exciting way. This will ensure disabled people continue to hold the narrative about their history and heritage, and gain skills in the archives sector. For the archivists, this project will provide an opportunity to develop skills in ethical and person-centred approaches to collections management.
‘The theatre was closed, the stage was empty. There was a gap waiting to be filled.’
Head of Archive, National Theatre
When the first Covid-19 lockdown occurred, departments from across the National Theatre (NT) collaborated to produce ‘NT at Home’, a weekly screening of pre-recorded productions that people could watch via YouTube. These recordings came from the longstanding ‘NT Live’ programme of broadcasts to cinemas, as well as from the archive’s catalogue of every NT production since 1995.
The NT Archive played an integral role in ‘NT at Home’, facilitating access to recordings and capturing social media feedback from global audiences. Archive staff supplemented the screenings with archive material, including programmes and cast lists, and responded to viewer enquiries.
A partnership with YouTube, initially planned for four weeks, enabled people to view broadcast-quality recordings from home. The screenings rapidly became occasion events, with viewers sharing pictures online of their home box offices and home-made tickets! In the end, ‘NT at Home’ ran for 16 weeks, delivering 17 performances to over 15 million people. The National Theatre’s YouTube subscribers grew from 70,000 to 700,000. 40% of viewers were under 35, reaching a different audience to the theatre’s in-person and ‘NT Live’ performances.
The success of the YouTube partnership led to a second phase of ‘NT at Home’: a paid subscription service for regular access to ‘NT Live’, archive productions and new productions. Audiences can also rent single titles and purchase gift subscriptions.
The NT Archive has been emphasising the importance of digitally preserving recorded broadcasts for several years, and procured a digital preservation system in 2019 for content produced across the National Theatre. The popularity of ‘NT at Home’ significantly increased the organisation’s recognition of the digitised recordings as commercial assets. Storing these assets within a well-managed digital preservation system and contributing to collaborative projects like ‘NT at Home’ has bolstered the archive service’s visibility and recognition across the theatre.
Health and wellbeing
‘The project forged a link between people’s sense of self and archives, in an original and highly effective model.’
Professor Karen McCardle
Dr Hills’ Case Book was a collaboration between Norfolk Record Office, the Restoration Trust, UpShoot Theatre Company, and Community Connectors – the social prescribing service of South Norfolk and Broadland councils. Based on previous Change Minds projects, it used 19th-century patient records from Norfolk County Asylum to teach participants research skills and help them explore the histories of individual patients. However, this time the project focused on the production of a new stage play instead of poetry or art.
The primary purpose of all Change Minds projects is to use creativity and sustained interaction with archives to improve the wellbeing of people with mental health issues. For many, this was the first time they had encountered archives so an introduction to the record office and the asylum collection was an important starting point. After this, everyone chose an individual from the casebooks as the subject of their research. They learnt new skills as they researched the individual’s life, developing a new understanding of the history of mental care through the stories they discovered.
Rather than delaying Dr Hill’s Casebook due to the pandemic, the team started the project in April 2020, as they felt it was needed now more than ever. This meant switching to an online delivery model but, with social interaction being a key contributor to achieving their wellbeing goals, this required careful re-thinking. Regular Zoom meetings allowed participants to meet virtually, a private Facebook group provided a shared forum, and some outdoor visits were arranged. Then, the stage production could not go ahead. Instead, a film was created and livestreamed on YouTube, opening the play up to a wider audience. Due to the success of the project and its positive impact on the researchers’ wellbeing, more Change Minds projects are planned.
‘It’s not something that happened on the other side of the world a long time ago – it’s relevant to the history of Bristol.’
Engagement Officer, Bristol Museum & Art Gallery
Bristol Archives and Bristol Museums have helped local schools learn about the past using oral history recordings digitised by ‘Unlocking Our Sound Heritage’ (UOSH). Bristol Archives is the South West Hub for the national initiative, which is supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund.
The project’s first strand used oral histories recorded in the 1980s of Blitz memories in Bristol. The team selected clips with local primary school teachers and worked with a local playwright to develop lessons using them. Students learnt how to take notes while listening, then created short sketches. Following feedback from teachers, this resource was developed into a script-writing session. The team have also run webinars for classes, training sessions for teachers, and worked with a local artist to show how oral histories inspire creativity.
For the second strand, the Engagement Officer sifted through recordings from the British Empire & Commonwealth Collection digitised by UOSH. Focusing on the Partition of India, she identified relevant recordings, including ethnically diverse speakers (which appear infrequently in the collection). Then Kavita Puri, author of ‘Partition Voices’, used these recordings to help write and narrate four videos for Key Stage 3 students. Finally, a local film editor from an Indian background produced the films, which are now available on YouTube to help teachers tackle this complex subject.
The sessions have engaged over 490 students in person and 1,600 online. Audio material proved easy to turn into digital assets, and teachers found that oral histories supported children who struggle with reading, helped them develop empathy, and encouraged a real connection with the past. The projects’ Bristol links helped make them relevant to the children: the Blitz material referenced specific streets, and many families settled in Bristol as a result of Partition. The team hope to continue developing the relationship between the archives and schools.
Innovation and risk
‘Explore Archives contains a treasure trove of stories about the people of York, how they lived, worked and played. Telling these stories has the potential to provide a strong sense of place and connection to the community and wider world.’
Strategic Development Manager, Explore York Libraries and Archives
Throughout the first half of 2021, Explore York Libraries and Archives collaborated with Bright White Ltd to develop a new digital engagement tool for users that aimed to bring together records from different collections into one, easy-to-use interface. Supported by the Archive Testbed Fund, the team created a prototype called Explore Archives Storytelling Tool (EAST), which focused on the Hungate region of York. The project used pre-existing metadata from catalogued collections, digitised records and indexed records to create a generous, data-rich foundation for the tool.
EAST allows users to access information about the city in three ways: by location via digitised maps, by person and by event. The pre-existing metadata is ingested into EAST and mapped using the new Records in Context Ontology (RiCs-O) standard to create Resource Description Framework (RDF) datasets. One of the central aims of this project was to demonstrate what could be achieved with the new RiCs standard. Machine learning was then applied to automatically generate links between the different records.
This approach revealed previously unknown links between records and allowed records from different collections to be brought together digitally for the first time. Importantly, it also enabled users to find their own way through the collections, and to explore both chronological and more disjointed stories within the records.
The team tested the tool with local community groups, responding to feedback and refining the user experience. Users found that EAST allowed them to access more information than they thought possible. The tool also opened up the archive to people that had never previously used archival material. Unexpected outcomes of the evaluation process were the tool’s success in facilitating group interaction and its ability to act as a reminiscence tool.
‘The increase in bookings showed that we are stronger together…with both services able to retain their own identity and support income generation.’
Digital and Media Archives Manager, Hampshire Archives and Local Studies
Faced with a robust income generation target at the start of the financial year, staff at Hampshire Archives and Local Studies devised a way to increase the service’s visibility, which at the same time would help to support the service financially. They teamed up with other colleagues from across Hampshire County Council, including the Library Service and the corporate Business Development team. The project enlisted the support and social media expertise of these other teams to help promote the archive’s programme of virtual and on-site events.
The Library Service created themed reading lists in support of each event and used its blog and extensive social media reach to promote the events and associated books. Bookings topped 70 for a Zoom talk on maps called ‘Here be Hogs’, a vast increase on previous events of a similar nature and a figure that wouldn’t have been achieved without these collaborative efforts.
The same strategy had a similar effect on bookings for their upcoming programme, including sessions on reading old handwriting and the release of the 1921 census. These results clearly showed how these services were stronger together and provided a boost to the archive service’s income. Working in this collaborative way, the archive staff were able to highlight the value of their service to new visitors, internal colleagues and stakeholders alike, some of whom were so enthused by the service’s work that they later requested a tour of the archives. The success of the partnership has provided a model for future working that promises to be beneficial to all involved.
‘This research is so important to let people know diversity has always existed in society.’
Broken Futures walking tour
Broken Futures was a community-based queer heritage project, exploring and documenting criminal convictions for sex between men in Berkshire between 1861 and 1967. Inspired by a Berkshire Record Office project, Broken Futures was delivered by Support U, an LGBT+ support and wellbeing charity based in the Thames Valley, and was funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund. Other project partners were the Museum of English Rural Life, University of Reading, Reading Museum and Queer Rural Connections.
15 volunteers were trained in archival and genealogical research to find cases from primary sources held at Berkshire Record Office. The project supplemented these records with resources such as digitised newspapers, prisoner photographs and online genealogical content to help tell the stories of some of the men prosecuted. By using digitised content, the project was able to continue when Covid-19 restrictions stopped researchers from visiting the archives in person. A second strand of the project used digitised newspaper articles to enable research about the lives of men prosecuted or convicted between 1920 and 1967.
Running for 14 months until April 2021, Broken Futures produced an impressive range of outputs including two online exhibitions, a research toolkit, a schools resource guide, how-to guides and templates for researching key record series, walking tours of key sites for LGBT+ history in Reading, and a podcast series featuring a range of subject experts. The resources include details of the ethical and practical considerations encountered during the project and outline the approach they took to research. Other resources and research tools are signposted for organisations or schools to use when developing their own projects. The project outputs have increased the range of resources available in schools for LGBT+ History Month and for use in after-school clubs. More widely, the project has increased awareness of archives and how they can tell new stories of LGBT+ history.