BLRIC and UKOLN Local History Discussion Seminar

Issues and Actions

1. Background to the Seminar

Although the majority of items held in local history collections are unique and potentially of great interest to a large number of people there are few mechanisms in place which allow these resources to be easily accessed and located on a national scale. However, with the development of computer networking there is now an opportunity to make these resources much more accessible through the use of online resource discovery mechanisms.

BLRIC, in collaboration with UKOLN, recognised the potential usefulness of a seminar where stakeholders in the local history sector could explore issues relating to more accessible local history collections and identify sensible forward directions. This seminar took place on 25th February 1998. A list of the seminar's participants is provided at the end of the report.

This report is based on the issues and concerns that were raised at the seminar. It concludes with a number of actions which the seminar participants identified as needing to be undertaken as soon as possible.

2. Structure of the Seminar

The seminar was structured into six main sessions. Each of the sessions focused on one of the following issues

Each session started with a brief presentation and then was opened up for a group discussion. Each session lasted approximately 30 minutes. The full programme of the seminar can be found in Appendix A of this report and the list of participants is in Appendix B. The seminar was chaired by Sheila Harden, Assistant Chief Librarian at Richmond-Upon-Thames Library.

3. Local History Services – Stakeholders and Definitions

3.1. Local History Stakeholders

Local history stakeholders can be defined as those with an interest or a potential interest in local history resources and services. These stakeholders consist of

3.1.1. Custodians/Service Providers

Custodians and service providers are made up of a considerable number of organisations. The majority of these organisations are either Library Authorities, Record Offices (both national and local) and Museums. Among other bodies which provide local history services are University Libraries, Subscription Libraries and Private Collections.

3.1.2. Users

Users of local history services range from the academic researcher to the amateur genealogist to the commercial user. Another group of users who are often forgotten are the potential users who don’t use the services. This may be due to the fact that they don’t know what is available, they don’t know how to use it and/or they are unable to access it.

3.1.3. Funders

There are many different funding bodies involved in the provision of local history services. These funders can be either central government, local government, academic institutions and private owners. Each of these funding organisations may have their own priorities and agendas.

3.1.4. National Bodies

There are also a number of national bodies who are charged with providing a strategic overview of local history services. These bodies include the Library and Information Commission and the Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts.

Local history services therefore are provided by a considerable number of different types of organisation, have a very wide and heterogeneous user group, are funded by many different organisations and are directed, at a national level, by a number of different organisations. This lack of continuity and conformity has led to a sector where levels of service provision is patchy and inconsistent.

3.2. What is a Local History Service?

'Local history service' is not universally accepted to be the best term for this area of work. It is felt to imply a passive service which is only interested in the past and concentrates on paper based items. Other terms which are increasingly used are 'local studies services' and 'community history services'. Both these terms imply an interest in the present as well as the past.

There are also different definitions for what exactly constitutes a 'local history service'. These definitions vary within sectors and also between organisations within the same sector. Such services collect, maintain and provide access to a wide range materials, in different formats to many different users. As the type of service provided will depend upon the user group that it serves it is impossible to develop a definitive definition of a 'local history service'.

4. Networking Situation So Far

There are over 200 record offices, over 200 library authorities, a large number of universities and a number of other national organisations who are the custodians of local history material. This material is in many different formats and includes maps, photographs, local newspapers, wills, oral histories, posters, leaflets and so on. The majority of the material is paper based and is either textual or pictorial.

At present it is often difficult to locate relevant items on a national scale as it is estimated that 20-25% of this material has not been catalogued. Many of the catalogues that do exist are still only in paper format and so can only be consulted on site. Catalogue records themselves are not nationally standardised as different sets of catalogue rules are used by archivists and librarians.

There are an increasing number of catalogues which are available in an electronic format but these too are often not standardised. They are seldom accessible over an external computer network. At present it is not possible to search across more than one of these catalogues at a time. A few local history catalogues are already available on the Internet. These provide access to the catalogue but usually not to the items in the collection themselves. The Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts is currently looking at how to provide a national interface to these Internet accessible catalogues.

There has been some development in making local history collection items (rather than just catalogue records) available in electronic format, most of this work has focused on the digitisation of collections of photographs. Hackney Archives Department and Local Studies Library has been developing a CD-Rom of its photograph collection. Work is currently being undertaken in Durham to produce the Durham Record (which is a touch screen driven database of integrated historic photographs, modern and historic OS maps and archaeological records), Leeds Library Authority has made a percentage of its photograph collection available on the Internet. The Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England (RCHME) recently announced that it was aiming to digitise its whole collection of photographs and make them available on the Internet. Also of interest is SCRAN, a Millennium Project which aims to build a networked multimedia resource base for the study, teaching and appreciation of history and material culture in Scotland. EARL’s Family History group has developed a web based directory called Familia for family history resources in public libraries in Britain and Ireland.

Projects of these kind, however, are still comparatively rare and there is no national development plan behind them. Each project tends to develop as a local initiative and consequently there is no strategic planning at a national level. Local History Services look set to develop electronic services driven by local agendas rather than national ones.

5. Networking Aims

A possible future service model for networked local history services is a situation where a service user can sit at any networked computer and easily identify and access local history material (in all its formats) from around the country/world.

5.1. A Possible Scenario

A user wishes to find information about their maternal great-great grandmother. They connect via the Internet to the national/international gateway to local history information. They enter their ancestor's name and a possible date of birth for her into an easy to use search form. The local history search engine searches local history services around the country/world for relevant information. It brings back the results of the search very quickly. These results include digitised photos of the town where their ancestor lived, maps of this area of the country, digitised newspapers which contain the announcement of their ancestor's birth, marriage and death. The search also brings back details of other people who have also requested information on that family name and gives their e-mail addresses.

5.2. Making it Possible

For this scenario to become reality the following has to happen:

This shows that integral to the development of any large scale electronic resource discovery are catalogues, standards and the use of metadata. The importance of these cannot be under-estimated.

5.2.1. Catalogues

Catalogues are obviously essential tools for locating resources. Catalogues provide the means of identifying what is and isn't held in a collection. They provide details of each item in the collection and allow the user to easily discover whether the resource they are seeking is held in that collection and whether it is likely to be relevant. All local history material therefore needs to be catalogued before a complete search of material can take place. Collections need to be catalogued in an electronic format in order for them to be searched via computer networks. However, although catalogues provide information about what is held and where they do not provide immediate access to the material itself.

5.2.2. Metadata

Metadata is data which supports operations on data: its discovery and reuse in various ways. Metadata is the subject of intense research and development in a variety of contexts. Metadata for resource discovery is well known; there is now work on metadata for rights management, for preservation, and so on. Particular domains have had their own approach to metadata: the library and archival communities, for example, have developed elaborate apparatuses for creating and sharing metadata, and for structuring its content. Libraries use MARC, AACR2 and have standards/guidelines for the creation of names and subjects. Archives use ISAD(G), EAD and other approaches and similarly have guidelines for personal names, geographical names, and there is ongoing work on subjects. Libraries and archives (and other domains) also have different 'models' of the information objects they organise. These factors mean that there is diversity of approaches between archives, libraries (and museums and other domains).

In recent years, there has been some work on Dublin Core, a simple metadata element set, which can be used by a variety of domains as a type of 'vanilla' approach, or lowest common denominator. Dublin Core will also be used to describe web sites and other resources. Dublin Core has been developed to support resource discovery of 'document-like-objects'. Its use to describe services and collections has been less-well established.

5.2.3. Search and retrieve standards

To facilitate a common approach to searching and to allow cross-searching of resources it is important that a standardised protocol is used. Z39.50 is being considered in the library, archives and museums community for this role. It is a complex protocol which has been slow to become widely deployed. The Electronic Libraries Programme 'clump' projects and the National Council of Archives Archives On-line report recommend the use of Z39.50.

5.2.4. Standards-based services

It is important that whatever approach is taken is standards-based. This is to preserve the value of the investment in data creation, to maximise interworking between services, and to improve the service to the user. Standards and best practice for metadata and search and retrieve protocols are being put in place, but work still needs to be done in particular areas (query routing, description of collections/services, and so on). This work was highlighted in the National Agency for Resource Discovery (NARD) report, and UKOLN will provide an 'Interoperability Focus' in Autumn 1998 which will support some of the NARD activities.

The workshop identified a need to search across services. This can be achieved in various ways. Whichever is taken it is important that it is informed by the initiatives just mentioned and that interoperability is ensured. It should be emphasised that the development of production services which will allow cross searching of library and archival resources is not a trivial problem and off the shelf solutions do not yet exist which will do the full job.

6. Barriers to Developing Networked Services

6.1. Backlog

Most local history services are run with a very small staff (typically 2-3 people) and consequently there is not enough staff resource available to undertake a retro-conversion of paper catalogues into an electronic format. In addition to this is the large backlog of material that still has to be catalogued in any format.

6.2. Funding

Most archival and local history services are run on limited amounts of funding. New sources of funding have recently been made available in the form of Heritage Lottery money and Millennium Commission grants but gaining access to this money involves making time-consuming applications. Often local history services have been unable to secure this type of funding because of a lack of resource to write proposals, competition with similar bids for money (which would have been more effective as a joint bid) and a lack of potential commercial partners.

In order to facilitate more effective bidding for lottery funding the archive sector has undertaken a number of activities:

6.2.1. Archival Map

There was considerable concern in the Archive community that archive services were not receiving a fair share of National Lottery Heritage and Millennium Grants. In 1996 the National Council on Archives, Public Record Office and Historical Manuscripts Commission decided that the Heritage Lottery Fund should be presented with the detailed results of an objective structural survey (or map). This would show the existing levels of provision in local archive services throughout England and Wales. It would also provide a national picture of the strengths and weaknesses of non-national archive services. This would allow grant applications to be made with a national strategy in mind. It would forestall the development of weak links in the archival chain. It would also allow potential partnerships to be more easily developed.

6.2.2. National Council on Archives Lottery Adviser

To further assist archives in the application for much needed lottery funding the National Council on Archives has appointed a Lottery Adviser. This post is held by Cathrin Cassarchis and she is based at the Public Record Office. She has been appointed to support non national archive services throughout the UK. She is developing a strategy that encourages and supports applications for Lottery Funding. Her post is also a central position from which strategic alliances and potential collaboration in funding proposals can more easily be identified and encouraged.

6.3. Digitisation

A massive programme of digitisation is required before local history services can offer access to their resources over computer networks. Digitisation requires both staff time and funding. An important recent report on this issue has been produced by the Library and Information Commission’s and is entitled Virtually New: Creating the Digital Collection. This report reviews the digitisation projects which are currently taking place in local authority libraries and archives and makes strategic recommendations for the development of the sector.

The report recognises that local history collections are going to be at the heart of digital futures but that there is unlikely to be a national government led strategy to digitise them. It is expected that digitisation will take place in a piecemeal fashion. The likelihood of a collection being digitised will be dependent on that organisation’s ability to identify, bid for and secure funding from external organisations. It recommends that a national agency is set up to advise services on digitisation issues.

The report recognises that there are several key issues that need to be addressed before large scale digitisation can take place. One of these issues is the use of standards and metadata and another is copyright.

6.3.1. Copyright

Copyright is an issue which is being fully considered in other areas of digital services. It is a very complex and difficult to resolve problem. It is recommended that local history services are aware of the legal implications of copyright but do not try and resolve them themselves. There are a number of European and National projects which are currently investigating the issue of copyright in the digital age. It should be viewed as a legal framework in which libraries operate rather than a barrier to be overcome.

7. The Way Forward

Local History services need to identify a way forward on a national scale in order to start overcoming the above barriers and start to move work forward in this area. However, there is an issue about what exactly is the best way forward.

7.1. Catalogues and/or Content

With large amounts of material not catalogued in any format and most catalogues still only in paper format there is a considerable body of thought that the first priority should be to concentrate on the development of comprehensive electronic catalogues. With networked accessible catalogues in place local history resources will effectively become more accessible - users will be able to identify resources much more effectively - although they will still not be able to access the resources themselves in an electronic form. Before more content based services are developed it seems essential that catalogues are in place first so it is possible to at least know what resources exist.

However, this retro-conversion of catalogue records will be a time-intensive activity and take many years to complete. During this time users will be denied electronic access to most local history resources. This lack of digitisation and lack of development of electronic content may result in a situation where local history services will have fallen far behind other information services which have concentrated on providing 'content' on the networks. As the public becomes more and more used to having immediate access to networked resources a high level of frustration with local history services may develop.

Another consideration is that catalogues although essential are not ‘sexy’. For large scale cataloguing and retro-conversion to take place it will be necessary for most local history services to attract funding from an outside body. The importance of catalogues cannot be understated but it may be difficult to interest and inspire organisations (especially non-LIS organisations) to fund such projects.

In comparison the material that could be digitised is ‘imagination rich'. It is more feasible to imagine a commercial company becoming interested in working in partnership with a project that aims to digitise local newspapers, maps and photographs than developing a catalogue. This approach could be problematic if commercial companies have agendas which do not match with local history services. For example, a commercial company may sponsor a project but demand that only its own in-house standards are used.

Another more service-led approach could be to identify a particular area of local history collections which is represented nationally in all collections e.g. churches, schools, World War One photographs, public transport etc. and concentrate on digitising it. It is probable that these subjects would only involve a small percentage of each individual collection and the effort in digitising them would therefore be comparatively small per organisation. It could be a project that is done initially with very little funding - on the basis of collaboration and co-operation between the local history stakeholders - and used as an example of the potential of what local history services can do. It is possible that such a themed collection would be of interest as a commercial product and therefore could even become income generating.

This collaborative approach is still not without its problems. There are issues over which subject is chosen and who does the choosing. There are still the issues about ensuring that standards of metadata and catalogues records are imposed. There would also be an issue about the large amount of staff training which would need to be undertaken on a national scale. Finally, it would be difficult to identify relevant materials (especially on a national scale) to digitise when these materials have not yet been catalogued.

In conclusion, it was the opinion of most local history service providers at the seminar that the first priority of services in the context of electronic services should be the cataloguing of uncatalogued material and the conversion of all catalogues into a computer network accessible format. If this is not possible the primary aim should be the digitisation and networking of each collection’s guides to holdings.

Local history services should therefore be initially concentrating on the creation of finding tools. Implicit in this action is the implementation by all services of technical and cataloguing standards. It is important that some national recommendations are made to the community on this topic. It is expected that this national strategic lead on cataloguing will not prevent local initiatives in digitisation from still taking place. In this way both content and finding tools will be developed.

7.2. Partnerships

Due to the lack of funding available and the competition in securing the little funding that is available one way forward in this area is through the development of partnerships. Through partnerships services will be able to make the most of rare resources, develop national strategic policy and begin to tackle the issues of standards and their implementation. Through partnerships services will be able to develop funding bids together rather than in competition with each other.

There is also potential for partnerships with organisations outside the local history service sector. These partnerships could be commercial as suggested in the Virtually New report or with other public sectors e.g. education (the development of National Curriculum core materials for example).

8. Action Points

The seminar participants identified a number of possible actions which could be undertaken now to develop work in this area. These actions are obviously limited in scale as they have no funding attached to them, however, they have been identified by stakeholders in the community as useful and progressive. Each action has been assigned to a named body who has agreed to take responsibility for exploring their feasibility.

8.1. Information Newsletter

It was felt that there was so much development in the area of networked services that many organisations found it difficult to keep informed of the latest reports, national recommendations, funding opportunities etc. In order to start to address this problem it is recommended that the EARL Family History group give consideration to developing a web site which would act as an information newsletter for the community. It could provide:

It could act as a one-stop-shop for local history services who are interested in both developing networked local history services and/or wish to become informed about this subject.

Action: EARL Family History Task Group

8.2. Recommendations to LIC/DCMS

During the course of the seminar there were a number of recurrent issues which were felt to need some kind of national steer e.g. standards and the difficulties of making funding applications (in particular the amount of time they take to do). It was decided that it would be useful to write a letter to either the Library and Information Commission and/or Department of Culture, Media and Sport highlighting these issues.


8.3. Archival Map for Public Library Local History Studies

It was suggested that it would be useful to develop the equivalent of the ‘archival map’ for the public library sector. The archival map has allowed the archival sector to develop a national picture of the state of archives. This picture is essential for the development of national strategic policy. Without such a map there is a danger that ‘blackspots’ will develop where there is little or no activity in the development of electronic services. The seminar recommended UKOLN and EARL and BLRIC should consider the possibility of developing a library ‘map’ and consequently approach the Library and Information Commission recommending that the LIC develops it.


8.4. Guidelines for Accessibility Best Practice

There is a need for best practice guidelines on setting up and configuring the hardware in archive/museum/library sites through which the public would access online resources. This hardware needs to be configured to ensure that it is accessible for all members of the public including those with disabilities. At present no guidelines exist and the EARL Family History Task Group and Ian Watson (Durham Studies Manager) will consider developing some.

Action: EARL and Iain Watson

8.5. Dissemination about the importance of Metadata

It was recognised that there was little awareness among local history stakeholders of the future importance of metadata in networked local history services. UKOLN agreed to disseminate information about metadata in a number of relevant local history journals and newsletters.

Action: UKOLN

8.6. Future of the Seminar Group

It was suggested that EARL should consider developing an electronic discussion list for the participants of the seminar so these issues could continue to be discussed, this report could disseminated for comment and that relevant information could be exchanged.

Action: EARL

9. Acknowledgements

UKOLN and BLRIC would like to thank all the participants of the seminar for their valued and interesting comments. In particular thanks must go to the speakers and to Sheila Harden for chairing the seminar.

UKOLN is funded by the British Library Research and Innovation Centre (BLRIC), the Joint Information Systems Committee of the Higher Education Funding Councils, as well as by project funding from the JISC’s Electronic Libraries Programme and the European Union. UKOLN also receives support from the University of Bath where it is based.

Appendix A: The Programme


Welcome - Sheila Harden (Richmond-Upon-Thames Library Service)

Local history services and networking (so far) - Dick Sargent (Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts)

Session One: What is a local history service?

Presentation by Gywn Thomas (Suffolk Record Office)

Followed by group discussion

Session Two: Identifying local history stakeholders

Presentation by Stephanie Kenna (BLRIC)

Followed by group discussion

Session Three: Future service scenarios

Presentation by John Creber (Norfolk Library and Information Service)

Followed by group discussion

Session Four: Digitisation

Presentation by Michael Long (Information North)

Followed by group discussion

Session Five: Possible ways forward

Presentation by Nicola Smith (School of Information Management, University of Brighton)

Followed by group discussion

Session Six: Summing up, actions and conclusions

Chaired by Sheila Harden

Appendix B: Participants List


Sheila Harden, Librarian, Richmond-Upon-Thames Library


John Creber, Principal Assistant Director (Information Services and Development), Norfolk Library and Information Service

Stephanie Kenna, Research Analyst, British Library Research and Innovation Centre (BLRIC)

Michael Long, Manager, Information North

Dick Sargent, Assistant Keeper, The Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts

Nicola Smith, Senior Lecturer, School of Information Management, University of Brighton

Gwyn Thomas, Senior Area Archivist, Suffolk Record Office

Other Participants

Frank Black, Principle Group Librarian, Essex Library Services

Helen Copeman, EARL Manager, EARL

Nick Kingsley, Central Library Manager (Archives, Local Studies and History), Birmingham City Library Services

Michelle Lefevre, Local Studies Librarian, Leeds City Library Service

David Mander, Hackney Archives Department and Local Studies Library

Ian Maxted, County Local Studies Librarian, Devonshire Library Services

Ian Morrison, Data Coordinator, Scottish Cultural Resources Access Network (SCRAN)

Sarah Ormes, Public Library Networking Research Officer, UKOLN

Emma Stewart, Principle Archivist, London Metropolitan Archives

Andrew Wareham, Assistant to the Editor, Victoria County History

Iain Watson, Durham Studies Manager, Durham County Council, Arts, Libraries and Museums Department