Revealing local history
By Sarah Milligan
Originally featured on the Institute for Historical Research’s blog.
As part of this year’s festival, British History Online (BHO), Senate House Library (SHL) and Victoria County History (VCH) will be leading three simultaneous Wikipedia edit-a-thons in London, Leicester and Gloucester on 21 November.
An edit-a-thon is an event where editors get together to write or improve articles centred on a specific topic. We will provide training in editing Wikipedia and no prior experience is necessary. The theme of our edit-a-thons will be local history, which will involve both editing articles about particular places, but also editing articles about the practice of local history in the UK.
The idea to have a local history Wikipedia edit-a-thon first occurred to us when we had a Wikipedia training session at the IHR way back in March. Our trainer was Edwardx (who conveniently will also be the London trainer for this coming edit-a-thon) and during our session we were amazed at how easy the process of editing and improving Wikipedia articles was after a little bit of training.
Jessica Davies and Rebecca Read from VCH were thinking of ways they could improve articles about various aspects of local history, and I was thinking about how to encourage more editors to consult BHO since Wikipedia encourages citing online, accessible materials where possible.
Following the session, the three of us agreed that the theme of local history would be an interesting one for an edit-a-thon. We envisioned local historians, Wikipedia editors, students and academics all coming together and learning from each other. The Being Human festival, with its focus on the humanities’ ability to inspire and enrich our everyday lives, seemed like a natural fit for the event we were dreaming up. Jordan Landes, the history librarian at SHL, had organised the initial training for us and kindly offered to help facilitate the edit-a-thon. Soon we were partnering with teams in Gloucester and Leicester, and taking the edit-a-thon beyond our immediate vicinity and bringing it to a national scale.
We’ll admit we were slightly stumped about whether our events would relate to this year’s Being Human festival theme for the School of Advanced Study, ‘Hidden and revealed’. But we quickly realised that the goal of revealing is already behind the work that we do.
We believe local history should be cared for and preserved in archives, but it should not remain there. It is our communal responsibility to study history, to learn from it and to share it. With the VCH volumes, authors comb local archives and untangle the history of places in order to present those histories to the public in the form of the VCH red books. What is that if not a process of revelation? They take something that might not be hidden per se but rather, difficult to access, and reveal the history of a parish, a hundred, or a county in a clear, encyclopaedic format.
Similarly, by digitising the red books, BHO further reveals these histories by allowing VCH texts to be freely accessible from anywhere in the world. One of my responsibilities at BHO is to manage our email account, and I love receiving emails like the one from the Australian woman who found the history of the small village where her great-grandmother was born, or from the mayor who learned new things about his own town, or from the home-owners who discovered the rich history of the place where they live, or from the elderly man who is brought back to his schooldays. To all those people and many more, uncovering the history of where they come from is nothing short of a revelation.
And finally, Wikipedia — one of the most visited websites in the world — is driven by a desire to make human knowledge accessible to everyone. Wikipedia relies on source material like VCH, and BHO content is already heavily cited across the site. Wikipedia democratises the construction of knowledge by allowing articles to be edited by anyone from anywhere in the world.
So to us, the revelation of the hidden is about understanding the history of where we come from and sharing that with each other. Our goal in these events is for everyone to feel like they can participate in the creation of their own history. One thing I have learned since being at BHO is that British history is never only British; and local history is never only local. We are connected on a global level and we share a global history, which might begin with the local but it never stays there.
There is still time to sign up for one of our Being Human edit-a-thons in London, Leicester and Gloucester on 21 November.
Follow the edit-a-thons on Twitter with the hashtag #revealinglocal.