The Ongoing Tale of Donisthorpe Mill, Leicester

Back in August, I wrote a blog post about one thing I had learnt from the Manufacturing Pasts project so far: that if we don’t capture history now, we will lose it. One thing I was referring to was the number of older manufacturing buildings which are lost due to wear and tear, having fallen into disuse, or even fire. My blog post referred to Leicester’s Donisthorpe Mill building.

I would also define ‘capturing history now’ as necessarily capturing it digitally. I would go so far as to say that unless our capture is born digital, or is immediately digitised, its impact will be so limited as to be almost worthless. Hence, it is worthwhile to digitise existing archives, as we are doing in Manufacturing Pasts, as well as creating new archives that are ‘born digital’. Perhaps there are archivists and historians who will disagree with me; if so, please leave a comment as I would like to hear an opposing view.

The Donisthorpe Mill on Bath Lane suffered a fire on 23rd July 2012. But just recently, the building was purchased by Leicester City Council in a bid to preserve it. You can read the article here.

One of our artefacts in MyLeicestershire History is a collage of 5 articles from the Leicester Mercury about Donisthorpe Mill. Below is a snippet of one of these articles.

From Leicester Mercury, 1971. Now available on MyLeicestershire History

Donisthorpe and Company was founded in 1739. But in 1220 there had been an monestary sited on that spot, belonging to the Black Friars of the Order of St Dominic, explaining why the building is often referred to as Friars Mills.

Another article available in MyLeicestershire History informs that Donisthorpe and Company moved to a new location in Braunstone, Leicester, in 1983. I am assuming the building was not properly used since then. If I am wrong about this and you have more facts, please leave a comment!

Donisthorpe Mill, October 2009. Photo by Colin Hyde.

I’m sure I am not alone in saying I look forward with interest to see what the future holds for this significant historical building in Leicester.

Terese Bird, Learning Technologist, University of Leicester


Taking Manufacturing Pasts on the road

On 3rd November, 2012, Tania Rowlett and I took some tablet computers and some other kit to the Record Office for Leicestershire, Leicester and Rutland, where Adam Goodwin had kindly arranged for a Manufacturing Pasts ‘open morning. ‘For a couple of hours that morning, we had computers and our tablets set up in such a way to show off our Manufacturing Pasts materials to those who dropped into the Record Office to do things such as look up old newspaper clippings on microfiche or search for their family histories. We did not really know what to expect – I suppose that’s what doing a research project is all about: testing, trying things out, reporting back,  and improving.

We did not have very many folks drop by but those who did stayed with us the entire time and eagerly asked questions and discussed the materials and their various sources.

Two people who joined us are instrumental in running the Framework Knitting Museum in Wigston, Leicestershire. They were interested in the materials about Corah of Leicester, the company at the heart of our topic ‘The Social Life of the Factory.’ Corah made hosiery and knitted clothing of all sorts, and was the main supplier for Marks and Spencer. It was a pioneer in technological advancements in the textile

Looking at Manufacturing Pasts videos and presentations on tablet computers at the Record Office for Leicestershire, Leicester and Rutland, 3 Nov 2012

industry, but it began with very simple framework knitting technology, which our visitors knew quite a bit about. We were glad that we had decided to create a Toolkit section of our website, containing a glossary and some factual information about framework knitting. These visitors reported they could use some of our materials in their museum, and expressed a desire to be networking more and making more use of historical archives gathered and provided by others, rather than each pocket of interest reinventing the wheel. These visitors were also very impressed by our methods of presenting our materials in mobile-ready formats. They seemed to feel they were glimpsing the future of historical museums by looking at our materials on the iPad and Galaxy tablet.

Another visitor had mostly personal interest in the online collection. Having until recently worked for Leicester Public Library, she had no problem with any of the technology, and with her superior Leicester knowledge she even pointed out some errors I had made in labelling one or two of the photos I took for our archive. She suggested further companies which could have been chosen for our study: Wildt Mellor Bromley, Imperial Typewriter, Jones and Shipman, and Metal Box.

Among suggestions of other uses for the Manufacturing Pasts materials was for historical preservation, schools, and local history societies…. of which Leicester has many. We are looking forward to some history conferences in spring 2013 where we plan to connect with many of these societies. It’s good to get out on the road every once in awhile!

Terese Bird, Learning Technologist, University of Leicester

Digital archives v physical – can they co-exist?

As part of our dissemination and evaluation plan, the project last week became the topic of a New History Lab seminar, held here at the University of Leicester’s Centre for Urban History.

Despite it being a Friday afternoon/evening, the event was well attended by the Centre’s staff and students alike, and after an introduction to the My Leicestershire History site by Colin Hyde, and an introduction to the project and the learning resources by Rebecca and Terese respectively, an active discussion ensued as to the merits and pit falls of digital vs physical archives.

The general consensus was that digital archives provide more convenient access to items which would otherwise require perhaps a great deal of research to track down, as well as a site visit, which you may recall were two of the main issues we sought to address in  our initial funding bid.

Reflecting on digital archives in general, the discussion generated a number of points:

  • It is useful for researchers to know whether the digitised items represent all or part of the physical archives from which they are taken, and therefore whether there may be more items of interest that can only be seen by going to the physical archive
  • Introductions and a background to the collections were essential to enable the researcher to get a perspective on the materials
  • Establishing a community about a digital archive.  Whereas with a physical archive there are usually fellow researchers present, and an archivist, this is often absent with a digital archive.
  • Maintaining long term sustainability.  Many digital archives are a result of time-limited funding and there needs to be a clear plan for sustaining the archive once the funding ceases.  This is less of a problem with physical archives as there tends to be a collections/archives policy in place to prevent them simply disappearing.
  • Quality of downloading.  To enable researchers to reuse the materials, it is essential that the quality of any material is retained when it is downloaded.

 All of these comments are important and relevant to the Manufacturing Pasts project.  We are already addressing the second point by adding an introduction to both the Skinner archive and the Local Record Office to our website, and taking on board point one, we have amended the text to reflect the fact that only some of the materials from the archives have been used in the project.

The issue of establishing a community (point three) led us to discuss the merits and feasibility of using Facebook.  When Terese held a straw poll of hands on Friday most attendees thought it would be beneficial for the project to have a Facebook page.  Despite using many other forms of social media (Twitter/this blog/Slideshare/Flickr) we have not been keen to create a Facebook page for the simple reason highlighted in point four, sustainability.

Despite the Library’s strategy incorporating digital scholarship and digital curation, the fact remains that once a project finishes, there will always be less support available to maintain a collection.  In terms of Facebook, we feel that this would not be something that we could easily maintain after the life of the project, and instead we feel that including links from our site to other websites of interest (other Facebook and Flickr community groups) will help researchers to get more up to date information on the topics we cover.

Of course, the Library has recently appointed a Digital Collections and Special Collections Manager, Simon Dixon, and this will provide some continuity and support for the MyLeicestershire site once the Manufacturing Pasts project officially ends in January 2013.  Our Project Director, Ben Wynne, also very recently wrote a blog on this very subject.

On the last point, relating to the quality of downloaded materials, regular readers of this blog will remember we do have a limitation in the quality/dpi of the items, due to the constraints of the OCR software we use.  Most items on the site are around 300dpi to overcome allow us to OCR the text, but the site does offer three different download sizes for Jpegs (all of which appear to be of decent quality), and PDFs also seem to retain their quality, despite their dpi reduction. 

It was incredibly useful for us to be present and involved in this type of debate, and to showcase our materials and learning resources, and I am glad that we are able to address the issues raised.

Manufacturing Pasts in Singapore

Somewhat out of the blue, I was invited to present a workshop on creating learning materials for mobile devices, at the MobiLearnAsia Conference in Singapore, 24-26 October 2012. I had never been in that part of the world before, and the energy and creativity of Singapore were impressive, as was the openness to learning innovations. I learnt it is not unusual for high-school-age students to use mobile phones for learning activities in class; this is an interesting comparison to the fact that most UK schools ban mobile phones in class.

My presentation, How to make appropriate learning materials for various m-devices, is available for viewing and download on Slideshare.

Singapore Conference presentation: How to make appropriate learning materials for various m-devices — featuring Manufacturing Pasts


When I thought about putting together a session on creating mobile-ready learning materials, my first thought was Manufacturing Pasts. All of our materials can be downloaded from the internet and brought nicely onto a variety of mobile devices. All of the written material is made available in nicely-designed pdf and ebook formats, such as this essay about the West End of Leicester. All interviews are professionally finished and shared out as .mp3 files. All videos are made available on YouTube or on Vimeo, and for direct download as .mp4 files. Our interactive Powerpoint presentations are available both as Powerpoint and as pdf files which retain the interactivity, such as this Corah of Leicester app.

Perhaps the most exciting development is that we are putting together our Manufacturing Pasts material into a new iTunes U Course, which will be launched at the same time as our University of Leicester iTunes U channel — which we are working hard to make happen before Christmas.

If you would like some helpsheets on creating mobile-ready learning materials, check out this blog post where I have begun to share these.

Terese Bird, Learning Technologist and SCORE Research Fellow, University of Leicester