Digital archives in history class

Last Tuesday we conducted our first history class session exclusively using materials from the Manufacturing Pasts site (newly digitised artefacts and mashups on the topic of Leicester’s industrial past).

The group of about 20 undergraduate students divided themselves into 3 groups, choosing one of the three artefacts which illustrated the different experiences of men and women in industrial Leicester. There was an interview of a married couple discussing their careers at Corah and elsewhere, architect’s plans of the Liberty Building showing different areas for men and women, and an Employee’s Handbook from Corah, 1954.

whiteboardhistoryAfter about 10 minutes of looking through and listening to the materials, we discussed what we learnt and instructor Rebecca Madgin took notes on the whiteboard (above) . Students’ first comment was that industrial life in Leicester was orderly, with fairly strict rules for employee behaviour and a hierarchical structure within the factory workforce.

Students noted the positives of such digital resources: can be enjoyed by anyone online, at anytime, and anywhere so long as they have an internet connection. And students mentioned it might have taken them a year to find such clearly-identified Leicester industrial research material in physical libraries. Some negatives mentioned were that they could not see how well-used the employee handbook was; the tablet computer crashed with the .pdf at the end of the suession (well it is 2 years old!), and it was tricky navigating through online pdfs of architectural plans which were scanned in at very high resolution. An interesting aspect of discussion was: what was the agenda of those curating these digital resources? How sustainable is a digital archive, compared to a physical archive — in an age when libraries are being closed due to lack of funds?

One thing I realised is that digital archives are an important new and controversial trend in the humanities. Or shall I say in the digital humanities?

Terese Bird, Learning Technologist and  SCORE Research Fellow

University of Leicester

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