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


Students’ opinions of Manufacturing Pasts materials – Part I

At the beginning of the summer just gone, I was able to run three focus groups with 2nd and 3rd year University of Leicester undergraduate history students, to get their opinions of the Manufacturing Pasts industrial history materials we’re discovering and preparing and putting online. At the time, we had not even created too many materials yet, and the website was in an embryonic state, but we wanted to get some early evaluation to inform future work. And it goes without saying that getting students’ opinions is vital; they are the intended ‘customer’ of our project materials.

I gave the students about 45 minutes to look at and listen to some of the videos, Powerpoint presentations, and ebooks I had created, having to do with the Liberty Building and the Corah factory. All of the students spent the full amount of time and were very engaged with what they were watching and reading and listening to.

When I asked: how might these materials be used in a history module such as the ones you are taking now?, I was fascinated by the connections they were seeing with whatever history topic they were currently working on. They brought up:

  • Post World War II study and the loss of community when manufacturing failed
  • Gender studies, noticing the different work being done by women and by men in the Corah photos
  • Immigration
  • Philanthropy by company owners in the 19th century
  • fashion history
  • comparison of manufacturing processes then and now

They suggested a number of ways the materials might be brought into their modules:

  • The lecturer uses the photos and interviews in lectures
  • The videos and photos could be used in seminars for discussion
  • Gobbet papers could be assigned based on any of these materials
  • Essay questions can target the primary sources in MyLeicestershire History
  • Buildings and areas covered by these materials can be visited, with the materials carried along in smartphones or tablets for reference, to see what they look like now

One student commented that these materials could be used to comprise museum exhibitions, because the copyright issue has already been addressed. This was the first time in my discussions with students that I saw  the penny drop as to why an open license is important.

I shall discuss more about these student evaluations in future blog posts.  Overall, students liked these materials and their historical interests seemed to be quite sparked by both the online collections of primary sources and the mashups we put together as part of the project.

Terese Bird, Learning Technologist, University of Leicester



Meetings and communications

We had a successful 3rd Steering Group meeting last week.  As Terese was out presenting on our project at the ALT-C conference in Manchester I had the pleasure of demonstrating some of our newer digitised materials and learning resources:

Explore Historic and Industrial Leicester (Prezi presentation)

Walking Tour of the West End – Will Lenton (audio)

Liberty Building Photos by Skinner – mp4

We also discussed the next phase of the project – evaluation – in terms of what we had done so far (some preliminary focus groups) and what our future plans were, such as embedding them in teaching for students of varying levels both here and externally (more on this soon!).  Of key interest to us was what type of questions the steering group thought we should be asking, not only ‘have these materials aided your learning?’, but also ‘in what way?’, ‘are they engaging?’, ‘do they fit with your personal study skills?’

We also promoted our recent publicity release detailing our progress to date, where to find both our digitised materials and learning resources, our website evaluation form and our project flyer.

The factory, the community, and de-industrialization

The project has moved on another stage in the past week, with additional learning resources and digitised primary resources being made available for our second two themes:

  • De-industrialization
  • The factory and the community (formerly The ecology of the industrial town or city)

The learning resources, produced by our Learning Technologist Terese Bird, are available both on our project website ( and our collection on

Donisthorpes craped hair - trade mark example

Donisthorpes craped hair – trade mark example

Terese has already blogged about her prezi on Frog Island (part of our de-industrialization theme), but she’s also produced one on Leicester’s Castle Ward for The factory and the community.  In addition she’s been busy listening to many hours of audio recordings of people who live in and around Walnut Street in Leicester (home of the old Liberty factory) as well as people who worked for the Corah factory, releasing extracts on certain topics, combining it with images in some cases.

Our project partners, the Leicestershire, Leicester and Rutland Record Office have also digitised their selected primary resources which relate to de-industrialisation, many of which have now been uploaded and are available on

 Factories we have focussed on here are Friars’ Mills, owned by Donisthorpe & Co. Ltd (whose trade marks you can see in this blog), Frisby Jarvis (as Terese mentioned in her previous blog) and Hawley & Johnson (a local dyers), amongst others.

Donisthorpe were a major knitwear company in Leicester for 130 years.  We document the growth and changes experienced by the factory as it moved to computerised production, and the attempts to preserve the building once the factory closed. Sadly the building caught fire in late July, leaving only the shell remaining.  Read Terese’s blog post here: Capturing history before it goes.

At this stage we currently have 144 digitised primary resources and well over 20 learning resources across the four themes.

Donisthorpes beautiful hair - trade mark example

Manufacturing Pasts’ contribution to historical research

I attended a JISC Evaluation Workshop on 25 July, which JISC organised to help participants in the digitisation programme (of which Manufacturing Pasts is a part) to wisely evaluate the products and outputs of our projects. We discussed the many different ways impact might be measured. Amongst other impact measures, Peter Findlay brought up: how well are the projects responding to users’ needs? Are the new items being embedded in research and teaching? Are there innovations in any aspect of the project life cycle which could benefit others? Do the new digital collections save money to users or do they present research opportunities never before available?

Gillian Murray on using images in historical research

That last question seemed to particularly apply to Manufacturing Pasts. Although the decline of the British manufacturing sectory had a huge impact on the fabric of society, there has not been very much in the way of documentation on the topic. Prior to this, photos, plans and interviews have been available only in analog format, in special collections not accessible by anyone over the internet. I am not sure how this can be measured, but those wanting to access these materials no longer have to travel to a specific place, during certain opening hours — instead they only need to browse the collections on My Leicestershire History.
Even more interesting to me is the question of how these materials will lead to new research in various fields. The above video clip of Gillian Murray explaining how to use photos, plans, and other visual material in historical research covers a research skill applicable in many topics of study. As more and more photographs and images are made available online, the need for scholarly guidelines to their use in research will only increase. We have included this video under our Toolkit section of the Manufacturing Pasts website. It occurred to me that we could create other helps to engage with the materials — for example, how to reference an audio file or a video in an online collection. A how-to resource like that would serve a research need, help users engage with our materials, and may in the process increase the number of citations of our materials — a key impact factor in and of itself.
I am looking forward to introducing our learning materials to history masters and PhD students in the coming weeks, and I hope to see further research uses of Manufacturing Pasts.

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

Capturing history before it goes

Several weeks ago, I began to list and gather photos of the old factories and businesses in Leicester’s Frog Island and other areas nearby. One of the oldest and most beautiful of the old factories is Friar’s Mill, last used by Donisthorpe thread manufacturers. Imagine my horror when, exactly during that time, the news came that Friar’s Mill had been burnt, on 22 July, 2012. Read the BBC News story about the fire.

2010 photo of one of the Friars Mill buildings, Leicester – courtesy of Matt Neale on Flickr

Only last April (2012), another building we are focusing on as part of Manufacturing Pasts suffered a fire: the Corah knitting factory. And similarly, in examining 2002 photographs of the businesses of Frog Island, I was struck by how many have since been destroyed by fire, and how fortunate it is that we have the 2002 photographs.
These events have brought home to me just how it important it is to document and photograph our industrial heritage sites, because at any time they may be lost. It is also vital to digitise whatever we document, as only the digitised versions can be seen and enjoyed around the world and with expected longevity.

Friars Mill historical explanation – originally from the collection of the Record Office for Leicestershire, Leicester and Rutland

The above article, now part of the Manufacturing Pasts online collection answers a question I had: why are these buildings referred to as both Donisthorpe and Friars Mill? Answer: Donisthorpe thread manufacturers was the last company to use the building, but the building existed long before Donisthorpe occupied it and rejoices in the name Friars Mill, after the friars whose monestary stood on the site in previous centuries.
Terese Bird, Learning Technologist, University of Leicester

Research methods in historical studies – via Vimeo

I’ve been building open-access learning materials (open educational resources or OERs) for the Manufacturing Pasts project for several months now. Our plan all along has been to create image-led learning materials which tell their story but don’t dictate conclusions or analysis.

However, through showing our materials to others and asking for comments, one request I’ve been hearing is to provide enough context that any learner can grasp the main message of the material; for example, a brief background story of the factory, a description of why it is significant that this building could not be saved from demolition. One way we will be providing context will be by recording short videos of our history lecturers speaking about the scholarly case for each of the four themes within our project.

Then we realised that the entire concept of using visual primary sources in historical research could use explanation. How does one make valid research conclusions from photos, newspaper clippings, maps and building plans? We decided to ask a PhD student involved in that field to speak to that question. The result is Using Visual Sources in Historical Research, a 17 minute video which we posted on Vimeo:

Using visual sources in historical research from Media Zoo on Vimeo.

We think this is a pretty interesting outcome of this digitisation and open-resources project: the creation of materials which help to inform research methods particular to history but surely applicable in any field.

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