Oxford House in Bethnal Green: An Archive of London’s East End

Archives Hub feature for June 2024


Oxford House was founded in 1884 as a ‘settlement house’ for graduates of the University of Oxford volunteering in East London. To celebrate our 140th anniversary, Oxford House has been working for two years on a National Lottery Funded Project to celebrate this anniversary, ‘Through the Lens: Women Pioneers, Youth Social Action and Celebrating Our Somali Community.’ This has involved zine-making with local students, running local photography exhibitions, recording new oral histories with community members who have contributed to the history of the house, and the mammoth task of cataloguing and digitising our archive.

While some of our material is still housed at Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives,10,000 pages of archives are now accessible on our new website, available to the wider public for the very first time. This material ranges from our Victorian arrivals book, documenting the movement of students in and out of the building, to 1970s campaign posters created by activist groups who used Oxford House as their base to advocate for change and propose innovative and groundbreaking social schemes. Alongside these are a rich photographic archive which documents the heart of Oxford House throughout its lifetime – its people.

Our Founders

Black and white photograph, dated circa 1890, showing the Founders of Oxford House from Keble College, Oxford. Group of eleven men, forming two rows, with the exterior of Oxford House in the background.
Founders of Oxford House from Keble College, Oxford. Oxford House, c.1890. I/OXF/A/6/2/1 (Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archive)

Though, as ‘settlement’ implies, there was indeed an undeniably strong vein of paternalism to educate the lower classes, the reformist social movement sought to provide practical support to the community of East London, such as legal advice and labour exchanges. Our archive is flush with records that set out the early aims for the house – ‘to provide a centre for religious, social, and educational work among the poor of East London.’ One of the most evocative items from our early collection is our arrivals and departures book. Dated from 1910-1938, this was where many from Oxford and beyond noted their comings and goings. It captures the energy of not only the house but of the interest in the wider settlement movement from both a national and international audience, with entries from visitors hailing from New York, Copenhagen, Zurich, and Port of Spain Trinidad.

Black and white photograph, dated circa 1910, of the register recording the our arrivals and departures at Oxford House. The book is open, showing handwritten entries.
Register of Arrivals and Departures. Oxford House, c.1910s. OH/8/1/1 (Oxford House)

World War Two

Our records from the WWII era are especially poignant. Located in heavily bombed East London, Oxford House acted as a shelter for up to 300 members of the local community at the height of the Blitz. Away from the East End, Oxford House organised the evacuation of local children to free boarding schools in Wales and Herefordshire, where many city-born children visited the countryside for the first time. While there are few photographs from the inside of the house during this period, Annual Reports from our archive capture the spirit of the time. ‘The House and all that for which it stands shall not die, but shall blossom in the future from the new life which has been born in it during this year of suffering,’ wrote Chairman Walter H. Moberly in 1941.

Black and white photograph, dated 1940, showing a crowded air raid shelter during World War Two. Men, women and children are almost all seated, some at tables, holding teacups and making paper chains. In the background are bunk beds and a staircase leading up.
Bomb shelter in Second World War. Oxford House, 1940. OH/9/7/1 (Oxford House)

During this time, Oxford House continued to run clubs and events for members of the community who remained in East London – from sport activities to dance evenings. Significantly, it was during this period that women became an increased presence within the public life of the house. Women have always played a role at Oxford House, yet our early archive often records them only as unnamed domestic servants under ‘housekeeper’ or the like. Molly Clutton-Brock, a campaigner and the wife of the Head of House, Guy Clutton-Brock, took a lead on establishing clubs for women and girls during the war. This was a marked change as Oxford House transitioned post-war from a male-dominated settlement house to a community centre model.

Post-War Social Action

Some of our most dynamic archival records date to the post-war period, when by the 1970s, the East End was buzzing with community spirit and activism. Oxford House was home to many campaigns and social groups, and our archive has a wealth of photographs and posters from this era – as pictured, for example, a health stall hosted in our Cafe where the community could come to receive health advice and information. The Oxford House Social Club and the Oxford House Youth Club were both set up in this era, and our archive once again has a fantastic collection of photographs of activities, events and festivals hosted in and beyond Oxford House.

Black and white photograph, dated circa 1970s, showing two women and one man in conversation. In the background a covered table is visible with the sign stating Health Stall hanging above it.
Health Stall. Oxford House, c.1970s. OH/9/2/9 (Oxford House)
Black and white photograph, dated 1974, showing a poster titled They Shall Not Pass, produced by the Tower Hamlets Movement Against Racism and Fascism. The poster includes a poem and details of a poetry reading event taking place on the 4th November that year. The event is to 'celebrate the East Enders victory over fascism October 1936'.
They Shall Not Pass! The Tower Hamlets Movement Against Racism and Fascism. Oxford House, 1974. OH/8/3/2/1 (Oxford House)

Our archive also holds the records of many social action campaigns from the late 20th century to present – such as the Tower Hamlets International Solidarity campaign (THIS) 1981-1988 collection, the Families Unit 1977-1981 collection, and the Somali Projects 1985-2023 collection. East London’s Somali community has played a long-standing significant role at Oxford House, with the establishment of Somali Week Festival and the Somali Arts Project designed to platform the creativity and culture of refugees and migrants who came to the East End.

Black and white photograph leaflet, dated circa 1990s, titled A Centre for Somalis, and featuring the image of a man and woman, either side of a smiling child.
A Centre for Somalis leaflet. Oxford House, 1990s. OH/5/12/7 (Oxford House)

Our NHLF project and 140th Anniversary celebration is culminating in an exhibition, History House. Items from our archive throughout the decades will be exhibited for the first time to share untold stories of the house and those who have worked here and called it home throughout time. We would love for you to visit.

Emily Hughes
Archivist, Oxford House in Bethnal Green

History House is open 6th June – 20th December 2024, Monday to Friday 10am-5pm, at Oxford House in Bethnal Green, E2 6HG. Our archives are open by appointment, please email OHarchive@oxfordhouse.org.uk.


Oxford House Archive, 1898 to present day

Images copyright Oxford House and Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archive. Reproduced with the kind permission of the copyright holders.

Launch of Towards a National Collection discovery projects

£14.5m awarded to transform online exploration of UK’s culture and heritage collections through harnessing innovative AI

The Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) has awarded £14.5m to the research and development of emerging technologies, including machine learning and citizen-led archiving, in order to connect the UK’s cultural artefacts and historical archives in new and transformative ways.

Image by Colin McDowall, courtesy of Towards a National Collection. (Young woman winding bobbins on wheel in the loom shop, 1898 Blanket factory, Witney, Oxfordshire © Historic England Archive CC73_00946 | Indian laundry couple with the man ironing clothes. Attributed to a painter from Tanjore (Thanjavur), ca. 1840. Gouache drawing. 32247i © Wellcome Collection | Sir Hans Sloane (1660–1753) Stephen Slaughter (1697–1765) (attributed to) © The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London | A starboard bow view of the three-masted barque Glenbervie (1866) with crowds of people, on the rocks at Lowland Point. G14146. © National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, Gibson’s of Scilly Shipwreck Collection | Artwork by Peter Morphew illustrating the repositories of the University of Glasgow Archives and Special Collections.)

The Archives Hub is pleased to announce that we will be a project partner in one of five major projects being launched today. The projects form the largest investment of Towards a National Collection, a five-year research programme. Today’s launch reveals the first insights into how thousands of disparate collections could be explored by public audiences and academic researchers in the future.

The five ‘Discovery Projects’ will harness the potential of new technology to dissolve barriers between collections – opening up public access and facilitating research across a range of sources and stories held in different physical locations. One of the central aims is to empower and diversify audiences by involving them in the research and creating new ways for them to access and interact with collections. In addition to innovative online access, the projects will generate artist commissions, community fellowships, computer simulations, and travelling exhibitions. The projects are:

● The Congruence Engine: Digital Tools for New Collections-Based Industrial Histories

● Our Heritage, Our Stories: Linking and searching community-generated digital content to develop the people’s national collection

● Transforming Collections: Reimagining Art, Nation and Heritage

● The Sloane Lab: Looking back to build future shared collections

● Unpath’d Waters: Marine and Maritime Collections in the UK

The investigation is the largest of its kind to be undertaken to date, anywhere in the world. It extends across the UK, involving 15 universities and 63 heritage collections and institutions of different scales, with over 120 individual researchers and collaborators.

Together, the Discovery Projects represent a vital step in the UK’s ambition to maintain leadership in cross-disciplinary research, both between different humanities disciplines and between the humanities and other fields. Towards a National Collection will set a global standard for other countries building their own collections, enhancing collaboration between the UK’s renowned heritage and national collections worldwide.

Archives Hub and the Transforming Collections: Reimagining Art, Nation and Heritage project

Donald Locke 1972-4, Trophies of Empire © Estate of Donald Locke Courtesy of Tate | Claudette Johnson, Figure in Blue, 2018. © Claudette Johnson. Image Credit: Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre | Iniva_Rivington Place: Photograph by Carlos Jimenez, 2018 | Rachel Jones, lick your teeth, they so clutch, 2021. Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre, London © the artist.
Donald Locke 1972-4, Trophies of Empire © Estate of Donald Locke Courtesy of Tate | Claudette Johnson, Figure in Blue, 2018. © Claudette Johnson. Image Credit: Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre | Iniva_Rivington Place: Photograph by Carlos Jimenez, 2018 | Rachel Jones, lick your teeth, they so clutch, 2021. Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre, London © the artist. Image courtesy of the artist and Thaddaeus Ropac, London.

The Archives Hub at Jisc will be working with fellow project partners:

susan pui san lok, 2021
susan pui san lok, 2021: Courtesy the artist
  • Tate
  • Arts Council Collection
  • Art Fund
  • Art UK
  • Birmingham Museums Trust
  • British Council Collection
  • Contemporary Art Society
  • Glasgow Museums
  • Iniva (Institute of International Visual Art)
  • Manchester Art Gallery
  • Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art
  • National Museums Liverpool
  • Van Abbemuseum (NL)
  • Wellcome Collection

The Principal investigator for Transforming Collections: Reimagining Art, Nation and Heritage project is Professor susan pui san lok, University of the Arts London.

More than twenty years after Stuart Hall posed the question, ‘Whose heritage?’, Hall’s call for the critical transformation and reimagining of heritage and nation remains as urgent as ever. This project is driven by the provocation that a national collection cannot be imagined without addressing structural inequalities in the arts, engaging debates around contested heritage, and revealing contentious histories imbued in objects.

An arrangement of different castes including snake charmer, brick-layer, basket-maker, potter and wives. Gouache drawing. 28438i © Wellcome Collection.

Transforming Collections aims to enable cross-search of collections, surface patterns of bias, uncover hidden connections, and open up new interpretative frames and ‘potential histories’ (Azoulay, 2019) of art, nation and heritage. It will combine critical art historical and museological research with participatory machine learning design, and embed creative activations of interactive machine learning in the form of artist commissions.

Untitled 1986 1987.21, Manchester Art Gallery © Keith Piper.

Among the aims of this project are to surface suppressed histories, amplify marginalized voices, and re-evaluate artists and artworks ignored or side-lined by dominant narratives; and to begin to imagine a distributed yet connected evolving ‘national collection’ that builds on and enriches existing knowledge, with multiple and multivocal narratives.

The role of the Archives Hub will centre around:

  • Disseminating project aims, developments and outcomes to our contributors, through our communication channels and our cataloguing workshops, to encourage a wide range of archives to engage with these issues.
Glasgow Women’s Library, Museum of the Year finalist, 2018. Art Map 2019. © Marc Atkins / Art Fund 2018
  • Working with the Creative Computing Institute, at the University of the Arts London, to integrate the Machine Learning (ML) processing into the Archives Hub data processing workflows, so that it can benefit for over 350 institutions, including public art institutions.
Mick Grierson, Exploring the Daphne Oram Collection using 3D visualisation and machine learning (screenshot). 2012. Mick Grierson, Parag MitalLondon © the artist.
  • Providing expertise from over 20 years of running an archival aggregator and working with a whole range of UK archive repositories, particularly around sustainability and the challenges of working with archival metadata.


Logo, Explore Your Archives campaign
Explore Your Archive, http://www.exploreyourarchive.org, developed by The Archives and Records Association (UK and Ireland) and The National Archives, is the biggest ever public awareness campaign by the archives sector of the UK and Ireland.

From 16 November there will be hundreds of events and activities taking place in all kinds of archives. Those who work in archives will also be sharing some of their wonderful stories and amazing treasures. The public are being encouraged not just to visit an archive or explore archival collections online, but to understand more of the vital role which archives play in education, business, transparency and identity.

How the Hub fits in

The Archives Hub is a gateway to archives held at over 220 institutions and organisations across the UK.


Using our map to discover archives close to you:


Using the Hub search at http://archiveshub.ac.uk/search.html to uncover other collections.


Image: Ballerina advert.
© TSB savings advert, c. 1950. Lloyds Banking Group Archives.

A rich variety of content: The breadth of content on the Hub highlights how archives are integral to historical and cultural awareness. Our contributors include Universities, business archives, charities, local government, libraries, museums and cathedrals.

Here are just a few of the collections you can find:

From the Ancient…

Canterbury Cathedral: Records of the Dean and Chapter of Canterbury Cathedral, c800 to present. http://archiveshub.ac.uk/data/gb054-cca/dcc

The collection of records of Canterbury Cathedral includes material dating from the early Middle Ages right up to the present day. The material relates to the Cathedral’s estates and reflects the activities of the Dean and Chapter and its staff.

… to the Contemporary

Archive of the National Theatre of Scotland, 2006 to present.

Launched in February 2006 and billing itself as a ‘theatre without walls’, the National Theatre of Scotland has no building of its own and operates within the existing infrastructure of Scottish theatre. Material is held at Glasgow University Library and includes programmes, press-cuttings, reviews and scripts.

From the Large…

Royal Greenwich Observatory: Records and Papers, 1675-1998.

With around one kilometre of material, the records consist of all the surviving historical paper records of the Royal Observatory. Collections include: papers of the Astronomers Royal and telescope construction projects, management and observations, including the William Herschel Telescope and Radcliffe Observatory.

… to the Small

Gaelic Manuscripts, c. 1732-c. 1869. http://archiveshub.ac.uk/data/gb752-gm

One reel of microfilm comprising images of 23 original Gaelic manuscripts, relating to Ireland and to the activities of Irishmen at home and abroad, held at Queen’s University Belfast. It consists largely of fragments of both religious and secular verse, topographical poems and other tracts and tales dating mainly from the 18th and 19th centuries.

From the Young…

Children’s Society, 18th century – 21st century.

The Children’s Society Archive comprises the records created and managed by The Children’s Society (titled The Waifs and Strays Society from 1881 to 1946). The majority of the collections date from the organisation’s founding in 1881. This includes a large quantity of visual material in the form of photographs and publicity material, as well as some audio-visual material.

… to the Older generation

Scrapbooks of Barking and Dagenham Branch of Age Concern, 2002-2008.

This collection comprises six scrapbooks, containing newspaper cuttings on the Barking and Dagenham Branch of Age Concern, relating to events, as well as issues affecting elderly people in the borough.

From Northern Scotland…

Thomas S Muir, Architectural notes on churches on Scottish islands, 1850-1872. http://archiveshub.ac.uk/data/gb227-msbr783.m9

Thomas S Muir (1802-1888) worked for most of his life as a book-keeper in Edinburgh. All his spare time was devoted to his passion for early Scottish churches, visiting all the locations where ruins were to be found, including even the most inaccessible islands. The volume, ‘Ecclesiological notes on some of the islands of Scotland’, comprises detailed architectural descriptions, with line drawings, of features of churches and other ecclesiastical remains.

… to the Southerly Channel Islands

Image: Jersey Archive.
Image: Jersey Archive.

Archive of the States of Jersey, 1603 – 2010.

The States of Jersey collection includes the minutes, correspondence, reports and acts of the States of Jersey. Also, the minutes of the different Committee’s of the States including Agriculture, Education, Defence, Housing, Social Security, Finance, Harbours and Airports, Health and Social Services, Tourism, Home Affairs, Planning and Environment, Economic Development and Policy and Resources.

From the Frozen Antarctic…

British Australian New Zealand Antarctic Research Expedition, 1929-1934. http://archiveshub.ac.uk/data/gb015-banzare

The collection comprises of press cuttings relating to the British Australian New Zealand Antarctic Research Expedition, 1929-1931.

…to the Heat of Africa

Africa 95, c. 1957-1996. http://archiveshub.ac.uk/data/gb102-africa95

Africa 95 was founded in 1992 to initiate and organise a nationwide season of the arts of Africa to be held in the UK in the last quarter of 1995. Printed material, photographs, and slides of the work of artists from Algeria, Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Morocco, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa, Sudan, Uganda,Tanzania, Tunisia, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and the USA.

From the Fire brigade…

Fire Brigades Union, 1919-1997. http://archiveshub.ac.uk/data/gb152-mss.346

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) was founded in 1918 as the Firemen’s Trade Union. The union began its life as a body very much based around the London area but soon expanded to include provincial brigades. The collection includes: Executive Council minutes, annual accounts, subject files (including Sizewell Public Inquiry, 1980s) and the national strike, 1977.

…to the Water board

Records relating to Derwent Valley Water Board, 1899-1974.

The collection comprises a full series of indexed bound minute books (1899-1974) containing annual statements of accounts, and other specific reports. Also, maps and plans relate to specific elements of intended works such as the building of Ladybower Reservoir in Derbyshire.

From the Arts…

D.H. Lawrence (1885-1930) Collection, 1865-1999.

The Lawrence Collection contains extensive materials by and about D.H. Lawrence, ranging in date from his childhood and including original manuscripts and his correspondence.

… to Science

Clifford Hiley Mortimer Collection, 1937-1980.

This collection contains river and lake data in rivers in Britain, and correspondence regarding flows, inflows, chemical analyses and chemical stratification. It also includes mud samples!

From War…

Image: Poppy, World War One
© Image is in the public domain: papaver in High Wood, [tinelot@pobox.com Tinelot Wittermans]
Daniel Dougal First World War Diaries, 1914-1918.

Diaries of Daniel Dougal, which detail his service as an army doctor on the Western Front during the First World War. Dougal rose to become Deputy Assistant Director of Medical Services, 34th Division of the British Army, and his diaries provide important information on the operation of Army medical services.

… to Peace

Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), 1958-2008.

The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) is a non party-political British organisation advocating the abolition of nuclear weapons worldwide. Includes papers relating to the CND’s constitution, minutes of National Council, National Executive Committee annual conference papers and papers relating to Aldermaston marches and other demonstrations.

These are selected descriptions: there’s much more to discover by exploring the Hub! And we’re adding more descriptions every week. If you’d like to add your descriptions to the Hub, now’s a great time! See Be part of something bigger for information on how we can help you expose your collections to a worldwide audience.

Also of interest:

Work in an archive and want to be involved in the Explore Your Archive campaign?

It’s not too late to take part, visit: www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/yourtoolkit.

More on Collections

Image of Guardian staff
Guardian billing room staff, 1921. From the Guardian News and Media Archive. Copyright: Guardian.

Browse our Features pages to learn about the breadth of material described on the Hub: http://archiveshub.ac.uk/features/

In With the New: open, flexible, user-centered

The 2013 Eduserv Symposium, was held in the impressive (and very much ‘keep in with the old’) surroundings of One Great George Street in Westminster, the home of the Institute of Civil Engineers.

‘In with the New’ covered new skills sets, new modes of engagement and new ways of working.  With such a wide topic area, the conference took quite a broad-brush approach. Andy Powell of Eduserv introduced the day and talked about dealing with change, change that may be imposed upon us from the outside, as well as being driven internally.

image from Digital Govt ServiceDavid Cotterill from the Government Digital Service gave the opening keynote, which is what I want to focus on here. He said his talk was about ‘my exciting life as a civil servant’….the audience weren’t convinced about this at the outset, but maybe for those interested in open data, there was some shift of opinion by the end!

He talked about the old consensus, which was built around long-term contracts for IT in government; contracts that were consistently awarded to a limited number of suppliers and not to smaller and more innovative suppliers.  IT was not defined as a core function, so out-sourcing was considered appropriate. But in the 21st century things have changed. There is recognition that IT covers very diverse areas. For Government (and for many other organisations), it covers digital public services, mission IT systems (i.e. more niche or specialised systems for government departments), desktop, infrastructure, connectivity, etc. (the more general IT), and, within government, there are also ‘shared services’ (such as for financial systems). David talked about the need to structure mission IT systems and digital public services so that they can run on different desktops or infrastructures and not be tied down (as often used to be the case).

David went on to argue that the Government really has taken up the open agenda, and showed some quotes: “The latest step is the publications of this report on open standards. And once again the government has got it right.” (Wall Street Journal).  He argued that in order to have flexibility to progress, to upgrade, to move forwards, you need open and standards based systems. You also need to look at specific needs in specific areas and not think of IT as some kind of monolithic thing.

It was surprising to hear him say that “this is a great time to be a supplier”, but he said that many of the current deals within government come to an end over the next few years, so there is opportunity for new suppliers and creating a more diverse set-up.

What is 21st century governmentgov.uk screenshot about? David said it’s about things like www.gov.uk/, built using a platform approach (rather than a CMS) which allows the Government Digital Service (GDS) to build products onto it that meet user needs; products that enable the government to engage with citizens. David gave a sense of how this approach is working across UK government, with multi-disciplinary teams including developers, designers, product and service managers, policy, communications, etc.

His core message was to start with the user need. Of course, this is something that we can all agree with, although whether it always happens in reality is debatable, even if it is the intention. We need to shape things in terms of user requirements  right from the start, and not bring it in once all the policy, requirements and  development work is done. We should think about capturing requirements and developing alpha and then beta versions before going live. This may mean that what is initially developed is chucked out after the alpha stage, because it doesn’t meet needs, and then there is a need to start again. I think one of the problems with this approach is that funders do not necessarily facilitate it. How easy would it be to get funding for a project where the iterative process may go on for quite some time, and there is a risk of starting again several times in order to get it right? A further difficulty with this from a funding point of view is that it is much harder to specify what you are going to end up with, because you necessarily need to keep an open mind; you’ll end up (hopefully) with what users want, but it might be different to what was envisaged and you’ll only know after the testing and refining process.

It makes we think about archival software systems, for example.  Surely you should put the user needs at the heart of the development of your system? Ideally you would start out by gathering user requirements for a system, maybe looking at other research done in this area. You’d end up with a specification, listing priorities for your system. Most archives can’t then build it themselves, so they would go out and look at what meets these needs. But would it be possible to test a system out with users, to see if it really does fulfill their needs, and if it doesn’t go back and try something else? The problem here is that if you are buying a system, its hard to apply an iterative approach. However, it may be possible to move to a more user-centered approach. You should have clear evidence that the system does meet key user needs, and, in the absence of an ability to chop and change, you should ensure that the system does not tie you down and that it provides the flexibility to build and modify, so that changing priorities can be met.

It’s good to see Government leading the way. David showed previews of some services that are being developed, working towards a more transparent approach to things like transactional services and he highlighted a government manual about building services that people want to use.  There is now a ‘Standards Hub‘, to promote open standards and also to encourage wider participation in solving data challenges. It is amazing to see Government code onimage of keyboard 'save' key GitHub. Somehow that really brought home to me home how different things are now to 10-15 years ago. David, as well as other speakers at the conference, believes that open standards encourage a more efficient approach, so it becomes a cost-saving venture as well as encouraging public engagement and transparency.

UKAD Forum

The National Archives
The National Archives (used under a CC licence from http://www.flickr.com/photos/that_james/2693236972/)

Weds 2nd March was the inaugural event of the UK Archives Discovery Network – better known as UKAD.  Held at the National Archives, the UKAD Forum was a chance for archive practitioners to get together, share ideas, and hear about interesting new projects.

The day was organised into 3 tracks: A key themes for information discovery; B standards and crowdsourcing; and C demonstrating sites and systems.  Plenary sessions came from John Sheridan of TNA, Richard Wallis of Talis, David Flanders of Jisc, and Teresa Doherty of the Women’s Library.

I would normally have been tweeting away, but unfortunately although I could connect to the wifi, I couldn’t get any further!  So here are my edited highlights of the day (also known as ‘tweets I wish I could have sent’).

Richard Sheridan kicked off the proceedings by talking about open data.  The government’s Coalition Agreement contains a commitment to open data, which obviously affects The National Archives, as repository for government data.  They are using light-weight existing Linked Data vocabularies, and then specialising them for their needs. I was particularly interested to hear about the particular challenges posed by legislation.gov.uk, explained by John as ‘A changes B when C says so’: new legislation may alter existing legislation, and these changes might come into force at a time specified by a third piece of legislation…

Richard Wallis carried on the open data theme, by talking about Linked Data and Linked Open Data. His big prediction? That the impact of Linked Data will be greater than the impact of the World Wide Web it builds on. A potentially controversial statement, delivered with a very nice slide deck.

Off to the tracks, and I headed for track B to hear Victoria Peters from Strathclyde talk about ICA-AtoM.  This is open source, web based archival  description software, aimed at archivists and institutions with limited financial and technical resources.  It looks rather nifty, and supports EAD and EAC import and export, as well as digital objects.  If you want to try it out, you can download a demo from the ICA-AtoM website, or have a look at Strathclyde’s installation.

Bill Stockting from the BL gave us an update on EAD and EAC-CPF.  I’m just starting to learn about EAC-CPF, so it was interesting to hear the plans for it.  One of Bill’s main points was that they’re trying to move beyond purely archival concerns, and are hoping that EAC-CPF can be used in other domains, such as MARC.  This is an interesting development, and I hope to hear more about it in the future!  Bill also mentioned SNAC, the Social Networks and Archival Context project, which is looking at using EAC-CPF with a number of tools (including VIAF) to ‘to “unlock” descriptions of people from finding aids and link them together in exciting new ways’.

David Flanders’ post-lunch plenary provided absolutely my favourite moment of the day: David said ‘Technology will fail if not supported by the users’… and then, with perfect timing, the projector turned off.  One of David’s key points was that ‘you are not your users’.  You can’t be both expert and user, and you will never know exactly how what users want from your systems, and how they will use them unless you actually ask them! Get users involved in your projects and bids, and you’re likely to be much more successful.

Alexandra Eveleigh spoke in track B about ‘crowds and communities: user participation in the archives’.  I especially liked her distinction between ‘crowds’ and ‘communities’ – crowds are likely to be larger, and quickly dip in and out, while communities are likely to be smaller overall, but dedicate more time and effort.  She also pointed out that getting users involved isn’t a new thing – there’s always been a place in archives for those pursuing ‘serious leisure’, and bringing their own specialist knowledge and experience.  A point Alexandra made that I found particularly interesting was that of being fair to your users – don’t ask them to participate and help you, if you’re not going to listen to their opinions!

I have to admit that I’d never really heard of Historypin before I saw them on the conference programme.  Don’t click on that link if you have anything you need to get done today!  Historypin takes old photographs, and ‘pins’ them to their exact geographic location using Google maps.  You can see them in streetview, overlaid on the modern background, and it is absolutely fascinating.  Photos can be contributed by anyone, and anyone can add stories or more information to photos on the site.  One of the developments on the way is the ability to ‘pin’ video and audio clips in the same way.

CEO Nick Stanhope was keen to point out that Historypin is a not-for-profit – they’re in partnership with Google, but not owned by them, and they don’t ask for any rights to any of the material posted on Historypin.  They’re keen to work with archives to add their photographic collections, and have a couple of things they hope to soon be able to offer archives in return (as well as increased exposure!):  they’ll be allowing any archive to have an instance of Historypin embedded on the archive’s site for free.  They’re also developing a smartphone app, and will be offering any archive their own branded version of the app – for free!  These developments sound really exciting, and I hope we hear more from them soon.

Teresa Doherty’s closing plenary was on the re-launch of the Genesis project.  As Teresa said ‘many of you will be sitting there thinking ‘this isn’t plenary material! what’s going on?”, but Teresa definitely made it a plenary worth attending.  Genesis is a project which allows users to cross-search women’s studies resources from museums, libraries and archives in the UK, and Teresa made the persuasive point that while the project itself might not be revolutionary, how they’ve done it is.  Genesis has had no funding since 200 – everything they’ve done since then, including the relaunch, has been done with only the in-house resources they have available.  They’ve used SRU to search the Archives Hub, and managed to put together a valuable service with minimal resources.

As a librarian and a new professional, I found Teresa’s insights into the history of archival cataloguing particularly fascinating.  I knew that ISAD(G) was released in 1996, but I hadn’t had any real understanding of what that meant: that before 1996, there were no standards or guidelines for archival cataloguing. Each institution would catalogue in entirely their way – a revelation to me, and completely alien to my entirely standards-based professional background!  And I now have a new mantra, learned from one of Teresa’s old managers back in the early 90s:

‘We may not have a database now, but if we have structured data then one day we will have a database to put it in!’

I don’t think I’ve ever heard a better definition of the interoperability mindset.

After the day officially ended, it was off the the pub for a swift pint and wind-down. An excellent, instructive, and fun day.

Slides from the day are available on SlideShare – tag ukad.

Reinventing the wheel: the new Hub website

promotional postcard On 1st April 2010 the Archives Hub website changed. It was not just about a new look and feel, but a whole new site. The Hub team spent several months planning the new architecture, navigation and content. Most of the content was rewritten and this gave us a great opportunity to think about a coherent approach where we could be consistent in our tone and terminology and really think about what each page should say. We wanted the site to be intuitive and for each page to be useful and attractive, and not give an overwhelming amount of information.

We decided to introduce plenty of images, to lift the site visually, and we wanted to keep plenty of whitespace, to make it easy on the eye. In addition, the website designers, True North, helped us to think about our identity and the importance of presenting the Archives Hub in a way that conveys confidence, self-belief, professionalism and warmth.

The Archives Hub has getting on for 200 contributors now, which is quite an achievement, and we are very appreciative of the effort that our contributors put into creating descriptions for the Hub. We want to continue to develop the site with a focus on archivists as well as on researchers, as we see both groups of users as vital to us, and in fact they often overlap. We hope that our ‘Archivists’ section is helpful and informative for contributors and other information professionals interested in what we do and in issues around online data and interoperability.

Our Features section takes over from the old ‘Collections of the Month’ idea, bringing the same message about the breadth and depth of Hub content and enabling us to showcase contributors and wonderful collections.

Our ‘Researchers’ section is going to be expanded, although we are keen to keep it focussed and easy to scan and digest. We are looking at ways that we can continue to support researchers in using the Hub to the greatest advantage. Of course, the main way is to provide an effective search interface and to continue to expand the content.  And this brings us on to the search – as well as a whole new information site, we have upgraded our software. We are now using ‘Cheshire 3’, which enables us to provide functionality that we could not provide before. We will be talking more about that in subsequent blogs. The new software is running on all-new hardware, so in fact we really have fundamentally changed the whole Archives Hub, but we hope that we have retained what is good about the site and about our service.