We would like to thank regular Friday night library readers for their induldgence over a few evenings in November. Regular visitors to the library may have noticed the odd room closed for mysterious purposes, spotted our Low Countries post-doctoral fellow poring over the typography of the London Gazette from 1666, or been bemused by members of This&That Productions looking for trapdoors and other hiding spots. All this preparation was in advance of ‘Night at the Library: books of hope and fear’, part of the IHR’s contribution to the 2016 Being Human festival of the humanities (you can also read about the IHR’s other event and exhibition, ‘Beside the Seaside’ here).
The festival seeks to communicate the excitement of current humanities research, laced with the occasional dose of enjoyment. We wanted to do something in the library that explored the process of research, and perhaps introduced some new people to the richess and usefulness of the collection here. After thinking about some questions based around the collections, and making use of the library’s physical space, we very quickly realised that what we had in mind was a type of ‘Escape Room’, something that has rapidly become very popular since its origin in Japan in 2007 (and which can arguably be traced back to a series of popular TV shows in the 1980s and 90s). Ours involved a twist: we wanted to use a relatively new technology that uses small pucks to beam a geographically-specific message to a phone (or track participants around the room) via iBeacon or Eddystone protocols. Typically found at IT conferences, but also at a few cultural or heritage sites, such as Kew Gardens, it offered the chance to link the physical environment with digital resources. And with that, the ‘Book Sniffer’ was born (you probably had to be there.)
We also needed a theme. Being Human’s exploration of hope and fear quickly suggested the Great Fire of London, not least because of the 350th anniversary year, but again to pin the event down in geographical terms: the winners would be offered a night-time view of St Paul’s Cathedral from the top of the Senate House Tower. An application to Being Human was submitted, and we were fortunate enough to receive a grant, enabling us to secure the services of This&That Productions to help produce the event and develop scripts for four actors would posed the challenges to participants as they made their way through the three rooms. These included an audience with a lascivious Charles II, full of hope for his new capital city, a concerned printer to the king, trying to keep abreast of the destruction as the fires raged, and a Dutch immigrant, fearful for her son who had been arrested and accused of arson.
The challenges included the complexities of a name/place/subject index, the clues to the burning of the London Gazette‘s printing office left in its typography, operating a venerable microfilm reader, sorting early modern maps, thermochromatic love letters, and old-fashioned jigsaw puzzles. Props included real tennis balls (mistaken at the time for fire balls), and special recordings and playback machines created by the SAS sound artist in resident, Hannah Thompson.
We also had a visit from Radio 3 Free Thinking‘s Shahidha Bari and Laurence Scott, who proved to be excellent guinea pigs for the event before our 70 guests arrived for the proper event. You can hear how they fared at the end of the episode that aired on 16 Nov 2016 (about 36 minutes in).
What next? It’s possible that the event, or something like it, may return to the IHR. We will certainly look at how the puzzles and ideas might be used in library induction or training, as well as think a bit more about how escape games might relate to historical teaching, and even research, in the future. The Atlantic reported on the rise of educational escape games, Cambridge Science Museums have run several succesful games, and there is even a blog dedicated to educational library escape games. Finally, there are question about heritage and the use of the past: what are we really doing when we are playing historical escape games? Perhaps we are as much escaping the fear of the present as recreating a hopeful past. As the reading rooms return to their normal scholarly hush, we look forward to reading a book on the subject.
On 21 November, we held two simultaneous Wikipedia edit-a-thons in London and Leicester as part of the Being Human Festival. We did a lot of promotion of these events beforehand so we thought we should tell you how they went. An edit-a-thon is an event where editors get together to write or improve articles centred on a specific topic. These particular edit-a-thons were centred on local history and you can read about how we connected our theme with the overall Being Human Festival theme of “Hidden and Revealed” here. You can also read the story of the day via social media.
My colleagues Jessica Davies and Rebecca Read from Victoria County History (VCH), Jordan Landes from Senate House Library and I were all at the London event. Our Wikimedia UK accredited trainer was Edward Hands, and fellow trainer Jonathan Cardy was also there to lend a hand. The wonderful thing about Wikimedia trainers is that they are volunteers, so we are very grateful to Edward and Jonathan for coming along and teaching our attendees to edit Wikipedia. Overall, we were twenty-one people at the London event. We had a great mix of experienced Wikipedia editors and complete novices. The experienced editors were able to help the novices throughout the day.
The first half of the day was devoted to learning how to edit Wikipedia, especially how to make edits that will last—the secret is to provide references for all the additions you make to Wikipedia. Once they’d been trained, our attendees tried their hands at making some edits.
After lunch, VCH editor and training co-ordinator Adam Chapman gave attendees a quick introduction to the VCH, explaining the historical context of the project and how the volumes are organised. I followed by showing attendees how they could use British History Online (BHO) to search and read VCH, along with many other sources of local history. Since providing references is such a vital part to creating strong Wikipedia edits, we wanted our attendees to know about the rich resources that they can rely on when writing and improving Wikipedia articles, especially those resources that are freely accessible on BHO.
Here’s a list of the articles worked on just by the London attendees:
As for the Leicester event, they had ten people in total, including Pam Fisher from the Leicestershire VCH Trust, who helped us organise the Leicester branch. From the feedback we’ve received, it sounds like the Leicester event was just as much fun and just as productive as the London event. Their trainers were Doug Taylor and Roger Bamkin, who both did an excellent job. The only negative feedback we received is that the day should have been longer!
Overall, we all had a productive day, learned lots of new things and met some wonderful people. Thanks to everyone who helped with organisation, promotion and training. And thanks to all our attendees for making it such a great day.
There is still time to sign up for one of our Being Human edit-a-thons in London and Leicester on 21 November.
As part of the Being Human Festival, British History Online (BHO), Senate House Library (SHL) and Victoria County History (VCH) will be leading two simultaneous Wikipedia edit-a-thons in London and Leicester 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 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 a team in 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, “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 homeowners 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.