Kate Wilcox from the IHR’s Wohl Library and Argula Rublack from Senate House Library reflect on the recent collaboration with The National Archives, RLUK, and Jisc to bring History Day to the Discovering Collections, Discovering Communities (DCDC) conference. They thank the DCDC organisers for the opportunity to take part. 

In 2020 History Day moved online in response to the pandemic. The event, co-organised by Senate House Library and the Institute of Historical Research, celebrates and enables connections between researchers, collections and collections staff. We were able to achieve this online through interactive panel sessions, tours, Q&As, social media and the new Discover Collections pages of the website.

The online format had many advantages, enabling a wider range of involvement from across the UK and beyond. Organisations shared galleries, blogs, videos, podcasts, guided tours and other creative content. Despite the success of the online event, we missed the opportunity for the one-on-one conversations possible at the physical History Day fair held in previous years.

For several years we had been in conversation with the organisers of Discovering Collections, Discovering Communities (DCDC) about the possibility of holding a version of History Day as part of their conference. DCDC is a cross-sectoral conference hosted by The National Archives, RLUK, and Jisc which brings together the GLAMA sectors (galleries, libraries, archives, museums and academia) and has similar aims to History Day. The collaboration was initially intended to be a physical fair in northern England, but planning moved to an online event for DCDC 2021.

We held an afternoon of free online events on 30 June 2021. The Connecting researchers with collections panel session had 171 attendees and discussed collection-based projects at The Royal Society Library and the Salvation Army International Heritage Centre, featuring partnerships between collections professionals and researchers. This was followed by a two-hour fair using the SpatialChat platform, where researchers and staff could chat at virtual stands. The final event of the day was a social hub and networking session aimed at postgraduate and early career researchers organised and hosted by History Lab, the national network for postgraduate students in history and related disciplines.

History Day lobby area
History Lab social space
History Lab Announcements Board

Spatial Chat ‘Foyer’ area, History Lab Social space and ‘Collaborations and announcements’ space

SpatialChat simulates the experience of a physical space, by allowing people to cluster in groups and see and hear only the people who are close to them. 17 organisations had stands at the virtual fair, featuring videos and images, with staff alongside to talk to people. 235 people signed up specifically for the event as well as DCDC attendees, for whom it was already part of the programme. We estimate that around 350-400 people came into the SpatialChat space, around 100 at any one time.

virtual stalls
Virtual stalls
Virtual stalls

Some of the History Day fair spaces

The collections professionals were keen to embrace the experience of holding the event in this way, and had lots of interesting ideas about how it could be developed further and for other types of event. After 15 months with online platforms, everyone is happy to give new things a go and approach things in an experimental way. It was nice to see how genuinely excited people were by trying the platform for the first time.

Some attendees preferred to keep their cameras and microphones off, and explore the audio-visual content in a passive way, much as some people prefer at a physical fair. Others were happy to engage and there were some useful conversations. We had interesting discussions about the psychology of virtual spaces, especially whether the background (a large airy room, a garden or a dark wine bar) makes a difference in how people interact.

It was wonderful to be able to talk to people from different countries and continents, and the platform opened the event to a wider audience. But we were also aware of the barriers set up by using the online format: a good internet connection was needed, the platform didn’t work well on mobile devices, and we missed being able to meet people in person. We’ve also yet to find a good way to offer catering and freebies!

We are extremely grateful to the DCDC organisers for giving us an opportunity to take part. Working with the DCDC team on this has been a really great opportunity to try out different platforms and think creatively about making our own annual event even more enjoyable and successful. We are now starting to plan for November’s History Day on the theme of environmental history, which will again be fully online.