Digitising our county’s archives


Some thoughts after spending time in some Cambridge-based community archives.

I spent much of yesterday afternoon tucked away in the Cambridgeshire County Archives (currently in the process of being moved to Ely – much to my regret) at Shire Hall, Cambridge. It’s part of what I originally described as my ‘Lost Cambridge’ project that started with digitising some photographs from the Museum of Cambridge‘s collection of photographs – the first batch I uploaded to this album with their permission.

I want to scan everything, but I can’t

Not least because of copyright issues. Helpful as archive staff have been – and they have been incredibly so, I can’t help but think that if more people knew about what was hidden in the archives, more people would take an interest. And there is *** a lot *** hidden in the archive catalogue as the screenshot below indicates. Have a search yourself at http://calm.cambridgeshire.gov.uk/CalmView/Overview.aspx


Furthermore, more people would use the accumulated knowledge of our collective local history to influence our county’s future & destiny. That matters very much at this time given the crossroads that we’re at with the various government policies affecting both Cambridge and Cambridgeshire.

“Let’s go back to first principles: What’s in the archives and why are they important?”

I can only give it from my perspective. If you asked the users of the archives they would all give their own unique reasons for spending their spare time in them. For me, they are as follows:

  • A positive disposition towards the study of history
  • A personal struggle to try and work out what my own identity is in this very fluid world and in one where the three generations in my family preceding me were born on three different continents
  • Curiosity at what my home town used to be like before I came into existence
  • Trying to work out what lessons can be learnt from our history and applied to our county’s current challenges
  • A sense of ‘discovery’ and finding things that people either never knew about or were only known about in small circles.

Let’s also take the case of one of my favourite historians Dr Janina Ramirez. Her lecture on her recent book ‘The Private Lives of Saints’ is here. What her research reveals is that this idea that saints stood above the rough and tumble of life in some sort of holy isolation – the impression I got from having to go to church every Sunday – was in fact a myth. The more I read about the historical record of the church I had been brought up in, the more angry I became about having been misled – lied to even – about how spiritual leaders were again spiritually ‘above’ politics…when the archives and the historical record shows the opposite. One of the books I stumbled across in the archives from I think the Cambridgeshire Antiquarian Society had a written article about two women recalling how they had to learn from each other the story of Queen Mary I (Mary Tudor) as one – Church of England-schooled was taught all about ‘Bloody Mary’ and the other – Catholic-schooled was taught about how she was saintly. The reality as history tells us was much more complicated. Yet the case here was that both women were misled by their educational establishments.

“So…there’s a ‘searching for the truth’ theme in this?”

Very much so – and as is often the case the truth can end up being far more fascinating and interesting than the myths otherwise perpetuated by whoever happens to be in power or control at the time.

One of the most striking things about the archives – in particular the British Newspaper Archives is just how dominant Christianity was in the county’s cultural life. And the nature of what that was, was by no means agreed upon. The number of ‘non-conformist’ congregations and communities around is really striking. And I thought the far left were splintered! Reminds me of this:

Quoting speeches and debates word for word

The digitised British Newspaper Archives are fascinating for anyone who wants to find out about the local history of their area. The trick as with most archives is knowing how to search for things…a bit like Government policy documents. While you need to pay for a monthly subscription, what you get back is more than worth it (in my view) once you’ve got the hang of it. With me, I started off searching by street names and by building names. Then I started with political parties and politicians. Then I started with particular events or area names. Finally I thought of the sort of text that an angry and outraged writer/reporter might put in an article to catch a reader’s eye. Like ‘Protest’ or ‘Disgraceful’ – while geographically restricting the search area. Hence discovering the tales of badly-behaved undergraduates in Cambridge during the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Public meetings were quoted word-for-word – including the heckles! If you’re an aspiring play-writer, search the newspaper archives – you’ve got your scripts all there! I’m in the process of turning one such event into one already with the help of a number of people with experience in this field.

“What’s the ‘digitisation’ bit got to do with all of this?”

It takes a ***huge*** amount of effort to digitise archives – and even more to then transcribe manuscripts. At least with print you can use an optical recognition device or software to help – which is what the British Newspaper Archive has done – though not without its problems due to the age of the print it is scanning. Everything I learnt about all of the issues to do with this I learnt from Professor Melissa Terras of UCL when she visited me and Puffles in Cambridge a few years ago. (Actually she visited CRASSH to deliver a lecture on digital humanities – but her findings were fascinating). The big finding I came away with from her talk was that over 90% of the transcribing of the Bentham archives at UCL was done by less than 10% of the volunteers who volunteered to help out with the transcription. It takes dedication.

Yet once something is digitised, anyone with internet access can assist with the transcribing. The challenge is finding and supporting the 10% who end up doing most of the leg work.

“You’ve not said why it matters”

In a nutshell it makes things much easier for people to access and get hold of the information tucked away. It also makes it much easier for people to use that information as well. I remember talking to local musician Melody Causton about this after hearing her perform ‘The Devil Fears Him’ about Jack the Ripper.


I recalled how Charles Dickens got ideas for his novels having spent his earlier years as a court reporter. Who knows how many musicians could get inspiration from finding out about local historical figures or events otherwise hidden away in the archives? Although not linked to any archives, this reminds me of a number of songs about historical events. The battle of the beanfield (see this documentary) was something I only heard about because The Levellers wrote a song about it. Or the Bells of Rhymney by Oysterband. All three of those songs I find incredibly haunting.

From that perspective, digitising the archives makes it much more easier for the casual browser to stumble across something really interesting – and do something even more interesting with it. Because lets face it, until very recently, the most that people could do with archive finds was to publish a paper or a book about it – and perhaps do a speaking tour at best. With digital and social media we can do so much more.

“Such as…?”

Well I’m making my own video documentary for a start with not much more than a mobile phone and a selfie stick for filming. 150+ ‘likes’ on my #LostCambridge Facebook Page means lots of people are getting to see the photographs that I’ve been able to unearth from the archives, as well as tales of lessons learnt from the past.


Why didn’t we get this as our Guildhall 100 years ago?

Images like the above have, in my experience chime with people’s curiosity and imagination far better than a wall of text in a dusty book that might be sitting in an archive that might not be straight forward to get to – especially if you have limited mobility.

Unlocking knowledge and making local historical groups and services more financially viable.

What I’d like to see (And support if at all possible) is for the main community archives to get together in the run up to Christmas and have a pop-up stall in Cambridge with reproductions of photographs and maps of our county’s history on sale. As well as ‘postcard size’ images, I’m also thinking about big reproductions that have a real sense of presence – something that for example local businesses might want to display on their premises. Something like this would both generate an income and publicity to bring in new users. For somewhere like the Museum of Cambridge that could be a wonderful mini-windfall. Because in my experience of people’s reactions to the online photos they’ve seen, there is untapped interest in the history of the borough/town of Cambridge. It’s just few have written comprehensively about it and even fewer have gone that step further and promoted it.

“Why have so few written about our local history if it’s as interesting as you say it is?”

In one sense it’s a niche area. Why would anyone who had no connection to Cambridge or Cambridgeshire be interested in the history of the townsfolk? In the world of glamorous media, the University of Cambridge and the ducal couple (William & Kate) get the headlines – and the social media mentions. The other thing is that few have been able to present it as interesting. One person who has is Mike Petty MBE. Here’s him talking about my childhood neighbourhood’s experience of the First World War.


There’s also Allan Brigham’s ‘Town Not Gown’ tours which come highly recommended too. In both cases, Mike and Allan are bringing local history to the people – as is the Mill Road History /Capturing Cambridge Project. At a rural level there’s the Cambridgeshire Community Archive Network – again testament to digitally-aware historians getting their communities online.

But individuals and community groups can only go so far. And not all is well – there are some noticeable gaps despite the best efforts of a number of people. For example:

Cambridge Antiquarian Society – a society with a long and illustrious history and an almost intimidating ‘back catalogue’ of publications going back well over 100 years. Bookshelves of publications going back to 1840, but none that I can find are systematically digitised for open access. Also, I can’t find a Facebook or a Twitter presence. The reason why digitisation would help the society greatly is that by making their immensely detailed archives available, the casual browser doing an online search is more likely to stumble across them – some of whom may choose to get involved in their society.

Cambridgeshire Association for Local History – Honor Rideout works her socks off for this group, and I’ve attended a number of incredibly interesting talks hosted by them in my neighbourhood. The challenge is how to encourage the next generations of community historians to get involved, because quite often I’m one of the youngest people there. And I’m not far off being 40 years old. (*****Eeeek!*****) Note also the Cambridge branch of the Historical Association.

“Are we selling local history all wrong?”

In part, yes – but this comes from a more detailed response to the question of ‘how is our local history relevant to us?’ Take the newcomers to Cambridge – people who have moved into the area to make it their home. How is Cambridge’s local history relevant to them and why? How is Cambridgeshire’s local history relevant to younger generations and why? In one sense I’m using city and county interchangeably, and in another sense I’m not. Take Cherry Hinton for example. Up until just under a century ago, the village was outside of the borough boundaries. Now it’s very much inside. Ditto Trumpington and Chesterton. Will we see in 100 years time the villages of Fulbourn, Milton and Histon swallowed up by an expanding city?

What I’ve found that makes local history relevant to local people are the following:

  1. People can relate to images, film footage and descriptions of their local area from times gone by – it gives them/us a sense of place
  2. It can influence what decisions and actions we choose to take in the future – whether it’s looking at the historical record of a school through to which part of town we might want to move to. (This can create problems for institutions & places that want to ‘break away’ from a negative image in the mindset of local communities)
  3. Pictures of what we once had but lost can generate a range of emotions – shock, anger, disappointment, frustration – enough to make them want to find out more about why something did/didn’t happen and to make sure we the people/city/county learn from it in our future collective decisions
  4. People like the sense of having ‘discovered’ something within which they can form their own conclusions.

“How do we make history ‘social’?”

In one sense there’s more of this happening all over the place – in part because more of our local history is becoming accessible on the back of the social media conventions of sharing. I’ve seen this in a number of Facebook groups with people posting very old photographs from family albums that tell a different story about our county to perhaps what we might otherwise have assumed. For example we might take a nostalgic view about pub signs or road signs, but some of the photographic evidence I’ve seen shows them looking very tatty and plain.

The other thing for me is creating some sort of a ‘buzz’ around the events that the city & county host – hence the University of Cambridge’s commendable work with the festivals of science, literature, history and of ideas. A significant change in mindset from when I was growing up in the city – in particular as a younger teenager where me and my friends were about as welcome as the bubonic plague.

For a city like Cambridge and a county like Cambridgeshire, it’s up to those larger, grander institutions – in particular those that have and are shaping our collective history to take more of a lead. Whether it’s organising big events or festivals, through to promoting collective learning from our history (including and especially where we got things wrong) through to taking care of and looking after our archives, I’d like to think we can do better than we currently are.

…and finally…

Digital opens up new challenges as well as new opportunities. Talking to county archive staff, I was the first person to their knowledge who asked for permission to use still images for a YouTube not-for-profit/unpaid series where my camera was a mobile phone and the mount was a selfie-stick.

Digitising archives also means taking on collections that are not paper-based. Who’s going to conserve my hard drives of video footage of council meetings through to local arts performances? Because let’s say Melody Causton featured above goes onto become a huge musical star, those early gigs in Cambridge pubs might be of interest to far more people than just the people that live here.







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