Chapter: 'The contributions of family and local historians to British history online'

Participatory Heritage, edited by Henriette Roued-Cunliffe and Andrea Copeland, has just been published by Facet.

A pre-print is online at

My chapter is 'The contributions of family and local historians to British history online'. My abstract:

Community history projects across Britain have collected and created images, indexes and transcriptions of historical documents ranging from newspaper articles and photographs, to wills and biographical records. Based on analysis of community- and institutionally-led participatory history sites, and interviews with family and local historians, this chapter discusses common models for projects in which community historians cooperated to create digital resources. For decades, family and local historians have organised or contributed to projects to collect, digitise and publish historical sources about British history. What drives amateur historians to voluntarily spend their time digitising cultural heritage? How do they cooperatively or collaboratively create resources? And what challenges do they face?

My opening page:

IN 1987, THE Family History Department of the Church of the Latter Day Saints began a project with the British Genealogical Records Users Committee to transcribe and index the 1881 British census. Some community history societies were already creating indexes for the 1851 census, so they were well placed to take on another census project. Several tons of photocopies were distributed to almost 100 family history societies for double transcription and checking; later, a multi-million-dollar mainframe computer created indexes from the results (Young, 1996, 1998a; Tice, 1990). This ‘co-operative indexing’ took eight years – the process of assigning parts for transcription alone occupied 43 months – and while the project was very well received, in 1998 it was concluded that ‘a national project of this scope has proved too labour intensive, time consuming and expensive’ to be repeated (Young, 1998b). However, many years later, the US 1940 census was indexed in just four months by over 160,000 volunteers (1940 US Census Community Project, 2012), and co-operative historical projects flourish.

This example illustrates the long history of co-operative transcription and indexing projects, the significant contribution they made to the work of other historians and the vital role of community history organizations and volunteers in participatory heritage projects. The difference between the reach and efficiency of projects initiated in the 1980s and the 2010s also highlights the role of networked technologies in enabling wider participation in cooperative digitization projects. This chapter examines the important contributions of community historians to participatory heritage, discussing how family and local historians have voluntarily organized or contributed to projects to collect, digitize and publish historical sources about British history. This insight into grassroots projects may be useful for staff in cultural heritage institutions who encounter or seek to work with community historians.

The questions addressed in this chapter are drawn from research which sought to understand the impact of participatory digital history projects on users. This research involved reviewing a corpus of over 400 digital history projects, analysing those that aimed to collect, create or enhance records about historical materials. The corpus included both community- and institutionally led participatory history sites. Points of analysis included ‘microcopy’ (small pieces of text such as slogans, instructions and navigation) and the visible affordances, or website interface features, that encourage, allow or disable various participatory functions.


Mia Ridge is a Digital Curator in the British Library’s Digital Scholarship team. She has a PhD in digital humanities (2015, Department of History, Open University) entitled Making Digital History: the impact of digitality on public participation and scholarly practices in historical research. Previously, she conducted human-computer interaction-based research on crowdsourcing in cultural heritage.


2008: an overview

An incomplete, retrospective list of work, talks and more in 2008…

Posts I wrote for the Museum of London / MoLAS blog included: What have you always wanted to ask a curator or museum specialist? and Why should IT students consider working in cultural heritage?.

And my personal blog, Open Objects, was nominated for an award! In the 'programming and development blog' category of the IT Blog Awards 08!

The ‘Podcasts from the past’ project – audio descriptions of gallery objects created by ordinary Londoners – helped shape my thinking about activities that served two purposes at once. In this case, the project encouraged people to access collections they wouldn't normally have access to, while creating audio for visually impaired visitors.

Panel paper: A Little Web 2.0 Goes A Long Way at "Wine, Web 2.0 and What's New"; Museums, Libraries and Archives E-Learning Group. The Trocadero Centre, London, February 7, 2008.

Presentation: MultiMimsy database extractions and the possibilities for OAI-based collections repositories at the Museum of London, UK MultiMimsy Users Group. Museum in Docklands, London, April 18, 2008.

Panel paper: The role of the IT professional in a heritage institution – I was guest speaker on a panel for a course in 'Culture and Heritage Informatics' at Kingston University, London, April 28, 2008 (my work blog post about it is above, and I blogged on 'Talking to IT students about the cultural heritage sector' on Open Objects too.

Presentation: "Web 2.0 in the Real World" – a case study for an MLA London Workshop on 'Web 2.0 and Social Networking for Museums, Libraries and Archives', held in London on July 14, 2008.

I also went to Bathcamp and Museums on the Web 2008, and published a report on The 2008 Mashed Museum Day and UK Museums on the Web Conference on Ariadne.

2007: an overview

An incomplete, retrospective list of work, talks and more in 2007…

I started to teach on a new Digital Humanities course in the Spring/Summer Term 2007 at Birkbeck. 'Introduction to Digital Humanities' was a new postgraduate course at Birkbeck College which combined aspects of media studies, humanities computing and literary studies to foster an appreciation of the core methods and practical, political/philosophical and pedagogical issues in digital humanities.

I devised and taught classes on:

  • Introduction to Databases, February 27, 2007
  • Creating Digital Resources, May 1, 2007
  • New Working Models, May 15, 2007
  • Creating Digital Resources II: database design for the digital humanities, May 29, 2007

I also gave a class on 'Computer assisted interpretation; integration of finds and site sequence' for the Birkbeck MA Archaeology Module "Archaeological Post-Excavation and Publication".

I gave a paper: Buzzword or benefit: The possibilities of Web 2.0 for the cultural heritage sector at the CAA (Computer Applications and Quantitative Methods in Archaeology) UK Chapter Meeting, January 24 – 26, 2007, Tudor Merchants Hall, Southampton

I gave what was possibly my first paper at an MCG conference, Sharing authorship and authority: user generated content and the cultural heritage sector (so web 2.0!) at Web Adept: UK Museums and the Web 2007, Leicester, June 22, 2007.

I started a blog for the Museum of London (so 2007) – 'first post', 'What does a database programmer do in a museum?'. A hilarious attempt to make my bio relatable: 'My job title is 'Database Developer', which means I am a specialised kind of computer programmer. I spend a lot of time working with the big databases that people like curators, collections managers, archaeologists and archivists use to record, analyse and publish their data. I talk to them to understand their requirements, then update or create applications to help them. I also help with geek stuff for the websites'. The blog didn't last, as so many didn't, but I still think 'About my museum job' posts were a great way to make museums more inclusive by showing all the different types of careers you could have in a museum.

I published a report: Nick Holder, Mia Ridge and Nathalie Cohen, The Tony Dyson Archive Project: Report of a pilot study investigating the creation of a digital archive of medieval property transactions along the City waterfront, Museum of London Archaeology Service. The linked file is a PDF version of the report, without mapping and plan diagrams.

A white man stands in an archaeological excavation with a canvas shelter overhead
Ian Hodder doing a tour of Catalhoyuk

I also contributed to the Çatalhöyük Archive Report 2007; an excerpt of my main bits is at Blog posts on/from Çatalhöyük include: