University of Portsmouth's History Blog

Historians across boundaries: changing how we research the past

In this blog post, Senior Lecturer in History Mike Esbester introduces an important new seminar series he’s involved in leading: ‘Historians across boundaries.’ It’s based at the Institute of Historical Research, the London-based body that has promoted and championed historical research for nearly 100 years. This important new seminar series will help bring people together in their research into the past.

‘Changing the way we do research’ is certainly a bold claim – but it’s one we hope we can live up to! Earlier this year the Institute of Historical Research (IHR) called for applications to run seminar series in the new ‘Partnership Seminar’ programme. I knew just the crowd who would be interested in this – colleagues with whom I’d been working for some time, passionate about collaboration in historical research. We come from different backgrounds – academics, archivists, family historians, genealogists, local historians and more – but what we all share is the belief that our research into the past is improved when we work together.

The challenge has been how to break down perceived barriers which prevent us from collaborating – something ‘Historians across boundaries’ is designed to do!

Even the name of the IHR’s Partnership Seminar programme was a perfect fit with work I’ve been doing over recent years. In the ‘Railway Work, Life & Death’ project (RWLD), which I co-lead, we’ve been trying to involve all sorts of people as equals in researching accidents to British and Irish railway workers before 1939. This has led me into closer collaboration with family historians, local historians and many more – hence wanting to get the ‘Historians across boundaries’ series off the ground!

RWLD has opened my eyes to the exciting possibilities of community and collaborative research, placing this approach at the heart of what I now do. It’s why I’m really pleased that the IHR has recognised the ‘Historians across boundaries’ seminar series as one of the ones it wants to champion. This is a great way of showing how important history is to so many people, and it’ll help us all work together better in the future.

During 2021 we’ll be putting on a series of events – I’m reluctant to call them seminars, as in this context it suggests a rather traditional format, with a speaker holding forth on the results of their research. Nothing could be further from what we want to do. Instead we’re going to be finding ways to encourage discussion and sharing of best practice, wherever it is found, as well as collaboratively setting an agenda. Sessions will be as informal and friendly as possible, recognising the value of different experience and expertise wherever it is found.

The ‘Historians across boundaries’ series draws on the efforts of the ‘Historians Collaborate’ movement, an informal group of people working to those same aims of bringing together different types of historical researcher. A really good flavour of our work can be found on Twitter, with the #HistoriansCollaborate.

My co-convenors for the series are:

Nick Barratt (Open University, Community Archives and Heritage Group, and Family History Federation)

Else Churchill (Society of Genealogists)

Jackie Depelle (Chair of the Yorkshire Group of Family History Societies, Family History tutor, speaker & event organiser)

Tanya Evans (Macquarie University)

Laura King (University of Leeds)

Julia Laite (Birkbeck, University of London)

Natalie Pithers (Genealogy Stories)

Mary Stewart (British Library Oral History; Oral History Society)

We’re keen to involve others in the series organisation, particularly people from groups either not yet represented amongst the organisers – including Black, Indigenous and People of Colour – and/or who haven’t traditionally engaged in researching the past. It’s important that we do what we can to have an inclusive conversation, recognising that history is for everyone.

What’s even better about the IHR’s Partnership Seminar programme is that one of my friends in the Portsmouth History team, Mel Bassett, is on the convening team for another series that’s been selected: the ‘Coastal Connections’ series. This has grown out of the Coastal History Network Mel and others at Portsmouth have been so instrumental in setting up. You can read more about their series here. So – double success for Portsmouth’s History team!

‘Historians across boundaries’ will be starting in early 2021 – we’re currently putting together our programme of events at the moment, and will announce more soon, so watch this space!






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