University of Portsmouth's History Blog

Bridging the gap between the academic and non-academic worlds III: Sharing local histories

In this blog Josh Wintle, who graduated with a History degree from Portsmouth last year (well done, Josh!), discusses a project he worked on in his second year with some of his fellow History students for the module ‘Working with the Past’, coordinated by Dr Mike Esbester. As part of their project, the students looked into how academic historians take their work ‘out of the academy’ and into the public realm. Josh and his fellow students interviewed our Dr Rob James, who researches leisure history, to find out how he has tried to engage the wider public in the history he researches.

The aim of the interviews we conducted with some of our tutors was to assess the impact historians’ research has on the public . Our interviews focused on the social impact of the outreach programmes they had undertaken, and the impact technology had on their research. Our aim was to make our findings widely available through this blog, so we regarded the interviews as informal conversations. Our focus was on the importance of research that involved those outside of academia, so we wanted to produce a project that reflected and included this audience.  Dr Robert James gave an array of detail regarding how and why historians interact with the public.

Our first point of focus was asking the historians we interviewed what led them to choose their area of research. It was a simple question that garnished a variety of answers. The responses varied from personal interest to choosing areas of study that they thought would have present day importance. Rob, for example, told us that he became interested in his research area because he wanted to challenge the scholarship regarding working-class cinema goers. Coming from a similar background himself, he disagreed with some historians who said that people viewing a film were passive and easily persuaded by what was presented to them.

A recurring theme throughout our interviews was exploring the rise of social history. Linked to this was the growth in people researching their own personal history and the history of those around them. Throughout Rob’s interview we discussed projects he’d worked on and I was intrigued to find out that he’d worked with a community group who wanted to uncover the impact of the Battle of Jutland on the people of Portsmouth, and also with Pompey History Society on the history of Portsmouth Football Club.

The highlight from this project for me was discovering the desire of many people not only to learn about the history of the area around them, but also feeling the need to inform their communities of what they found. With the Jutland project, Rob spoke about the passion of the U3A group he worked with to remember those from the city who had died during the battle. He says they felt a duty to honour the people who once made up the community of the city, and also wanted to inform others of their findings.

In fact, many of the projects undertaken by the historians we interviewed had aims focussed on informing the public of historical events that took place within the local area. The Jutland Project, along with Dr Mike Esbester’s work on railway health and safety, produced nationwide databases with the aim of making this research accessible to a much wider population. The aims of social outreach are also present in the work of Dr Melanie Basset, who is undertaking projects that aim to teach school children in Portsmouth about the historic ‘sailortown’ and what the area they lived in looked like historically. The interviews ultimately highlighted the interest of many groups to research and share the history of their local communities.

Another key topic during our discussions was the element of technology, and how the advances in this field has affected the study of history. The main topic of discussion this question brought up was the development of archives and the process of digitisation. This topic brought up a lot of positive opinions, with Rob agreeing that digital archives can provide access to a much wider audience, including those outside of the academic community. Digital archives have both advantages and disadvantages, though. Rob mentioned that the long process of digitisation is ultimately selective, does not include all documents, and cannot truly cover an entire time period as some documents are left out of the process. Another point that was mentioned by Rob that I previously had not thought about was the element of “Wifi poverty” and how digitisation excludes those without access to technology, or those who cannot use it, including when these archives are hidden behind a paywall.

During our interview with Rob, we also spoke about the Covid-19 pandemic and the benefits of online events. This has allowed Rob to take part in projects that he was unable to travel to due to the pandemic restrictions. His talk on cinema-going was able to go ahead thanks to the development of technology, and meant he was able to connect with a group of cinema enthusiasts who asked him if he’d talk with them.

The interviews we conducted with our tutors showed the importance of interacting with the public. The projects they worked on were led by public interest and ultimately, through the work that both parties undertook, the community as a whole gained a better understanding of their local history.

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