Andrew Prescott explains how new technology is making a massive local history archive available to the public.
Few commemorative projects have proved as long-lasting or monumental as the Victoria History of the Counties of England. The VCH, as it is popularly known, was first conceived as part of the celebrations of Queen Victoria's diamond jubilee in 1897. Dedicated to the memory of the queen, it has published more than 220 volumes of meticulously researched histories of hundreds of different cities, towns and villages throughout England. One of the most respected and widely used English historical works of reference, the VCH is about to go online, thanks to funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund.
The concept of the founders of the VCH was deceptively simple. For each English county, a series of volumes would be produced. Each county set would include volumes of general introductory essays on the political, religious, economic and educational history of the county, and topographical volumes devoted to the history of each of the county's parishes, compiled from original documents, with full footnotes.
It was an ambitious project: local history is notoriously prone to the recycling of unreliable and made-up material, so the idea that everything should be firmly grounded in primary sources was, in 1897, at the cutting edge of historical thinking.
It was also ground-breaking in other respects: it pioneered team-working in research through groups of, often female, academic researchers who sifted the public records for information about English localities. It was also one of the first large-scale historical projects to take seriously the emergent disciplines of social and economic history. Early on, before the establishment of the Royal Commission on Historic Monuments, it employed professional architectural historians to oversee the description of buildings.
The VCH always saw itself as an educational resource. In the 1920s, its publicity encouraged elementary school teachers to buy VCH off-prints for teaching purposes. But the creation of an online resource is perhaps its biggest challenge to date.
The availability of new digital and networking technologies offers many exciting opportunities. Last year, the VCH was awarded a grant of £179,500 from the Heritage Lottery Fund to help investigate ways of extending its work and increasing its accessibility. Part of the grant will be spent on restarting work in County Durham on an economic history of Darlington. Extra staff are also being employed in the long-running Oxfordshire VCH to work on a history of the parish of Broadwell, which includes Kelmscott, the home of William Morris. But much of the money will be spent on improving the VCH's use of information technology.
A comprehensive study is being prepared by the Humanities Research Institute at the University of Sheffield looking at ways information technology can be used to modernise the original vision of the VCH.
The histories of Darlington and Broadwell will go online in a searchable format in July 2001, while a large part of the as yet unpublished VCH account of the city of Chester will be available before the end of 2000.
The eventual aim is to put the whole of the VCH online in a searchable format. The project team is trying to ensure that material is ordered in such a way that it is easy to access and it is comprehensively indexed. Users will be able to search for themes such as social history, women's history and landscape history.
Methods of making the text more interactive without compromising the VCH's integrity as a work of reference (by, for instance, the provision of a "workbook" facility for note-taking) are also being investigated. But providing searchable text is not enough.
One area of interest to the VCH is the use of Geographic Information Systems to provide new means of visualising and exploring historical data through maps. The most spectacular international expression of this is the Electronic Cultural Atlas Initiative, which is developing GIS systems specifically for historians. Others include the Great Britain Historical GIS project at the University of Portsmouth, the Geo Data Browser project, which the History Data Service is developing as part of the Distributed National Electronic Resource, and the related National Geospatial Data Framework.
The VCH will seek links with these kinds of projects to help it to transform data into interactive maps and allow access to particular parts of lengthy articles through map references.
GIS is the high-tech end of improving access, but the VCH also needs to reach out to the broader community and is taking great interest in the community publishing movement on the web. Web services, often developed around local newspapers, are providing news and access for community groups as well as helping to build online communities through chat forums. Within Britain, Northcliffe Newspapers has built a strongly branded set of county websites offering a community service known as "Beehive" (for example, www.thisisderbyshire.co.uk and www.thisisleicestershire.co.uk).
The VCH wants to build similar strongly branded county websites, under the englandpast.net banner, giving access to local history as well as offering web hosting and other facilities for groups with local historical interests.
Perhaps the most exciting development is the creation of a major VCH educational resource on the web, which will provide a highly interactive, multimedia introduction not only to the VCH, but to key themes in local history.
The pilot project will focus on the church and will include a 3D guide to a typical parish church, interactive maps showing how parishes were formed, a multimedia glossary of specialist terms and video introductions to aspects of church history. At the heart of the learning resource will be a guide to the series that will explain how the VCH works and how it can be most effectively used as a gateway into the history of a particular location.
In addition, the VCH is exploring future strategies through a series of user groups and consultation exercises.
It is 100 years since the publication of the first VCH volume. There seems no better way to mark this anniversary than by developing a strategy that will not only make the VCH more accessible, but will give its work and contents a new relevance for the century ahead.
Andrew Prescott is a professor at the Humanities Research Institute, Sheffield University. A conference on local history online is being hosted by the VCH on December 13.