Nick’s Blog Archives

I Love It when a Plan Comes Together!

making historyGiven that it’s the penultimate week before Christmas, you’d think that things would be winding down a bit. Not at all…

Wednesday saw the culmination of an education project I’ve been helping with since this time last year, when it was put forward as a basic concept proposed by the actor Colin McFarlane. Over the last twelve months, he’s assembled a team of experts to create a project called ‘Making History’, aimed at giving schoolchildren from the age of 7 upwards the chance to explore their personal background. The question ‘who am I’ allows them to do some basic genealogy – but includes everyone, because it allows children who have overseas roots to explore their culture too; and they film the process, creating video diaries or, in the case of some of the older age groups, actual films about their discoveries.

The resources put into this were mainly voluntary, given there was very little funding available. Both Ancestry and Find My Past gave access to their collections to the 5 schools that were involved, whilst My Heritage provided the technology for them to upload their family trees and stories. We created an online resource where the children could download week by week work schedules about talking to their family, setting their research goals, working with the online collections, and then broadening out their research. Support was also received from the Society of Genealogists, as well as various higher education institutions that helped with the filming and analysis. High profile celebrities such as Jim Broadbent and Miriam Margolyes gave their time to visit the children as they worked.

The pilot ended this week with a screening of the finished projects at the British Film Institute – and the results were stunning. Many were joyful, celebrating incredible ancestors who had risen to prominence; others brought unfamiliar cultural experiences from overseas to a wider audience. Two films moved many of the adults to tears. One explored his grandfather’s lost childhood when sent to Canada by Barnados, and why he never talked about his experiences; whereas the other was a personal account of the Irish Troubles, set against the wider diaspora, via an interview with his father who recalls some of the violent clashes. It is a raw, emotional and incredibly powerful piece of film making – as good as, if not better, than some of the scenes we’ve become accustomed to on Who Do You Think You Are.

Colin assures me the project will now look to become a national programme, acting as a curriculum support activity that encourages students to personalise the past by linking national events to their family’s experiences. We also want to introduce a second element, ‘Where Am I’, to allow students who don’t want to, or can’t, do genealogy to explore the area and community where they live.

This leaves me very little space to talk about the other event I attended, the Prince’s Foundation for the Built Environment think tank on sustainable environments. Why was I there? Good question; but it was really important to push the agenda for community engagement based on personal heritage, allowing people to celebrate their backgrounds and thus connect with the built environment in which they live.

Next week, I’ll talk a bit about some of the plans for 2012 that are shaping up to make it a very exciting year.



Family, House, Local or even Social History a ‘hobby’?

D'Arcy Thompson Tower Lecture Theatre, University of DundeeThe great thing about not having a ‘proper’ job is that you get to sample a whole range of ways to earn a living each week, and this week was a classic case in point. At the moment, I’m finishing writing a course on house history for the University of Dundee – specifically the Centre for Archive and Information Studies – as part of their Masters courses. It has been a really interesting exercise; having already written a book on the subject, I’ve had a large amount of information to draw upon. However, shaping it into a coherent learning resource has been quite challenging, especially when creating a series of exercises and tasks for each unit. Since I’ll also be teaching the course from January, it has really made me think about how we go about research, and how much we take things for granted. There’s an intuitive nature to local searching, whether property-based or genealogical. Beyond the keyword search facility on a commercial website or composite archive catalogue, our true skills have usually been honed over a prolonged period of time working from card catalogues, contemporary indexes, and years of experience and experimentation in obscure record series and collections. After a while, you develop a sixth sense and can almost second-guess where the most likely resources to track down an elusive ancestor are going to be. This is why it can be infuriating to hear family, house, local or even social history described as a ‘hobby’. Try distilling years of search experience in disparate record offices into a six unit course; it’s not that easy, but hopefully it will encourage people to use property as a means of understanding how a community evolved over time, and link this with the story of the people who lived there – our ancestors.

I’ve also been engaging with other sections of academia, most notably King’s College London where I was talking to the Head of Humanities about some exciting potential future projects in the realm of digital and public history; watch this space for more details throughout 2012. Discussions around ancestral tourism have also been progressing, with a planned seminar taking shape to work on potentially three regional networks. This will be a major area of growth in the coming years, and I’m delighted to be a part of this initiative. I also attended the User Advisory Group meeting at The National Archives, where strategic issues were discussed from a user perspective. This is a really useful group that’s formed up, representing various sectors – family history, independent research, online users, academics and others – and we are working to ensure your views are conveyed to the decision makers at TNA.

Today was great fun, filming Episode 4 of the vodcast at the Society of Genealogists. A huge, massive thank you to Else Churchill, the resident genealogist and expert communicator, who not only allowed us to film there but also provided two excellent interviews – a practical explanation of how researchers can find amazing documents in the Society’s collections, as well as a sneak peek behind the scenes to look at some of the treasures that they hold. Else also revealed her favourite item in the collection… You can see this episode in a couple of months’ time. Episode 2 was released this week, featuring Jonathan Foyle’s mysterious wooden chest, and a behind the scenes look at Stowe – a World Monument Fund project. Next month, we visit the Institution of Civil Engineers to find out how to trace our ancestors who literally built the world around us.



I once had a proper job!!

imageThree key issues dominating the news this week – the strike by public sector workers over pension reform; the launch of the first tranche of newspapers digitized by Find My Past from the British Library collections; and the news that Michael Gove will stick to his guns about the history curriculum (well, I suppose that’s technically last week but I still want to talk about it!)

I’m not going to say too much about the strike, because it’s been over ten years since I had a ‘proper’ job in the public sector at what is now The National Archives, so I’m a little out of touch. My recent involvement in 2009/2010 with the campaign to prevent TNA making 10% cuts that might affect front line services – or at least to consult properly with the public – has emphasised that employees in the archive sector are generally a dedicated, professional and very hard working group of people who have to not only deal with their growing collections, as well as us, the public; but on occasion a lack of recognition that the work that they perform goes far beyond simply producing or preserving documents. We, as users, need to make persuasive arguments to the funding bodies that archives make a massive contribution to our local and national economies, as well as enrich our cultural heritage and can provide an integral part of our children’s education. Yes, many staff have protected pensions, but we should also remember that for the most part they get paid far less than in the private sector. Does that give them the right to strike? Possibly, possibly not; but it does not give us the right to criticize their genuine concerns about the future, because archives are a soft target when the cuts start to bite.

Find My Past launched the first tranche of digitized images from the British Newspaper Library’s collection to much acclaim on 29 November. This promises to be a fantastic resource, taking genealogy to the next level where family tree building can be linked to proper social historical context. The comments received so far in the few days that the site has been operating have been broadly positive, with many people finding new insights into their family history, and the communities in which they lived. However, some negative feedback has included complaints about the price, and a few glitches about random search results that are akin to gibberish. It’s still early days; I’m sure the benefits will far outweigh the initial teething problems.

Finally, education – or more specifically reports that the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, has angered historians and teachers with his refusal to soften his stance on the nature of the history curriculum. Whilst we DO need an overarching knowledge of chronological events that are relevant to our island story, we CANNOT do so in isolation, particularly given the role Britain and the British have played on the world stage. Furthermore, we need to encourage an emphasis on the SKILLS that history conveys – the ability to research, gather evidence, formulate an argument or construct a written report, debate the conclusions and assimilate the views of others. Equally, history viewed through the prism of one’s family or community gives the past relevance and context. Let’s ensure that these important points are not ignored.

Thanks to all who joined colleagues from Sticks Research Agency and Your Family History magazine for a Christmas gathering in central London – including a surprise appearance from Jimmy Osmond, who dropped by to talk about a couple of projects. He’s appearing in pantomime in Swansea throughout the Christmas period, and will be starring in the Grand Theatre’s production of Aladdin. Get down there from 16th December for some festive fun!



Nick’s Blog – Another Hectic Week!

Royal Marines Museum (in passing)

Image via Wikipedia

Is it becoming a catchphrase to say that it’s been a busy week again? Probably… but then, those who know me will realise that every week is busy until I’ve finished the book on Greater London, completed the last of the course preparation for the University of Dundee (I’m writing a module on House History as part of the MA syllabus) and worked on various projects relating to education, ancestral tourism, and digitization – let alone the work I do for the FreeBMD group and the associated Open Genealogy Alliance

However, this week – aside from the above – I went to the Royal Marines Museum, Southsea. It was a fantastic experience; thanks to Claire Chapman for setting this up, and even bigger thanks Matt Little for giving me such an overview of the work they do to bring the rich history of the Marines to life. I did not realise how much archival material they had at their disposal, linking directly into the service papers at The National Archives and allowing researchers to really put ‘flesh on the bones’. They are working on a three stage project to bring their catalogue to a wider audience, and part of their strategy involves an exhibition, currently on display in the museum until April, relating to family history research. You can find out more about the museum in a forthcoming issue of Your Family History, and Matt has kindly invited me back to film a vodcast there in the New Year. Watch this space for dates, but if you have any queries relating to your ancestors who were with the Royal Marines, send them in to us and we’ll try to use them as a case study in that episode.

I hope you’ve been watching Find My Past on the Yesterday channel; it’s been a refreshing spin on family history and the link to historical events, and it was great to work on the show from both a research and onscreen perspective.

News just in: My Heritage has acquired FamilyLink Inc, including the and websites that, combined, contain over 3 billion historical records. This is a major entry into the US dataset market, and it will be interesting to see how this strategy develops when linked to their existing social network sites.

Finally, how about a radical suggestion on which it would be great to get some comments and feedback from you? It struck me that there are several institutions that operate in the genealogy sector – the Federation of Family History Societies, the Society of Genealogists, the Association of Genealogists and Researchers in Archives – as well as the British Association for Local History whose work overlap in certain areas. Would it be an idea to have a Council for Genealogy and Local History where representatives meet up four times a year to discuss the potential for collaborative work in three or four specified areas, such as education or digitization for example? Let me know what you think.

More next week (and hopefully some news about developments in the ancestral tourism sector), in the meantime please do drop us a line via facebook or twitter.



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Nick’s News and Future Enhancements

It’s been a busy week, trying to get as much material together for this new venture as possible! A quick word about what we’ll be putting onto this website. I’ll be blogging once a week, but watch out for our guest posts; whilst Laura will be tweeting and managing our Facebook presence. Keep sending in your ideas about what we can discuss in our Top Ten Tips feature, and email in your stories so we can put together a case study to help other viewers.

Also, a big ‘thank you’ to My Heritage who are supporting this venture; I’ve been impressed with their approach to personal archiving, and as well as helping get Family History Show off the ground, they are also kindly assisting with an education pilot that’s running in a number of schools across the country, called Making History and run by the actor Colin McFarlane. Some amazing stories emerging from the work of these enthusiastic students (aged 8-18)…

We’re still building additional features to the site. A few suggestions have come in for a resource list, linked to the Top Ten Tips – working on it! We are also exploring an online shop, where you can get selected materials and publications to help you with your research.

Royal Marine MuseumWe hope you like the Dan Cruickshank interview. It was great fun to film. I’ve known Dan for the best part of 15 years, and it was tremendously kind of him to give up his time to share his passion for old home movies. The idea to view the films he’d collected appeared as a tentative suggestion, and our cameraman Seb knew of a little shop in Hackney that might have the right projectors. We all jumped in a cab, and we held our breath as Umit looked at the film that contained grainy images of Mickey Mouse…  Could it be a lost classic worth thousands of pounds? The results of our impromptu viewing are well worth a watch, if you haven’t seen it already.

I’ve been continuing to work on the history of Greater London (this will be a weekly feature until all the chapters are finally delivered to my publisher Nigel, who  is simply the nicest and most patient man in the world) as well as running around the country talking to county archives, extolling the virtues of ancestral tourism as a way forward whilst exploring collaborative opportunities for family history societies, voluntary groups like FreeBMD / FreeCEN / FreeREG, and county archives to transcribe document content whilst permitting commercial companies to charge subscribers to view the actual images that they have digitised (unless a free digitisation agency appears that can cope with the sheer amount of work, although there has already been one such offer that’s being investigated at the moment). This is a thorny issue, as there is no standard model across the country – but ‘best practice’ that keeps all parties happy will gradually emerge.

I’m looking forward to a visit to the Royal Marine museum next week, and then a catch up with the Ancestral Tourism Partnership in Nottingham on 25 November. So it’s all go this end, and no rest in site with Christmas beginning to loom on the horizon.


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