Different groups of historians work in similar ways, often on the same sources, inside the same buildings towards similar goals – a deeper understanding of the past, regardless of whether it is for personal interest or grant-funded project. However, it can be hard to find out what other people are doing, particularly if they are seen as being a different ‘type’ of researcher. How far do academics know what family historians are doing, and vice versa? Or museums professionals know what local historians are up to, and vice versa? The same could be said of all forms of historical research.
Yet it’s clear that different researchers may have information, approaches or skills that we can benefit from – if only we knew about them. Spaces where all sorts of researchers can come together to exchange details are few and far between. Too often we remain stuck in ‘our’ world, talking only with ‘our’ types of researchers. How much do we all lose as a result of this?
Historians Collaborate is all about bringing us together. We want to provide ways we can speak to each other, find out more about what we’re all doing – and ideally how we can learn from and support each other’s research. It means looking beyond categories and being open to different approaches.
The genesis of the Historians Collaborate network can be traced to an academic project led by Dr Laura King and Dr Jessica Hammett at the University of Leeds called Living with Dying
The project focused on how families remember their loved ones after they’ve died. To explore this, Dr King and Dr Hammett worked with a group of fifteen family historians. All family historians were experts in their own stories and background, and contributed knowledge of memories passed down, objects and photos inherited, and often extensive research into their family’s past. In turn, as social historians, Dr King and Dr Hammett helped the group to put their family’s history in context, by exploring subjects as diverse as the mining industry to the First World War, and from changing family size to the diseases from which family members died. What was perhaps most exciting was the joint consideration about what history actually is - the story of a nation, a community, a family or a layered version of all three? Is it what you find in a formal archive, or the stories a grandmother told? Sharing different perspectives, knowledge, skills and ideas was truly valuable for both sides.
Emerging from this work was a key question: why was collaboration between academics and genealogists not more widespread? A challenge quickly followed – surely we should do something about it? A small but diverse group of interested parties and stakeholders agreed to meet at Senate House Library, London, in January 2019. The aim was to establish a collaborative network for family, local, social and community histories – and the Historians Collaborate network was started.
We’re still very much in the early stages at the moment, but we’re enthusiastic about the potential for the network. Many of us who are involved and encourage the Historians Collaborate network are active on Twitter, and use the #HistoriansCollaborate to discuss interesting events, ideas and news.
Down the line, further benefits are likely to emerge. From the academic perspective, working in partnership with local and regional groups with links into communities would be a way of demonstrating meaningful impact for research projects, evidencing the relevance of higher education to a more diverse group of people in society. Yet true partnership would mean more opportunity for community groups to ask questions that were relevant to them, unlocking the talent, skills and expertise within higher education – especially in the arts, humanities and social sciences. Even more exciting is the potential to recognise the importance of hidden content often retained by families, or gathered in community archives. The growth of born digital data, the increased prominence of DNA-based connectivity and the digitised datasets make the genealogical world interesting to a more diverse range of academics such as data scientists and social anthropologists. There is even an emerging field looking at the importance of lifelong learning and research, linked to personal memory management, in the battle to reduce the risk of dementia in later life – as well as interventions based on a wider range of memory triggers that increase the quality of life for those living with dementia.
So – there’s plenty of potential in the Historians Collaborate network: join in and we can all make researching the past a stronger, more vibrant activity!