Taking History Day online – Creating a digital fair to discover history collections

Since 2014, History Day has brought together students, researchers and history enthusiasts with professionals from archives, libraries, publishers and other organisations with history collections. Past History Days have taken place at Senate House in London, the home of the Institute of Historical Research Library and Senate House Library, the central library of the University of London. A fair with stalls representing different history organisations was set up to browse, explore and interact with. The event has attracted as many as 243 attendees and 192 participants from a wide range of institutions. This year, because of the on-going impact Covid-19, we have had to rethink the format of History Day entirely. When it became clear that we wouldn’t be able to hold an event which attracted large crowds, we decided to take History Day 2020 online.  

One of the biggest challenges in taking this step was re-envisioning the format of History Day for the online world while maintaining the spirit of the event. One of History Day’s greatest achievements is bringing people together in one space and helping them to get up close to history collections and those responsible for managing them. Ensuring that we could recreate this interactivity online meant we had to invest a lot of thought in how we would ask organisations to participate and in which ways we could enable audiences to interact with them. We made the decision to offer multiple pathways to allow as many as possible to join in and get creative with their contributions. We will be offering a mix of live sessions during the day, including virtual collection tours, Q&As, quizzes, show and tells and even a podcast live recording session. Alongside the live events, we are creating a gallery of pre-recorded content full of links to blogs, videos and images to help you discover new collections online.  

Despite the challenges, going online has had many advantages. We have been able to invite participants from across the UK and beyond to this year’s event, rather than restricting it to those able to travel to London. On top of that, we were delighted to be accepted as part of the Being Human festival, the UK’s national festival of the humanities. This allows us to reach a wider public audience than ever before. We are looking forward to being a springboard that introduces history enthusiast everywhere to the treasures that history collections hold.  

Organising History Day has been an opportunity to reflect on the importance of history, or more specifically how we collect and provide access to the sources to study it. We have organised three online sessions for the day to explore these themes. 2020 has been a historic year with the global social and economic disruption in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic and the impact on cultural institutions has been immense. In response many of us have had to rethink how to open up our collections online to populations in lockdown and to a new world of social distancing. One example of this is the Bibliothèque nationale de France’s online sessions La BnF dans mon salon (“The BnF in my living room”) which brought collections into French homes during lockdown. They will be represented at the Exploring History in the Digital World session alongside other innovative digital projects bringing history closer to online audiences. In the last months, hundreds of collection projects have been initiated to archive the history of 2020, such as the Black Cultural Archives’ call to document the Black Lives Matter protests in the UK, Document! : Black Lives Matter. The Black Cultural Archives together with other panellists representing different initiatives will explore how 2020 is being archived for future generations at the session History in the Making: Archiving 2020 for the future. This year also saw new outreach projects launched to connect people with their local histories. For example, the campaign History Begins at Home, led by the Norfolk County Council’s archive service, was launched to get everyone across the generations to connect with each other during the coronavirus pandemic. Find out more about how local and community historians and associations are reaching out in new ways in our show and tell session New Approaches to Local and Community History

Sign up to join us for History Day 2020 on 19 November 2020, coinciding with the Being Human festival, the UK’s national festival of the humanities. You can view the programme and find out more at the History Collections blog. To receive updates on History Day, subscribe to our mailing list