Friday, 6 November 2015

My First Month: Plater and Websites

It’s getting close to the end of my first month here at the Hull History Centre, and wow is there a lot to talk about. If I thought my first week did a lot for clearing away my preconceptions about archives then I had no idea what was coming next. What has definitely surprised me is the variety of tasks that I have done so far, no one day has been like another and I have a feeling that this is only going to continue.

Page from "Hull History Centre - Website Analysis"
showing Web Accessibility for the colour-blind
One area where I felt I could really contribute was to do an analysis of the Hull History Centre website. I was able to use my previous web development and computing experience in order to perform a critical review and in fact for once not having extensive archives knowledge was a benefit since it allowed me to look at the site from the point of view of a user. This helps when determining what functions well in a website and also identifying what could use some improvement. One of the biggest challenges was trying to understand the target audience of the Hull History Centre. My already brief time here has shown me that archives provide a service to a wide variety of people and it’s not always as simple as it first seems. All kinds of people use archives, and therefore all kinds of people need to be able to use the website. Whether they are academics, people interested in family history or local history, parents looking for something for their children to do (shameless History Makers plug) or sometimes even people just coming in off the street because they’re passing by!

This attitude towards welcoming anyone is reflected in other areas of the archive. For example I was very surprised to see that other than needing a form of photo ID anyone can simply head into the search room and request to see a document. I found this unusual because I think in my head I had this impression that getting to view archives in person was like asking to see a specific exhibit at a museum, it was something that needed permissions and to be requested in advance. But then most of these collections are open to the public, why shouldn't they be able to just walk in and see them? You'd never want to request things in advance at a library, you just want to walk in and look at the books.

Alan Plater's Radio Play "Tolpuddle" with accompanying letter
and music sheet
A collection I have spent a fair bit of time with so far is playwright and screenwriter Alan Plater’s, specifically his Radio plays. Quite a few of the plays only have a title and a physical description of the items (typescript, outline, etc.) and little else. If you don’t happen to know the name of the play you’re after then there is little chance of you being able to find it using the current information. That is why I have been adding descriptions to all of the radio plays so they can be found easier using the online catalogue. There is often no information about these plays online, so the only way usually is to scan through the play and write a short description myself but this needs to be done so that although it gives an outline of the story and what it is about it doesn't contain any plot spoilers!. This can prove to be awkward sometimes since Plater has a habit of writing plays were nothing appears to actually happen but that have enormous subtext which is difficult to describe without simply writing the entire script again. The idea of audience plays a big factor into this once more, since I don’t know who will actually be reading the descriptions that I write it is important to be as clear as possible in my use of language and in the style of writing I choose to use.

Overall it has been a very interesting first month, to be completely honest I can hardly believe how fast it has gone! And yet I feel a lot more comfortable around the archives then I was initially. Next week I should be heading down to Kew for the Base Camp week at The National Archives and I'm very much looking forward to that, as well as seeing my fellow Cohort 2’s again.

David Heelas
Transforming Archives Trainee (Cohort 2)

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