A Visit to the Institute of Historical Research

On 23rd November 2010, a group of eager trainees met at Senate House, on Russell Square, for a visit to the Institute of Historical Research library (http://www.history.ac.uk/library). We were privileged to be addressed by four excellent speakers who worked at the library, and heard what their extremely varied jobs involved.

First up was Jennifer Higham, the IHR Librarian, who explained the special role the library plays in historical research. The IHR library is part of the School of Advanced Study at the University of London, and mainly collects primary sources. Their catalogue has a high proportion of older books, classified using the library’s unique shelf marking system (details here:
www.history.ac.uk/library/collections/collection-details). It is a reference-only library, offering access to postgraduates and staff at universities across the UK, and to external subscribers upon request. Particularly memorable was her analogy of the IHR library as a workshop, containing the tools of the trade for historians.

Bruce Tate presented to us about British History Online (
www.british-history.ac.uk), a digital library currently being compiled at the Institute. He offered a fascinating insight into the digitisation, explaining in detail the scanning process, which reaches an astonishing 99.995% accuracy rate. He impressed on us the requirements for digital libraries to be durable, versatile, and flexible and for the resources to be accurate. He explained that the cheaper alternative to scanning books, OCR (Optical Character Recognition), has a far higher margin of error; quality digital resources are essential for useful and usable information.

The Reviews in History e-journal (
www.history.ac.uk/reviews/) is also produced at IHR, and Danny Millum spoke to us about this. The publication provides 2000-3000 word reviews of newly published history books and resources that assist historical research. The publication sits well within the IHR’s remit of supporting, but not taking part in research. He explained his role to us: liaising with academics to commission reviews, editing the publication and maintaining it online.

Finally, Simon Baker from the Bibliography of British and Irish History (BBIH) spoke about his role. BBIH has undergone significant changes in the last eight years, changing format from a physical volume produced annually (since 1975) to a free online service in 2002, and now a subscription service. He spoke about the difficulties he encounters working with the database, including the need for stable URLs and issues of public funding. However, he also explained the many advantages of the digital format such as a standardised indexing, more regular updates (three times per year) and links to online text and external sites. His job includes sifting vast amounts of information from the British Library, publishers and up to 650 journals to manually select data to add to BBIH.

Each one of our expert speakers demonstrated the breadth of work that takes place in and around the library: librarianship, digitisation, databasing and e-publishing. Particularly striking was that even in a library heavy with the aroma of mature books, new technology is still of vital importance. We thoroughly enjoyed a hearty round of tea and party rings, too!

Oliver Henderson-Smith
Cass Business School
City University