In September 2018, the Institute of Historical Research (IHR) launched Layers of London – a new website that enables the mapping and sharing of London’s history through community participation. The project is now engaging thousands of Londoners from across the city’s 32 boroughs, providing them with training and tools to explore and widely share their own histories.
The Layers of London website is a platform using layered historical maps that chart London’s chronological development, from the Roman occupation to the present day. The IHR’s project partners – the British Library (BL), London Metropolitan Archives (LMA), The National Archives (NA), Historic England, and the Museum of London (MoL) – have provided a large section of its content. Their remarkable sets of maps and images are now being brought together for the first time.
These digital map layers are the bases on which the project’s many participants record, or ‘pin’, the findings of their research, including historical projects, oral histories, images, or biographies of Londoners who have lived and worked in the city over the centuries. Each digital layer provides a range of content including photographs, films, recordings, secondary commentaries, and transcriptions of primary sources such as letters and diaries.
In turn, the site links to externally hosted community history projects with further content. One example is the Haringey First World War Peace Forum, a group researching the lives of conscientious objectors. The Peace Forum has biographical accounts of more than 350 men on its own website. This information is accessible from the Layers of London website through pins marking the residences of individuals with links to their full biographies. This collaboration ensures that the research is now available to a much wider audience and is integrated with that of other local projects, offering new perspectives on the composition and social character of this area of north London.
Such instances make Layers of London a vast, and still growing, work of public history that engages innovatively with the collections and expertise found in local archives, museums, community groups, history societies and residents’ associations. The project uses social media, online tools, workshops and training events to involve people of all ages and abilities. Anyone with an interest in an aspect of London’s past is invited to contribute by uploading material relating to the history of an entity (a house, street, park or premises) that can be digitally mapped.
Layers of London is organised around four regional hubs (north, east, south and west London) and coordinated by a small team of IHR engagement officers and digital mapping specialists. Project staff hold quarterly meetings in each of the hubs to support the work of individuals, community groups, and institutions. In addition, IHR staff offer training in digital and research skills, and provide an induction for new groups joining the project. Each hub also serves as a physical space where local historians can access equipment to help with their contributions to the website.
The city’s universities, colleges, and schools play a particularly important role in the project. With this comes opportunities to engage students in the historical dimensions of their neighbourhood and to train the most enthusiastic to become the next generation of historical researchers. During 2018, the Layers of London team oversaw eight placements for undergraduates in collaboration with Lewisham council, the archives at Heathrow airport, the University of London’s Senate House Library, and the library and digital history centres at the IHR. In each case, students gained experience in using an archive, interpreting primary sources, digitising historical content, and uploading and curating their research findings on the Layers of London website.
Along with university students, the Layers project is also actively engaged with a growing number of secondary schools, thanks to an education programme designed to contribute to the London and national curricula.
Participants include Eastbury Comprehensive in Barking, whose teachers received training in research methods from IHR and Historic England staff. This summer, the teachers used Layers of London as the focus for a local history project for Year 7 pupils, each of whom studied the history and occupants of a notable building in his or her area. The locations of individual buildings were then digitally pinned on the Layers of London map, with students’ articles, photographs, and research uploaded to the site.
In the coming year, the range of historical projects and the number of participants will continue to increase. With the IHR and its project partners, these individuals and groups represent an unprecedented exercise in community history.
Collectively, they are creating a pioneering digital resource that enables users to explore the story of London’s remarkable and diverse history and its evolution into the city it is today.
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