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Open access for local studies?

Just over a year ago at the University of Leicester Library, we were looking at the download stats for our online PhD theses and noticed that a study of the village of Wrangle in the early modern period was the most downloaded item that month.

This got us thinking. Of all the open access theses and research publications in our online archive what is actually popular with users? Medicine and health related items do well, presumably from people searching for information on illnesses and conditions. The other studies that consistently attract downloads are those about a particular place. Broadly speaking these are from geography, archaeology and history.

Open access policy has been driven by the sciences and has tended to assume that freely available publications are an unproblematic ‘good thing’. It has paid less attention to what is popular, with whom and why.

Inspired by the example of Wrangle, we decided to explore creating a new resource to promote the open access local history material we had. The Centre for English Local History Theses Collection is the result. The website makes available all the PhD theses completed by students at the Centre for English Local History. The collection comprises 100 theses covering subjects from medieval moats to hunting in Northamptonshire. The full text is available to read and download in the majority of cases. Founded in 1948, the Centre pioneered local history as an academic discipline in Britain. Research students have been central to its activities, and the theses are important research publications in their own right. We hope that improved access and discovery tools make this collection a useful resource for local historians and local studies librarians, among others.  

English local history mapped

 In design it is similar to the concept of an overlay journal which has been kicking around for some years. The challenge was to present the theses in an attractive and coherent way. We decided to use Omeka, a platform designed to publish digitised primary source material. However, we found it worked well for our purposes. As the pdfs were already hosted on another site, we could just point readers to the existing full text rather than uploading lots of files. This made the site much ‘lighter’ as a result. A range of plug-ins allows you to add extra features to aid discovery and interpretation, the most useful being the interactive map.
There are great free resources for local studies, but they tend to be collections of primary sources (like British History Online) or long-standing publication series (like Victoria County History). Recent research publications can be harder for the public to access, due to the cost of books and journal subscriptions. Some areas, such as archaeology, are also ‘messy’ with a large amount of grey literature and small society publication. There are journals like the Local Historian and Local Population Studies who have made their archives freely available, but the discipline as a whole could have better coordination.

In principle then, the model we used could be applied more widely. Could we have a single website that allowed people to search and browse all the local studies publications in university repositories? It would need more people and resources that were used for this project, but it does seem feasible.

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