Archives are a mouse click away

Ben Walsh moves beyond a tentative net surf through to history's web archive

History teachers are among the best we have, according to the Office for Standards in Education. Even so, there are a few "could do better" areas: the teaching of non-European topics and themes; the teaching of interpretations; the use of ICT.

Where do archives come in? Many are now online and hitherto unavailable perspectives and interpretations are easily accessible. Specialist collections provide resources to help teachers with topics outside the mainstream.

The main problem now is letting teachers know what's out there and where it is. Do you want to fascinate your key stage 2 pupils looking at life during the Second World War? Try Westall's War, a site run by the Tyne and Wear Archives Service. Among the wonderful sources is a poster puzzle which shows four pigs, captioned: "Who is the biggest pig of all?". By making folds in the paper as directed, the picture is transformed into Hitler's face.

Since it is linked to Westall's popular fiction, you can use the literacy hour for this inspired bit of fun. Then go on to discuss popular perceptions of propaganda. This puzzle was home-made - not official in any way. What does this suggest about popular attitudes to the war?

Don't just think in terms of local authority archives. When teaching social history, you might not immediately make the leap to Cadburys, Sainsbury's or the Royal Bank of Scotland. However, they all shed light on different aspects of British life. Cadburys' site has a wealth of original material on the workers at Bournville and how they lived. The Royal Bank of Scotland can give you a fascinating range of 18th and 19th-century paintings, insights into town planning and banking in the Industrial Revolution. Sainsbury's can provide you with an enormous range of material. My favourite on the Sainsbury's site is the selection of letters sent from head office to branch managers from 1939-45. It gives an insight into changing attitudes, particularly towards women and what they were perceived to be capable of.

Archives come in all types. Moving image is an immensely important resource to historians, but also one which is much more difficult to analyse than traditional text or image sources. This has not gone unnoticed by the bodies which maintain collections of moving image resources. The British Film Institute is a good gateway to a range of other sites relating to the moving image. The BFI is also involved in Screen Online, a project to get film footage available on the internet and available to all users, especially schools. If you are interested in the moving image in the history classroom you should also check out Onfilm, a joint venture between the Public Record Office and the South East Grid for Learning.

Many archives and galleries have an online presence. The National Portrait Gallery has thumbnail pictures of a huge number of its portraits. The National Maritime Museum provides classroom investigations and online activities.

Two of the biggest collections of online resources are provided by the British Library's Living Words site and the Public Record Office site, the Learning Curve. Both provide a wealth of original material organised into curriculum-friendly projects with teacher notes, worksheets and other recording devices.

The greatest strength of British Library material lies in the sources. Extracts from the recent exhibition on maps are an absolute must. Voices of the Holocaust is a powerful and thoughtprovoking section. The site is strong on resources from the medieval and early modern periods (you can try translating Tyndale's early English Bible into modern English). It also has non-mainstream history with resources such as its collection of 19th-century photographs from India.

The Learning Curve has similar strength in depth. You can look at a lesson-sized snapshot on anti-Semitism in the 14th century. You can study crime and punishment in an exhibition which covers the subject from medieval to modern times (and has a terrific mixture of serious and fun activities). As it is the Government's archive, you can access some extraordinary documents - see Hitler's signature on the Munich Agreement or marvel at Operation Unthinkable (a feasibility study for a joint British-American attack on the Red Army in February 1945).

The Learning Curve is also blazing a trail in terms of the technology of the internet, with video and audio facilities for pupils to create their own online exhibitions. Archives online may well hold an answer to at least some of the challenges facing history teachers today. Astonishing collections of wonderful sources, pathways through them informed by sound educational thinking; all available via a medium which gets the material to the user with a minimum of fuss - what are you waiting for?

Ben Walsh is chair of the Secondary committee of the Historical Association, tel: 020 7735 3901 or go to


Westall's War:


Royal Bank of Scotland:


British Film Institute:


National Portrait Gallery:

National Maritime Museum:

The British Library:

The Public Record Office:

The British Museum

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