Mission impossible? To find a good online history forum

Whether you regularly use a personal computer or not, you need to know about the potential of online history forums. Why? Because they are part of the future and they can be very useful. So, what are they? The online encyclopaedia Wikipedia says that they are 'online discussion sites — the modern equivalent of a traditional bulletin board', whilst one website offering open source (free) forum software describes itself as 'creating communities worldwide'. Both are correct.

There are now hundreds, if not thousands, of local history related online forums in existence. Some websites are just online forums, others are part of a larger website. Discover Hertford is a not-for-profit, privately managed, community website, which has a forums section covering a wide range of subjects. One of the headings is 'Local History', where there are two forums: 'Genealogy' and 'Hertford's Past'. Since it was launched over 2 years ago, there had been 62 'topics' posted as of 5 April 2009, most of them by a user named 'Marilyn'. It's better than most of the forums I looked at and typical of many, in that it doesn't seem to attract a lot of viewers. When you look at the replies the same user names crop up time and again; what you have here is a community based around an interest.

Some online forum users are researchers and family historians, but most, from my exploration of them over the last few weeks, are reminiscencing. One memory can prompt a flood of other memories about a particular place, person or event. A good example of this is the Sheffield History website, which is an online forum where the purpose of lots of the initial postings is simply to prompt a discussion. One on Henderson's Relish soon had a flurry of memories coming including: 'Worked at Jessops Hospital right across the street and could smell the relish being made. When I emigrated bought two gallon jugs of the stuff and had it shipped with all my belongings. Still stock up everytime I make a trip home.' This was posted by someone now living in Canada. This 'seeding' of forums is not restricted to local enthusiasts. The BBC does it regularly on the website which partners its Who Do You Think You Are? magazine , which has an online local history forum. In a twelve month period ending 8 April 2009, the Who Do You Think You Are? local history forum had 18 new entries posted for discussion, which attracted 61 replies. This figure can probably be halved because the person posting the original entry (sometimes called a 'thread') often responds to the reply online. During the twelve months, the section received 10,689 'hits' (visitors), many of whom may have been repeat visitors. A separate forum on the same site around Alan Crosby's online local history blog, in which BBC staff also try to prompt feedback, attracted thirty replies and 10,007 hits during the same period.

The Kent History Forum in the period April 2008–March 2009 attracted 20,670 news posts and 1,091,000 page hits. Not all forums give you such clear statistics, but all have counters, so you can calculate the number of users, postings and hits. They also reveal that, often, many of the postings on a particular forum are by one person or a small group of individuals at most. Where, for instance would the Portobello Local History Forum in Scotland be without Bob Jefferson? His name crops up again and again. Of 928 posts on the site, 49% have been by just ten people. To point this out is not intended as a criticism in any way. These facts tell you that online local history forums are just like local history societies grounded in meetings. It is a few folk who do most of the work. The champion of champions in this department must be a Simon Rubinstein at British Local History, who posted hundreds of entries to the website's online forum in late-November 2008. In fact, you only have to read a few to realise that, except for the place name, they are all the same wording and represent forum seeding on an industrial scale.

So, what are we left with? In the serious corner, for the local historian and researcher who wants to exchange information or to seek help from fellow practitioners with generic questions or methodology issues, there is just one place to go — the JISCmail local-history list is part of the National Academic Mailing List Service. It doesn't look or feel like any of the other online forums, even though you can go and view entries and replies at the website above. It has just 207 members and if you visit the April 2009 entries you will find some entries by me. Members are alerted to the any new posting by email. The trouble is that the forum is hardly used, with just 49 research related postings during the period April 2008–March 2009, if you exclude notices of meetings etc, which attracted 215 replies. Why is this? I don't know. I often follow information exchanges with interest, but before making my own posting, I had never actually used the site. If you do visit the website make sure you type in 'local-history', as it won't find the list if the hyphen is missing! It would be useful to have readers' feedback. Perhaps local historians simply don't know that the JISCmail local-history list exists?

When I saw that Local History Magazine had created an online forum, I thought it might be the one which would finally take off and attract a lot of users. After a month and a brief mention in the last issue, it has still to attract more than a handful of users, of which I have been one. Perhaps what online local history forums need is a lot of publicity in local history periodicals, especially where there is an association of some kind, even if it is just a locality. Of one thing I am sure, our ideas about what constitutes 'community' are changing. Place is losing its importance, as more and more people socialise on the Internet and make online friendships based on interests and other factors. Interest in place will become, for many, a consequence of their interest in, say, family history or a hobby. If we're lucky, environmental changes will result in a re-discovery of place. What we are witnessing is the first, faltering, steps to another way of seeing and experiencing local history. It may be that online 'blogging' and 'e-zines' have a part to play in making online local-history forums both attractive and viable.

At the end of my search, I cannot tell you of one online local-history forum that I really liked and enjoyed visiting. I found many of them messy in appearance and, at times, confusing. This conclusion may, of course, be an age thing, but I have been using the web regularly for the last 14–15 years and I have embraced some of the changes I have seen during this time with enthusiasm, blogging for example. As for you, my reader, your views on this topic would be greatly appreciated. It may be that what I seek already exists and I am the only one who has yet to find it.

Robert Howard

10 April 2009

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