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Leeds City Council has made its past available online. Francis Beckett looks at its new living history archive ...
Leeds City Council has made its past available online. Francis Beckett looks at its new living history archive

A 1930s picture of a footbridge over Meanwood Beck in Leeds, found on a website, brought memories flooding back to Philip Murphy. His mother, Joyce Morton, had lived as a child in one of the cottages clearly visible in the background. 'There was a photograph in the Yorkshire Evening Post on February 6 1931, of my mother, with a goat that she had brought into Bentley Lane School for pets day' he wrote, and his comment, like dozens of others, was added to the website.

The footbridge was one of more than 28,000 current and historic photographs of Leeds available on By May there will be over 40,000 photographs, together with playbills and learning packages using photographs and maps to illustrate such things as the development of markets in Leeds. The project has been funded by a £260,000 lottery grant to Leeds City Council.

The New Opportunities Fund has put £50m into digitising hundreds of local cultural, educational, community and history collections, and making them available on the internet.

The Leeds project is creating a living history archive for the city - the website gets about 200,000 hits a month.

It is all very well to put material on the web, but what about reaching people who do not have a computer? The People's Network, also funded by the NOF, is putting computer technology into public libraries, so that EnrichUK will be available to everyone. It has so far set up more than 4,000 library ICT learning centres. Leeds City Council is running IT learning sessions for older people so they will be able to use the history website.

The photographs on the Leeds site come from the Leeds library service, museums, archives and planning departments, Leeds Civic Trust and the Thoresby Society. The city's engineers had photographs of streets and buildings in Leeds before they were demolished. To these have been added some photographs taken to celeb rate Leeds 2000.

Many councils, like Leeds, have been involved in what the NOF calls 'sense of place' groups, which have digitised material that explains the special character, history and geography of their areas. But others are using the EnrichUK money for more utilitarian purposes. Essex CC has taken the lead in Seamless UK, a consortium of nine councils which has created a citizen's gateway with £860,000 of the NOF's money.

'We are trying to cut down on the information overload that faces ordinary people by providing a single search facility,' says Mary Rowlett, strategic information manager at Essex. Many people do not know where to find out about services or information. Often they need to contact several agencies to meet their needs and the information available is scattered and variable in quality.

So the consortium has created as a single point of access to several resources. Each individual authority also has its own gateway. The gateway providesaccess to a wide variety of community and citizenship information from both national and local sources. The main subject areas covered are health and welfare, legal and citizens' rights information, education and life-long learning, employment and leisure. It is possible to search across government web information services, national organisations such as Age Concern and the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, as well as local information from council and community websites and databases.

NOF encouraged Essex to take the lead in a consortium of interested parties and SeamlessUK was born. The nine councils so far involved are Bexley LBC, Brighton & Hove City Council, Bromley LBC, East Sussex CC, Essex CC, Kent CC, Lewisham LBC, Medway Council and North Lincolnshire Council.

Ultimately, there will be a SeamlessUK club in which these nine will offer a package of advice and consultancy to other areas.

The project evolved out of a £76,000 research grant from the British Library. Mary Rowlett was then head of information services for Essex Libraries. She had seen how higher education libraries developed so that it is possible to access information across all university catalogues. She wanted to apply the same approach to community information. But working with local information providers convinced her of the need to involve national providers with generic information.

Highland Council has spent its £900,000 grant creating Am Baile, after the Gaelic word for village. The site,, will be officially launched on 22 May, although some information has already been posted. It will be a learning and research resource for anyone with an interest in the language, culture and history of the Highlands and Islands.

Collections which have been digitised include artefacts and items from the museums and a range of audio and pictorial material including school logs, town charters, Dornoch jail records, the Highland photographic archive and sound recordings from the Highland Folk Museum in Kingussie.

The site is expected to attract those interested in Scottish history, people tracing their family tree, and the 60,000 Gaelic speakers in the world. It will be bilingual for the fluent Gael and will feature language games for new learners. It is also running a series of competitions for school children. But project manager Gail Paterson emphasises that the site is not just for Gaelic speakers.

'It aims to develop and feed people's interest in the Gaelic language and culture to that they can make the most of their visits to the Highlands.' The Highlands has 44 libraries with internet access and the project will be complete by the end of October.

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