Digitising Local History

CONNECTED speaks to Dennis Wood and Ian Burn – Trustees of The Friends of the University of Reading – to discover what inspired them to keep local history accessible during lockdown.

The Friends was formed as an association in 1927 – the year after the University was awarded its Royal Charter – and in 2017 it became a charity. Its aims are to foster contact between the University and those interested in its educational goals, its history, its current activities and its future development. Comprised of people who are current and past members of University staff, those interested in the University, the local community and alumni, it brings together like-minded people with a common interest.

Dennis and Ian have been members of The Friends for 19 years and 10 years respectively. Ian worked in the University Library for 30 years, while Dennis’ father-in-law worked at the University for 40 years after the war. Both, inspired by their connections to Reading, joined The Friends to further their shared passion for local history and heritage.

CONNECTED finds out what motivated Dennis and Ian to move into the realm of video production to tell the story of the University of Reading’s history, and to discover more about the work The Friends do.

Making history accessible

One of the key objectives of The Friends is outreach work in the local community, and with lockdown preventing their usual activities, Dennis and Ian turned to the digital medium.

Ian explained: “We have been running heritage events for the past ten years, which allow the public to see parts of the University that are not generally accessible. On the last one we introduced heritage trails – tours around the Whiteknights and London Road campuses.”

Dennis added: “We had six organised tours booked with groups in 2020 and they all had to be postponed.

“We had hoped to repeat them this year, but with COVID-19 restrictions this won’t be possible, so we decided to adapt our tours to continue to connect people with campus during lockdown.”

The Friends had already produced heritage leaflets for the planned tours – and inspired by videos Dennis, Ian and two others worked on to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Whiteknights Studio Trail – they decided to create a video called ‘A Historical Tour around the University’s London Road Campus’.

Ian said: “Another Friend, John, and I had done quite a lot of research at the University of Reading Special Collections archives and the Museum of English Rural Life [MERL] for the leaflets, so we used this as a starting point. Dennis put together a script, which he recorded, and I used this as a guide to position the accompanying photos or videos.

“The whole process of producing the video through to the promotion of it has been a steep learning curve for us, and hopefully when we do the next one we will have learnt even more.”

The Friends are sharing the video far and wide, promoting it amongst their members, local history societies, and museums to make this piece of history available to as many people as possible – it has even gone as far as Australia and Japan and has received over 1,250 views.

Watch ‘A Historical Tour of the University’s London Road Campus’ video:

Future offering

CONNECTED finds out what future plans lie in store to continue connecting the community with their local history.

Ian said: “We are currently researching a leaflet on the history of the halls of residences, and perhaps one on the Earley Gate side of Whiteknights campus.”

Dennis added: “We’re also considering doing a video on the early history of Whiteknights Park before the University acquired it in 1947, and we’re working on a calendar for next year using beautiful scenic photos from around the campus.

“The response to this video has clearly shown that there is wide interest in local history, and particularly in the history of the University. Hopefully by sharing our fascinating history we can help people discover more about the area they are living in – there is a lot to see on the campuses.”

Ian reflected: “Even after COVID-19 restrictions lift, I think videos will remain a core part of our outreach offering. I was in a meeting on Zoom recently, which was attended by people in the Isle of Skye, America and Northern Ireland – that would never have happened in-person.”

“Using a digital medium gives you access to more people and improves accessibility for audiences around the world.”

The Friends’ impact

The Friends have three core objectives: outreach work in the wider community, providing volunteers to assist with University events, and offering grants to departments and societies across the University.

Ian explained: “To be a member of The Friends there is an annual subscription and that, combined with donations, enables us to make grants to various projects around the University.”

Dennis said:

“There are now few parts of the University of Reading that have not been enhanced by the support of The Friends. Major landmarks The Friends have contributed to – going all the way back to the 1920s – include the cloisters at London Road and The Friends’ Bridge over Whiteknights Lake.

“More recent donations include funding for the MERL, buying musical instruments, and purchasing sporting equipment.”

Ian added: “These sorts of donations might not have the same wow factor as, for example, the London Road campus clock, but they still make a difference to those in need of the funds and we’re glad to be able to help.”

Find out more about The Friends, or watch ‘A Historical Tour of the University’s London Road Campus’ video.

View the two Whiteknights Studio Trail videos produced by Dennis, Ian and others – ‘A Tour Around the Whiteknights Campus’ and ‘A Tour of the Area Surrounding the University Campuses’.