Transforming access to historic books
The ‘Unlocking the Archive’ project harnesses the power of creativity to enable libraries and heritage organisations to make centuries-old books accessible to new audiences.
Historic books held in regional collections are great cultural treasures, but are often seen as dusty and archaic, relics of an era before the digital revolution and accessible only to privileged specialists. We set out with our partners to make these books accessible and meaningful to communities once more.
The research of the UEA 'Unlocking the Archive' team explores the people, publishers and ideas that shaped modern thinking. These books were products of their era’s interdisciplinary, trans-national and boundary-pushing scholarship. They were also masterpieces of artisanal craftsmanship and technological creativity.
We worked closely with partner institutions to make these broad research insights meaningful in specific contexts and communities. The aim being to increase public awareness and appreciation of the wonderful collection of Renaissance books held in the Norfolk Heritage Centre in the centre of Norwich.
This partnership work began with the Norfolk Heritage Centre in 2015 (part of the Norfolk and Norwich Millennium Library), and then expanded to include Blickling Estate in 2018 (home to the National Trust’s largest and most internationally-significant library) and King’s Lynn Public Library in 2019.
Every new partner helped to fine-tune the activities we were developing to breathe new life into these learned books. We held relaxed and inclusive drop-in discovery days, where members of the public were able to turn the pages of old books (very gently!), inviting them to look and see in new ways. It soon became clear that Norfolk’s historic books were a huge source of untapped creative potential.
The ‘Unlocking the Archive’ team always knew this project should have a visual identity to match the stunning appearance of the historic books themselves. We teamed up with Norwich-based graphic designer, Darren Leader, who became enthralled by the books he was discovering. 'We soon realised', Darren wrote in October 2015, that these books were 'the new technology of their age'. That was the initial moment that sparked his imagination.
In partnership with the team, Darren developed a key creative project: ‘New Impressions: Redesigning Norwich’s Renaissance Books’ (2017). He encouraged other creatives in the East of England to let their imaginations be sparked in the same way. The designers worked with us to explore the books, mastering key ideas and concepts that underpinned our research.
All the designers involved entered into an intensive period of creative innovation. They shared ideas with each other and produced a series of design works inspired by the books of the Norfolk Heritage Centre. These artworks then went on display in an interactive exhibition alongside the books that inspired them.
Every time the project attracted new partners, this cycle of creativity - from inspiration to innovation - started afresh.
By the start of 2020, a whole community had grown up around ‘Unlocking the Archive’, which included academics, librarians, heritage professionals, designers, photographers, filmmakers and volunteers. Their many different perspectives on the books inspired everyone in our flourishing community.
Then the COVID-19 crisis hit. For a moment, everything stopped. Events were cancelled and diaries were cleared.
But, in fact, COVID-19 brought all of the project partners together more intensely than before, as we developed and launched a new website that showcased highlights of the different collections to the public. This is ‘Discover Historic Books’. Here, visitors are encouraged to explore the books and actively ‘unlock’ information about each one through a keyhole interface.
Visitors are invited to continue the cycle of creativity by taking inspiration from what they have discovered in creative activities designed by Darren and other members of the ‘New Impressions’ project. Launched in July 2020, the website had over 5,600 global visitors by the end of December, with many users returning to learn more.
Our collaboration with members of Norfolk’s thriving creative industries has been key to the ways we’ve been able to help our partners in both the Public Library services and the National Trust to unlock the potential of their historic book collections as sources of inspiration and pride for their visitors and wider communities today. - Dr Sophie Butler
At the end of 2020, ‘Unlocking the Archive’ welcomed its first partner from outside the East of England - Northumberland Libraries and Archives. Their team was inspired to get in touch following the launch of the 'Discover Historic Books' website and an initial selection of their books can now be explored on the website.
The ‘Unlocking the Archive’ team aims to establish new partnerships with more libraries and heritage organisations across the UK. Through using the innovative design and creative opportunities of the ‘Discover Historic Book’s'website, we can support a diverse network of historic book collections and help make them more accessible and valuable for local and global communities.
Dr Sophie Butler, Lecturer in Early Modern Literature
Dr Butler is a Lecturer in Early Modern Literature at our School of Literature, Drama and Creative Writing. Alongside the ‘Unlocking the Archive’ founder, Dr Tom Roebuck, she plays a lead role in running the project.
Dr Butler uses her academic expertise in Renaissance books and culture to help interpret and communicate the intellectual and physical histories of these book collections to the public. She creates, facilitates and maintains close working relationships with our project partners and external organisations.
BrowseThe official 'Unlocking the Archive' website.
ExploreCheck out the interactive digital resource, ‘Discover Historic Books’, and explore books from our partners’ collections and creative activities inspired by them.
ReadProf Thomas Roebuck’s article on ‘Great Expectation Among the Learned’, an example of the in-depth research into early modern learned books that underpins this project.