The Victoria County History (VCH) of England returns to its university home to reach 21st-century audiences in flexible new ways, with accessible print-on-demand publications and an interactive smartphone app.
A crowdsourced national history project
Founded in 1899, VCH is an ongoing project to write the history of every county in England, from the earliest times to the present day. Originally dedicated to Queen Victoria, it’s one of those continuing 19th-century projects – like the Oxford English Dictionary or Dictionary of National Biography – which tell the unfolding story of our nation, our places and people.
The VCH is written by local contributors across England, many of whom are volunteers. It’s a crowdsourced public history project, invented before those terms existed, and is based at the Institute of Historical Research (IHR), School of Advanced Study (SAS), University of London, with 17 counties currently active across England.
VCH ‘Red Books’ are well established as the authoritative works of county history in England – a familiar sight lined up on the shelves of university libraries and archives. In April 2020, Prince Charles, released a video message from his residence in Scotland with rows of VCH Red Books on the shelf behind him. But, until now, Red Books have been costly and difficult to access for individual readers, limiting their audience.
New ‘Red Books’ publishing
Now, with the support of the independent Victoria County History Trust, the Victoria County History is embarking on an exciting new phase: bringing the famous Red Books back to their original home in the University of London, to be published by University of London Press. They will be available via a print-on-demand service, in varied formats, opening them up to wider audiences, from specialist scholars to everyone interested in their own local place. And new digital media open up even more possibilities.
New VCH smartphone app
The VCH has also launched an exciting map-based smartphone app ‘A History of English Places’, which allows users to explore England’s rich histories by navigating historic map layers and 13,713 location pins, including content from more than 175 VCH volumes.
VCH local history and lockdown 2020
These accessible VCH histories speak to the renewed emphasis on our local places and communities which has emerged during the national and local Covid-19 pandemic ‘lockdowns’ of 2020. There are dramatic new local histories to be recorded. The new VCH Red Books and smartphone app are timely initiatives as more individuals explore their own localities and seek to connect with local stories, and as communities strive to build resilient places and confident local identities for the future.
Tradition and innovation
Professor Catherine Clarke, VCH director, said 'Our new publishing initiative honours the traditions of the Victoria County History – its iconic "Red Books" and its early history at the University of London – while also taking the project into the future. And the smartphone app puts the history of England’s places at your fingertips – so exciting, whether you’re exploring your local area, staycationing or discovering the past all around us.'
2. The Victoria County History of England was founded in 1899 and dedicated to Queen Victoria. It aims to complete authoritative, encyclopaedic histories of each county, from the earliest archaeological records to the present day. VCH studies cover topics from landscape and the built environment, to economic, religious and social history. Some volumes were published over a century ago, while others are now in progress or planned for the future. Seventeen counties are currently active across England. The VCH project is led by the Institute of Historical Research, University of London, where it is based in the Centre for the History of People, Place and Community. The Centre and VCH project are directed by Professor Catherine Clarke. The VCH first moved to the Institute of Historical Research in 1933, but Red Books have been published by external publishers since then. Recent VCH Red Books have retailed at £95 each. Under the new publishing initiative with University of London Press, readers will be able to choose from a variety of different formats at different price-points, from e-books to paperback and hardback. The first publications under this new model are expected from 2021. www.history.ac.uk/research/victoria-county-history
3. TheVCH smartphone app, ‘A History of English Places’ (www.history.ac.uk/a-history-english-places-vch-smartphone-app), is produced in partnership with Aimer Media and is available for iOS and Android operating systems. The free app gives access to a modern map layer and the first Ordnance Survey map (19th century), with 13,713 pins giving brief topographical information on English settlements, drawn from the Topographical Dictionary of England (Lewis, 1848). The free app (with an in-app subscription of £1.99 per month or £9.99 per year), gives access to digitised VCH histories.
4. The Institute of Historical Research was founded in 1921 is dedicated to training the next generation of historians, and to producing and facilitating ambitious, innovative historical research. The Institute helps foster public understanding of history and its social, cultural, and economic importance, advocating for the long-term future of the discipline and supporting its growth and development. It offers a wide range of services both onsite and remotely which promote and facilitate excellence in historical research, teaching and scholarship in the UK, by means of its library, events programmes, fellowships, training and publications. It is a leading centre for the creation of digital resources for historians and promotes the study of the history of London through its Centre for the History of People, Place and Community. https://www.history.ac.uk
5. The University of London Press was relaunched in September 2019 as an open access publisher, specialising in the humanities and social sciences. Since its inception, it has published over 34 titles, adding to a backlist of over 700, and has seen an impressive 300,000 downloads from all over the world. Based at the School of Advanced Study, the press was originally founded in 1910, and operated as Athlone Press between 1949 and 1979. The new University of London Press will play an integral role in shaping a more equitable digital publishing landscape by investing in collaborative, open-source publishing technologies. It plans to build on its strength in providing bespoke author guidance to establish a new enhanced publishing platform for research dissemination that extends to practitioners as well as scholars. It also recently committed to opening up a number of backlist titles in response to COVID-19, all of which will remain freely available in the future.