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Accessing our archival and manuscript heritage

Introduction

The study of manuscripts is widely regarded as one of the most active areas of current research in medieval studies, and the number of people seeking to develop their knowledge of original sources is increasing all the time. There is a steady increase in postgraduate students in Medieval and early Modern Studies in the UK and around the world, whose ever more specialised research topics require access to original material and advanced research skills. At the same time, there is a growing demand by librarians, archivists and curators to acquire a working knowledge of palaeography in order to respond more effectively to researchers' needs or to support their own professional requirements. But by far the greatest interest comes from the research boom in family and local history, which makes for an overwhelming number of potential students of manuscripts all over the world.

In line with these trends, user needs and expectations for better provision of online support for research and lifelong learning in this field are also rapidly changing. A wide range of public and private sector initiatives, as well as high-level projects, such as the JISC-funded Subject Portals Project, are rising to meet such challenges. Yet, within this innovative environment of developing broadly based online research support services, subject-specific applications targeting discrete user communities are sometimes overlooked.

Senate House Library, University of London (SHL) is in prime position to satisfy the online research requirements of lifelong learners in the field of Manuscript Studies. The Library can take advantage of the internationally-renowned Palaeography Collection and services, the success of its Palaeography - Developing the National Resource Project funded by the Research Support Libraries Programme (RSLP) from October 1999 to July 2002, the physical and virtual facilities for teaching and research offered by the Centre for Manuscript and Book Studies, and its Manuscript Studies Portal currently under development.

Accessing our Archival and Manuscript Heritage is funded by an award of ?75,000, comprising funds of ?67,000 from the former Electronic Access to Resources in Libraries (EARL) Consortium for Public Library Networking plus a grant of ?8,000 from the LASER Foundation. Its purpose is to fund the creation and development of a specially-dedicated web interface for lifelong learners interested in archives, manuscripts and manuscript studies. It is seen as an important demonstrator project, showing how a major academic library can develop facilities which respond to the needs not just of the academic community but also of those in the wider world who have a serious interest in original source materials for this kind of study. The content to be developed will form part of the Manuscript Studies Portal under development at Senate House Library, University of London. Representatives from the former EARL board and the Laser Foundation are advising during the development work.

One of the main deliverables of the project will be the web interface for lifelong learners. Underpinned by leading edge portal technology, meeting national and international portal standards, the web interface, a prototype of which is already under development, will provide access to key digital content. Through the interface, lifelong and independent learners will be able to uncover many relevant resources in research libraries, which may previously have been unfamiliar to them. Working closely in co-operation with public library networks and consortia, the project will address directly the information and research needs of family and local historians and genealogists, and other key lifelong learning communities. The outcomes and lessons of working closely with these groups will inform further development projects, for example, with local schools and further education institutions.

To help steer the development and content of the web interface, there will be complementary focus groups, seminars and visits to Senate House Library, University of London, for family and local historians and genealogists, using the facilities of the Dr Seng Tee Lee Centre for Manuscript and Book Studies. The final project report will include a detailed evaluation of the technical, management and user issues relating to the creation of this dedicated interface, with recommendations as to future strategy, and will be disseminated widely.