Connect to the past

Observations on online history

Although trade unions have played, and will continue to play, a decisive role in shaping economic and social developments in Britain, much of their history remains unknown and inaccessible to the public. The web- site www.unionhistory.info, called "The Union Makes Us Strong", launched at last year's TUC conference, aims to change all that. A partnership project between the TUC and London Metropolitan University, the site provides a showcase for the TUC Library Collections housed at the university.

The images and documents selected for digitisation are a valuable resource for analysing historical developments, as well as informing economic and social policy and practice in the 21st century. At the same time, they provide primary materials that allow us to connect with the working lives of our predecessors. The site presents not only a history of the British trade union movement since the development of organised labour in the early 19th century, but also a number of themed learning packages. For example, the General Strike Collection, comprising material collected by library staff in 1926, provides a unique insight into the story of Britain's most important industrial dispute.

The site also features digital copies of TUC congress reports from 1868 to 1968 - 18,000 pages recording the voices of giants of the labour movement such as Keir Hardie, Ernest Bevin and Will Thorne. These reports reveal how the trade union movement responded to war, the Russian revolution, the Depression of the 1930s and the social revolution of the 1960s, as well as how a motion by the Railway Servants at the 1899 congress led to the formation of the Labour Party.

The website, which has been awarded the CILIP Jason Farradane Award for outstanding work in the information field, attracts around 5,000 visits each month and has proved popular with school students, the media, academics, trade unionists and the general public. It is hoped that this valuable re-source will continue to grow and develop.

Ideas and comments on the website are welcome. Use the feedback form at www.unionhistory.info or e-mail tuclib@londonmet.ac.uk

Chris Coates is librarian of the TUC Collections at London Metropolitan University