Staffordshire Libraries Online History Festival

Staffordshire Library and Arts Service’s annual history festival, which usually involves over 100 events in libraries across the County went entirely online as a result of the Covid pandemic.

The challenge

The Staffordshire History Festival, which has taken place every September and October across Staffordshire Libraries for over a decade, has always been about connecting our communities and engaging all with the history on their doorstep, and further afield, and engendering a sense of our shared past and identity. 

Staffordshire History Festival logo

The festival usually involved a programme of activities and events across our library network, from author talks and ‘hands-on-history’ class visits to craft activities, history walks and history open days, working with local cultural partners, including our own Archives and Heritage Service, local clubs and organisations to local historians and enthusiastic re-enactors.

This year, due to the Covid pandemic, it quickly became clear that traditional format would not be possible. The challenge for us was how to engage with the people of Staffordshire of all ages, our partners and new stakeholders to develop a refined offer that could help people feel connected to their community during this challenging time, engage children, families and people of all ages and encourage informal learning in the home, encourage reading for pleasure and to raise the profile of the culture of Staffordshire through exploring it’s history and heritage. We also wanted to highlight the availability of our online library resources, such as Ancestry Library Edition or NewsBank, excellent and free ways to find diverting activity if spending a lot of time at home.

The solution

Our virtual team, comprising two librarians, decided to utilise our Facebook and Twitter social media platforms to reach out to our communities with a wide range of engaging, entertaining and informing content. We realised that a large number of people had been isolating, seeing less of friends or family and were feeling disconnected from their communities because of the pandemic, so we sought to use the festival as an opportunity to generate a sense of belonging, by connecting people to a shared past, community and national heritage. 2020 was marked by significant national historic milestones, including VE and VJ Day; The Battle of Britain 80th Anniversary and Blitz were an obvious choice for us to explore in a local and national context.

We had seen a huge rise in followers across our social media platforms following the initial lockdown ( a 132% increase of Facebook members and 11.6% on Twitter to date) and people had proven eager to see our daily posts and access our services. To draw our festival’s content together we decided on the hashtag #StaffsHistFest, which was used in over 1400 posts across Facebook and Twitter during the two month festival. This necessitated extensive research for content, planning, development and scheduling of posts using Facebook Creator Studio and Tweetdeck platforms as well as looking at what other organisations were doing online that we could signpost our followers to.

We were supported by our Archives and Heritage team who helped to promote the festival, provided Staffordshire images from their brilliant online ‘Past Track’ collection and also shared our posts and generated some original content in support of the festival including a fascinating video overview of the Stafford shoe industry.

Our programme evolved over the Summer and was launched at the start of September, with a marketing campaign supported by our County Council Communications team and local partner organisations and heritage venues such as Tamworth Castle:

  • Four themed history days in September and October – ‘The Battle of Britain’, ‘Staffordshire Hoard’, ‘Second World War Home Front and the Blitz in Staffordshire’ and ‘Staffordshire Places and Legends.’
  • Daily ‘Did you know’ history of Staffordshire posts, weekly online history quizzes, locally produced videos by staff, volunteers and partners, author evenings and Ancestry live workshops.
  • Regular posts to promote our eLibrary stock  on history themes and giving special attention to our Black History collection on the Borrowbox platform to link in with October’s National Black History Month.
  • Promotion of our online offer – Ancestry Library Edition, NewBank, Digital Unite family history guides, daily Oxford Dictionary of National Biography posts with a Staffordshire or Black History Month theme.
  • Posts to encourage engagement with partners (e.g. Staffordshire Past Track, Archives posts including Lockdown Memories, History Begins at Home website) and much sharing and retweeting of interesting and connected posts e.g. Imperial War Museum #BattleofBritain80 posts.
  • A programme of weekly activities and live workshops from the Staffordshire Creative Explorers Team with a programme on history themes – these provided a fantastic opportunity for families and schools to directly engage with history. 
  • A season of Black History Month themed short films by director Jason Young, the first, ‘Tunstall’, with a direct link to Staffordshire’s history. Three films were shown during the festival, with links exclusively available from our Facebook and Twitter pages. The season continues with further films being shown in November and December.

Decorative Black History Month poster

The impact

We saw huge engagement across our Facebook and Twitter accounts during the two months of the festival. This helped to raise our profile amongst our local target audiences, but also nationally and internationally with individuals, including authors such as historian James Holland or Dame Floella Benjamin, and organisations, such as the Imperial War Museum and British Pathé, interacting with our online content.

Facebook – our reach was in excess of 66,117 with total video views of 8106.

Twitter - we achieved 662,300 impressions, at an average of 10,600 per day. There were 5,300 video views on Twitter during with a total of 948 minutes of viewing.

Particularly popular were some of the locally produced videos by staff, volunteers and partners including a tour of the Nicholson Institute in Leek, local history videos from the Newcastle Library staff and a visit to the archaeological remains of RAF Perton.

  • 1897 people took part in our online quizzes
  • There were 945 views and 226 downloads from the Staffordshire Creative Explorers Wordpress site. We also received this great feedback that demonstrated the value of the workshops for children:

A huge thank you for facilitating the Staffordshire landscape workshop yesterday. My daughter was really excited … really enjoyed making up her landscape … It allowed her to use her imagination and creative expression…it is taking pride and place in her room. She said, "...I really enjoyed it because it's something I have never done before or considered…"

  • Ancestry showed an 30.6% % increase in searches compared to 2019
  • NewsBank showed a staggering 3209.5% increase compared to 2019
  • Our Borrowbox promotional campaign in support of festival and Black History Month was a great success. We have about 281 historical eBooks on Borrowbox, and during this period we had 522 issues from them.
  • 146 people viewed Black History Month films - Really enjoyed ‘Tunstall’ this evening
  • 128 people participated in online author events and interesting feedback regarding research received:

Refreshing honesty about how much research you do from an armchair and how much is with archive sources. Useful tips for doing the same. Appreciate the effort you go to visit the places where your novels take place so that you can capture the environment in your work.

  • 41 people attended across 3 Ancestry ‘live’ workshops and we received some wonderful feedback, that addressed our work to be inclusive and representative across the festival:

I was impressed that you covered the slavery and plantation records and made me aware of records in England that can be useful in tracing ancestors who were slaves. I have found tonight my ancestor in a Bristol parish where she was baptised by the family who bought her. I would never have even thought of looking at those records before your session…On behalf of all people of colour, thank you for your sensitivity and your knowledge.

We all hope that the Staffordshire History Festival will be able to take place physically in our libraries, museums and archives again in 2021, but we will look back on this year with some considerable satisfaction that we were able to transfer our aims to our digital platforms and that we were hugely successful in engaging our communities in a varied, innovative range of entertaining, educational and inclusive events, that continued in our tradition of fostering a sense of pride in community through a shared history. We are also proud to have brought such a range of diverting posts and resources to our community during these difficult times.

How is the new approach being sustained?

Staff and volunteers have gained skill and confidence in creating video content and more is promised for our season of Christmas posts and beyond.

We have a growing resource bank of useful videos to help promote our service – Ancestry, NewsBank, Past Track, and fun, entertaining and local interest videos which will remain accessible via our YouTube channel

The Staffordshire Creative Explorers activities resource Wordpress page, hosting activities is still available as a brilliant resource for library staff, schools and members of the public to access.

We are hosting an ongoing Black History Film season in collaboration with director Jason Young.

A series of history and science Zoom presentations is continuing as are author evenings through Microsoft Teams

We have learned and continue to learn about the most effective ways to engage our communities in Staffordshire and beyond and believe that in the post-Covid world there will still be a place for a more blended physical and virtual offer with all projects that we undertake.

We have applied much of the techniques and experience gained in planning and delivering the online Staffordshire History Festival to subsequent  online campaigns such as our current Christmas social media postings and the way that we promote our eLibrary, which has been hugely successful in encouraging online borrowing.

The virtual world affords the opportunity of a different kind of outreach, which raises our profile and encourages engagement with libraries and redefines what might have been considered our traditional physical offer.

Lessons learned

One of the main lessons learned is that there is an audience for history and cultural engagement online and a thriving network of partner organisations, enthusiasts, historians, authors, archivists and curators who are only too happy and appreciative to see you share their work and will also share yours and will follow your profile back, thus increasing reach.  

Creative explorers promotional poster

Many of the lessons learned have been the gaining of technological experience and confidence around creating video and other online content using editing software, Canva and using online communication platforms such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams.

Useful experience in adapting scripts for social media, in particular, Twitter with the limited number of characters available and usefulness of handles and hashtags, has helped to streamline later work.

We are still negotiating the vagaries of using Facebook for engaging with our audience and promoting library services, but we continue to learn how to get the best out of this platform.

Evaluation of a social media campaign has encouraged us to better explore what the Facebook and Twitter analytics mean and what demonstrates success, or otherwise. ‘Reach’ and ‘engagement’ are much more important that how many likes, shares or retweets a post receives for instance.


Scott Whitehouse

Stock Services and Activity Officer

Staffordshire Library and Arts Service