A more detailed version of the following text is available in the Transactions of the Radnorshire Society, Vol. LXVIII (1998).
The Powys County Archives Office was established in 1991 to serve the modern county of Powys and its predecessors the former counties of Breconshire, Montgomeryshire and Radnorshire. This is, of course, a huge area of approximately 2,000 square miles, and it is furthermore a sparsely populated one, with less than 120,000 people in all. The Archives has just three regular members of staff and is open to the public four days a week which requires personnel on site. We are therefore faced with the basic problem of exactly what sort of service can we provide to communities geographically as far apart as Ystradgynlais and Machynlleth?
|The main function of record offices is to collect and preserve original documents relating to the history of their counties, and to make them available for the public to consult under controlled conditions. This has always been a particularly delicate issue in Powys given the fact that the record office is often a long way away (sometimes considered to be in a different county) and not easy to reach, certainly by public transport. In short, how could we persuade members of local communities to hand over archival material to us when they might never be able to see it again? What could we do to give something of their heritage back to those communities?|
|These questions marked the very beginning of the Powys Digital History Project. We were starting to consider ways in which we could reproduce copies of documents and maps, and produce photographic copies of engravings and old photographs which might form part of a "research pack" to be located in each of the branch libraries across the county, when the Library Service installed networked computers in each of those branch libraries in 1996-7. Most importantly, those computers were connected to the Internet.|
|The Internet offers direct access to information and images held in other, remote locations. Most people think of America and Australia when they refer to remote access, but to us it seemed to offer a solution to the problem of accessing material held in the Archives much closer to home: after all, remote access in Powys can mean anywhere over twenty miles. Why not simply make the information available over the Internet? The difficulty for anyone without a computer is how to get hold of the information. Although the number of individuals and schools connected to the Internet is increasing it is still a minority. Fortunately, however, with Powyss local libraries on-line, it is possible for us to assemble Internet pages that members of communities can access through their local branch library.|
|However, the problem is not simply that the County Archives Office is inconvenient for many researchers. It is one of the more frustrating aspects of carrying out historical research in Powys that the records are located in a wide variety of repositories. The County Archives Office is one, and the National Library of Wales is obviously another, but there are many more. Each of the county museums has a large collection of photographs and often papers as well. The three area libraries at Newtown, Llandrindod and Brecon have a large collection of secondary sources and newspapers for each of their respective historical counties. The Herefordshire Record Office, the West Glamorgan Record Office and the Shropshire Records and Research Centre all have estate and other papers relating to the border parishes and beyond. There are other bodies to take into account such as the Clwyd-Powys Archaeological Trust in Welshpool, or the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments in Wales which is situated in Aberystwyth. And in addition to this material in the public domain there is a huge amount still in private hands in the local communities themselves.|
|In addition to the needs of adult researchers, we were keen to explore the opportunities of providing information for use in schools, based on the requirements of the National Curriculum. It is a disappointing fact that there are very few original sources from mid Wales in print for schoolchildren and students to use as part of their formal education. The National Curriculum obliges children studying history to use original sources, but how can a primary school miles from Llandrindod access relevant primary source material?|
|It is in this area in particular that the Internet offers significant advantages over conventional publishing, because the same information can be accessed in a variety of ways, using a variety of "front ends". Material dating from the Victorian period that has been used to illustrate the history of a given town can be accessed, for example, by those wishing to study the history of that community; or by schoolchildren wishing to study the history of the Victorians. Indeed, it is possible to go further, and to write pages specially designed for children to lead them through key aspects of the National Curriculum, which nevertheless take them to images already used in different contexts.|
|The new technology, therefore, and particularly the network infrastructure that was now in place in the county, seemed to offer us the opportunity to present archival material to students and local members of communities alike in a way that was easily accessible through libraries, schools and telecentres, as well as in a few homes. And so the Powys Digital History Project came into being.|