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Local History Societies and Computers

Guidelines No. 1         Issue 1.2         June 2007

These notes have been compiled by members of the Computer Group of the Gloucestershire Local History Association and take the form of a series of questions and answers. They are aimed particularly at local historians who are considering using a computer or have just bought one and are looking to put it to work to help them with their projects. However, many topics should be of interest to more experienced computer users. The group plan to produce additional guide-lines dealing in more detail with some of the topics that can be only briefly addressed here.

It would be useful to us to have your views on these guidelines. Please send your feedback to the Chairman


Frequently Asked Questions         (FAQ)


1. Why should I use a computer ?
2. What can I do with a word processor ?
3. What would I use a spreadsheet for ?
4. Can I use a database?
5. Are here standards for recording that I could follow?
6. Can I share information or publish it?
7. Will there be Copyright or other restrictions on data that I want to include?
8. How do I use the Internet?
9. Can I scan text to save retyping it?
10. How do I convert originals to digital form?
11. What do I need to consider when converting originals?
12. What format should I use for my digital images?
13. What packages are available for processing digital images?
14. What if I want to draw my own maps or illustrations?
15. What sort of computer should I buy?
16. How can the Local History Association help?
17. Do I have to register under the Data Protection Act ?
18. What about security ?
19. Should I be concerned about future proofing?
20. Glossary of terms

1.     Why should I use a computer ?           [top]

If you or your Society is planning a project which involves keeping or making a record on paper, whether by compiling card indexes, notebooks, scrapbooks or albums, now is the time to consider whether this would be better done on a computer.

What do I mean by better, well do you realise that by typing your text on a word processor, you can quickly and easily make corrections, deletions or insertions, without having to type the whole page or chapter all over again?

Did you know that if you put the data you keep on your card index onto a database or spreadsheet, you can sort it in many different ways without having to copy it out again, and of course you can easily make those amendments.

Did you know you can easily print out answers to people's queries about your project and you can produce professional style publications, with photos and maps inserted in the text?

2.     What can I do with a word processor ?           [top]

Word-processing enables you to edit, amend, delete or insert a letter, word, phrase or sentence and check your amendments on screen before you print out your document. It also allows you to change font sizes, italicise, use different typefaces, and alter the layout of your paragraphs. What is more, modern word processors are very adaptable and you can add illustrations such as maps, drawings or even photographs to make your documents more informative.

Word processing software normally comes as standard with any computer, but you can also get standalone word processors, which work in a similar way, but cannot be used for other computer applications.

If you are typing up the text of an article or book, word processors are ideal. However, they also allow you to include tables to record lists of information, such as dates, grid references, brief descriptions etc. This makes it easier to manipulate the information you put in and if you need to move it around or insert a column, you can do it very easily. Tables also make it easier to convert your work to a different system, such as a spreadsheet or database at a later stage if you wish to.

Examples of popular word processing packages are Microsoft Word, Microsoft Works, WordPerfect and Lotus Word Pro

3.     What would I use a spreadsheet for ?           [top]

Spreadsheets are very useful for recording tabular information, especially if numbers or a mix of text and numerical values are involved. You can change the order of entries, select entries and carry out calculations on numerical data. They allow you to present the information in graphical form and the resulting graphics can be copied to word processed documents or other packages. Because they are comparatively easy to use they are very popular for recording tabular information but they have more limited facilities than database packages and they do have some specific weaknesses for historical information, for instance they do not recognise dates in a date-formatted field earlier than 1900. The best way to get around this is to separate a date into three fields, day, month and year, so that it is searchable. This is also useful if you have incomplete dates, e.g. you may only know the year, or perhaps the month and year and you cannot format an incomplete date.

You also need to be careful with a spreadsheet and make sure you save a copy before you sort or rearrange the data; it is possible to sort on individual columns and easily lose the data associated with it in the other columns. Try this on something unimportant and see what happens!

Nevertheless many people prefer spreadsheets to databases when relatively limited amounts of information are involved because they are easy to use.

Examples of popular spreadsheet packages are Microsoft Excel, Microsoft Works, QuattroPro and Lotus 1-2-3

4.     Can I use a database?           [top]

If your project involves a large amount of information that is suitable for storing in tabular form rather than lengthy textual descriptions, you will probably benefit from a database.

A database enables you to fill in data on the screen much as you would with a card index or filling in the boxes on a record form, or directly into tables. There are some very sophisticated packages around, but again most home computers come with something which is adequate and not too difficult to use. However, even the simplest do require some training. In fact designing and setting up a database requires a great deal of thought and planning, and this applies even if you are using traditional methods and are not using a computer. So be ready to involve yourself in proper preparation, it will pay handsome dividends in the long run.

Once your database is up and running you can manipulate and manage your information to get an enormous amount of value from it. All sorts of queries can be answered and you can search out answers from very large collections of records. Examples of popular database packages are Microsoft Access, Bekon Idealist, Paradox and Lotus Approach.

Spreadsheets (see FAQ 3) are a possible alternative where your needs are unsophisticated. They were originally designed for number crunching, but have mostly developed into a package that can be used as a simple database.

5.     Are there standards for recording that I could follow?           [top]

There are some standards in use for recording historical information, for instance, English Heritage produced one (MIDAS) for inventories recording historical sites and monuments and details are available from the National Monuments Record Centre at Swindon Tel: 01793 414600 or This standard applies to all types of records, whether or not they are computer based. For specific guidance on computer databases you may refer to the 'Digitising History' project at Essex University: . Using a standard will help you to have data which can be more readily exchanged and will make your initial task of designing a database more straightforward.

6.     Can I share information or publish it?           [top]

The ability to share information is a major benefit of using a computer. For many people the traditional publication is still the only vehicle open to them. Consequently much of your work will still end up in printed form and the word processing, or more sophisticated desk top publishing packages will be the most widely used. However modern computer packages are capable of linking with each other so that information in a spreadsheet or database can be transferred into your word processor. [Note that there are still limitations on the transfer of data from one user to another, largely because of the great variety of software packages in use. Guidelines on transferability will be published later ]

Electronic methods of communication are now in everyday use and information can be transferred by disc, e-mail or the internet.

A CD-ROM disc can hold a vast amount of data and is a popular method for distributing large image databases. Email is suitable for transferring small amounts of data but it is time consuming if large files are to be exchanged. Special software called Zip software can be used to compress files to make them smaller to transmit. The Internet has become so widely available through the World Wide Web that more and more information is being made available through Web pages Many Local History Societies have somebody within their membership who can set up a web site for them, and this enables them to make their information available to the wider world. If you do not then you can at least advertise your society on sites like the Gloucestershire Beehive site. In either case be sure to insert a hypertext link to the new Gloucestershire Local History web site:

If you want to make the results of your searches available to others you might also consider giving a copy to Gloucestershire Archives. Please ask the County Archivist for advice on this.

For Contact details see

7.     Will there be Copyright or other restrictions on data that I want to include?           [top]

If you are collecting data from a variety of sources, you should consider how other people feel about you using their material. Copyright could become an issue if you have a number of individual contributors. As a local history society project, any new material created will be Copyright of the Society

Copyright is a complicated issue, but the Record Office or County Library may be able to give you some basic guidance on this. The best rule is not to publish complete copies of documents or illustrations without checking; it is not simply a question of the age of the item.

Even for material which is out of copyright, you might consider consulting anyone who has been kind enough to pass it on to you, and acknowledge them in your publication - see Guidelines No 6.

8.     How do I use the Internet?           [top]

One of the best (and cheapest) handbooks to all things Internet is I Buckley's The Rough Guide to the Internet (10th edition, Penguin Books, 2004). You can get this from bookshops for £6-99 and it is really useful. It will tell you all you need to know about getting connected and how to use the browser.

Alternatively, read the documentation sent to you by your Internet Service Provider (ISP) when you sign up, or buy a magazine from the newsagents. There is so much advice about, that it is not necessary to repeat it all here. It is best not to be afraid of trying it out. Always keep a backup of your settings on your hard drive etc before you change anything.

9.     Can I scan text to save retyping it?           [top]

If you have the hardware, i.e. a scanner, you can scan text and get some software that will attempt to read it, not just copy it as an image. OCR (Optical Character Recognition) packages have greatly improved in recent years and if you have a lot of text to enter it might be worth considering. Bear in mind though, that you may have to do a lot of editing if the scanner misinterprets your document and this can be counter productive. Much will depend on the quality of your document, the typeface or font that it uses, its quality and contrast. Scanning a document and converting to a word processed document is one thing; if you need to separate that text into separate fields for a database, you may find it quicker overall to re-key it.

If you are thinking of buying a scanner, see if you can get the right software supplied as part of the deal. It can be more expensive to buy it later.

10.     How do I convert originals to digital form?           [top]

Digital images are images which can be processed by a computer. They may be scanned from a wide range of sources such as photographs, drawings, maps or even pages of text or they may be photographs taken with a digital camera.

The conversion of images to digital form will normally be done using a scanner. Most common is the A4 flat bed scanner which will scan material up to A4 in size. In addition there are 'film' scanners which are designed to produce high quality digital copies from negatives or slides. Some flat bed scanners have adapters which enable negatives or slides to be scanned.

Digital cameras produce image files directly without the need of a scanning device.

11.     What do I need to consider when converting originals?           [top]

This depends on how you intend to use the images and the quality of the originals. If you are likely to have originals of limited quality, for instance newspaper illustrations, or are converting text documents then a limited resolution is adequate, e.g. 200 dpi (dots per inch). Similarly, if the end product is to be viewed on a monitor screen, or pasted on a Web site, only limited resolution is needed. When you wish to digitise high quality photographic images and retain maximum detail – perhaps for archival purposes – then a higher resolution, e.g. 300 or 600dpi may be necessary. If the original is a 35mm negative or slide, which is likely to be enlarged then photo quality scanning (1200 or 2400 dpi) should be used. Remember however that file sizes of images can be very large (several megabytes), although this can be reduced by using selected formats (see FAQ12).

12.     What format should I use for my digital images?           [top]

There are many image formats used in computing. Raw image files, e.g. bitmap files, can be very large and inefficient in the way that they store the image data. Most imaging software will be able to process the most frequently used formats, these include TIF, GIF and JPEG. You may keep an 'archive' copy in bitmap or TIF form and use GIF or JPEG for use on the Web or for computer presentations. JPEG has the advantage that you can vary the quality of the image – lower quality for small file size and high speed – higher quality where size and speed are less important. Digital images will be dealt with in more detail in Guidelines No 3.

13.     What packages are available for processing digital images?           [top]

There are many packages available for image processing. Many of these are freely available as shareware (software which is available free for a trial period, after which a registration fee may be required ) or come with 'office suites' (software packages which include a number of compatible applications, such as word processing, spreadsheets, graphic presentations, etc, all looking very similar and working in the same way ). These will be adequate for most purposes. You will only need more sophisticated software if you wish to "artistically enhance" the images. Adobe Photoshop is one of the most popular imaging programs.

14.     What if I want to draw my own maps or illustrations?           [top]

For this you will almost certainly need a drawing package. Sophisticated drawing packages can be quite expensive, although 'last year's models' are usually available at a more reasonable price. These packages will allow you to draw your own illustrations from scratch, or import images and either modify them or add to them. If you wish to produce your own maps you can scan in a base map and then add you own particular information. Using these packages for producing logos or labels may be straightforward but producing professional looking maps or diagrams does require some expertise which you may acquire through practice or training.

One example of a drawing package is CorelDraw.

15.     What sort of computer should I buy?           [top]

It is possible that you may be reading these notes because you are a local historian who is thinking of buying a computer for the first time. There is no straightforward answer to the question of what you should buy as this will depend on what you want to do with the computer, now and in the future.

There are two main types of personal computer:

the 'PC' manufactured by firms such as Dell, Gateway, Evesham, Time, Tiny and many others and the 'Mac' which is only made by Apple.

Either type would be suitable and you would be well advised to talk to users of both types. In fact when considering a purchase it is important talk to as many friends or colleagues as you can with experience of what you want to do. Advertisements in national newspapers and of course computer magazines tell you what is on offer. The computer magazines provide much helpful advice on buying plus in depth reviews of the latest equipment.

At first it can be very bewildering but hopefully two or more people who you ask will come up with a similar specification and you will then be able to compare prices for that specification. However, you should note that some packages give you more support and promise a higher level of maintenance which may be an advantage to you. Price is not the only consideration. It is worth remembering that when you first start with a computer your needs may be small, but as you build up expertise, you will want to do more, so it may be worth trying to foresee your future needs and buying the highest specification you can afford.

The specifications on offer change (improve) at a remarkable rate and any figures given here would soon be out of date. A rough indication of what constitutes the current specification for a 'consumer' PC can be found in any national newspaper which carries advertisements for computer retailers. At any time their low to mid-range machines may well be the sort of machines that would suit your needs. However it must be stressed that you should look at the types of package available from a range of suppliers.

The computer group of the Local History Association has some members who are willing to give some general advice by telephone on the subject of computers, printers, software and related matters. If you would like to be put in touch with one of these people please contact the Chairman

Further details about hardware and software options are given in Guidelines No. 2.

16.     How can the Local History Association help?           [top]

The Local History Association is always ready to give advice on projects that societies may wish to undertake. There is now a Register of Projects, which is being held by the Gloucester Local Studies Library so that you can discuss your ideas with somebody who has done something similar. Please contact the Chairman

17.     Do I have to register under the Data Protection Act ?           [top]

If you are holding data about people, including names and addresses, or other personal details (including membership records), you should be aware of the Data Protection Act. Go to

18.     What about security ?           [top]

If you are keeping any records in electronic format, you must be aware of the possibility of data corruption or loss. It would be heartbreaking to suddenly find your computer had "lost" five years worth of work and you could not recover it. It is VITAL to make regular back-up copies and keep them in a secure place. Keep back-up copies in a different building if possible, perhaps at a friend's house.

You must also be aware of viruses. These are computer programs which if allowed to "infect" your computer can at best be annoying and at worst corrupt all your data. It is most important to ensure that your computer is equipped with adequate software to protect against viruses. Then be sure you use it for all new files that reach your computer from the Internet and disks and keep the virus software up to date so it can find new viruses.

The Record Office cannot yet provide you with secure storage for backups of your working files. When you have completed a project, please do present the Office with a copy, but they cannot take responsibility for long term preservation of this media. You need to take measures yourself to make sure that the data is preserved and copied to new software using new hardware as time goes by.

19.     Should I be concerned about future proofing?           [top]

Similarly to back-ups, you do need to consider whether your data files on your current computer are future proof. It would be wise to copy them into a form which is not software dependant and is more portable, e.g. to txt (text) or csv (comma separated variable) files. If they are on floppy disks or CDs, make sure you copy them to new technology before that format becomes redundant.

20.     Glossary of terms           [top]

Many sites on the internet provide detailed information about computing. Access to the Internet is available at all Gloucestershire libraries and at the Gloucestershire Record Office. You can try sites such as, and