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Extending the Digit: Away with the Pixels in Birmingham

Historic Environment Records Forum Winter Meeting, 2010,
Birmingham and Midland Institute, Birmingham

Welcome from the Chair
Chris Webster, Somerset County Council HER

HER Forum's return to Birmingham produced another very successful meeting with a substantial turnout. Despite the constant news of financial cuts in the public sector, there was a sense of "phoney war"
with few concrete plans for local or national organisations. This uncertain future contrasted with the clear need for change brought about by the ideas expressed in the shelved Heritage Bill, and expressed in PPS 5.

The Birmingham meeting was intended to address several areas that had cropped up in email discussions over the past year or so. These focused on digitisation (whatever is meant by that term in any given context) and also the contentious question of the definition of Event in a HER context. There was also a selection of other talks, as can be seen below, giving a wide view and news of issues relevant to HERs.

The current uncertainties mean that the next meeting will be in Birmingham again and, as usual, any interesting news of projects and initiatives will be most welcome.

What we’ve been up to lately: The English Heritage HER Audit Programme and the ‘HER Health Check’.

Bruce Howard (EH Heritage Information Partnerships Supervisor) and Nick Davis (EH Heritage Information Partnerships Officer)

The English Heritage Information Partnerships (HIPs) team seeks to serve as an interface between English Heritage, Historic Environment Records and other heritage databases within England. Its aim is to facilitate a flow of information to and between such services and to encourage best-practice in recording and database management. In November 2010 the HIPs team undertook a telephone ‘health check‘ survey of all of the 84 local authority HERs/SMRs in England. This sought to gather data on the likely impact of forthcoming local authority spending cuts on these services and stemmed from the HPR Compliant HERs meeting on 27-10-10.

It was understood from the outset that the situation revealed would be a rapidly evolving one, but it was seen as being a worthwhile exercise to gain a ‘snapshot’ of the current picture in order to identify potential problems and analyse possible trends, inform action at the national level and ensure that channels of communication were open between HERs and English Heritage.

Mindful that the information would have a very short ‘shelf life’ the data was collated rapidly and distributed to the ALGAO HER Committee, the EH Local Authority Historic Environment Liaison team and EH regional inspectors and policy advisors. The overall statistics of the anticipated cuts are given in tabular form below.


Percentage Cut Statistics (National by Authority Type)

Type of Authority

Number providing data

Highest %

Highest % (confirmed)

Lowest %

Lowest % (confirmed)

Average %



35% (nc)


10% (nc)





40% (nc)





National Park







Joint Service




15% (nc)





40% (nc)







20% (nc)












(nc = Not confirmed)

Percentage Cuts: Authority by Region





Total Sample


Highest confirmed


Lowest confirmed


East Midlands







East of England







North East







North West







South East







South West







West Midlands







Yorkshire & Humber







 Additional details were also revealed as to the measures being explored at authority and departmental level to deal with budgetary constraints. These included: restrictions to travel and subsistence payments (26); reductions in office space (12) and (in various forms) reductions in staffing levels (10). Also revealed was that 22 HERs are presently at least considering raising their charges or extending the range of services on which charges are levied.     

It is intended that another survey will be undertaken towards the beginning of 2011 to refresh the data.

Changing the subject to another, not completely unrelated, topic, HIPs have also been busy over recent months with the HER Audit Programme. From the HIPs perspective, participation in the audit process provides HERs with a means of shaping their plans for the future whilst also providing a support for these services within the framework of their host authorities during these pressured times.

The full audit involves the production of a report, structured according to a specification which allows the HER to explore the full range of facets that comprise its work and management. This serves as the foundation of an action plan, setting out the HER’s future goals. A review of progress towards these goals and the revision and development of the Action Plan then form the core of a 3-5 year cycle of audit revisits.

The HIPs team will be on-hand to provide assistance and guidance with the project and we are currently able to provide a grant of £1500 for those participating in a full audit (made up of a £1000 ‘start up’ grant, with an additional £500 being made available on receipt of the finished report). Those participating in audit revisits, meanwhile, may receive a £500 grant to undertake the process of re-evaluation. These resources are, of course, subject to availability. However, if you are interested in starting an audit or if you would like to discuss the process and what it involves, however informally, please contact us at .   

Digitisation in the HER…. Out of the frying pan?

Catherine Hardman (Archaeology Data Service)

Over the past few years many Historic Environment Records (HERs) have considered undertaking digitisation programmes on their documentary holdings. These documents include; fieldwork reports, historical documents, journal articles, fieldwork photographs, historical photographs and historic maps. Each HER will have a different set of issues to consider when they make these decisions, different levels of resources available for the programme, and different levels of support from their county council. This paper considers the pros and cons of undertaking this sort of work.
There are number of reasons why an HER may wish to undertake a digitisation programme, but there are two relatively common ones:

1. The HER may want to free up shelf space and destroy our hard copy: If this is the case then the HER really should think carefully about the management overhead involved in looking after the digital version of the reports/articles/photographs as they will be the only copy of the information available. Not only can digital versions take up a relatively large amount of server space that some public bodies may struggle to release, but also digital archives take just as much looking after as hard copy archives. In addition, producing an effective and useful digital resource is not as simple as undertaking a quick scanning programme; the real costs fall on the work required in indexing. Even with specialist natural language processing software, creating a useful index to the scans can be excessively time consuming.

2. The HER may want to put all their information on line : Greater access to journal articles or grey literature reports is something that most people in the profession seem to support, however close thought needs to be given to the issue of copyright, you don’t necessarily have to hold the copyright yourself but you may require permission from the copyright holder to disseminate their work on line (see  for answers on frequently asked copyright questions or seek advice from in house legal teams). While allowing access on line may be consider a cost effective measure, freeing up HER officer’s time from answering a proportion of their routine enquiries, greater access may decrease income generation possibilities.

Britain from Above – Digitising the Aerofilms Collection

Mike Evans, Head of Archives, EH National Monuments Record

Aerofilms Ltd

Aerofilms Ltd is one of the most famous and most important names in the history of aerial photography. The company was founded in May 1919, the key figures being the well known pioneer aviator Claude Graham-White and Francis Wills, who had served as an observer in the Royal Naval Air Service. The new business was based at Hendon, where Graham-White already had aviation industry interests. The company developed in the inter-war years to become one of the main players in the new commercial aerial photography industry, focussing particularly on photography of Great Britain and Ireland.

At the outbreak of the second world war Aerofilms staff went into uniform, with many forming the core of the central interpretation unit at Medmenham. The company began operations again in January 1946, still with Wills at the helm, but now as part of Hunting AeroSurveys. Aerofilms flourished and became a household name through its own publications and the widespread use of its images. In 1997 the business was acquired by Simmons Geomatics, who in turn sold it on to the Swedish multinational Blom ASA. Traditional Aerofilms work was not central to the business plans of either organisation, and in 2006 the last entry in the Aerofilms flight registers was made.

Aerofilms Ltd was unique in its longevity, and in the consistency and quality of its photography.

The Aerofilms Collection

After several years negotiation English Heritage, in partnership with the Royal Commissions on the Ancient and Historic Monuments of Scotland and Wales purchased in 2007 the Aerofilms Collection of oblique photography from Blom ASA, with financial support from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and other donors. Blom ASA retain ownership of the vertical archive.

The Collection contains:
• 2369 albums
• 1.2 m negatives
• Flight registers and day books

The significance of the Collection rests in several factors:
• The breadth of coverage – every settlement of any size is covered
• The pre-war coverage – the partners existing holdings date predominantly from the 1940s onwards
• The time-depth of the collection – it constitutes a unique picture of the changing face of Britain in the twentieth century.

The Britain from Above Project

Currently access to the collection is limited by its physical format and the lack of finding aids. The Britain from Above Project will conserve, digitise and catalogue the earliest 95,000 images in the collection, covering the period 1919 – 1953, and put them online on a website developed and hosted by RCAHMS.

The Project also includes an activity programme, beginning in 2012, which will involve:
• A programme of talks and presentations to encourage involvement
• Virtual volunteering – asking people to help us site material and to add their own local information and memories
• 16 specific projects across the UK to encourage engagement with the Collection by groups who might not otherwise interact with heritage or archives.
• Exhibitions and a publication
• Researching the development of commercial aerial photography and Aerofilms place within it.

The Project is starting in February 2011, and we plan to have a website online by the end of 2011. Britain from Above will continue to 2014, with financial support from the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Foyle Foundation, as well as the partners. If you want to know more or to be kept in touch with progress on the Project, email us at 

Policing the past, protecting the future: Tackling Crime & Anti-Social Behaviour in the Historic Environment

Mark Harrison – Policing Advisor, English Heritage

There has been legal protection for buildings and sites of historic interest in the UK since 1882. Initially only the most important ancient sites were protected, such as Stonehenge and the great castles. Over the years, as change in our environment has become more rapid, and particularly after WWII when major rebuilding was necessary, parliament has added to the protection system.

The schedule of monuments started in 1882 was initially just on one piece of paper. There are now 20,000 such sites that are given the highest levels of legal protection.

Buildings started to be listed after WWII by a Government keen to protect those historic buildings that survived at a time when there was widespread demolition and rebuilding within the UK. There are now some 500,000 listed buildings across England that are offered high levels of protection, with grade I and II* recognised as being the most important and of equal status to scheduled monuments.

Conservation areas were first protected in the 1970s. These area designations for rural or urban environments, are for local authorities to use to protect areas (i.e. more than one building) that have a character that may come from a designed uniformity or a merely a consistency in styles and materials. There are now some 9,000 conservation areas with an estimated 1.5 million buildings in them protected from demolition.

Since then, added to the list of historic environment designations are the Registers of Battlefields and Parks and Gardens, Protected Wreck Sites, Protected Military Remains and World Heritage Sites. National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty also have an acknowledged cultural heritage aspect to their attraction and protection.

Did England become more interested in its history over the 20th century? This is possible and may be an effect of rising education standards. However the much more likely explanation for the increasing protection is the greater threat that is posed by ever-increasing rates of change and consumption, combined with an increasing recognition of our responsibilities to each other and future generations.

Acknowledging the threat and the aspiration to hand over our historic sites to the next generation in as-good or better condition (the definition of sustainability) Parliament has provided specific offences in law to protect them against damage and unlicensed alteration.

There are, of course, a host of other mainstream offences that offer the sites protection: criminal damage, theft, arson etc.

The task given to the authorities by Parliament is clear. But in reality the split of responsibility between local authorities, the police and English Heritage, the relative rarity of incidents and the lack of expertise and understanding of the nature of the harm has, in English Heritage’s opinion at least, meant that task has not been fulfilled as well it might.

In response to the perceived need for a more coordinated approach, English Heritage and the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) seconded Chief Inspector Mark Harrison (Kent Police) to act as policing advisor and to develop the Heritage Crime Initiative.

The key objective is to set up a sustainable coordinated approach to crime reduction amongst the statutory agencies and stakeholders. The system has to recognise the limited and shrinking resources available, but also the great enthusiasm and mass appeal of our historic environment.

There are 450,000 volunteers working within the heritage sector; 4.5million members of EH and the National Trust; and, 70% of the population have visited at least one historic site in the last year.
The overarching objective is to develop a coordinated working between the enforcement agencies including the Police, Crown Prosecution Service, local authorities and English Heritage, Non-Governmental Organisations and local community groups that seeks to:

Raise awareness of the existence and significance of heritage assets at a national, regional and local level and to provide agencies, stakeholders and local communities with the knowledge and understanding of –

• Heritage assets and the potential threats posed to them;

• Preventative measures;

• Investigation techniques, evidence gathering and forensic analysis;

• Interventions, including prosecution, alternative means of disposal and the development of impact statements.

The overarching aims of the initiative will be the will seek to develop and implement an intelligence-led approach that provides an understanding the extent, typology, location and offender profile of crime and anti-social behaviour within the historic environment.

The current economic situation will demand that such a model will be required to deliver preventative and enforcement activity that is effective realistic and achievable within existing and anticipated resource levels and is sustainable and with a capacity to grow its coverage and effectiveness over time.

Good Practice Guide for Local Listing: Update
Gareth Wilson: Local Engagement Project Officer, English Heritage

PPS 5 underlines the importance of local heritage to local plan making, as well as the role of the community – in partnership with local authorities – in managing aspects of the historic environment. The release of a good practice guide has been highly anticipated by local authorities and the voluntary sector, both of whom are seeking to capitalise on the local engagement opportunities provided by PPS 5.

English Heritage are due to release to a draft of the guide for public consultation in early 2011, with a view to publishing the final document in the summer of 2011. The guide builds current good practice and is based upon a detailed study of the local lists maintained by around 50% of all local planning authorities across the country.

Based upon current understanding of how local lists operate the guide will focus on five main areas of interest:

1. Selection criteria: setting out the objective basis for adding assets to the local list
2. Local development framework: where required, putting in place a local policy or supplementary planning document that directly supports the local list and strengthens its role within the planning system
3. Management framework: the set of processes that underpin the creation of the local list including how assets are nominated, assessed and added to the list
4. Encouraging local involvement: ensuring that the preparation of the local list is a partnership between the local authority and local people
5. Strengthening links to the HER: ensuring that local list information is publicly available and that the information supporting the list is of sufficient quality and detail

Work is also underway on the preparation of a set of case studies that will accompany the guide, clarifying specific areas of interest. In addition, a number of projects are about to commence looking at strengthening the links between HERs and local listing. A total of four projects are being funded as a subset of the HER 21 programme. These projects will focus on specific aspects of the relationship between HERs and local listing including:

• assessing the value of HERs as a data source for researching/identifying candidates for local lists
• making information on local lists accessible electronically via HER, ideally via the Heritage Gateway
• encouraging community involvement in the development and enhancement of local lists
• linking local list information to planning application systems
• verifying, updating and enhancing current local list records including assessing the fit of local list data with national heritage data standards

FISH Interoperability Toolkit Revision and Extension Project

Stuart Jeffrey, Archaeology Data Service

The Forum on Information Standards in Heritage (FISH) is a long standing organisation working to co-ordinate, develop, maintain and promote standards for the recording of heritage information. The forum consists of a core group of representatives from heritage organisations and related interests, plus a wider membership which serves to link together the community of interests in heritage information standards. Acting for FISH and funded by English Heritage the Archaeology Data Service (ADS) started work in June 2010 on a project to update an online suite of tools to facilitate data exchange between organisations within the heritage community, primarily Historic Environment Records.

This project builds on an original FISH Interoperability Toolkit Development project, funded in 2004 by English Heritage, which successfully created a set of formats and protocols for use with data held by HERs. These formats and protocols were developed to provide the heritage data community with an essential infrastructure of shared standards and data exchange schema. Clearly sector wide changes such as the Heritage Protection Review (HPR) and the continued development of MIDAS Heritage mean that the original Toolkit has decreased in utility over time since its inception in 2004. The project to enhance and update the original Fish Toolkit also fits with the objectives outlined in English Heritage Research Programme for Information management innovation. Here the objective is to develop new approaches which improve understanding and management of the historic environment. To fulfil these objectives the project aims to update and promote the Toolkit’s support for the MIDAS Heritage data standard and to develop and enhance the Toolkit in line with feedback from the historic environment community.

The current FISH Toolkit revision and extension project has four main elements:
1. Updating of the expression of MIDAS heritage in eXtensible Mark-up Language format (MIDAS XML) schemas to incorporate changes to the MIDAS Heritage data standard and alteration of the Data Validation tool to reflect this. This tool allows users to check that their MIDAS XML documents are valid for the MIDAS schema.
2. A concordance tool – This tool allows users to match two different XML documents created at different times and manage new and/or updated records.
3. A mapping tool – this tool allows users to map their own XML outputs to the MIDAS XML schema and store the resulting mapping permanently in a transform file called an eXtensible Style-sheet Language Transformation file (XSLT). This can then be used to automatically transform future examples of users XML data into valid MIDAS XML.
4. A spatial data enhancement tool - to automatically generate and verify spatial elements from MIDAS XML by conversion and/or lookup, for example converting OSGB 36 coordinates into WGS84 coordinates. It will also allow them to be expressed as Geographic Mark-up Language (GML, a subset of XML).

These elements of the project support work taking place in the context of  HPR by facilitating improved rigour in data structure (and thus benchmarking and interoperability) and by facilitating the enrichment of HER datasets from external resources e.g. Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS). In addition, the project aims to support English Heritage’s research theme of studying and developing information management through the continued development of MIDAS XML and through the creation of tools to map arbitrary data sets to the MIDAS standard.  Primarily, however, the project seeks to develop and contribute to the sustainability of an information and data management standard (MIDAS XML) that has become widely used and valued within the historic environment sector. The ADS’s work on the project is approaching the user testing phase and a number of HERs will be participating in this during which time explanatory, training and help materials will be developed. Following testing there will a number of training opportunities for HER users offered by the ADS in conjunction with English Heritage.

So what is an Event? Revisiting past debates

Stewart Bryant, Chair, ALGAO UK