History Workshop 20, Uses of History, took place at Leeds Polytechnic between 21 and 23 November 1986. This was the second successive Workshop to be held at Leeds Polytechnic, following the success of the previous year’s event, which had attracted over 800 participants. The choice of theme reflected a growing tendency within the Workshop movement at this time to question how and why history should be studied. Workshop 20 also engaged with contemporary debates on the nature of the school history curriculum and the tensions between so-called ‘old’ and ‘new’ histories.
In the established manner, the Workshop began with a plenary session before breaking up into parallel sessions devoted to particular themes. Themes covered included ‘Women’s History’, ‘Black Experience: Afro-Caribbean and Asian History’, ‘The Irish in England/the British State in Ireland’, ‘Children’s History’, ‘Anarchism’, ‘A Sense of Place – Regional Culture and Working-Class Writing’, ‘Television and History: Record or Reconstruction’, ‘Social Welfare’, ‘Peace Movement’, ‘Policing and the People’, ‘Nostalgia’, ‘Capitalism, Socialism and the Use of Technology’, ‘History in School and Community’, and ‘Land, Labour, Life and Death in Pre-industrial Times’. Papers given included Feminism in Northern Ireland – the Past Decade, Channels for Black Politics, Libertarian Communism in Pedralba 1936, and Television and the Coal Dispute.
As had been the case the previous year, the women’s history strand and the anarchism strand were particularly strongly attended, with the anarchism strand running two parallel streams of papers. Beyond this, the Workshop showed a growing interest in the creation and consumption of history on a popular level, especially in the study of television history and also of nostalgia. This reflected the Workshop’s long-term concern with the study of how ordinary people relate to their history, and how history informs the lives and political struggles of those living in the present.