What is a workshop? It is a site of production, often at a small scale. It describes a moment in time where people gather to exchange knowledge, experience and techniques. As a verb, it relates to work-in-progress. To workshop is to use collaboration and improvisation to develop a performance prior to formal staging.
The History Workshop movement was established in 1967, a year before May 1968, that much-studied moment of radical reimagining. The movement sprang from a conviction that ‘history is too important to be left just to professional historians’, as founder Raphael Samuel put it. A workshop is not the academy. In meetings that drew together trade unionists and academics, students and members of the women’s liberation movement, the production of history became ‘a collaborative enterprise’ that was used to inform activism and social justice.
The movement’s activists founded History Workshop Journal in 1976; subtitled a journal of ‘socialist’ and later also ‘feminist’ history. Its first editorial called for the democratisation of history, its de-professionalisation and politicisation, taking aim at the ‘competitive individualism’ of the academy. In 2010, reflecting that the pages of the Journal had become ‘more staid and indeed more academic’, its editors announced a new type of workshop: History Workshop Online. Taking advantage of digital methods, networks and forms of participation, this project was intended to ‘reach more effectively beyond the academy’ and to ‘expand our range of expression’.
The launch of our new website marks another juncture in the evolution of History Workshop. After an intensive period redeveloping the digital infrastructure of History Workshop Online, we are dropping the ‘Online’ from our name. History Workshop has been trailblazing in historians’ use of the digital, but ‘online’ in 2010 is very different to ‘online’ in 2023 and beyond. In the intervening time, boundaries between digital spaces and the rest of the world have become ever more porous. The new website encompasses the many branches that have emerged from the History Workshop movement; providing a platform for our digital magazine and podcast, and a portal to History Workshop Journal and the Raphael Samuel History Centre, where in-person workshops continue today.
This website provides machinery and tools for our workshop. We won’t bore you with details of Search Engine Optimisation and plug-ins; but they are essential for us to extend digital tendrils outward, communicating history and reaching more readers. Without the inventive web developers at Happyserver, this project would be a pipedream. While the process has been painstakingly practical, it is founded in discussions about the politics of our choices. Fonts, categories and archives each have their own radical histories, and are integral to this website’s aspirations to legibility, accessibility and relevance.
Aesthetic changes are most visible, but the biggest innovation – and the one that we believe will have the biggest impact on the way that History Workshop is used – was to restructure our architecture of information. Radical categories are designed to make the rich archive accessible as a tool for research, teaching and learning. Over countless Zoom meetings and email conversations, we grappled with questions of categorisation. Are distinct categories required for Women’s History, Feminism, and Gender History? What qualifies as Public History or Activism & Solidarity in a publication dedicated to these endeavours? To these thematic ‘What’ categories, we added ‘When’ and ‘Where’. This could have been an opportunity to disrupt conventional chronologies and geographies by including oceans, prisons or the Anthropocene. In the end, functionality and simplicity won out: the blunt tools of continents and centuries make possible myriad thematic categories. Playing with different combinations, the reader can curate our content – browsing from below! – to find articles on queer history in America, or early modern migration, or global histories of family and childhood.
Who do we want to reach? The simple answer is everyone – as both readers and writers. We believe that the production and communication of history can be a radically democratic activity, taking place across the boundaries of the academy, and beyond them. People arrive at History Workshop seeking to understand themselves in the world, tracing histories of secondary modern schools in Britain or African communities in Asia. Others want to make sense of ‘unprecedented’ events in the news or to uncover lineages of radical activism; an article on the Black fist afro comb is a perennial favourite. Academics can keep their finger on the pulse of new research approaches, read beyond their specialism or arrive as striking workers in search of solidarity and labour history. An army of gamers have accessed our article on dungeons and dragons, medievalism and white supremacy.
Importantly, the histories we publish are free and accessible to all – we were doing open access before it was cool. But accessibility requires more than mere availability. Language and format can be forms of gatekeeping, signifying, in subtle but unmistakable ways, who history is for. As well as editing out jargon and footnotes, we are committed to using creative methods to communicate history; for instance, telling spatial stories with mapping tools. Our podcast explores conversation as a form of narrative, making historical thinking informal and engaging through sound. Recently, we have collaborated with illustration students, whose work is featured in this article.
Social media is, of course, a ubiquitous tool of communication. We ride the unpredictable algorithms of Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, but haven’t yet broken into dance for TikTok. These platforms provide instant bounce-back in the form of likes and retweets, but Twitter is not the world. Our monthly newsletter caters to those who like History Workshop to arrive direct to their inbox. A slower-moving, less ephemeral, set of conversations are captured in the comments section of our articles; in which people often share moving personal histories. In an age of British isolationism, History Workshop also reaches beyond national borders. Less than half of podcast listeners are from Britain and a quarter are based in the US, but people also tune in from New Zealand, South Africa and Russia. The majority of our newsletters are opened in the US.
Expanding who writes history and what questions are asked underpins the way in which we serve a diversity of readers. The best public history is not a one-way transmission, but a co-production. Activists, family historians, folk singers and drag artists have all contributed to History Workshop. We have collaborated with external projects like Windrush Strikes Back to develop community-produced histories of Black Britain, and are working with teachers on histories of migration, empire and race in school curricula. We are a platform for curators, archivists, heritage professionals and independent scholars – those who are deeply engaged in the production and practice of history, but may be writing from outside of the formal academy.
There is more work to be done. Over recent years, we have worked to address geographical and chronological gaps, but the categorisation process made starkly visible our weaknesses in African and Pacific history and in history before 1800. In 2022, we published a series on Risk and Uncertainty with a medieval and early modern focus, and we continue to pursue our initiative to commission histories of Africa and the African diaspora. We also seek to continually expand who writes for us, aiming to be a space for the widest range of radical voices. In line with Royal Historical Society reports on race and gender, this year we will begin to collect data on contributors in order to identify inequalities and take action to redress these through our commissioning practices. As a globally-read publication, we want to expand our perspectives by continuing to publish scholarship from beyond western Europe and North America.
Our work is unfolding alongside huge structural changes in academia. History Workshop Online was established in 2010, soon after the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition tripled tuition fees in the UK. The changing conditions of research, teaching and learning have been a concern of the digital magazine since its earliest days. As the university becomes ever-more a factory, market and business, the workshop provides an important ‘outside’ space of critical thought. This gives us scope for active solidarity. Across the past five years, we have platformed radical history in the making through reflections on UCU strike action, with our Picket Line Perspectives and The Strike That Made Me series. Paid editorial fellowships, meanwhile, provide early career scholars with an intellectual home, institutional affiliation, collegiality, and networks at the precarious juncture marked by the end of a PhD.
History Workshop is one of the few forums that showcases history for all alongside a peer-reviewed publication. While History Workshop Journal and the digital magazine have their own remits, editors and processes, we are closely linked in personnel and spirit. Increasingly, we inflect one another’s work. The recent Virtual Special Issue on Black British History was the first to feature content from History Workshop’s digital magazine, alongside articles from across the Journal’s history. In an accompanying podcast, Journal editors discussed the complex political and intellectual dynamics that have shaped the arc of Black British history, a field where much of the most pioneering work was driven outside of the academy.
Good public history enriches academic scholarship, generating exchange between radical questions, rigorous methods and creative communication. As editors, we support academics at all stages of their career to translate complex research into clarifying public history, often engaging in deep questions about the nature of history in the process. In our special series, editorial fellows coalesce cross-cutting conversations that transgress the chronological and geographic boundaries of academic history. Examples include for crisis and Covid-19, family history and radical friendship. A digital History Workshop can do things that are difficult within the rubric of a peer-reviewed academic article. There is room for the provisional, the political, the present-minded; for playfulness and mistakes; for value outside of the metrics that govern the Research Excellence Framework.
What does it mean to do radical history in this tumultuous, rapidly unfolding, moment in the early twenty-first century? History Workshop provides a space to write political history with a small and pluralistic p; that is, histories that engage with politics and the present. Editorial fellows and Journal editors alike are interested in how our world might be more just and in collective action to improve our shared reality. Working with a radical remit – expansively defined, rather than tightly policed – is a rare gift in academia. It kicks back against persistent presumptions that this is somehow rhetorical and lacks necessary nuance, mangling historical sources to ‘prove’ a contemporary point and producing ahistorical scholarship. Our contributors’ work shows how you can write from a radical tradition for public audiences and maintain complexity, rigour and thoughtfulness.
In an age of fake news and culture wars, the politicisation and manipulation of history abounds by right-wing governments and fascists alike. As we struggle to comprehend startling events and processes that lie beyond our own immediate experience, there is an urgent need for historians to engage with the messiness of public discourse. Our popular Historians’ Watch series is not intended to provide direct ‘lessons from history’ or to argue that the Black Death is the same is Covid-19. By providing historical depth and clarity where it is missing, we suggest that knowledge about the past might help us to grasp the present and think constructively about the future. It is radical to understand that the present is not the past, that things have been different and can be different again. And there are many ways of telling radical stories. Our Radical Objects series hones in on the social lives of things that are held in and passed through hands, pinned to jackets, worn on heads, eaten. They carry meaning across time and space, mediate our felt experience of the material world and allow us to remake it.
The workshop is also the place in which we work together as editors. The Journal is run as a large collective, with deep bonds forged by long-standing friendships and a commitment to exploring the politics of history. This ethos runs through the smaller editorial team at History Workshop. Collaboration involves generosity, but also making room for difference, debate and even conflict. Editorial decisions bring us face-to-face with contentious topics, ethical dilemmas and the politics of language, allowing us to learn.
History Workshop is the sum of its parts: a small space of production, a moment of exchange, a process of collaboration. It is made by historians and activists, podcast listeners and website developers, and the conversations that take place between us, across different mediums and temporalities. This website opens up the conversations of the past thirteen years and makes space for new ones to emerge. You are invited to join in.
Our special thanks to Dylan Spencer-Davidson and Michael Derringer at Happyserver for their work developing the new History Workshop website, and to the editorial collective of History Workshop Journal for their continued support of the digital magazine.