The Story of Leodis – photographic archive of Leeds

Today’s post comes from Senior Librarian Manager Louise Birch who will take us back in time to explore the origins of the Leodis website, and what it was like to be an indexer of images.

The year is 1999, Tony Blair is Prime Minister, Tracey Emin’s ‘My Bed’ exhibits at the Tate, about 12 million people in the UK have internet access and along with it a growing fear of the Y2K bug.

And a small photograph sharing site is born.

When the Leeds City Council website team built the city’s first website, a number of heritage images were included to create interest.  The images came from the Local & Family History Library collections and until 1999 had only been accessible to those able to visit the library and search the card catalogue.

One of our card catalogues

Those first few online images were scanned and indexed by the Local History staff, because who better to research and write the descriptions than the staff who worked daily with the information at their fingertips. As public interest in the online content grew, Leeds Libraries saw an opportunity to promote the collection and make it easily accessible for a wider audience, so with a 2001 grant from the New Opportunities Fund (now the Big Lottery) we had two years to bring our vision online.

The project was managed by the Library service and the website built by the Council webteam, our aim was to make available the 40,000 images of Leeds held in our physical collections and those in the local collections of branch libraries including Morley, Rawdon, Rothwell and Horsforth.  Along with these we worked with local partners including Leeds Civic Trust, the Thoresby Society, Leeds Museums and Galleries and West Yorkshire Archive Service to host their content on our new online platform

Image of York Road showing City Engineers survey notes – Leodis.net

Our largest collection is that of the City Engineers. Taken from around 1890 to the 1960s these images were working records for the City Council engineers, documenting areas of municipal concern including pre ‘slum’ clearances or road alterations.  Today they provide a great record of changes to the city.  At some point the City Engineers Collection was physically split between Libraries and West Yorkshire Archives but through Leodis the collection has now been digitally reunited.

For the two years the project was funded a team of indexers, data inputters and scanners worked to research each photograph and create a digital version joining the text and the image together online.

Everything was done in house. Three high quality Epsom scanners allowed us to digitise the images while the Local & Family History Library provided the resources needed to investigate each image and create the written descriptions and keywords. If there is anything a librarian knows how to do and how to do well it’s create and use keywords and save things for lasting accessibility – our extensive collections, card catalogues and databases are testament to this.

Once, a long time ago, indexing was one of my early roles working for Leeds Libraries.  Our office was on the first floor of Leeds Central Library, in the room now home to Studio 12.  There was always a stack of red skips by the office door, each one filled with slim boxes of photographs, not unlike the packets you got back from the chemists after your holidays. These images were usually A5 in size and black and white.  Sometimes they had markings on them, lines drawn in pen and measurements listed but mostly they were untouched.  What made these special though was the information that came with them. Each box listed the area the images were taken in and the exact date they were taken, but if you were really lucky there would be a map also.  A detailed plan of the area visited including street names, house numbers and sometimes even notes on the map of where the photographer stood to take each shot.  This is why working documents work so well for heritage projects, so much information is recorded that for the librarian or historian working years later from these documents, so many questions already have answers.

The processing of images took three stages, first it would be scanned and given an ID number, a mix of the date it was scanned and a randomly generated digit.  From here it was passed to the Indexers.

Maps & Trade directories – where research begins

The Indexers, a mix of full time and part-time staff had seats around three large wooden tables in the centre of the room, no pcs in front of us but an ever changing selection of local history resources and of course the ever present biro, magnifying glass and an edition of John Gilleghan’s ‘Leeds: An A-Z of Local History’.  As you opened the lid of the box of photographs you would first check to see if you had a map, then check it mapped the location written on the box lid and confirm the date.  Then it was off upstairs to the second floor Local and Family History Library to find OS maps from the same time period and trade directories which would tell you more about who lived and worked in the premises shown in the image.  Depending on the image you might grab a couple of local history books for the area, to round out your description with some social context or check the newspaper archives for articles about big events pictured.

Once the photo was indexed and the title, date, keywords and description attached to the back, (always written in black biro as this has least chance of fading over time) the image was handed to the data inputters who sat around the outside of the room at pcs.  They would type in the information and add this to the ID number, digitally joining the image to the text.

Over the two year funded period thousands of images were added to the site and made live, allowing for the first time ever people outside the city and even on the far side of the world to access these historical images. 

Some of our local history resources

A key feature of the Leodis site is its ability to record public comments. Not only has this added to the local history knowledge of the Local History department but it has allowed us to check our facts and enhance our descriptions.  It has also built up a huge collection of social history.  As Indexers we would focus more on the content of the image, the street is cobbled, old gas lights are visible, that sort of thing.  Where we had further knowledge we added it – images of homes demolished during so-called ‘slum’ clearances talked about the living conditions and effects they had on the community but we were always limited to only writing about what we knew. This new comment function allowed users to have a voice and share their experiences, ensuring they didn’t get lost.  Once the public were able to add comments we began to see the sort of stories and memories added that we had previously no record of.  On images of the J. W. Roberts factory in Armley, we note the link between the high number of deaths in the area and the asbestos being produced by the factory, but it is only in the comments section that we see memories emerge of summer snow storm like scenes in the local school playground and families who suffered great losses from mesothelioma.

J. W. Roberts Factory, Armley – Leodis.net

By the time the funded project came to an end Leodis had proved its value with performance figures and data showing a huge level of engagement. Instead of closing the project with its existing images it was merged into the Library service and a small team were kept on to continue scanning, researching and uploading content.  Today the Leodis website is managed as part of the Local & Family History Library and is still added to daily by a team of people with the local history resources right there at their fingertips.

Anatomy of a Leodis Image

Title – In bold at the top we have the title given to the image, usually chosen because we thought it best reflected the image.

Subject ID – The first part shows the date the image was indexed, in this case the 29th December 2011, the second set of digits is a randomly generated number.

Location­ – Tells us where in the city the image was taken. These can change over time, for example the Leylands no longer exists as it has been swallowed up by the town centre, however for years it was the heart of a thriving Jewish community.

Subject Year – A date will only be shown here if we have the whole date (DD/MM/YYYY), otherwise any dates we do have will be listed below in the description.

Keywords – These will have been decided at the time of indexing but can be added to later, the image above shows the Reference Department of the Central Library so these are the terms used.

Copyright– This tells us who owns the image. The majority of the images on Leodis are owned by Leeds Libraries however we do host images for others including West Yorkshire Archives and a number of individuals.  We are able to sell and license any Leeds Libraries images but this does get trickier if the ownership belongs to another person or organisation. In these instances it is always worth getting in touch with us to see what we can do.

Class number– This refers to the individual item, which box it goes in and which shelf that box sits on. 

Description – This is where we describe what you can see in the image and what it means, it’s the story of the image.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Mick Agar says:

    A round of applause to all concerned with this wonderful resource.

    1. Hi Mick,
      Thank you very much for your comment – we’re really pleased you enjoyed the article!
      Thanks,
      Antony
      Librarian

      Central Library
      Leeds

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