Published 17 August 2021

Summer School Spotlight: Alex Leigh

Tell us a little bit about yourself

I’m currently undertaking a joint PhD with City, University of London and The National Archives, so I’m supervised by both of those institutions.

I’m living in London at the moment but am originally from Buxton in the Peak District.

My PhD project broadly looks at how people generate new knowledge from archival information. I’m interested in how people interpret and connect archival records with other information, creating new interpretations and histories that can be told with that information.

My background is in classical archaeology and ancient history, which I studied as an undergraduate. I then came through digital humanities to my current research focus.

I’m interested in how we make meaning from various information sources. How do we interpret archives and physical artefacts so that there’s a story? I think that’s what attracted me to the summer school project I’m working on now as it involves working with lots of different materials and creating a narrative around that.

Away from my PhD I like to switch gears and enjoy doing practical, crafty things. I make clothes and enjoy art and sketching. Recently I started volunteering at a local community garden which has been really nice.

Why did you apply to join the DC Labs summer school?

I’ve been following DC Labs on Twitter for a while which is how the summer school came up! 

The project I’m working on links back to what I originally studied in archeology so there is an element of keeping in touch with that. The project also ties into all of my research interests in how people interpret history, make meaning, and what stories get told.

My PhD project is very much focused on human information interaction and is quite information heavy. The summer school project brings a creative aspect that I’ve not done before. That creative element was really interesting to me as it provided an opportunity to change tack a little bit and get involved in the design side of a research project.  

Tell us about the project you’re working on

I’m working on a project to build a digital platform for telling the history of salt making in Lincolnshire, in association with the Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust (LWT). The project is exploring innovative ways to present archaeological, archival and environmental evidence to help enhance the cultural and public appeal of the region and reach new audiences.

I knew nothing about salt making or Lincolnshire before starting! I’d never been to Lincolnshire and so it’s been strange to get to grips with the landscape and its history without being able to directly engage with it because of the pandemic. I’ve had to do it all through text books and Google maps.

We started off looking at the data and what's available, what's known and where the sites are. Now we’ve moved onto doing interviews, talking to archeologists and ecologists to probe deeper into how the archaeological and environmental stories intersect. 

I’m now comparing data from the interviews alongside some of the historical and artifactual data that we’ve gathered and beginning to put together some wireframes (sort of a blueprint for a website). I’m trying out the different narratives and how they might look online.

I’m five weeks weeks into the project and have actually managed to visit the LWT in person. They hold some briquetage, which is the ceramic remains of salt making, and lots of aerial photographs. 

I spent a couple of days going through all the photos and getting to grips with the area in a different way, looking for details in the landscape and evidence of salt making that we might be able to use within the digital platform.

What would you like to achieve this summer?

I should be in my final year of my PhD but that timeline has been messed around by the pandemic. I’m now looking towards the end of my research and thinking about where I want to go, be that staying in academia or not.

I’ve been exploring the design side and user research side of things. This summer has presented an opportunity to explore these elements and try them on for size. 

The summer school project is more academic than I expected it to be and it has been a nice way of exploring how a more design focused role could look whilst staying in academia.

And what are your impressions of DC Labs so far?

It is harder to get to know people virtually but DC Labs has been a welcoming environment.

I’ve been invited to join weekly meetings with the whole team and recently asked about technical support for building the digital platform. I had a really positive response from the team and from that I’ve been in touch with fellow PhD students in DC Labs who are working in similar areas. 

It’s been nice to meet people from other institutions and good to chat and explore things from a different angle.