Over 800,000 pages of mental health records to go online

By Jon Bauckham, 23 October 2014 - 3:18pm

The Wellcome Library has teamed up with a number of archives across the UK to digitise records of psychiatric hospitals dating back to the 18th century

York Retreat

The scandal surrounding conditions at the York Retreat between 1813-15 is recorded in documents to be digitised by the Borthwick Institute for Archives (Credit: Wellcome Images)

The history of mental health care in Britain is to be revealed online following a major digitisation project.

The Wellcome Library has announced that it is funding the scanning of over 800,000 pages of material relating to psychiatric hospitals across the UK, including the York Retreat, Crichton Royal Hospital and the Camberwell House Asylum.

Made possible thanks to partnerships with repositories including Dumfries and Galloway Council Archives and London Metropolitan Archives, the project will see the digitisation of patient records, case notes and registers dating back to the 18th century.

The scans will then be uploaded to the Wellcome Library website, where they will be ready to view via its inbuilt media player. As with the Wellcome Images library, the mental health records will be available under an ‘open licence’, meaning researchers can download and distribute the material free of charge.

As well as official documents, the archive will offer access to some rather more unusual sources. These include copies of The New Moon, a monthly magazine produced by the staff at Crichton Royal Hospital, and The Gartnavel Minstrel, the earliest example of a publication written and edited by hospital patients.

One of the archive partners – the Borthwick Institute for Archives – will also digitise tracts on the York Asylum controversies, in which abuses at the institution during the early-19th century created scandal and led to new campaigns for reform.

“This partnership will bring some rare and important historical material from a fascinating period of medical history into an open and free online resource,” said Simon Chaplin, Head of the Wellcome Library.

“Broadening access to such collections is at the heart of the Wellcome Library’s digitisation project and we are delighted that others are joining with us to make this possible.”

Starting in Autumn 2014, the project is expected to take two years to complete. In the meantime, family historians can access London’s Pulse – a free website created by the Wellcome Library containing thousands of documents compiled by Medical Officers of Health in the capital between 1848-1972.

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