Yesterday, I went to All Souls College, Oxford, for a data visualisation workshop organised by the Digital Panopticon project.
The project – a collaboration between the Universities of Liverpool, Sheffield, Oxford, Sussex and Tasmania – is studying the lives of over 60,000 people sentenced at the Old Bailey between 1780 and 1875, to look at the impact of different penal punishments on their lives.
It aims to draw together genealogical, biometric and criminal justice datasets held by a variety of different organisations in Britain and Australia to create a searchable website that is aimed at anyone interested in criminal history – from genealogists to students and teachers, to academics.
This is a huge undertaking, and it is no wonder that the project aims to harness digital technologies in making the material accessible to a wide audience. But how could…
I started blogging in about May 2004, near the end of the early phase of the history of blogging, although the history blogosphere and academic blogging was very much in its infancy. The very first blog carnival (begun 2002, I think) was the Carnival of the Vanities, a weekly US-oriented political blogs roundup. It spawned various imitators; I found none of them very interesting. But by summer 2004 carnivals for scholarly subjects were beginning to emerge, and these did grab my attention.
My primary inspiration was the Philosophers’ Carnival (which is still going strong too, I’m pleased to say). Carnivalesque began as an early modernists’ carnival, and widened out to take in the medieval and ancient worlds a bit later. Some of the blogs of the first edition in September 2004 are long gone now, although nearly all of the posts mentioned there can still be located. Even where the blogs no longer exist or are inactive, many of those bloggers are still to be found blogging away, somewhere.
As a manuscript specialist, I spend a lot of time looking, reading, transcribing, and thinking about the physical manuscript medium. I am obsessed with the marginal and interlinear glosses and commentary as I am with the main text in a manuscript. If the medieval manuscript is a recording medium that allows scholar now to see the conversations and connected marginal glosses of individual readers, then twitter is the digital medium that replicates this practice the most but with comments all the time and in real time for individual thinkers.
The text is a response to another pamphlet and it indicates neither a place of publication nor a printer. But the flyleaves used by the binder of this little book tell a nice little story about the bookseller’s scene in Mechelen in the beginning of the 19th century.
I think my favourite new discovery for this edition was Medieval POC (Tumblr) and its slightly more sedate companion Medieval POC.
The focus of this blog is to showcase works of art from European history that feature People of Color… to address common misconceptions that People of Color did not exist in Europe before the Enlightenment
It’s almost impossible to choose one post from the tumbling cornucopeia, but I loved this late-16th-century Italian Portrait of a Young Black Man.
The consistently brilliant British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts blog brought us an Old World View of the New World. This 16th-century Spanish manuscript includes among its vividly detailed miniature an illustration of a Spanish expedition to America in 1530, with the unsettling text, referring to Indian cannibalism (trans.): ‘The Indians, who until now had gorged themselves on human flesh like wild and untamed beings, by the virtue and sovereign power of Charles have been domesticated’. A follow-up post took an even older view of the new world in images of the edges of the known world and unknown world in earlier medieval manuscripts.
Neri is famously known as the author of the first book devoted to the subject of making glass—L’Arte Vetraria, 1612.2 He has often been considered a mysterious figure, steeped in the intrigues of alchemy and transmutation.
Rohit Gupta of Kali & The Kaleidoscope posts about The Age Of Re:discovery and an upcoming online workshop in the history of science, exploring ancient and pre-modern navigational techniques.
One of the biggest challenges facing medieval historians, and perhaps especially historians of medieval sexuality, is interpreting the actions of individuals at a remove of several centuries… For many modern readers, the fact that the two men shared a bed can mean only one thing: they were having a sexual relationship.
At Irish History Podcast blog there is a guest post by Finbar Dwyer, using a 1306 court case as a starting point for a discussion of prostitution in medieval Ireland.
what sort of thing lined the walls of the shops, houses, brothels and public buildings of these ancient towns before they were paradoxically destroyed – and preserved – from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD?
While we (rightly) associate midwives with bringing life in to the world, for several centuries midwives also sent people out. Most obviously, thanks to comparatively high infant and maternal mortality rates, midwives saw their share of death in the delivery room. But this is just the start, for midwives were key players in England’s legal and judicial system, and when a woman came into contact with the law, whether as a victim or a suspect, a midwife often was on the scene.
This could have been a much, much longer carnival. Blogging isn’t dead yet, whatever you might have read somewhere recently (though commenting on blogs might, sadly, be on its last legs…). Just like the people who do it, it continues to grow and evolve. So here’s to the next 100 Carnivalesques, whatever they may look like…
Starting a new project is exciting and intensely busy (which is also my excuse for taking a month to blog about it). And the Digital Panopticon is the biggest one we’ve done yet.
‘The Digital Panopticon: The Global Impact of London Punishments, 1780-1925’ is a four-year international project that will use digital technologies to bring together existing and new genealogical, biometric and criminal justice datasets held by different organisations in the UK and Australia in order to explore the impact of the different types of penal punishments on the lives of 66,000 people sentenced at The Old Bailey between 1780 and 1925 and create a searchable website.
The Panopticon, for anyone who doesn’t know, was a model prison proposed by the philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832): “a round-the-clock surveillance machine” in which prisoners could never know when they were being watched. In Bentham’s own words: “a new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind, in a quantity hitherto without example”. Although Bentham’s plan was rejected by the British government at the time, there were later prisons built along those lines (Wikipedia), and the panopticon has become a modern symbol of oppressive state surveillance and social control.
Bentham criticised the penal policy of transportation and argued that confinement under surveillance would prove a more effective system of preventing future offending. One of DP’s basic themes is to test his argument empirically by comparing re-offending patterns of those transported and imprisoned at the Old Bailey. But it will go further, to compare the wider social, health, generational impacts of the two penal regimes into the 20th century.
Technically, DP brings together a number of different methods/techniques we’ve worked on in various projects over the years: digitisation, record linkage, data mining and visualisation, impact, connecting and enhancing resources, with the goal of developing “new and transferable methodologies for understanding and exploiting complex bodies of genealogical, biometric, and criminal justice data”.
However, it’s a much more research-intensive project than the ones we’ve done recently, and that’s reflected in the depth and breadth of the seven research themes. These are based on three central research questions/areas:
How can new digital methodologies enhance understandings of existing electronic datasets and the construction of knowledge?
What were the long and short term impacts of incarceration or convict transportation on the lives of offenders, and their families, and offspring?
What are the implications of online digital research on ethics, public history, and ‘impact’?
What’s also exciting (and new for us) is that we’ll have PhD students as well as postdoc researchers (adverts coming soon). Lots of PhD students! Two are part of the AHRC funding package – one at Liverpool and one at Sheffield – and the partner universities have put up funding for several more (two each at Liverpool and Sheffield and one at Tasmania, I think).
The first at Sheffield has just been advertised and the deadline is 2 December (to start work in February 2014):
The studentship will investigate the social and geographical origins and destinations of men and women convicted at the Old Bailey between 1785 and 1875, in order to shed light on patterns of mobility and understandings of identity in early industrial Britain. Using evidence of origins from convict registers and social/occupational and place labels in the Proceedings, the project will trace convicts from their places of origin through residence and work in London before their arrests, to places of imprisonment and subsequent life histories. Analysis of the language they used in trial testimonies will provide an indication of how identities were shaped by complex backgrounds.
Spread the word – and watch this space (and the project website) for more announcements soon!
Earlier this week, I led a one day course on using Zotero at the British Library (part of their Digital Scholarship training programme for staff) – many thanks to James Baker for the invitation.
It was a very hands-on course, starting with the assumption that most people there would never have used Zotero before, and gradually building up in difficulty. We packed a lot in in one day and the approach seemed to go down well.
James also generously agreed to me opening up the web resource I put together for the course (in PmWiki) for public consumption. It contains most of the exercises we worked through during the day – they are quite strongly BL-oriented, with plenty of my favourite topics (naturally…) but I think more generally applicable – as well as selected examples of the different kinds of things people and projects have done and are doing with Zotero – from teaching, group collaboration, research management, plugin development, publication, integration with other resources, and so on.
And so, here it is, under a Creative Commons license – use, re-use, mix, borrow and adapt if you’d find it useful!
Additionally, I found lots of interesting things while I was preparing the course, so I put them into a Zotero bibliography – well, what else?! – and made it into a public group, which Zotero users are very welcome to join and add to:
I found myself answering the question “Why Zotero?” with some personal history, quite a bit of which was chronicled here on this blog over the years. It occurred to me that I’ve been trying to manage references since my undergraduate dissertation more than 15 years ago, and I’ve been publishing bibliographies online for more than a decade (in the firm belief that it’s one of the most useful small things scholars can do for each other and for students). I’ve been through:
index cards (u/g and MA dissertations)
a homebrewed MS Access database (for my PhD secondary sources)
Endnote (for a while, but only because I got it cheap from my uni)
and quite a few other things used so briefly I’ve forgotten them…
When I did my PhD research in the early 2000s, I put sources I wanted to quantify in an Access database; secondary references in another one; transcriptions in word documents (slightly later, they ended up in a different text database); all separate objects, hard to relate to each other. Even though most of my PhD sources haven’t been digitised (and probably never will be), today with Zotero I would approach much of that task quite differently. OTOH, my interest in references in recent years has more often been to do with how to publish large bibliographies online and keep them up to date. Well, Zotero covers that too.
So, for me Zotero has won the contest, hands down. A few of the tools listed can perhaps do specific things better than Zotero, and most of them are just as free (several are open source), but none of them is as versatile and powerful while being so easy to use and to customise. (Wikindx, for example, is excellent, but you need to be able to install a MySQL database and really to understand a bit about PHP and web apps.)
Zotero provides much more than just “reference management”. It isn’t just that you can quickly save and archive lots of different kinds of things you find online, but also that you can use it to manage research as a process, with changing needs over time – right through from collecting sources to analysis and writing and publishing.
On Wednesday, I created a Zotero group live during the course (that took about a minute), and in the space of half an hour about six people, most of whom had never used Zotero at all before that day, put about 30 items in it, and added notes and attachments, ranging from news articles and reviews to youtube videos. (At the other end of the scale, of course, there are Zotero groups creating major resources for their communities.)
Sometimes it’s great to be proved so completely and utterly wrong.
Even in that 2009 post, I see that I added a comment wondering if Zotero could be the solution to the problem. Maybe, too, the discussion we had about the decision to turn the RHS British and Irish History bibliography into a subscription service could look very different now.
I ranted on Twitter a while ago about the fad for auto-rotating carousels, sliders, changing images, and whatever, on homepages for academic and cultural sites. Quite a few people seemed to agree with me. Well, the nasty things have not gone away since then. Quite the opposite, it seems: every other digital project, research centre, or library collection appears to have decided that its homepage simply must have some bloody great flickering, twitching gizmo taking up a large chunk of the screen. (I haven’t looked, but I have dark suspicions that some of this infestation is down to WordPress plugins just making it too damn easy.)
Why am I on a homepage? Because I’m getting my bearings, especially if it’s my first visit. I want to know what the site contains of interest to me. And I want to do this quickly so I can get to the good stuff. I’m not going to wait for a carousel to go round, like it’s a TV screen, in the hope it might eventually display something useful to me. In fact, my first reaction on realising it’s one of those is generally “Arghh!! Scroll away NOW!!” So any utility it has is pure chance: if the very first panel it displays happens to be of interest to me, and stays there long enough to let me read it and click on it, I might click on it.
Naturally, I find it hard to believe most people don’t agree with me. But perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps there’s loads of usability research backing up this design concept that says I’m the weirdo: most people love watching website carousels go round, find them useful entry points to a website and noooo, not distracting at all.
So I went looking around. First thing: you know what? Most developers hate them too. Second: there doesn’t actually seem to be very much empirical data, certainly not any scholarly research, though there’s plenty of anecdote. There are quite a few examples of developers and commercial UX-y people saying “yeah, we ran tests and people found them annoying”, but no numbers. I’ve found a few designers who love them because they look “cool” and “slick” and suchlike twattishness. I’ve yet to find one real website user with a good thing to say about them.
Still, what data there is says: most people don’t use them, lots of people don’t like them, and they can actually make it harder, not easier, for people to find useful information. Users tend to blank them out as irrelevant (“banner blindness”), but worse, they make it physically harder to focus on the information around them. Flickery moving things are distracting: whodathunkit?
Accordions and carousels should show a new panel only when users ask for it. Otherwise, it should stand still and let users read the information in peace, without having the rug yanked from under them. As our user said about Siemens’ big rotating box: “I didn’t have time to read it. It keeps flashing too quickly.”
While it’s obviously less annoying, I think a standard static carousel is pretty much useless, like a new version of Mystery Meat Navigation. I want to get information, not play a “Guess what’s next?!” game. I’m not going to use it. Still, at least I’m not going to swear at you while trying to make my escape as rapidly as possible. (Though I quite like ‘accordion’ style designs with text labels that open up. Having something to tell me what’s hiding under there makes all the difference.)
“Approximately 1% of visitors click on a feature [on a static carousel on one of the ND sites]… Of these clicks, 84% were on stories in position 1″. An auto-rotating carousel on another ND site did rather better: just under 9% of visitors clicked through, with the first feature shown averaging 40% and the rest ranging from 18% down to 11%. But those are still pretty small numbers for something that’s going to piss off a significant proportion of your site visitors, aren’t they?
Frost argues the real reason we get carousels is primarily political:
From universities to giant retailers, large organizations endure their fair share of politics. And boy does that homepage look like a juicy piece of prime real estate to a roomful of stakeholders. It’s hard to navigate these mini turf wars, so tools like carousels are used as appeasers to keep everyone from beating the shit out of each other.
A final thing, for people on academic projects planning websites. E-commerce sites and the like have plenty of money for regular website re-designs and refreshes. You won’t. If you don’t want your site to look tired and dated within months it’s in your interests to avoid fads and gimmicks on your homepage. And when it’s a fad that will irritate a substantial proportion of your site visitors, and be useless to nearly all of them, please JUST SAY NO.
I compiled a quick list very recently for someone who was looking for introductions to digital history and people doing digital history work. And having done it, I thought I might as well share it.
Firstly: in one respect, this is a broad tent – some of these people are strictly speaking in literature or historical linguistics. But the boundaries are fuzzy, and what they’re doing is relevant to historians’ research too.
Secondly: but in another, it’s a fairly narrow subset of digital historians who blog – people who are posting about digital tools and techniques that they’re using, things they’re building, practical hacks and code, reflections on the process and the results they’re getting from doing those things.
Thirdly: it was put together very quickly from my RSS feeds and Twitter favourites. Who am I missing? (Feel free to plug your own blog.) What group blogs should be included?
Bill Turkel – “computational history, big history, STS, physical computing, desktop fabrication and electronics”
Tim Sherratt – “digital historian, web developer and cultural data hacker”; Invisible Australians
Adam Crymble – large-scale textual analysis; 18-19th century London
John Levin – mapping and visualisation; 18th-century London
Jean Bauer – database design and development; late 18th/early 19th-century USA
Jason Heppler – hacking/scripting (Ruby evangelist); 20th century USA
I’ve been using WordPress since 31 July 2004 (I wouldn’t remember myself, but the archives are there to tell me so), which was something like v1.5. It’s hard to express just how important it’s been to me during that time. With WordPress I first learned about MySQL databases; it gave me my first experiences of hacking PHP code; it was where I started properly using CSS. (Oh, and it also provided my first experience of having a website hacked. Hey, we live and learn.)
I moved this blog over to wordpress.com a couple of years ago (in part to stop me spending more time faffing around making it pretty than I spent actually writing on it), but that doesn’t mean I’ve stopped using self-hosted WP. Far from it. I’ve hand-coded websites from scratch, partly because I wanted to learn how to do it, partly because sometimes WP is overkill if you only want a simple site, but WP is still my go-to for setting up a more complex CMS.
This has all been possible not simply because WP is open source software, but also because from its earliest days it’s had great documentation that’s intelligible to people who don’t already know how to programme, and it’s had the friendliest software support forums I have encountered anywhere. Bar none. The whole ethos, the community buit around it, not just the code, has always been open.
Thank you for everything, WordPress and here’s to the next 10 years.
I was asked a question a few months ago about how we could go about giving academics more scholarly recognition and credit for blogging, and I realised how ambivalent I feel about this.
On the one hand, I would love to see quality blogging given the credit it deserves; I’d love to see young academics encouraged to blog, to network and support each other, and to engage with audiences that don’t just consist of other academics.
But on the other hand, it seems to me there’s a huge danger that blogging would simply be added on to the existing systems for awarding and measuring academic credit.
Imagine that for REF2026 (or for your tenure in a US university), on top of all the conventional published ‘outputs’, academics must also submit a set number of research blog posts. And that most historians deal with this by copying & pasting the texts of their conference papers into a blog and hitting the Publish button a few times a year.
Of course, there are blogs already that mainly consist of that kind of material and it can make for a very good blog if the material is well chosen and written in the first place. And sharing good talks and presentations with wider audiences is a good thing to do.
But imagine the bland soul-numbing horror of hundreds or thousands of ‘blogs’ which exist purely to fulfil the requirements of a bureaucratic exercise and contain nothing but slabs of text that were dull when they were first read out to six people including the session panel, and will still be dull when they end up in their final article/monograph form to be read by reviewers and bored students in university libraries.
Just because some written online content uses blog software doesn’t make it blogging.
And how much harder would it become to find the good academic blogging, where scholars want to communicate what they know and love, and where they engage and debate? How on earth would we persuade new academics that blogging is something you can do for enjoyment, if it becomes just another mandatory task?
Is compulsion and institutionalisation an inevitable outcome – the Satanic pact – of gaining scholarly credit in the corporate, bureaucratic academy?
To be honest, I’m not optimistic that there’s a way to gain the recognition that many academic bloggers have longed for without destroying what I believe is the real value of academic blogging, which is in many ways about pleasing yourself, escaping the targets and the quotas and the faceless bean-counters; about communicating and sharing through spontaneity and idiosyncratic self-expression. (So, I don’t blog for weeks at a time; and then I’ll write five posts in a weekend. Because I want to, and because I can, dammit.)
This personal self-indulgence doesn’t just happen to serve a wider, public purpose: it serves that purpose because it’s personal and indulgent and risky, because academic bloggers are willingly choosing to share the learning and understanding earned through those long, long hours in libraries and archives, and because they give something more of themselves than ‘mere’ knowledge.