Category Archives: Digital History

Data And The Digital Panopticon

Originally posted on Criminal Historian:

The view from my seat at the DP data visualisation workshop
The view from my seat at the DP data visualisation workshop

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…

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New project, new people: the Digital Panopticon

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 Social and Spatial Worlds of Old Bailey Convicts 1785-1875

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!

PS: the project is on Twitter: follow at @digipanoptic

A Zotero resource, and bibliographies online – revisited

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!

ZoteroWiki

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:

Managing Digital Research

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)
  • BibDesk (which I still use to some extent)
  • CiteULike
  • LibraryThing
  • Connotea, Mendeley, and probably other things of that ilk
  • Semantic Mediawiki (interesting but too much hard work)
  • wikindx (still in use, but probably phasing out soon)
  • Aigaion
  • 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.

In 2009, when Zotero was in its infancy – before much of its cloud and collaboration features existed, or they’d only just begun to develop – and I’d barely used it (just 42 items in my 3000+ library were added before 2010), I blogged about the impossibility of online collaborative bibliographies. Hahaha!

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.

Digital history blogs

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
  • Caleb McDaniel – hacking/scripting; American abolitionism
  • Chad Black – hacking/scripting; early Latin America
  • Lincoln Mullen – databases, R; religion in 18-19th-century America
  • Fred Gibbs – mapping, metadata, textmining; medieval/early modern medicine and science
  • Jeri Wieringa – textmining; American religious history
  • Ben Brumfield – crowdsourced transcription software (software developer, family historian)
  • Heather Froehlich – corpus linguistics; early modern drama and gender (lit/lang)
  • Ted Underwood – “applying machine learning algorithms to large digital collections” (lit)

Not recently active so I nearly forgot about them…

Because I really do have a terrible memory (sorry…)

More via Twitter (thanks @paige_roberts, @wynkenhimself)

From comments (thanks!)

Labels are a bit random, I know: just for a flavour of what people do. Tidying up might happen later.

Collaboration and crowdsourcing for Old Bailey Online and London Lives

My digital crime history talk included some mention of ‘crowd sourcing’ and our stuttering efforts in this direction (on various projects) over the last five years or so. This post is intended as a marker to get down some further thoughts on the subject that I’ve been mulling over recently, to start to move towards more concrete proposals for action.

Two years ago, we added to OBO a simple form for registered users to report errors: one click on the trial page itself. People have been using that form not simply to report errors in our transcriptions but to add information and tell us about mistakes in the original. The desire on the part of our site users to contribute what they know is there.

We now have a (small but growing) database of these corrections and additions, which we rather failed to foresee and currently have no way of using. There is some good stuff! Examples:

t18431211-307    The surname of the defendents are incorrect. They should be Jacob Allwood and Joseph Allwood and not ALLGOOD

t18340220-125    The text gives an address Edden St-Regent St. I believe the correct street name is Heddon St, which crosses Regent St. There is no Edden St nearby. There is an Eden St and an Emden St nearby, but neither meet Regent St.

t18730113-138    The surname of the defendant in this case was Zacharoff, not Bacharoff as the original printed Proceedings show. He was the man later internationally notorious as Sir Basil Zaharoff, the great arms dealer and General Representative abroad of the Vickers armaments combine. See DNB for Zaharoff.

t18941022-797    Correct surname of prisoner is Crowder see Morning Post 25.10.1894. Charged with attempted murder  not murder see previous citation.

It also bothers me, I’d add, that there’s no way of providing any feedback (let alone encouragement or thanks). If I disagree with a proposed correction, I don’t have a way to let the person reporting the issue know that I’ve even looked at it, let alone explain my reasoning  (someone suggested, for example, that the murder of a two-year-old child ought to be categorised as ‘infanticide’, but we use that term only for a specific form of newborn infant killing that was prosecuted under a particular statute during the period of the Proceedings).

On top of which, I think it’s going to become an increasing struggle to keep up even with straightforward transcription corrections because the method we’ve always used for doing this now has considerably more friction built in than the method for reporting problems!

So, the first set of problems includes:

  • finding ways to enable site users to post the information they have so that it can be added to the site in a useful way (not forgetting that this would create issues around security, spam, moderation, etc)
  • improving our own workflow for manual corrections to the data
  • solving a long-standing issue of what to do about names that were wrongly spelt by the reporters or have variant spellings and alternatives, which makes it hard for users to search for those people
  • maybe also some way of providing feedback

A possible solution, then, would be a browser-based collaborative interface (for both Old Bailey Online and London Lives), with the facility to view text against image and post contributions.

  • It should be multi-purpose, with differing permissions levels for project staff and registered users.
  • Corrections from users would have to be verified by admin staff, but this would still be much quicker and simpler than the current set-up.
  • But it would be able to do more than just corrections – there would be a way of adding comments/connections/annotations to trials or documents (and to individual people).

A rather different and more programmatic approach to (some of) the errors in the OBO texts than our individualised (ie, random…) and manual procedures was raised recently by Adam Crymble.

For such a large corpus, the OBO is remarkably accurate. The 51 million words in the set of records between 1674 and 1834 were transcribed entirely manually by two independent typists. The transcriptions of each typist was then compared and any discrepancies were corrected by a third person. Since it is unlikely that two independent professional typists would make the same mistakes, this process known as “double rekeying” ensures the accuracy of the finished text.

But typists do make mistakes, as do we all. How often? By my best guess, about once every 4,000 words, or about 15,000-20,000 total transcription errors across 51 million words. How do I know that, and what can we do about it?

… I ran each unique string of characters in the corpus through a series of four English language dictionaries containing roughly 80,000 words, as well as a list of 60,000 surnames known to be present in the London area by the mid-nineteenth century. Any word in neither of these lists has been put into a third list (which I’ve called the “unidentified list”). This unidentified list contains 43,000 unique “words” and I believe is the best place to look for transcription errors.

Adam notes that this is complicated by the fact that many of the ‘errors’ are not really errors; some are archaisms or foreign words that don’t appear in the dictionaries, and some (again) are typos in the original.

Certain types of error that he identified could potentially be addressed with an automated process, such as the notorious confusion of the long ‘S’ with ‘f': “By writing a Python program that changed the letter F to an S and vise versa, I was able to check if making such a change created a word that was in fact an English word.”

But any entirely automated procedure would inevitably introduce some new errors, which we’re obviously reluctant to do (being pedantic historians and all that). So what to do?

Well, why not combine the power of the computer and the ‘crowd’? We could take Adam’s ‘unidentified list’ as a starting point, so that we’re narrowing down the scale of the task, and design around it a specific simplified and streamlined corrections process, within the framework of the main user interface. My initial thoughts are:

  • this interface would only show small snippets of trials (enough text around the problem word to give some context) and highlight the problem word itself alongside the page image (unfortunately, one thing we probably couldn’t do is to highlight the word in the page image itself)
  • it would provide simple buttons to check for a) the dictionary version or a letter switch, or b) the transcription is correct; with c) a text input field as a fallback if the correction needed is more complex; hopefully most answers would be a or b!
  • if at least two (maybe three?) people provide the same checkbox answer for a problem word it would be treated as a verified correction (though this could be overruled by a project admin), while text answers would have to go to admins for checking and verification in the same way as additions/corrections submitted in the main interface.
  • we should be able to group problems by different types to some extent (eg, so people who wanted to fix long S problems could focus on those)

Suggestions from people who know more than me about both the computing and the crowdsourcing issues would be very welcome!

Unclean, unclean! What historians can do about sharing our messy research data

A second follow up to my digital crime history talk with (hopefully) some more practical notes and resources.

I’m as guilty as anyone of holding on to my old research data (databases, transcriptions, abstracts, calendars, etc of primary sources), so this is pulling together some stuff to prod me into action this summer. I have material going right back to my MA thesis that I keep not getting round to sharing. My resolution is that I’m going to try to do better this year. This post is partly to help me (and maybe you too?) to get there.

A couple of thoughts first. I think there are two slightly different meanings of ‘messy’ to be teased apart here.

One is about errors and gaps in the content of the material – we all make mistakes in transcription, especially when we’re learning the ropes; we leave “???” where we couldn’t quite make out what the source said; etc. I’m not talking about cleaning all of that up to spare your embarrassment. You know you’ll never get round to sorting that crap out (especially if it would require going back to the archives); so it’s time to try to get over your shame and be prepared to share it warts and all (and include appropriate caveats).

I’m thinking more in terms of tidying the structure, format, labelling and documentation of the data. So, for example, someone else can import it into database without columns ending up all over the place, or with abbreviations and codes that no one but you can interpret.

  • Ensure it includes the archive references for the originals!
  • Add documentation that explains the dataset (and its limitations) accurately. If you’ve used codes in any fields on a spreadsheet or databse, for convenience in data entry, make sure you add a list of what they actually stand for (or use Find & Replace to change them to something more transparent!).
  • Be clear about what it represents (eg full transcriptions, partial transcriptions, just summaries, etc)
  • Ideally, write the documentation itself in a structured data format to make it machine-readable (“metadata“; also, this intro).
  • Convert it to a non-proprietary format (eg .csv text files); or use one that has good inter-operability for people who don’t have the software you used to create it. Eg, Excel spreadsheets (.xls, .xlsx) can be opened in quite a lot of different packages and converted to other formats quite easily, but Access databases (.mdb) are much more difficult to share. Plain text files (.txt) are preferable to Word docs.

This last point isn’t just about data sharing, by the way, but also about preservation for your own use in the longer term. Do you want to find yourself unable to access all that hard work you did in the archives in just a few years because a manufacturer stopped making that software you used, or the version of it that you were using isn’t supported any more?

And don’t forget, if you share data, you can get credit back too. (Make sure your documentation includes clear citation guidance…) Use a Creative Commons licence or something similar.

At the same time, this isn’t about trying to achieve perfection. (I don’t really advise going and plunging into the data management guidelines at the UK Data Service unless you have a lot of time on your hands…)

There are two resources I plan to try out (hey, I might even blog about the experience):

1. The Dataverse

A repository for research data that takes care of long term preservation and good archival practices, while researchers can share, keep control of and get recognition for their data.

(This may be aimed at social scientists, so I don’t know quite what it’ll be like to use as a historian. Only one way to find out…)

2. OpenRefine (was Google Refine)

a powerful tool for working with messy data, cleaning it, transforming it from one format into another, extending it with web services, and linking it to databases like Freebase.

The School of Data is something I’ve bookmarked recently that may also have something useful.

Right, who’s with me?

A “Data Creation Partnership”?

A quick post, just to expand on my thoughts about the Text Creation Partnership in my talk. How might this model work in practice for crime (and other) archives, in partnership with institutions like TNA or local record offices and publishers like Ancestry or Findmypast?

The indexing done by family-history oriented publishers like Ancestry and Findmypast is often very limited – a researcher from TNA mentioned a series of criminal registers done by Ancestry that only have names and counties indexed for searching.

And they guard this data, however thin it is, jealously. (The researcher could get access to the Ancestry data but only by signing strict confidentiality agreements.)

So imagine that a group of historians gets some funding together to enrich the indexing that’s been done – capture offence categories, outcomes, places, dates, information about individuals, etc, depending on the source.

The agreement with TNA and the publisher could look something like this:

  • For a set period of time (it’s 4 years for the TCP if I remember rightly), only the project members and resource subscribers (including users at TNA) can have direct access to the enriched data.
  • The project can publish work based on analysis of the data (with aggregate graphs, tables etc) and small extracts (akin to the ‘snippets’ of text for context that we show in Connected Histories search results)
  • Once the time is up, the project can freely distribute the enhanced textual data, eg by posting it as linked open data in a data repository, and can make it searchable at their website (linking to the images at the publisher’s site for people who have subscriptions, as we do at Connected Histories).
  • The publisher retains its exclusive control of the source images and it gets a much improved search.

What do people think?

Bloody Code: reflecting on ten years of the Old Bailey Online and the digital futures of our criminal past

Talk given at Our Criminal Past: Digitisation, Social Media and Crime History Workshop, London Metropolitan Archives, 17 May 2013

My academic apprenticeship, in Aberystwyth, was spent engrossed in two things: first, early modern Welsh and northern English crime archives, and second, the potential of the Internet for research and teaching and simply opening up early modern history to as many people as possible. That wasn’t a completely respectable interest back in 1999, and I’m still amazed sometimes that I’ve been able to spend I’ve spent the last 7 years indulging shamelessly in that obsession and get paid for it.

But what about the first of my obsessions? A couple of weeks ago, the Financial Times told us that more cranes have been erected in London in the past 3 years than everywhere else in the UK put together. I have a nagging worry that I’ve unwittingly contributed to a similar situation in the digital sphere.

I’ve found at least 300 scholarly publications citing OBO, so it’s certainly made its mark on academic research. Beyond academia, it’s directly generated family histories, novels, radio and TV dramas and documentaries. But what impact has it had on digitising crime history? 10 years on, vast swathes of our criminal records remain untouched by the digital. And while there has been large-scale digitisation of sources that crime historians use, not much of it is freely accessible, and little of it has been done by or for us.

A number of historians over the years have worried that OBO skews attention – and resources – disproportionately towards London and the higher courts, representing a tiny minority of prosecuted crimes and policing. As the digital historian and project manager, I’m thrilled to learn of young researchers who chose history of crime because of OBO. But my other half, the archives researcher, is more ambivalent.

ASSI 45/1/3 information
TNA ASSI 45/1/3

Early modern court archives aren’t like our neatly packaged, readable trial reports. They’re unwieldy, often dirty, fragmentary, intimidating in overall scale. Documents vary hugely in size, structure, handwriting, materials used and condition, defying any ‘one size fits all’ approach to digitising. They’re frequently written in heavily abbreviated Latin, or ponderously legalese-d English, or an unholy mix of both.

Who would want to struggle with that if they can use something like OBO instead? Would I, if I were a PhD student now? And how much easier is it to turn to OBO for immediate digital rewards than to start new digitisation projects with such awkward and intractable material?

I was asked to introduce themes and challenges that I think are important for the future of digital crime history. So here’s the first challenge: improving digital access to documents like this, and the hundreds of thousands like them in our archives. A second challenge: as always, how to pay for it and sustain it in the long term. And a third is the digital skills we need: I don’t mean necessarily programming, but understanding something about various kinds of code, how to work with digital data, how to work with people who do programme.

And then there are two themes I want to emphasise, that can help us to face the challenges: the need to re-use, recycle and share digital content; and the importance of collaboration and partnerships.

Re-use

Trial of Bridget Callahan, 1760
Trial of Bridget Callahan, 1760

I’ve blogged recently about the dual identity of the Proceedings; ideal for quantitative analysis, which needs a structured database; but also containing many rich, engaging witness narratives that demanded full text. The solution found in OBO’s case was to transcribe using a double-rekeying process that’s less accurate than traditional standards for scholarly editions, but far more accurate than OCR, and then mark up transcriptions with XML tags to create structure that can be extracted and turned into a database.

Bridget's trial in TEI-XML
Bridget’s trial in TEI-XML

There are certainly downsides to this: time-consuming, expensive, unwieldy. [Both Tim and I agreed in the subsequent discussion that we wouldn't try to do it quite like that today, though I'm not sure we'd be in complete agreement on exactly what we would do instead...]

But the upsides: accuracy, completeness, versatility.

Having created our digital data, it can manipulated and re-used in many ways. Convert it into other formats. Index it in different ways for different kinds of search. And even transform it with new markup for different purposes, as in Magnus Huber’s Old Bailey Corpus Online. There have been uses of OBO that no one could have predicted.

Same data, four ways
Same data, four ways

Bridget: Searching in London Lives, Connected Histories, 18th-Connect (are those other results the same person?); a dot somewhere in this graph from Datamining with Criminal Intent. Same data in four places: making new connections, seeing trials in different ways.

I’d argue there are two lessons from OBO for everyone, whatever kind of project or source they have in mind:

  1. digitise in a way that best captures the information in a source;
  2. & which facilitates future re-use and collaboration

Not the specifics of transcription or markup or any particular search engine. Given that many crime history sources are heavily formulaic, or in Latin before 1733, sometimes verbatim transcription can hide as much as it reveals, make it harder to find the useful stuff. Some – many – of our sources simply don’t have rich stories to tell like OBO.

Creating data that is clean and consistent, well-structured and accurately documented may cost more at the beginning, it may require more of an investment in technical skills and management, but it will make your efforts worth more in the long run.

Partnerships

What kind of collaborations and partnerships do we need? Let’s start with the vital one: the relationship between the historians and the keepers of the archival documents. Well, I admit I’m worried about that relationship. Here’s one reason why.

findmypast/TNA www.findmypast.co.uk/search/crime-prison-punishment
findmypast/TNA http://www.findmypast.co.uk/search/crime-prison-punishment

Why does this resource trouble me? It’s not just because it’s behind a paywall.

OK, in an ideal world, all these resources would be freely accessible to all. But I know all too well how expensive digitisation is. Someone has to pay; it’s just a question of how. The grim reality is that archives and libraries are under intense financial pressure and it’s only going to get worse: and that one of the few reliable paying audiences outside academia is family historians.

And findmypast have made a great, affordable, resource for family historians. But it’s a terribly limited one for crime historians. It’s a name search; as far as I can tell, no separate keyword search or browse. (If I’m wrong, there’s nothing telling me so.)* The needs and priorities of family historians and academics overlap, but they’re not close enough that creating resources that can serve them both well just happens.

Then you have, say, Eighteenth Century Collections Online or British Newspapers 1600-1900, which are designed more for academic audiences, but virtually inaccessible to individuals outside academic institutions, and those whose institutions can’t afford the price tag. And even then pretty much all you can do with those is keyword search and hope what you want isn’t lost in garbled OCR text.

Both kinds of resource are black boxes that make it impossible for a researcher to evaluate the quality of the data or search results; and hinder any kind of use other than those the platform was specifically built for. And if the data is locked away in a box it can never be corrected or improved or enhanced – even though the technology to enable that is continually developing. So publishers lose out, in the end, too.

Are there alternatives to the black box?

Text Creation Partnership
Text Creation Partnership

The Text Creation Partnership is funded by a group of libraries led by Michigan. It’s transcribing content from major commercial page-image digitised collections. The resulting texts are restricted to partnership members and resource subscribers for 4 or 5 years and then released into the public domain.

The images continue to be behind the paywall, and not all texts are transcribed. For ECCO the proportion is small, but EEBO’s goal is much more ambitious: one transcription for each unique text (usually first editions). In January 2015, 25,000 phase 1 EEBO texts will become available to everyone for search and to download for textmining or whatever else we can think of by then. (Phase 2 in ?2019 will be something like another 40,000 texts.)

It surely is not beyond our wit to translate that kind of public-private collaborative model to crime records [suggestion here], and for that matter, other archival records with overlapping academic/family history user groups. But to do so, I think we need to build partnerships between historians, archivists and publishers much more than we’ve been doing. And if what you want is totally free-to-access resources, you still need to work with archivists to find answers to the ‘who pays?’ question. I hope today can be a good starting place.

‘The Crowd’

A few good collaborations
A few good collaborations

But it’s not enough simply to think about institutional collaboration.

A lot of smart people are thinking very hard about ways to facilitate collaborative user participation in digital resources – transcription, indexing, correction, tagging, annotation, linking, and they’re building tools whose usefulness often isn’t confined to volunteer projects and ‘crowd sourcing’. (The re-use maxim applies here too: don’t build from scratch if other people have already done the hard work building and testing good tools.)**

However, don’t imagine ‘the crowd’ is an easy option. OBO has been trying it out for a while and we’re only sort of getting there.

Part of our problem, on reflection, has been adding these things near the end of a project when we launch a website and then hope for something to magically happen while we go off to the next project.

A second issue has been user interfaces and design. We took a while to learn that we have to make participation easy, really easy, and we have to build the design in from early on. It’s no good building something that needs a separate login from the rest of the site, with a flaky user database that was tacked on as an afterthought. Third, and related: understand the limits of what most users are willing to do.

Two years ago, we added to OBO a simple form for registered users to report errors: one click on the trial page itself. People have been using that form not simply to report errors in our transcriptions but to add information and tell us about mistakes in the original. The desire on the part of our site users to contribute what they know is there. Just don’t think that means there’s a ready-made ‘crowd’ waiting to turn up and help you out without plenty of effort on your part.

Historians and our dirty data

And what about us, the historians who have been or are working in the archives? We’re all digitizers now, and have been for a long time. Well, sort of. My computer has folders of databases, transcriptions and (to use the technical term) “stuff” that is kept from public view because, well, it’s a mess and I never get around to the data cleaning needed and it would be embarrasing to let people see my mistakes. I’m sure I’m not alone. [There were nods and sheepish grins all round at this point. You know who you are.]

Increasingly in future, there are going to be requirements from funders to share research data in institutional repositories and the like. We should not be assuming that means just scientists! We shouldn’t in any case be doing this just because someone demanded it; it should become a habit, the right thing to do to help each other.

But we need to get the right training in digital skills for students, so they know how to make good, shareable data, and how best to re-use data shared by others. (Full disclosure: I’m working on a project to create an online data management course for historians at the moment…)

Digitisation, digital history and re-usability don’t have to be all about big funded projects. It can start with personal decisions and actions: clean up your old data, put it in your institutional repository, share it with a Creative Commons licence, tell your colleagues and students it’s there. Relinquish some control. [more thoughts on this]

If we digitise for re-use, and re-use to digitise, we can share and collaborate, and build partnerships that can make some of the challenges of digitisation less intimidating. Digital history should be an iterative, accumulative, learning process rather than one-off ‘projects’ to be ‘launched’ and then left to gather dust.

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* The findmypast resource has only gone up recently and the content isn’t complete yet. Keyword search functionality is apparently supposed to be included in the resource and it’s possible that will become available as it rolls out. But it should be noted that even a keyword search is unlikely to fulfil the needs that crime historians often have to crunch numbers in complex ways.

** The tools and projects in this slide really are a tiny sample of what’s happening now. They are:

(If you’re on Twitter and you want to know more about this, there are three people I think you really ought to be following as a starting point: @benwbrum, @mia_out and @ammeveleigh.)