How not to create a usable web resource, again

I have posted here before about web resources marred by usability issues. But Chris has found something way worse than anything I’ve encountered, at Edinburgh University’s Charting the Nation site for early modern Scottish maps. Read it and weep. (Especially as the maps themselves are lovely and deserve a lot better.)

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14 Responses to How not to create a usable web resource, again

  1. Anna says:

    I have seen your website for the first time and it is extremely helpful. I was wondering if you or your pals could help me more.

    I am thinking of doing a phD at the Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine ‘A social history of dementia’ – not early modern history I’m afraid, twentieth century. I haven’t officially started it yet, but submitted a proposal which my ‘supervisor’ has come back to me with.

    She has said my proposal needs a ‘firmer grounding in sources’. What does that mean and how can I find them? Are there any institutional records which might help me throw light on this social history?

    She has been really helpful and given me a plan to work to for my proposal, which other people might find helpful, but I have some questions that people might be able to help me with about her points.

    There are 5 sections:
    1. The proposed subject. Themes to be covered; questions to be explored. try to take this analytically [But what does ‘analytically’ mean in this context?]
    2. Brief survey of the existing literature; where the project fits and extends this
    3. Archive sources [what are these and where can I find them/help on this?]
    4. Methodology/approach, including historiographical framework [don’t have much of a clue about this. Where can I get help on this?]
    5. Training and preparation. [presumably she means research training I can do, but how do I find out?]

    Many thanks

  2. Sharon says:

    Firstly, if you check the right-hand sidebar under favourite posts, you’ll see several links to posts I wrote earlier for students thinking of doing PhDs (Planning a PhD, etc). Do check those out for general advice if you haven’t already.

    What libraries and resources are available to you? What I’m about to suggest probably requires access to university libraries – or public libraries with good Interlibrary Loan facilities – and specialist (sometimes subscription-required) electronic resources. You should try to get access (in print or electronic form) to the important journals like Social History of Medicine, if you possibly can.

    Survey of the literature: you should do keyword searches of bibliographical databases etc to make sure that you know what’s out there that’s relevant to your topic. You don’t necessarily have to read all of it yet (!), but you need to know the arguments and approaches of what are considered the key texts, and what the most recent research is doing etc. (Review essays – the type that cover several books – in history journals are extremely useful for getting up to speed on the ‘state of a field’ quickly.)

    Then you can really sit down and think about how your research would do 3 main things: 1. fill gaps in empirical knowledge, be a resource for other researchers; 2. contribute to developing ideas and interpretations of the subject; 3. take issue with existing ideas, be prepared to argue a different line. Ideally, a PhD thesis should along the way do all of these things. Mainly, it should do 1 and especially 2, but sometimes it should do 3 as well.

    Reading the literature will also help to clue you in as to what primary sources and methodologies historians are using. You have to start reading like a researcher rather than an undergrad: look more closely at the primary sources in footnotes and bibliographies, pay attention to the methodological sections in introductions. Also, it may help to find out what other PhDs on similar topics are in progress and recently completed.

    Some resources you might find useful, anyway:

    http://library.wellcome.ac.uk/eresources.html
    http://medhist.ac.uk/ (a key resource for history of medicine)
    http://www.history.ac.uk/ihr/Resources/Theses/index.html
    http://www.history.ac.uk/reviews/subject/medi.html
    http://www.rhs.ac.uk/bibl/bibwel.asp

  3. Chris Williams says:

    Hi Anna,

    Remember that most academics (even the lucky ones working for the Wellcome) like to supervise intelligent, interested, and prepared students. You’re in demand, if you play your cards right.

    1. Analytically – essentially this means, don’t tell the story, unless absolutely necessary. Instead, try to answer some bigger questions. You need to think of some. On the other hand, you and your supervisor ought both to be aware that after 6 months you might need to revise some or all of them.

    2. Survey – what it says on the tin. Are you _really_ sure that nobody’s done this before? Get a list of all the books and articles on the topic, via the British Library website and various journal article databases. What are the three closest bits of work to it that exist? [NB – get hold of a copy of Michelle Winslow’s thesis about Poles and ageing, and search the bibliography of that. University of Sheffield History Dept 2000ish].

    3. Sources – this is the big one. You need to find at least one but preferably less than 4 bodies of primary sources which between them can answer your questions. Go and find 2 of these, ideally take a look at them directly, then go back to your prospective supervisor and ask her to suggest any more. She is bound to know far more about this than you, so treat this as an intelligence and initiative test more than anything else.

    Where you start looking for sources really depends on a whole bunch of things that I haven’t got time to list right now [usually I get £25 an hour for this kind of advice…]. But the best place to start is in other people’s bibliographies, and the NRA, A2A and Archon websites.

    4. Methodology . . . derive this from something else, preferably some work you’ve already done. Hodder Arnold have put out a range of books about this sort of thing recently, but I put the flyer in the bin a couple of hours ago. Soz. Check them out, though.

    5. Training – you ought to be aware that you’ll need some, and that the institution will be providing some. For they have an obligation to. If you want to read up on that, check out the websites of the ESRC and the AHRC. But assessing your training needs is something that they ought to be doing after you’ve started your PhD, not before, IMO. Their mileage may vary, though. Perhaps they are looking to see how far you are willing to go to sell yourself to them. If you see what I mean.

  4. Chris Williams says:

    As any fule can kno, I wrote the above before I saw Sharon’s reply. Surprisingly congruent, I suppose, which is a fine thing. With the difference that hers is about twice as useful as mine. Ah well.

  5. Anna says:

    Thanks very much you two (Chris and Sharon). Hope other people find it as useful as I do!

  6. Sharon says:

    Well, I was just thinking the same thing about yours, Chris. And you added some resources I hadn’t thought of too. (I think I’m going to paste both responses into a new post so they’ll be easier to find, in fact.)

    But, hey, where do I get into this £25 an hour business? I think I’ve been going about this all wrong. Too much free advice to paupers students.

  7. Chris Williams says:

    OK, so maybe I exaggerated slightly… On the other hand, yr standard tutorial rate, such as it is, is around that ballpark.

    Think consultant…

  8. Anna says:

    As you can appreciate, currently I am in the overpaid non-academic world and may well be able to offer some financial carrot for you/your corporation to come clean about this rather enlightening knowledge about sources, which you mentioned in section 3 of your reply, Chris. ‘Where you start looking for sources depends on a whole bunch of things, which I haven’t got time to list right now’. I realise Chris’s bin is one place I could try (see above re hodder refs), but can anyone else help?

    What is this ‘whole bunch of things’ which Chris is alluding to in such a tempting manner? I can offer the going rate of £25 per hour, but will pay the end total on word count (academic typing speed estimated at 40 wpm).

    Perhaps I should be more specific; I’ve already approached the Alzheimers Society for use of their archives and they’ve said yes – does that count as one source? Presuming yes, that’s another three to go. So would three health authorities in London count? Or would I approach individual hospital trusts? Do I count the family records office as one source? And what about all the interviews I’m planning to conduct – with consultant geriatricians etc? I’m currently based in London, is this one of the ‘bunch of things’ Chris is referring to?

    I’m sorry if I’m getting all you early modern people thinking about the twentieth century (and the resulting increase in disposable income which thus follows), but I haven’t found good websites on my era!

  9. Sharon says:

    Chris is the modernist (early modern was too hard, right?). Anna, sounds to me as though you’re already well on the way there. Records of the Alzheimers Society sounds like a great set of sources. Interviews, i.e. oral history, excellent. I don’t know exactly where you would find the relevant hospital/health authorities’ archives, though I think at least some London area hospital records will probably be in the London Metropolitan Archives.

    This is the point at which to try the A2A (Access to Archives, link in the other post) database to locate potential archives. Try a keyword search for ‘hospital’ (and I think you can narrow searches down by region), for example. Then you could put a couple of concrete examples of that type of institutional source in your proposal. (Again, reading some of the secondary literature should give you a clearer idea of exactly what’s likely to be in those archives.) I’d have thought that those three types of archival source (Alzheimer’s society, hospital, oral history) ought to do you very nicely.

    By the way, on the oral history, that would be a specific area for training, unless you already have experience (and even then, you might want to get some training on interviewing specifically for academic purposes, and also the issues of interpreting oral history sources). And a final thought – because this is recent history and on a very sensitive personal subject, there will be ethical issues that early modernists like me don’t really have to worry about. You might find that access to some records will be restricted, and that you might be expected to anonymise subjects in your thesis. Again, that’s something that ought to be in the RT.

  10. Anna says:

    Sharon this is really excellent – thanks ever so much!

    I really like how your website is set up as for someone like me who isn’t really used to all these new computery type things it’s easy to follow. It’s inspiring too – and I’m sure lots of the people who visit it find it as inspiring and helpful as I do.

    I was trying to be funny on my last posting (hope I haven’t upset Chris!).

    Are there any equally as good websites for the twentieth century?

  11. Sharon says:

    I love it when people say such nice things. (I’m a simple childish soul really) :)

    I don’t know if there’s anything quite like this site for the 20th century, but that’s at least partly because the more modern your history becomes, the more there is of it, so people have to be more specialised. (Anybody know of anything?) But there are lots and lots of gorgeous 20th-century history sites, that’s for sure. Some very good starting points:

    http://www.humbul.ac.uk/output/subout.php?subj=history
    http://bubl.ac.uk/link/linkbrowse.cfm?menuid=11367

    Oh, Anna, for some unknown reason, my spam-busting program took a dislike to your last comment. If you find you’re getting blocked from commenting when you try to submit, just be patient, I should be able to rescue it (like I’ve done with that one).

  12. Chris Williams says:

    Anna – drop me an email. Google my name and history to find my email address.

    If you’re looking to do this as an oral history, you really need to get in touch with Michelle Winslow and talk to her about it. She does that kind of thing. Google is your friend here as well.

    O

    Alzheimers’ Society records are a Good Source. One other might be the professional association for geriatricians.

    Do the

  13. Chris Williams says:

    Hell – how did I get to post that accidentally? Never mind.

    For “O”, read ‘One potential difficulty with oral history is that for some people it’s therapy rather than research. You want it to be research.

    For “Do the” read: “Do the medical journals that specialise in ageing and alzheimers’ have publishers’ or editors archives that you can look at?”

    And finally – there’s some very good contemporary history of medicine written by Virginia Berridge, which is worth checking out.

  14. Anna says:

    Thanks again Sharon and Chris. Chris – have sent you an email. Perhaps reply to my hotmail account because I am home now.

    Sharon – I don’t think those websites are as good as yours.

    You never know, perhaps I’ll start my own modelled on yours!

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