New resources for making digital history

Bill Turkel (who I get to meet in July!), has published The Programming Historian as an open access e-book. (Gavin Robinson, who actually is a programming historian, recommends it.)

And another resource you’ll want to have close at hand if you’re planning any kind of digital history project (large or small) is Jeremy Boggs’ new series on Digital Humanities design and development process:
Part 1: figure out what you’re building
Part 2: information architecture and organization

The important thing I want to highlight about both of these resources is that they’re about making digital history, not just using the resources and tools that someone else already made. A lot of discussion of digital resources focuses on the finished products and what they can do for your research as an end-user (eg, this recent post). But if you can get involved in the creation of digital resources, you have the opportunity to influence what actually gets digitised, to get the resources you want.

Similarly, I’ve been coming to the view that it’s just not enough to champion blogging or writing on wikis, even though these activities are useful and stimulating in their own right (and people who dismiss them as worthless are big fat idiots who need a good slap). What you really need to be doing is learning how blogs/wikis work: how to install and maintain blog or wiki software and then tailor it to fit your own needs – and what it’s possible to do with these tools once you have them. The skills you learn in the process, to use the educationalists’ occasionally useful jargon, are highly transferable.

And there are going to be real job opportunities for those who take the initiative now and acquire the practical skills and understanding of what creating digital history needs. The generation of historians (and humanities academics more generally) in charge of hiring mostly doesn’t care about (or for) blogging. Wikipedia brings it out in a collective rash. But it’s well aware that there is quite a lot of grant money becoming available for digital history/humanities. And that’s something it does care about.

The technical skills needed aren’t taught in more than a handful of history departments (I don’t know of any in the UK): students and junior academics who want to exploit these new opportunities are largely going to have to teach themselves, with the help of resources like The Programming Historian. Get in ahead of the crowd now. Your career might depend on it.


Recently noted around the web

What I’ve been reading online lately…

Charles Tilly, May 20, 1929 – April 29, 2008
  personal memories of Charles Tilly

Old Bailey opens its unseen files
  nice feature on the project in The Observer

Observer Food Monthly April 2008
  a special anniversary edtion: loadsa Nigel Slater recipes

the moment cat lost…

Hitler diaries scandal: ‘We’d printed the scoop of the century, then it turned to dust’
  on the 25th anniversary of the Hitler Diaries, the inside story

The Pirate Problem
  dan cohen on historians' reactions to digital history

Old Bailey Online: now from 1674 to 1913 (check it out before it collapses)

Well, I was a little cryptic the other week, but tomorrow it all goes public (and we kind of expect it to crash at some point – I’ll be almost disappointed if it doesn’t…),* and today there is a pretty nice feature in the Observer.

[Monday update… creak… groan… thud… Sorry, folks. It should get back to normal in a day or two…]

So here it is: the Proceedings of the Old Bailey Online 1674-1834 is now the Proceedings of the Old Bailey and Central Criminal Court 1674-1913.

This doesn’t only mean that you can now search for 200,000 trials held at the Old Bailey over a period of 2 and a half centuries. The other new set of goodies is the full text of (almost) every Ordinary of Newgate’s Account between 1690 and 1772 (in the next few months this should expand to a full archive of every known surviving Account from c.1674 onwards).

I’ve written here before about these grimly fascinating pamphlets. They’ve been used by a number of historians, including Andrea Mackenzie and Peter Linebaugh, but the surviving pamphlets have been scattered across a number of different libraries and archives. From now on they’ll be together in one fully searchable digital archive. Plus, I’m in the process of completing a database that links every convict mentioned in the Accounts to their trial, providing it has a surviving report (perhaps 3/4 of the links have already been made).

This should make for some interesting research possibilities. For example, historians often argue that women who successfully ‘pleaded their bellies’, ie had their death sentence postponed on grounds of being pregnant, usually escaped hanging. In fact, we say that in our own background section. But I’m not so sure. Through the process of cross-referencing trials and Ordinary’s Accounts, I’ve already discovered several women whose sentences were respited for pregnancy but subsequently carried out (eg in September 1695. So what I’ll be asking (once I’ve finished making the damned links) is: how many were executed and how many were permanently reprieved? Have we historians been getting it wrong? Answering those questions wasn’t impossible before now, but it would have been extremely difficult. And there will, no doubt, be many more possibilities like this.


The other news, because I haven’t been plugging it enough and you’ve probably all forgotten, is that we’re holding a conference in July to celebrate the relaunch: The Metropolis on Trial, in the throbbing metropolis of… Milton Keynes. If you’d like to attend, registration is open and you can download a booking form at the website. If you want to book the accommodation we’ve arranged at discount rates, you need to send the form in by the end of May at the latest and preferably as soon as possible. There is a 2 person room sharing option which is really good value (if you’re skint and looking for someone to share with maybe we can put people in touch here – leave a note in comments).



(Note that old links will continue to work for a few months, and we may well set up proper redirection at some point.)

Old stuff on OBP at this blog: Old Bailey category and the Old Bailey Symposium.

Old Bailey Files at The Head Heeb.

*Already this morning some searches have been very slow, which is not a good sign.

Wars, Conferences and Blogs

For those interested in the British Civil Wars, a symposium is being held next July in Hull.

In a lecture delivered to the Royal Historical Society in December 1983, John Morrill concluded with the observation that ‘The English civil war was not the first European revolution: it was the last of the wars of religion’. … This symposium aims to recognise the importance of Morrill’s interpretation, and to move it forward with reference to scholarship on political and religious thought that has emerged since 1983. While it will be partly concerned with the period of the 1640s, it also aims to draw out elements of the links and tensions between politics and religion that define the long seventeenth century. Central to the symposium will be a critical engagement with Morrill’s original argument: in what ways is it still persuasive, and in what areas might it be revised?

But what really struck me was that the organisers are using a blog as a website for the symposium. A smart idea: it’s free and not dependent on a university department’s web space, so interesting material can be left up afterwards for as long as you want; it’s simple to set up and can be used to post news and information about the event quickly and easily (with RSS feeds, of course), as well as paper abstracts and even copies of the papers themselves for pre-circulation (though that’s not something we do that much in history usually…). And then, think about the possibilities for discussions with people who can’t actually attend the event. And podcasts! And…

It’s a really obvious thing to do with a blog, when you think about it, isn’t it?

Update: And so, of course… I have to have one too, don’t I?

Sunday news for the digital historian

1. Two pieces by Anthony Grafton: Future Reading: digitisation and its discontents is a substantial must-read article; and Adventures in Wonderland includes a selection of resources (h-t).

The supposed universal library, then, will be not a seamless mass of books, easily linked and studied together, but a patchwork of interfaces and databases, some open to anyone with a computer and WiFi, others closed to those without access or money. The real challenge now is how to chart the tectonic plates of information that are crashing into one another and then to learn to navigate the new landscapes they are creating… Soon, the present will become overwhelmingly accessible, but a great deal of older material may never coalesce into a single database… Though the distant past will be more available, in a technical sense, than ever before, once it is captured and preserved as a vast, disjointed mosaic it may recede ever more rapidly from our collective attention.

2. The Guardian and Observer Newspapers Archive (to 1975 at present) is up and running.

This is the first time a UK national newspaper’s print archive has been available through its website. Previously, the only way to explore newspaper archives was by laboriously searching newsprint pages, stored on microfilm and in bound copies. Our ambitious digitisation project involved scanning every page from microfilm, segmenting each page into article clippings and then making them searchable.

It’s a pay-for service, unfortunately, but there is a 24-hour free trial, and a variety of individual purchasing options. (The Guardian Unlimited archive, ie the archive of the online version of the newspaper since 1999, will continue to be available free of charge, according to the FAQ.)

Discovering History and Memory on the Web

A good piece by Allan Kulikoff in the latest Common-place, on Early American History on the web. It’s relevant beyond American history: for a start, his description of the process of tracking down source materials should be useful for teachers and students looking for useful online primary sources in any historical field. One thing that stands out is how surprised Kulikoff was at just how much he found:

The Internet contains everything from newspapers and magazines to travel accounts, from maps to sheet music, from woodcuts to oil paintings, from novels to critical essays, from the proceedings of governmental bodies to the intimate details of family life. Searchers can find materials on every imaginable topic: Civil War hospitals; the Salem witchcraft trials; Revolutionary and Civil War battles; proceedings of the Continental Congress, the Constitutional Convention, and the U.S. Congress; slave resistance; Indian battles; the abolition and proslavery movements; the beliefs and religious practices of Evangelicals and Unitarians; the Lewis and Clark expedition; westward migration; economic development and immigration; and the writings of Cotton Mather and Walt Whitman, to name but a few. In sum, there are far more primary sources on the Web than in public libraries (except the greatest) and community college libraries, though many fewer than in the libraries of research universities.

But, as the discussion shows, these can still be difficult to find. Information multiplies endlessly on the Web; we have rapidly gone from scarcity to abundance. But locating that abundance is often a hit-and-miss affair.

Moreover, there is a thoughtful rumination on what these primary sources, the choices made in digitising history, tell us about history and memory.

Putting materials on the Web is a time-consuming process: they must be discovered, digitized, indexed, and uploaded. Historians, archivists, librarians, curators, genealogists, and institutions like the Library of Congress all put historical sources on the Web. These individuals and institutions have competing interests and hold widely contrasting views of American history. As one looks in detail at Web primary sources, one senses great conflict and contests over the meaning of our past, over the historical memories they wish to sustain or suppress. Who holds the keys to our history—historians, archivists, preachers, politicians, ordinary citizens?

Kulikoff notes how – unsurprisingly – trends in historiography influence the sources put online. The unfashionable, such as ‘quantifiable’ materials like probate inventories, doesn’t get as much attention as images and narrative texts. (Mind you, it doesn’t help that digitising sources like these in a way that will be of real use for quantitative analysis is one of the hardest tasks going: it’s easy to put images of manuscript sources online, but converting them into searchable texts or databases is difficult, labour-intensive and expensive; and you can’t just dip a toe in the water: you’ve got to do them en masse.)

This is not a bad time for historians to be giving more thought to these issues. The Web has achieved some maturity as a serious academic resource, although on the technical side there’s a long way to go. It seems strange to me that you can still encounter people whose understanding of what’s available seems not to have changed since about 1995 (I don’t know whether this is a failure of outreach or whether these are just the unreachable); still, the dinosaurs are in the minority.

Nonetheless, there are many historians who need to become more savvy about how to make history digital; what is possible and may become possible, how to get it done, how to get the money to do it. Learn these skills and you have the opportunity to influence public perceptions of your field as well as contributing to scholarly research.

Digital History: a few Essential Resources

Digital History: a guide to gathering, preserving and presenting the past on the web (also in dead tree format)
Digital History Hacks – Bill Turkel’s indispensable blog
Center for New Media and History
Dan Cohen
Companion to Digital Humanities