Digital Connections: new methodologies for British history, 1500-1900
I spent an enjoyable afternoon yesterday (a distinct contrast, I might add, to the rest of my day, but that is another story) at the Digital Connections workshop at the Institute of Historical Research in London, which introduced two new resources for historical research: the federated search facility, Connected Histories, and the Mapping Crime project to link crime-related documents in the John Johnson collection of ephemera at the Bodleian Library in Oxford to related external resources.
After a welcome from Jane Winters, Tim Hitchcock kicked off proceedings with an enthusiastic endorsement of Connected Histories and generally of all things digital and history-related in Towards a history lab for the digital past. I guess I fundamentally disagree with the suggestion that concepts of intellectual property might survive unchallenged in some quarters (in fact I think the idea is contradicted by Tim’s comments on the Enlightenment inheritance and the ‘authorship’ silo). But then again, we won’t challenge the paywall by shunning it altogether, and in that sense, Connected Histories’ ‘bridges’ to the commercial digitisation providers are an important step forward. It will be interesting to see how business models evolve in response – there were indications yesterday that some providers may be considering moves towards offering short-term access passes, like the British Newspapers 1800-1900 at the British Library, where you can purchase a 24 hour or 7 day pass if you do not have an institutional affiliation. Given the number of north American accents in evidence yesterday afternoon, too, there will be some pressure on online publishers to open up access to their resources to overseas users and beyond UK Higher Education institutions.
For me, the most exciting parts of the talk, and ensuing demonstration-workshop led by Bob Shoemaker, related to the Connected Histories API (which seems to be a little bit of a work-in-progress), which led to an interesting discussion about the technical skills required for contemporary historical research; and the eponymous ‘Connections‘, a facility for saving, annotating and (if desired) publicly sharing Connected Histories search results. The reception in the room was overwhelmingly positive – I’ll be fascinated to see if Connected Histories can succeed where other tools have failed to get academic historians to become more sociable about their research and expertise. Connected Histories is not, in fact, truly a federated search platform, in that indexes for each participating resource have been re-created by the Connected Histories team, which then link back to the original source. With the API, this will really open up access to many resources which were designed for human interrogation only, and I am particularly pleased that several commercial providers have been persuaded to sign up to this model. It does, though, seem to add to the complexity of keeping Connected Histories itself up-to-date: there are plans to crawl contributing websites every 6 months to detect changes required. This seems to me quite labour intensive, and I wonder how sustainable it will prove to be, particularly as the project team plan to add yet more resources to the site in the coming months and welcome enquiries from potential content providers (with an interesting charging model to cover the costs of including new material). This September’s updates are planned to include DocumentsOnline from The National Archives, and there were calls from the audience yesterday to include catalogue data from local archives and museums.
Without wishing to come over as dismissive as this possibly sounds, David Tomkins’ talk about the Mapping Crime project was a pretty good illustration of what can be done when you have a generous JISC grant and a very small collection. Coming from (well, my working background at least) a world of extremely large, poorly documented collections, where no JISC-equivalent funder is available, I was more interested in the generic tools provided for users in the John Johnson collection: permanent URIs for each item, citation download facilities, a personal, hosted user space within the resource, and even a scalable measuring tool for digitised documents. I wonder why it is taking archival management software developers so long to get round to providing these kinds of tools for users of online archive catalogues? There was also a fascinating expose of broadsheet plagiarism revealed by the digitisation and linking of two sensationalist crime reports which were identical in all details – apart from the dates of publication and the names of those involved. A wonderful case study in archival authenticity.
David Thomas’ keynote address was an entertaining journey through 13 years of online digitisation effort, via the rather more serious issues of sustainability and democratization of our digital heritage. His conclusions, that the future of history is about machine-to-machine communication, GIS and spatial data especially, might have come as a surprise to the customary occupants of the IHR’s Common Room, but did come with a warning of the problems attached to the digital revolution from the point of view of ordinary citizens and users: the ‘google issue’ of search results presented out of context; the maze of often complex and difficult-to-interpret online resources; and the question of whether researchers have the technical skills to fully exploit this data in new ways.