Yesterday I attended a great afternoon exploring the origins and research opportunities associated with the British Library Labs. The event was hosted by one of my supervisors Lucinda Matthews-Jones and was in collaboration with History UK.
Mahendra Mahey opened the event and has worked on the British Library Labs since it’s beginning four years ago. He engaged with how researchers can access huge quantities of digital data held at the British Library which allows for new and innovative research. NB. If you are interested in submitting an application for the British Library Labs competition, then make your work link between and amongst other available datasets and digitised material.
Some interesting projects have came out of these competitions including Jennifer Batt who looks at datamining and textmining verse in eighteenth century newspaper – fascinating ideas to consider from the shape of verses to the beginning lines of verses and being able to plot them on a dataset to scan and search quickly for similar works. Bob Nicolson who engaged with remixing different digital archives and beginning to create ‘The Victorian Joke Database’ – of which I am eager to get involved with! There was another project, not linked to the British Library but still relied on digital resources to complete research, about geospatial innovation and deep mapping projects engaging with where and how the natural element of poetry was explored in the Lake District. This project looked at distant and close reading analysis and macro VS micro discussion. I have to admit although this was fascinating work, I honestly did not have a clue about technical terms and terminology that was being discussed, metadata, datamining, OCR and CIS to name but a few!
The event rendered great thought provoking discussions, a point that was raised by Mahendra and James Baker was how we as historians do not want to make digital documents and research accessible or available for other researchers. To an extent, it is as if historians with the data want to punish (possibly a strong phrase) other historians who have not went through the time, effort to locate their material, there is a possessiveness about the material that becomes problematic for progression. It is understandable because initial researchers have worked on the dataset and have engaged with it passionately and enthusiastically therefore, it is difficult to allow it to be released and allow accessibility to it. Mahendra said that it is perfection that is the enemy in that it hinders the progression because people are recognising potential problem and unwilling to post. Being new to the professional academic environment, I am always reluctant to share work – only because I am worried in case someone obliterates my research as a lecturer has done to me in the past.
I think there are big challenges with digital history, the biggest one for me is that THERE HAS TO BE AN EASIER WAY! By this I mean accessing material, curating and archiving material and having people know what material have been done, not to mention just making accessible to subscribers and researchers. This country is too obsessed with politics, the copyright and keeping everyone happy which ultimately hinders our progression. The examples given by the panel were Scandinavian and Dutch research, United States and Australia who were one of the first to digitise material AND make is accessible to researchers.
I particularly enjoyed James’s talk on asking whether we are digital historians and what are the problems or concerns about this. His first year module in University of Sussex looked at giving undergraduates tools to become a practical digital historian. I admit that there are problems with digital history but I am a fan of digitised material. Due to the nature of my research I have to rely on digitised material to locate as many examples of gender passing individuals as possible in a variety of newspapers. Of course key word searches do not always work, but by combining and a bit of perseverance you can return useful results.
A tip that James suggested was noting down all of the terms that you have used to locate material. Interestingly, this idea was attached to an essay I completed as part of my MRes study last year, at the time it sounded infantile having to look at how we access resources, materials and use the library etc. But reflecting back it forced me to consider where and how I researched.
Finally, a personal problem I have with digital history is, I think, the most obvious one as a historian… I WANT TO TOUCH STUFF! I spent last Monday at the British Library and ordered material to have a look at. One of the most interesting to me was the letters between Violet Trefusis and her mother and some letters from Vita Sackville West. Obviously I was eager to read these documents and thought how useful they would be, only to find that these documents were actually photocopied (and poorly at that) and I couldn’t take any pictures. Obviously being a bit of a material historian I didn’t just want photocopied material! For me the documents are a direct link to the past and a physical connection between me and the individual I am researching.
I kind of want to be that dusty old historians surrounded by boxes of material and only coming up for air for a cup of tea! Surely, the digitisation of material loses this tangible history quality and history becomes focussed on qualitative and quantative data and simply looking at a graph to see how many poems are published between 1700 and 1750 in newspapers for example.
I think digital history and digitisation of material in general fill me with dread and shows how unprepared I am! With this I feel like my parents must do when they try to online shop, or search the internet! Maybe my lack of preparation for accessing and understanding material leaves me a bit bitter about the digital world?