Some readers will have encountered me at Early Modern Notes, among other projects, although I’ve been having a blog sabbatical this summer. My break from blogging was partly due to major changes in my life and work since the beginning of this month. I’ve moved a couple of hundred miles (note to US readers: over here in Britain, that’s a long way) to take up a new post with some relevance to readers of this blog.
But let’s rewind a bit. For those who don’t know Early Modern Notes, I’m a social historian. (And I’m pretty useless on 18th-century literature, truth be told, unless it’s about criminals.) My research interests are 17th- and 18th-century crime in England and Wales, and I’ve spent a lot more time digging around in dusty legal archives than is healthy. You can find out more about all that here.
What makes us choose one path to follow in research rather than some other? I don’t really know. Mine started way back when I was a first-year undergraduate, and I read this book, and then this one. I blame almost everything on Carlo Ginzburg and Natalie Zemon Davis, although EP Thompson had quite a bit to do with my interest in the 18th century.
I’ve now spent several years seeking out the nearest British equivalents of the rich legal records that Ginzburg and Davis used so brilliantly to write about Italian and French heretics, impostors and murderers. I do number-crunching (at a fairly basic level) whenever it’s necessary, but my real interests lie in qualitative analysis, and in the stories told by people long ago to reconstruct and explain their experiences of the world and of often disturbing and traumatic events.
At the same time that I was embarking on this research as a PhD student, I also started another momentous journey: using the web space provided by my university, I set up a very basic website listing some links to interesting early modern stuff I’d found on the internet. I never expected it to turn into this, that’s for sure. And the experience doing that which I’ve built up over the last five or six years has undoubtedly contributed to where I am now.
Which brings us back to the present. I think that many of you will have encountered The Old Bailey Proceedings Online. My new job is as project manager for two new, related London history projects, based in Sheffield University’s Humanities Research Institute.
The “easy” (hollow laughs) one is for the Victorianists: we’re going to finish off the OBP job by digitising the final run of proceedings from 1834-1913 (under the title of Central Criminal Court proceedings) and integrating them into the existing site. This will create a major, fully searchable, digital primary source for London history, and particularly for the history of non-elite Londoners, running right through from the late 17th century into the early 20th century. You can get some sense of the possibilities from the OBP Blog Symposium of February 2006.
Compared to the 18th-century project, though, that really is the easy bit. Like many other digital primary sources, the OB/CCC proceedings are printed texts – relatively easy to read and transcribe, and to mark up for digitisation. What we’re doing next is much more ambitious and much more complex. Plebeian Lives and the Making of Modern London 1690-1800 will be “a comprehensive electronic edition of primary sources on criminal justice and the provision of poor relief and medical care in eighteenth-century London”.
We’re including a wide range of primary sources. Most of them are archival manuscript materials, including legal records such as coroners’ inquests; parish records (eg: pauper letters, vestry minute books); the records of Bridewell and Bethlem hospital; apprenticeship records; and more. Print sources, meanwhile, include Ordinary’s Accounts. Like the Old Bailey/Central Criminal Court databases, they’ll end up online: thousands of documents fully searchable, freely available to all internet users without any subscription barriers. What’s more, we hope to construct a search engine that will make it possible to simultaneously search a number of related online primary source resources alongside ours, including the OBP, and others at different sites such as British History Online.
Well, we hope. Every phase of the process is lengthy and complex. All those documents and texts must first of all be microfilmed, scanned, and ‘rekeyed’ (transcribed) before we can even begin to do anything with them: that part of it is outsourced, although we have to produce various documentation to guide the rekeyers. Then we have to mark the transcripts up in XML, another dull and painstaking task, which will be done by the HRI’s programmers and by several part-time, home-based workers who are starting this autumn.
Once the markup is done, the CCC project will be quite straightforward to finish off, since it will be essentially a matter of adding it to the existing OBP database and giving it a few tweaks. But for our 18th-century plebeians, our job will barely have begun.
The techie people have to create a powerful search engine that anyone can use fairly easily and, of course, we have to create a web site to present it. Even that’s just a beginning. Of course, we want to see many people with 18th-century interests, from genealogists to academics, using the Plebeian Lives database in their own ways. What we want to do with it is to analyse the data in order to “reconstruct how ‘ordinary’ Londoners interacted with various government and charitable institutions in the course of their daily lives”. We’ll be doing large scale quantitative analysis and record linkage (to find out, for example, patterns of relationships between claiming poor relief and ending up as a victim or perpetrator of crime). The technique of nominal record linkage has tended to be applied to small rural populations: the computer made record linkage practical in the first place, now the internet is making possible the extension of its methods to the teeming metropolis. On the other hand, where we can find enough information about individuals, we’ll trace their individual experiences and uses of the institutions available to them. I eventually get the fun job of writing short biographies to put on the website.
Stories! Did I mention that I like telling stories?!