Digitising the Historical Record
Andrew Prescott, University of Glasgow
My contribution to the panel ‘Enacting Cultural Heritage / History’ in the Genres of Scholarly Knowledge Production event at HUMLab drew on material from a lecture I gave at the Institute of Historical Research in London in 2003. The 2003 lecture didn’t work very well and I never figured out a method of making it more widely available. The Umeå event gave me a chance to revisit some of the approaches I played with in 2003. It prompted me to make the slides and text of the 2003 lecture available as a collection in Medium called The Historian and Historical Sources in a Digital Age, and this provides more extended illustrations of the themes raised below. The reasons for my long delay in making my 2003 lecture more widely available exemplify some of the issues concerning a changing scholarly discourse which were at the heart of our discussion at Umeå, and I have meditated on these in my blog, Digital Riffs.
It was exciting for me in the Genres of Scholarly Knowledge Production event at Umeå to talk about archives in a panel which also covered sound, film, museum objects and virtual reconstructions of buildings. I have always felt passionately that administrative documents are just as exciting and glamorous as paintings, films or artefacts, and so, in introducing my contribution, couldn’t resist the possibility of finding out how the documents I first worked on as a doctoral student appeared when displayed on the eleven large screens in HUMLab.
Records of 1381
These images show the sort of archival material which first attracted me to historical research. They comprise documents from the National Archives in London relating to prosecutions arising from one of the most dramaric events in medieval England, the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, which was provoked by the imposition of a poll tax requiring every adult to pay one shilling to support an unpopular war against France, the third such unjust tax in four years. In the course of the 1381 rising, insurgents broke into the Tower of London and beheaded Simon Sudbury, the Archbishop of Canterbury and Chancellor of England, and Robert Hales, the Treasurer of England. King Richard II was forced to grant charters freeing tenants from feudal services. The overthrow of the royal government was finally averted when the rebel leader Wat Tyler was killed during a meeting with the King at Smithfield.
The records relating to the revolt in the National Archives of Great Britain include files of working documents from commissions sent to suppress the revolt which contain accusations made by local juries within a few weeks of the collapse of the rising. In many ways these documents convey a sense of immediacy and contact with the events of the revolt, but the reports of local juries and trials of alleged rebels are filtered through the work of clerks who turned the rough and ready proceedings of the commissioners into formulaic French and Latin. The proceedings against the rebels were notorious for their corrupt and brutal character, but this was frequently concealed by the clerks who compiled these documents.
The complexities and deceptive character of these documents have fascinated me for forty years, and it was contemplating the problems of editing and presenting documents like these which caused me to become engaged with the digital humanities.
When I started to work on the archival material relating to the Revolt of 1381, the only way of making it available for wider use by historians was by printing it. Medieval archival documents are often very lengthy and repetitious, so many of the documents relating to the revolt were published as summaries — some of the most important documentary material relating to the revolt is still only available as short French abstracts in André Réville’s pioneering 1898 book, Le soulèvement des travailleurs d’Angleterre en 1381. In publishing documents from a file of proceedings against rebels in west Kent (TNA, KB 9/43) in their 1899 collection, The Peasants’ Rising and the Lollards, George Trevelyan and Edgar Powell stated that:
Unfortunately, this abbreviation frequently amounted to no more than leaving random parts of the document out, or lamely declaring that parts of the manuscript were in a poor state. In membrane 15 of this file, many details are given of attacks on houses belonging to various royal officials, but these are omitted by Powell and Trevelyan. For membrane 16, Powell and Trevelyan simply declare that there is ‘nothing of interest’.
In making available such archival material in a digital context, how far have we advanced beyond the methods of Réville, Powell or Trevelyan? Resources such as the Gascon Rolls project still use the same methods of calendaring (producing short summaries of archival records) which were preferred for editions of historical records in the nineteenth century because the costs of printing full transcripts or extended extracts of such documents were considered prohibitive. Surely, editorial procedures for digital projects should not be constrained by rules designed for print. Even in projects where the full text of records are presented (such as the exemplary Proceedings of the Old Bailey), the methodology remains in important respects rooted in the procedures of the print edition, with the fundamental act being the creation of a very accurate typed transcript, even though this may be used (as in the case of the Old Bailey proceedings) as a springboard for many other forms of analysis which would not be possible in print.
An Archivists’ History?
The British medieval historian and writer on archives V. H. Galbraith dreamt of an archivists’ history which saw historical documents not as the straw from which historical bricks are made, but as an aspect of history itself (Studies in the Public Records, p. 7). Galbraith argued that such an archivists’ history would be primarily visual in character: ‘The memory of the archivist is a pictorial one; to name a century to him is to call up a mental picture of the relevant records, the progress of history appearing to him as slow pageant of slowly changing records, marked from time to time by the occasional disappearance of one class and the gradual emergence of another.’ (ibid., pp. 7–8)
Galbraith stressed how the records themselves are part of the material culture of the age which produced them; the tripartite chirograph was a piece of textual engineering of which its twelfth-century inventors were very proud. In editing records, we often imagine that we can separate the information from the medium which carries them. But the physical appearance of historical records provides many visual clues which help us understand how the information in the records was pieced together. In the case of the 1381 records, visual cues enable us to see how the commissioners and their clerks pieced together information about the insurgency. We can see how the commissioners interrogated tenants of an estate where they had been trouble; we can trace how they sought advice as to whether a particular offence was treasonable; we can see the clerks struggling to describe events of the revolt in Latin. In order to develop a critical understanding of this information, we need to know as much as possible about how it was assembled. That means a close scrutiny of the parchment of the records in order to seek out visual evidence as to how the clerks assembled the information.
My examples here have been drawn from the records of 1381 because that is the material I know best, but the visual appearance of records is just as important in later periods and with different types of archives, as can be seen from this examination of Morgan James of Pillgwenlly following the Chartist rising at Newport in South Wales in 1839, where again interlineations and annotations illustrate how James’s evidence was used in preparing the case against the Chartist leaders.
Whether it is the rebels of 1381 or the insurgents of 1381, criticism of historical evidence is as much a visual as a textual activity.
The historic distinctions between libraries, archives, galleries and museums were fundamentally based on the different formats of collections — the distinctions between books, administrative records, material objects, and so on. These differences in format were also the historic internal organising principle of many of these institutions. The British Museum in which I worked at the beginning of my career was divided into such departments as Coins and Medals, Prints and Drawings, and Medieval and Later Antiquities, with rigid frontiers between them, and curators from one department were prohibited from handling the collections of another. This historic obsession with format and classification has recently been gently parodied by Julia Lohmann’s project at the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Department of Seaweed.
Digital formats are now challenging many of these historic divisions, and collapsing the distinctions on which galleries, libraries, museums and archives were based. A smartphone can offer access to art, text, music and moving images; where does the phone fit into our historic categorisations and what is the most appropriate way of curating books, administrative records or art made specifically for mobile or tablet access? As we digitise more of the cultural record, it is by no means clear that the resulting digital archives should be held by those institutions which have historically been associated with the material. For example, the Beazley Archive provides online access to contains the world’s largest collection of photographs of ancient Greek painted pottery. As a database, it could just as well be maintained by a library as a museum. Correspondingly, a database of images of illuminated manuscripts could just as readily be hosted by a museum as a library (indeed, among major UK catalogues of illuminated manuscripts, some are provided by museums, but others are hosted by libraries).
Traditional history has focussed on textual sources, and the archive or library has been its natural habitat. But this may start to change (has perhaps already started to change) as digital resources change our means of access to historical materials. Historians are frequently interested in the mundane rather than the iconic or spectacular. Portraits, for example, might only have been of interest to the biographer, and seemed to have limited value to the cultural or social historian. However, when very large quantities of portraits are made available by the activities of bodies such as the Public Catalogue Foundation, perceptions of their potential for the historian change. The Your Paintings resource developed by the Public Catalogue Foundation with the BBC offers vast numbers of portraits of civic dignitaries which may seem of limited cultural value, if not outright boring. However, Louise Purbrick has recently analysed official portraits of holders of civic office in Victorian Manchester, emphasising how the similarities and development of these portraits provides information about the emergence of Victorian provincial elites. Many similar studies could be undertaken from resources such as Your Paintings and the catalogue of the National Portrait Gallery. These offer the potential to imagine a new more visual form of history. One might consider using the Imageplot software created by the Software Studies Initiative directed by Lev Manovich to undertake a ‘distant reading’ of the civic portraiture in Your Paintings analysing the changing poses, gestures, regalia and clothing associated with power.
When visual material is assembled in very large collections, it transforms our view of its potential as historical source material. For example, the British Cartoon Archive at the University of Kent has images of over 150,000 cartoons. The cartoon has a venerable history as a leaven for the soggy dough of historical textbooks, but the huge corpus at Kent allows the cartoon to be used as a means of exploring changing social attitudes. Instead of using the occasional cartoon to pithily illustrate a point about political history, again the creation of a large online archive of cartoons opens up the prospect of distant readings of cartoons through large-scale visualisations. The availability online of an archive of a cartoonist like Giles opens up the tempting possibility of a distant reading which explores Giles’s depiction of suburban life.
One of the most exciting features of digitisation is that it enables scholars to view source materials in new configurations and to integrate directly into scholarly discourse images of archival documents and other primary materials. But, it seems to me, we are failing to take advantage of these opportunities. The default means of scholarly communication has become the pdf of a journal article — a closed and dead form of technology if ever there was one. The processes of review, research assessment and academic promotion seem increasingly, and depressingly, to privilege verbal discouse as representing ‘the important stuff’.
In the 1990s, when we started on the first projects for digitisation of manuscripts, I imagined that in a few years we would routinely see articles and books routinely incorporating images of manuscripts to illustrate the discussion. But this hasn’t generally happened. In the world at large, one of the effects of digital technologies has been to flood the world with images on a hitherto unimagined scale, as the rise of the ‘selfie’ illustrates. While the world has become more visual, more full of sound and movement, scholarship has been muffled by the deadening hand of the journal pdf.
This timidity of many scholars confronted with the exciting possibilities of creating new more media-rich and visual forms of scholarship is particularly disappointing as, when I was an undergraduate in the 1970s, historians eagerly exploited the possibilities offered by modern off-set litho printing techniques to produce richly illustrated books, such as those published by Thames and Hudson, which enabled the historical discussion to be framed with high-quality images of the visual and material culture of the period. It is sad that, in many ways, historical writing has gone backwards in the past forty years, and historians do not exploit the potential of the web with the same relish that authors like Geoffrey Barraclough explored the technical innovations of a publisher such as Thames and Hudson.
Re-collecting the Archive
Archives, of course, have never been purely textual places, as the beautiful collection of images assembled under the Victorian copyright laws in the COPY 1 class in the British National Archives illustrates. Nevertheless we tend to think of archives and historical records as primarily textual —while Derrida in Archive Fever emphasises that archives are not invariably textual, his discussion is dominated by such textual technologies as paper, ink, printing and e-mail. One of the first applications of digital technology in the archive was to create images, and the ability to make images of objects from the archive and reuse them in unexpected ways is gradually restating the boundaries of the archive and also more and more reshaping the archive into a field of visual activity. The Half Memory project at Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums worked with musicians, performers and artists to use material from the archives to create films, music and performances which restate our view of what the archive might contain and do, and where its boundaries lie.
As the quantity of data in archives grows, it is likely that our exploration of the archive will become less textual and more visual and haptic. The Australian researcher Mitchell Whitelaw has already demonstrated the potential of visualisations of archive catalogues to offer an enhanced understanding of the structure and internal relationships of archival classes. Increasingly, the first port of call for historians may be a visualisation like that produced by Whitelaw, rather than a textual catalogue.
The potential to incorporate video or sound information in the archive also helps dissolve its boundaries. Conventionally, the archive has been seen as having very hard and well-defined boundaries — in Britain, continuous official custody of a historical record is an important consideration in appraising the value of the record as evidence in a court of law. Commentary or reflection on the archive has generally not been seen as an integral part of the archive. However, Poetics of the Archive, a project at Newcastle University working on the archive of the well-known poetry publisher Bloodaxe Books, is collecting video interviews with poets represented in the archive. The poets talk about their archival practice, their relationship with the press and their own poetry. These interviews are clearly fundamental to understanding the nature of the Bloodaxe archive, but they do not formally form part of the archive. The boundary of the archive has been challenged; these conversations for an archive both comment on and embed themselves in the archive.
As the archive becomes increasingly non-textual, so the scholarly conversation which derives from these archives will also need to become more genuinely multi-media. But how will this be done and what will such scholarship look like? We don’t at this stage know the answers, but I feel we need more urgently to start exploring the possibilities.
The multi-media nature of the archive was vividly illustrated by the release by the National Archives and the Central Office of Information in 2006 on the National Archives website of a selection of public information films produced by the UK government since 1946. These films are as much part of the archive of British government activity as Domesday Book or tax records, and it is just as important that they are as readily accessible to researchers as other government records. Yet how do we incorporate discussion of them into our scholarly discourse? Often, the films are of interest not so much for the factual information they provide as for the cultural assumptions and unspoken attitudes they convey. A good example is a 1948 film introducing the new National Health Service, ‘Your Very Good Health’ (which is, intriguingly, also made available on the modern NHS website). The film is a fascinating expression of many of the attitudes underpinning the early NHS: the assumption that personal health is a public matter, like drains or refuse; the paternalistic tone (reinforced by the use of animation by Halas and Batchelor); and the underlying assumptions about gender, family and social structures.
Similarly, the folowing film issued by the Colonial Office in 1950 was intended to tell the subject races of the British Empire how to use a London bus. Again, it is the underlying attitudes and cultural assumptions which are striking, and these are inseparable from watching the film — it is difficult to convey these elements in a description. The patronising manner of the film is immediately evident, and the stress of the film on the importance of good manners and ‘friendly co-operation’ speaks volumes about the cultural dynamics of the British Empire, an imperium built on respectability. The insistence on regularity, respect for others, good order and following the rules is interwoven with an unspoken racism, as where the commentator declares that Africans have a special affinity with children.
These films are eloquent historical documents, but how we build scholarly discourse around them is not clear. Another example which in my view is one of the most poignant historical documents of the post-war period is a Soviet documentary film about the visit of President Brezhnev to Afghanistan in 1963, made by the Central Documentary Studios in Moscow. This film was part of the library of left-wing films owned by Educational and Television Films, a company founded by the documentary producer Stanley Forman. These films were formerly available via the JISC Media Hub, but are sadly no longer available online. The original archive is now held by the British Film Institute. It is almost impossible to convey the rich layers of allusion, irony and sadness in this film. The opening section, with its description of the Soviet delegation, evokes what seems almost like a lost civilisation. The emphasis on the modernisation of Kabul and the way in which women are shown both as modern housewives and in burkas is striking. In the light of subsequent events, the prominence given to the education of girls and to the reassurances by Brezhnev that Afghanistan would continue to enjoy the ‘fruits of freedom, the most precious fruit on earth’ are particularly notable. Above all, the oily and ingratiating tone of the commentator encapsulates the hypocrisy and untrustworthiness of late twenetieth-century totalitarianism — something that can only be appreciated by watching the film itself. This is an edited version of the film. The full film can be viewed in two sections here and here.
In thinking about how we create a scholarly discourse which incorporates media such as the Central Office of Information films or the Brezhnev film, the creation of collages and mash-ups come quickly to mind. I have found particularly helpful in considering these approaches the work of a sound artist based in Glasgow called Mark Vernon, much of whose work is available on his website, Meagre Resource. Mark’s work mixes field recording, found sounds and other audio sources, as can be heard in this Sound Portrait of the Forth Valley Royal Hospital which represents a kind of audio archive of a hospital.
One of the reasons I became particularly interested by Mark’s work was his work on tape clubs. For social historians, the way in which people met together and changes in forms of associational culture are particularly interesting. The sociologist Robert Putnam in his book Bowling Alone has suggested that there was in the late twentieth century a major crisis in associational culture, with many people losing interest in traditional clubs and societies, a trend which could cause wider social dislocation. Critics of Putnam have argued that, instead of people withdrawing from clubs and societies, they simply moved into newer forms of associational activity.
Among the programmes produced by Mark Vernon are some dealing with tape clubs in the East Midlands of Britain. In the 1960s and 1970s, owners of magnetic tape recorders gathered together to produce their own taped progammes which they posted to other tape recording enthusiasts. Mark found the taped archives of a number of these clubs, and was intrigued by the way they seemed to be audio postcards from the foreign country of the past. The tape archives are certainly evocative records of a lost form of suburban life. Mark’s programmes about these clubs are fascinating, and they raise the question of whether similar collage methods could be used in any way to comment on the wider issues raised by Robert Putnam’s thesis.
These techniques can of course be extended into film, and the question is whether a film mash up could be used to make a meaningful scholarly statement. This ‘archival mix and mash’ was made by the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia. It effectively tells the story of Film Australia and also makes some powerful points about the perception of Australian identity. Could this be a future form of scholarly discourse?
It does not require the resources of a film archive to create this sort of mashup. The burgeoning culture of fan films, in which fans create tributes and sequels to favourite programmes and movies, show how such resources can be readily created, and it may be that it is to fan remixing and modelling that we should look to see the future of scholarly communication. I will conclude with a winner from a mash-up competition held in 2008 called ‘England’s Dreaming’ which uses clips from 1970s films to make powerfuil comments about the Britain of the Sex Pistols and punk culture. We could imagine mixing this further with other archival, library and museum material of the 1970s. Could we mix it in such a way as to add to scholarship on the 1970s?