Archive for July, 2012

When you embark on historical research do you think much about backing up your data?  Do you have files scattered all over the place with random names that make it very difficult to figure out what is what?  Have you considered how you might make your data available to other researchers in the future?  These are all questions that are discussed in our brand new and free training course with suggestions made as to how to achieve best practice for preserving your data.  After all, the last thing you want is to lose it all!

The IHR are pleased to announce the arrival of another new and free training course, this time on the subject of data preservation.  The course has been developed by the SHARD project (see the SHARD Blog for details) for delivery on the History SPOT platform.  SHARD is a JISC funded project designed to create greater awareness about data preservation.

You will need to login or register for a free account on History SPOT at which time you will gain access to the data preservation modules, as well as handbooks on designing databases, creating podcasts, and using search engines for research.

To take a look at the data preservation course click here or alternatively register on the History SPOT homepage.


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From time to time the IHR research seminars not only provide up-to-the-minute research in the History profession, but also find a relevance that goes beyond the profession and focuses on events that are happening in the world right now.  One such occasion is the London 2012 Olympics.  Three seminars over the course of the last two years have focused on the summer games two of which provide alternative viewpoints on the potential of legacy.

Representing the Olympics at Stockton-On-Tees (June 2012)

“Legacy” is certainly a word that has been thrown around quite regularly in the lead up to the games and has become quite a political buzzword.  At times it feels like any kind of meaningful legacy will be lost and squandered due to the down turn of the economy and recession, at other times a more optimistic view prevails.  There are, of course, the obvious improvements to east London, where the stadium, parks and transport connections have vastly improved.  Then there is the focus on youth where attempts have been made to inspire and encourage sport and exercise.  Then there are the background financial benefits of hosting the games.  Numerous contracts have brought money to Britain in preparation and for the Games themselves.  Whether these benefits outweigh the negatives only time will tell.

Back in November 2010, Professor Michael Collins (University of Gloucestershire) certainly had concerns that the current and previous governments of the UK have failed to come up with a truly lasting legacy.  In his paper From “Sport for Good” to “Sport for Sport’s Sake”: Reversing into the Past for the Sport and Leisure History seminar, Collins argued that the 2008-11 strategy for Sport England was a backward step made worse by coalition budget cuts.  Collins believes that the ambitious targets designed to attract more British citizens to sport does not fit the available budget or the actual activities of government.  Whilst the 2012 Olympics has the capacity to have a positive effect on the nation’s health, Collins suggests that once over it is unlikely to have the desired long term benefit due to overambitious and poorly funded policies.

The archival legacy looks brighter however, as described by Cathy Williams (The National Archive) in February this year.  In a paper presented to the Archives & Society seminar on the topic of The Olympics, documentation strategy and the Minnesota Method, Williams described the complex task that the National Archives was confronted with in order to record and capture a one off event such as the Olympic Games.

The mass of text, images, video, audio, and objects that have been created in preparing for and promoting the Olympics is staggering.  Archivists at the National Archives in Kew alongside the now-defunct Museums, Libraries and Archives council (MLA) have been developing frameworks, making or extending connections with businesses, government, charities and other bodies with some form of involvement in the event not only from when the bid became successful, but from the very moment (or as near to as possible) that the idea of bidding for the 2012 Olympics was written down.  Thus archivists have been dealing with the Olympic archival legacy for at least a decade.

The documentation strategy employed to capture the London Olympics for future generations is simply called The Record and attempts to capture as much multimedia information and experiences related to the Olympic Games as possible from the inception of the idea to bid for the games, right through the bidding process and lead up, and finally the Games themselves.  The data collected, as with all archival collections, had to be decided upon and gathered in relation to various organisations and groups.  At the heart of any collection are a series of decisions and concessions concerning content, data management, and access.  A good or bad decision early on in the process can make all the difference as to the success or failure of a collection.

In the case of the Olympics the National Archive and MLA were faced with a difficult problem: how do you capture the delivery, managing, and enjoyment of a finite event?  Where is your starting point and where do you stop?  Cathy Williams explains that in this instance the Minnesota method was employed as a framework for drawing in material to the archive: they were interested not just in what they might normally expect an archive to contain, but on what they might normally have missed.  The Minnesota method is basically an archival strategy for appraising materials that combine aspects of collection analysis, documentation strategy, appraisal, and functional analysis. The method attempts to enable archivists to find not only the obvious materials but those that might be less obvious.  Cathy Williams notes that there are relatively few examples where the Minnesota method has been employed in its entirety but the challenge of the London Olympics will become one of them.

The result is the National Archives Olympics website The Olympic Record.  This site is usefully split into two: one option takes you to a beautifully displayed timeline containing archival materials from the first modern games of 1896 (held in Athens) right up to the London 2012 games.  The other option ‘2012 Activities’ brings you straight to the archival collection undertaken by the National Archives and MLA which is already looking like an amazing resource.

I think what is most exciting about this venture is that even when these Olympics are done and dusted, the legacy of the archives continues not only as a collection in its own right but as a way forward for future Olympiad events.  Cathy Williams explained that the process they undertook in developing a strategy for archiving the Games will be handed over to the next host nation and then the next.  The archives for the London Games will therefore be placed within its wider context of the Games history forming part of a much larger and fascinating collection about sportsmanship, competition, and even organisation on a global scale.  The Olympic Record website supports this aim splendidly and is well worth a good delve.

One of the Olympic Games recorded on this site is the 1912 games that were held in Stockholm.  In another of the podcasts retained in History SPOT Dr David Day (Manchester Metropolitan University) looked at the developing role of the professional trainer in 1912 and how that development was looked upon by athletes in Britain and America in-particular.  This session was called ‘A Man Cannot see his own faults’: British Professional Trainers and the 1912 Olympics.

The Olympic opening ceremony 1912

The development of professional trainers in America was considered bad play in Britain, where Gentlemen sportsmen saw fair play, participation and volunteerism as essential attributes and what the games should all be about.  However, as Day argues, the picture in Britain was not quite that clear cut.  Although monetary gain was kept to a minimum many amateur athletes and indeed the Olympic committee for Britain sought the aid of high profile amateur and professional coaches and trainers.  Slowly the desire to focus on taking part over winning was to fade as the desire to win and advance increased with recognition that professional trainers could improve athletic ability.

The 1912 Olympics held in Stockholm saw the participation of just 28 nations and 2,508 competitors (of which only 48 were women).   There were almost half the games of the 2012 Olympics available (14 sports in all broken down to 102 events).  The games saw the debut of Japan and thus represented the first time all five continents participated.  This was also the first time that the modern pentathlon, women’s swimming and women’s diving became a fixture of the event.  There was, as yet, no Paralympics (that would not be introduced until 1960 although an International Wheelchair Games has been held since 1948).  Modernisation was rife in other areas too; this was the first time that automatic timing devices were used for track events as well as the photo finish and public address system.

Links to History SPOT podcasts: 

Sports and leisure History Seminar
8 November 2010
Professor Michael Collins (University of Gloucestershire)
From ‘Sport for Good’ to ‘Sport for Sport’s Sake’: Reversing into the Past
Sport History
6 February 2012
Dr David Day (Manchester Metropolitan University)
‘A Man Cannot see his own faults’: British Professional Trainers and the 1912 Olympics
 Archives & Society
21 February 2012
Cathy Williams (The National Archive)
The Olympics, documentation strategy and the Minnesota Method

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History of Libraries
6 December 2011
Mark Purcell (National Trust)
The Invisible Library; Books, Book Rooms and Inventories at a Northamptonshire Manor House

Abstract: First founded as an Augustinian Priory in the twelfth century, Canons Ashby was for over 400 years the home of the Dryden family.  The history of libraries on the site is complex and many-layered, but one thing is striking: the near invisibility of books in the pre-nineteenth century documentary record.  The paper will discuss the reasons which may underlie this, and will explore the pitfalls of relying on inventories when writing the history of domestic libraries.

This image was taken from the Geograph project collection. See this photograph's page on the Geograph website for the photographer's contact details. The copyright on this image is owned by David Barnes and is licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license.

As the abstract states, Mark Purcell investigates the question: was there a library at Canons Ashby long before it was ever documented in inventories?  Through examination of individual books and fragments, Purcell argues that there is clear evidence that books were to be found in Canons Ashby in the early eighteenth century and from circumstantial evidence that there might well have been a library even if it was not necessarily called that at the time.  As books became more prevalent it became more difficult for inventories to list all titles individually and sometimes books were ignored for that reason.  In other country homes it is known that a separate library catalogue had been produced meaning that it was not necessary for books to be included on a main inventory.  Nevertheless, if such a catalogue was written for Canons Ashby it no longer survives.

Canons Ashby House is an Elizabethan manor house located in Canons Ashby village, Daventry in Northamptonshire.  It was built on the land of a former priory church (as per its name) and was traditionally the home of the Dryden family; the most famous of whom was the poet, literary critic, translator, and playwright John Dryden (1631-1700).  The house, along with its formal garden came to the National Trust in 1981.

 To listen to this podcast click here.

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Voluntary Action History
16 January 2012
Berry Mayall (Institute of Education)
English children’s work during the Second World War

Are children citizens in Britain or citizens-in-preparation?  At the heart of Berry Mayall’s paper to the Voluntary Action History seminar is this question.  If children are always subordinate to adults (which they generally are), then can they ever really take on voluntary work on a ‘voluntary’ basis?  It is an interesting set of questions to ask with, perhaps, no easy answer.  In this example, Mayall talks about the ‘voluntary’ contribution of children during the Second World War.  Mayall sees this as a transformative moment when childhood began to be viewed in a different way.  Until the onset of war it was far from uncommon (in fact it was most common) for children to leave school at age 13 or 14 to start work.  Only upper class children generally went on to a secondary school of any form.  During the war itself, children were asked to ‘volunteer’ their time to the war effort.  This might include gardening (i.e. growing food), teaching younger children, working in hospitals or acting as messengers.  Girls might be asked to work in canteens whilst boys in some cases worked on munitions.  Saving schemes and special fund raising events enabled children to volunteer their money as well to the greater war effort.

Mayall notes how important the term ‘voluntary’ was in this process.  In Britain it was vitally important to appear democratic and therefore different than the dictatorships against which they fought.  The realisation, also, that many children did not have time for these voluntary activities because they were already working hard on their actual jobs, brought home the need to change policy towards children, which, after the war, gave way to a rise of importance to secondary education and arguably, to further and higher education.

To listen to this podcast click here.

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Example from one of the upcoming semantic data module pages.

All of the podcasts from last months digital tools workshop are now available on History SPOT.  The Histore workshop introduces our new modules on semantic data and text mining which will be released at the end of August.  It also looked more generally at the uses of semantic data and text mining for use by historians.  The presentations are as follows:

Introduction to the Project
Jonathan Blaney (IHR) and Dr Matt Phillpott (IHR)

Discussion of the Histore Project – its aims and outputs.  Jonathan talks about the various digital tools that we are looking at and discusses the tools audit and case stduies.  Matt Phillpott discusses the semantic data and text mining modules.

An Introduction to Text Mining
Matteo Romanello (DAI/KCL)

Matteo describes the process of text mining and how it might be useful for historians.

New Tools for Old Books
Pip Willcox (Bodleian Library, Oxford)

Pip talks about the Text Creation Partnership for Early English Books Online (EEBO).  This is part of the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI), which makes machine readable copies of old texts for greater searchability and analysis.  Pip’s talk touches upon the issues of semantic data and text mining.

To listen to these podcasts click here.

Also check out the Histore Blog.

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Franco-British History
10 November 2011
Stéphane Jettot (Paris 4-Sorbonne), autour de son livre, Servir le roi et la nation. Représentation diplomatique et représentation parlementaire dans l’Angleterre de la Restauration (1660-1702) (PUPS,  2011).

Note: This podcast is in French

Abstract Translation: England under the Restoration continues to be traversed by deep tensions inherited from the Civil War. A key issue debated in Parliament in London, in cities and pamphlets, revolves around the performance. In addition to the reflections of Hobbes or Locke, we remember the failure of the Anglican Church to represent all the Protestants, the failure of the last Stuarts to embody the various and conflicting interests of their subjects or the growing suspicions in the population vis-à-vis the elite members. Similarly, in the diplomatic field, the allies of England question the reliability of their partners and enemies working to maintain the conflict within the court and Parliament. The Glorious Revolution, placing the country in the camp of the allied powers against Louis XIV, raised some uncertainties, but the debate continues about the limits of the royal prerogative, the place of ministerial or how to arbitrate religious interests, commercial or colonial. These well-known problems are revisited from the study of a small group of members whose common point is to combine both a seat in the House of Commons and experience in the embassies on the continent. Their family papers, speeches in Parliament and Europe and their memories can be a personal point of view and concrete on the interactions between domestic crises and diplomatic negotiations in the England of the last Stuarts.

To listen to this podcast click here.

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A few weeks ago the IHR held an afternoon workshop on the topic of digital tools.  We were promoting the fruits of a JISC-funded project called Histore, from which we will develop guidance and information about digital tools useful for historians.  Amongst these, will be two modules that will appear on History SPOT in late August.  The modules relate to one another and are on the topics of semantic mark-up and text mining for use by historians.  Both modules are designed as introductions to the tools for beginners with little or no knowledge of what they do or how to use them.  Last week I posted up a summary of the workshop on the Histore blog, but due to its relevance to History SPOT, I thought it worthwhile to repeat it here.

This blog post first appeared on 9 July 2012 on the Histore blog: Digital tools Workshop – overview of the breakout sessions

Our recent workshop on digital tools for historians has given us plenty of food for thought.  Do historians want training in digital tools?  The answer seemed to be yes (although admittedly we might have been talking with the already converted).

Do historians have time or incentive to undertake training in digital tools?  Ah!  Now we have a problem.  The overwhelming response during our breakout sessions was that there was little incentive or guidance within the profession in regard to digital tools.  Indeed, newly off the press a British Library study funded by JISC has confirmed that Generation Y at least (that is, those born between 1982 and 1994) are not as ready to use complex digital tools as is often assumed.  The report Researchers of Tomorrow: The research behaviour of Generation Y doctoral students (2012) suggests more tailor made training is required, although it also agrees that there remains a reluctance to undertake such training unless it is already recognised as essential to students current researches.

A further problem presents itself on this subject that was touched upon in our breakout sessions; there is a lack of basic knowledge about what tools there are to achieve research tasks.  There is no advice as to how easy or difficult those tools are to use (including how much time and cost it will take to learn).  Neither is there much advice on how tools can be adapted and used in historical research in general.

Sample page from the Text Mining module in development


These are all serious impediments that historian will need to address, as digital tools can offer exciting new opportunities to learn things from our textual heritage.   Group 2 from our breakout sessions, for example, argued for digital tools training to be included within undergraduate tuition.  This, they argued, should be viewed as fundamental research skills and be given as much weight as non-digital skills tuition.  Group 3 suggested adding digital tools training to skills workshops as a means of adding to the PhD ‘package’.

What was interesting, that came out of all three groups, however, was a feeling that such dedicated training is not generally where they, themselves go to learn these skills, nor something that they want to necessarily go through to achieve their initial aims.  They liked to dip into a subject to learn what they need, and then if it is useful enough consider a full face-to-face or online course.  Group 1 emphasised that if they need to learn something about a digital tool they will generally Google it and find the information on forums, blogs, and wikis.  Indeed, many participants had used free training materials found through these methods.

Nevertheless, such searching relies upon the fundamental need to know what tools exist in the first place and which are useful to research.  Group 1 discussed the need for a central location where such information could be found by historians.  It was pointed out that the Arts-Humanities.net provides such a service.  It was interesting that few in the group were aware of this.

In all, it would appear from the discussion in our breakout groups, that historians want more easily available information on what tools there are and how these might be applicable to their own research.  They want to be able to find out a little bit about these tools quickly, and, where possible, gain a basic knowledge of how they work and what can be done with them, before considering spending their time on a training course.  What type of training course was, however, not quite made clear.  Do historians want face to face training on specific tools or techniques?   Or would they prefer online courses?  Perhaps a mixture of both?

From these discussions it would appear that our approach with the two HISTORE modules (one on semantic data and another on text mining) was the right one.  We are creating two relatively short freely available modules that introduce each subject and which suggest what historians can potentially gain from using such tools.  The modules are broken down into sections which work through the process from the basic to the more complex (although they are not intended to give everything you would want to know about the tools).  These then, are introductions.  The first section of each course will introduce you to the tool and can be read within 30 minutes (probably more like 10 if you don’t do the exercises).  From there you can go further if you would like to gain a basic grasp of the tool.  In some cases that might well be enough for what you need.  At the very least the modules should enable you to judge for yourself whether more training and time should be spent learning about the tool.

Over the course of the next week we shall post brief bullet point notes from each of the breakout sessions, so you can see a little more of what was said.  Soon after this, we will also post the audio and hopefully video from the presentations given at the workshop.  By the end of August we hope to have the modules ready for release and so we will be talking a little more about these very soon!

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