History seminars at the IHR

Digital History

Convenors: James Baker (Sussex), Adam Crymble (Hertfordshire), Richard Deswarte (UEA),  Beth Hartland (KCL), Matthew Phillpott (SAS), Mia Ridge (Open University), Peter Webster (Independent)

For information and enquiries, please contact: Matt Phillpott on: matt.phillpott@sas.ac.uk

Venue: John S Cohen Room 203, 2nd floor, IHR, North block, Senate House

Time: Tuesdays, 5.15 pm

Seminars are normally streamed live online. See the seminar blog for info. To keep in touch, follow us on Twitter (@IHRDigHist) or at the hashtag #dhist.

Some podcasts from this seminar are available online

Digital History seminar YouTube channel

Autumn Term 2015
DateSeminar details
29 September The Challenge of Digital Sources in the Web Age: Common Tensions Across Three Web Histories, 1994-2015

Ian Milligan

The sheer amount of social, cultural, and political information that is generated and, crucially, preserved every day presents new exciting opportunities to historians. A large amount of this information is being contained within web archives, which contain billions of web pages. Scholars broaching topics dating back to the mid-1990s will find their projects enhanced by web data – military historians can use forum posts by soldiers, social historians can track aspects of everyday life through blogs and comments, political historians can study changing sentiment, tropes, and link structures, and economic historians can explore the rise and fall of businesses webpages. Yet this tremendous opportunity is mitigated to some degree by the sheer challenge of dealing with all that data: we have more information than ever before, but the scale is overwhelming.
We have several common tensions, however, beyond basic ones of having enough storage and computational power to deal with all of this information. I will focus on two. The first is that while historians largely want to work with content, technological limitations push us towards rich metadata. The second is that without basic understanding of the conceptual structure of the web archive, from crawl structure to the biases, we can generate wildly misleading results – a problem for historians with most digitized sources.
In this talk, I explore these tensions as they have played out over three case studies that I have studied: compiled collection of mirrored websites), and the 2005-Present Archive-It collections of Canadian political parties, unions, and organizations (WAT files, which contain derivative data). For each archive, I briefly discuss the usage, technical, and ethical challenges that such collections present for historians: problems of too much data, processing time, and the difficulties in applying cutting-edge natural language processing

27 October Boutique Big Data: Reintegrating Close and Distant Reading of 19th-Century Newspapers

M. H. Beals (Loughborough University)

From their earliest incarnations in the seventeenth-century, through their Georgian expansion into provincial and colonial markets and culminating in their late-Victorian transformation into New Journalism, British newspapers have relied upon scissors-and-paste journalism to meet consumer demands for the latest political intelligence and diverting content. Although this practice, wherein one newspaper extracted or wholly duplicated content from another, is well known to scholars of the periodical press, in-depth analysis of the process is hindered by the lack of formal records relating to the reprinting process. Although anecdotes abound, attributions were rarely and inconsistently given and, with no legal requirement to recompense the original author, formal records of where material was obtained were unnecessary. Even if they had existed, the number of titles that relied upon reprinted material makes systematic analysis impossible; for many periodicals, only a few issues, let alone business records, survive.
However, mass digitisation of these periodicals, in both photographic and machine-readable form, offers historians a new opportunity to rediscover the mechanics of nineteenth-century reprinting. By undertaking multi-modal and multi-scale analyses of digitised periodicals, we can begin to reconstruct the precise journeys these texts took from their first appearance to their multiple ends. Moreover, by repurposing individual ‘boutique’ research outputs within large-scale textual analyses, we can greatly enhance the resolution of our computer-aided conclusions and bridge the gaps between commercial, state and private databases.
This paper will explore the possibilities of large-scale reprint identification, using out-of-the-box and project-specific software, within and across digitised collections. Second, it will demonstrate the means by which reprint directionality and branching can be achieved and the relative precision of manual and computer-aided techniques. Finally, it will explore the nature of multi-scale analysis and how we might best reintegrate ‘boutique’ periodical research into large-scale text-mining projects.

10 November Remixing Digital Archives: The Victorian Meme Machine

Bob Nicholson

History has not been kind to Victorian jokes. While the great works of nineteenth-century art and literature have been preserved and celebrated by successive generations, even the period’s most popular gags have largely been forgotten. In the popular imagination, the Victorians have long been regarded as terminally humourless; a straitlaced society who, in the words of their queen, were famously “not amused” And yet, millions of jokes were written during the nineteenth century. They were printed in books and newspapers, performed in theatres and music halls, and re-told in pubs, offices, taxicabs, schoolrooms and kitchens throughout the land. Like many other forms of ephemeral popular culture, the majority of these jokes were never recorded and have now been forgotten.

But all is not lost. Millions of puns, gags, and comic sketches have been preserved – often by accident – in archives of nineteenth-century print culture. Some appear in dedicated joke books and comic periodicals, but most have survived as stowaways in the margins of other texts. They are scattered throughout thousands of Victorian books, newspapers, magazines, and periodicals. While some were organised into clearly demarcated collections, others were used more haphazardly as column fillers or sprinkled randomly among other tit-bits of news and entertainment. Until recently, the only way to locate these scattered fragments amidst the ‘vast terra incognita’ of Victorian print culture was to identify a promising host-text and then browse through it manually. The digitisation of Victorian print culture has opened up new possibilities for this kind of research. However, as this talk will argue, the structure of digital archives means that jokes are still buried among millions of pages of other content. In order to make these, and other marginalised texts, more visible, we need to rethink the organisation of our digital collections and open up their contents to creative forms of archival ‘remixing’.

In 2014, Bob Nicholson (Edge Hill University) teamed up with the British Library Labs on a project that aims to find and revive thousands of forgotten Victorian jokes. Their ‘Victorian Meme Machine’ automatically converts old jokes into images and posts them on social media using a ‘Mechanical Comedian’ (@VictorianHumour). In this presentation, Bob will report on the progress of the project and outline his plans for a new transcription platform designed around the principles of ‘meaningful gamifaction’.

Spring Term 2016
DateSeminar details
6 January The personal heritage research environment in the 21st century

Dr Nick Barratt (Author, historian and consultant for BBC 'Who Do You think You Are)

Drawing upon case studies and examples, Dr Barratt will explore changing approaches to personal heritage – including genealogy, local and social history – over the last decade and a half, arguing that current practice threatens to undermine the evolving research infrastructure.

19 January European or Imperial Metropolis? Depictions of London in British Newspapers, 1870-1900

Tessa Hauswedell

2 February Political Meetings Mapper with British Library Labs: mapping the origins of British democratic movements with text-mining, NLP, geo-parsing and crowd-sourcing

Katrina Navickas

Venue: Room SH246, 2nd floor, South block, Senate House

19 February Pride of Place: England's LGBTQ Heritage

Rosie Sherrington (Historic England), Alison Oram (Leeds Beckett University), Justin Bengry (Birkbeck, University of London and Leeds Beckett University)

‘Pride of Place: England's LGBTQ Heritage’ is a collaborative initiative between Leeds Beckett University and Historic England to explore the relationship between lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) history and the country’s buildings and spaces. The project aims to show that LGBTQ heritage is a fundamental part of our national heritage and to improve knowledge of, and access to, this diverse history. As part of this project we are using crowd sourcing techniques in the mapping the widest range of historical LGBTQ locations across England. A key feature of this initiative is engagement with the community, who are encouraged to identify sites of LGBTQ historical significance including everything from commercial and leisure locations, interiors and outside spaces, national historic sites and even domestic spaces in both the recent and more distant past. When completed the project will include not only the interactive map, but also an online exhibition, guidance packs for heritage and community groups, a teaching pack for use in schools, and other outputs. After the recent success of the iconic Royal Vauxhall Tavern being listed as Grade II on the basis of its significance to LGBTQ history and heritage, we hope to recommend further locations for listing and amend the descriptions of currently listed buildings to identify their LGBTQ historical significance.
Website: historicengland.org.uk/prideofplace
Interactive Map: mapme.com/prideofplace

Co-hosted with the Public history and Digital history seminars Starting at the earlier time of 17:15

Venue: Room S246, 2nd floor, South block, Senate House

16 March Double Helix History: the use of DNA in Popular Genealogy?

Dr Jerome de Groot (University of Manchester)

Genealogy is one of the biggest and most profitable activities on the planet. Generally undertaken via massive gateway websites like Ancestry.com (14 billion family history records; 60 million member trees) it involves investigators around the world formulating their ‘family tree’ and imagining their relationship to the past accordingly.
Increasingly these websites are adding a new tool to the researcher’s armoury: DNA sequencing. The armchair genealogist investigates their past by spitting in a tube. The creation of huge repositories of DNA databases allows for analysis to be undertaken that leads to ‘scientific’ speculation about the ancestry of the individual.
This paper investigates this intersection of genetics and popular narratives of the self/ the past.How is this science represented and understood? How, particularly, is it visualised? What does this mean for privacy, and the projection of the self online? What are the imaginative implications of sharing DNA data? Does DNA render an identity ‘outside of history’? Certainly it seems to allow for entire populations ejected from the archive to find their ancestors – Henry Louis Gates Jr. has claimed ‘we are able, symbolically at least, to reverse the Middle Passage’.

Summer Term 2016
DateSeminar details
19 April Mapping Paris: Artists and their Neighbourhoods in the 18th Century

Hannah Williams