To many professional historians in 1980 it seemed that British and Western history more broadly was already drowning in computers. The then decades-old promise of a 'history lab', built on the foundations of 19th-century social sciences, and newly realised through the application of mainframe computing, finally seemed to be producing the kind of results that could change our understanding of the present. In particular, the publication in 1981 of E. A. Wrigley and R. S. Schofield's, The Population History of England, 1541–1871: a Reconstruction,(1) pointed towards a newly nuanced understanding of the past and complex, computer dependent, methodology. To read Jim Oeppen's appendix to the volume, describing the mathematics and programming used to create 'aggregative back projections',(2) was to be confronted by a brave new discipline.
Demographic history, historical geography, economic history and even political history in the Namierite tradition all seemed to demand increasingly sophisticated and mathematically informed methodologies, requiring in turn the construction of databases composed of long strings of coded information, entered with punch cards and analysed using the Statistical Package for the Social Sciences (SPSS).
But in the decade and a half that followed, under the harsh light of the linguistic turn and a more comprehensive disillusionment with empiricism and the social sciences, this dream of mathematical precision began to fade. For many professional historians the possibilities of computer-aided analysis still lingered, but even at the first meeting of the Association of History and Computing (AHC) in March 1987, the ironies and contradictions of 'computer-aided history' were apparent. After sitting through that founding conference many were bemused by the welter of papers that took the form of 'me and my database' presentations, which had nothing more in common with each other than a few unreadable codes.
During the same decade of the 1980s, however, or at least in its latter half, desk-top computers brought word processing, spread sheets and databases to the offices of a growing minority of historians. Quite suddenly even scholars more comfortable with texts than codes, who would never hear the siren call of empiricism, were creating bibliographic databases, and revelling in the joys of automated footnoting. And in common word processing packages such as 'Word Perfect', the everyday requirements of writing and editing led ineluctably to basic programming (or at least 'macros' in the language of the day) and Boolean queries. Although many departments and academics (particularly in what was to become the 'old university' sector), resisted these changes, by the end of the decade a growing number of curricula included humanities computing courses for undergraduate historians. And as secretarial support and professional typists became a rarity, the most reactionary of academics gradually caved in to a new set of working practices.
In the later 1980s more user friendly and humanities-focused software also began to emerge from companies such as Apple. An early and hugely influential example came in the form of HyperCard, first launched in 1987, which established the idea of 'hyperlinks' and networks of data, and formed an early context in which non-linear, internet-style browsing could be organised and presented. A decade before the World Wide Web made these kinds of links universal and intuitive, packages like HyperCard allowed historians to contemplate new ways of organising their work.
In the meantime, and particularly following 1989 and the fall of the Soviet Union, empirical positivism as applied to history hit a low point. Many economic history departments closed or were merged in these years; and just as historians such as Pat Hudson succeeded in creating comprehensive relational databases of local communities of a richness and detail that seemed to promise a remarkably granular understanding of the past, enthusiasm for this approach seemed to ebb ever further away.(3)
Ironically but fortuitously the infrastructure for preserving and archiving the databases and resources developed by historians in this tradition was created just as the nature of historical engagement with computing was set to change. In 1993, the History Data Unit (HDU) was created as a part of the Data Archive, established at the University of Essex; which then became the Arts and Humanities Data Service (AHDS) in 1995. In the next dozen years the AHDS archived and preserved hundreds of datasets, which are only now beginning to be re-purposed for new projects.
For computer-entangled historians, the 1990s witnessed a remarkable transformation in how they used technology to present information. Many started to use email from the early 1990s, but the World Wide Web remained essentially unimportant in relation to the delivery of teaching and scholarly publication until the end of the decade.
Significantly, the greatest impact was felt through the role of computers in teaching, rather than as a means of either analysis or publication; and as a result the changing technology had only limited impact on the nature of history as a discipline. And even where historians and teachers adopted a computer-based strategy, rather than taking advantage of the still unfamiliar World Wide Web, the technology of choice remained the CD-ROM. Journals and academic presses were wary of new forms of publication, and historians continued in thrall to the monograph.
Perhaps the single most significant British development came in the form of the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) funded 'Teaching & Learning Technology Programme' (TLTP), which was originally established in 1990, but had its greatest impact between 1992 and 1998.
The TLTP was a sector-wide initiative, and the history component of the programme, the History Courseware Consortium, was led by Rick Trainor and Don Spaeth at Glasgow. For many years it seemed that Don Spaeth was determined personally to implement a computer-based teaching strategy in every history department in the country. But the programme's greatest impact was achieved through commissioning a large number of teaching packages, which took the form of 'hypertexts', and were published as CD-ROMs. These covered topics as diverse as urban and social history, the Protestant Reformation and migration and incorporated large numbers of images, primary and secondary texts and databases.
This publishing programme ensured that a substantial minority of professional historians became familiar with either authoring hypertexts, or else using them with their students. And while the programme largely failed to fulfil the aspiration to make teaching more efficient through the application of technology in a period of rapidly increasing student numbers, it did radically alter the ways in which many historians thought about computing and teaching. In combination with the Subject Benchmarking Statements developed in the same period, this initiative helped fundamentally to alter both the profession's thinking about teaching and the curriculum and the role of computers in the presentation of historical information.
With the explosive growth of the internet and World Wide Web, particularly after 1996, and the slow realisation of what could be achieved with it, the skills and ways of thinking developed through the History Courseware Consortium and Subject Benchmarking were gradually turned to a new purpose. This was a transformation that was strongly encouraged by government policy and that of the then Arts and Humanities Research Board (AHRB).
In 2000 the AHRB established its 'Resource Enhancement Scheme' (2000–7), and the following year the 'New Opportunities Fund' (2000–4) put out a call for projects, funded with 50 million of lottery money. At almost the same moment, the Public Record Office (PRO, now The National Archives) demonstrated the overwhelming public demand for the historical information delivered over the internet through the posting of the 1901 census. The immediate failure of the site under the pressure of unforeseen demand was a transformative moment in the profession's assessment of the potential of internet resources.
Many of the early projects that benefited from these funding schemes failed to fulfil their promise. Those promoted by the New Opportunities Fund seldom included secure plans for sustainable preservation, and a high proportion were in any case never completed. A majority of the initiatives under this scheme were led by either local government or the museum and archives sectors, and were never designed to fulfil the demands of academic history. And similarly, most of the web resources created through the 'Resource Enhancement Scheme' failed to evolve and develop with the technology. Projects funded by this scheme were also frequently designed around narrow research questions, and resulted in resources that failed to attract any substantial user base.
There were many notable exceptions (not all of which benefited from this funding) including groundbreaking projects such as the Charles Booth Online Archive from the LSE (2002), the Old Bailey Online (2003), the Royal Historical Society Bibliography (2003) and British History Online (2004); but overall, these years were as important for training up a generation of academics who understood the technology as they were for creating online resources.
By 2004 and 2005 these early, state-led initiatives gave Britain, and British history, a substantial body of online primary sources. And with the addition of commercial resources such as The Times Online, Early English Books Online (EEBO) and Eighteenth-Century Collections Online (ECCO), the beginnings of a new research environment began to emerge.
From approximately 2005 national policy, as led by the AHRC, shifted away from the direct digitisation of historical resources towards an emphasis on new analytical tools, and sustainability. In a widely criticised move the AHRC withdrew its funding from the AHDS in 2007; a year which also marked the closure of the 'Resource Enhancement Scheme'. At the same time the creation of ICT and methods network programmes pointed a new way forward. It is too early to assess the full impact of these new schemes.
In many respects this first substantial decade of the World Wide Web saw historians reproducing for a digital age the kinds of finding aids and scholarly editions that have been familiar since the Enlightenment. Bibliographies and keyword searching have lent to the sources available online a reassuring sense of the familiar. A non-linear, hypertext-based way of organising data has been more notable beneath the smooth surface of websites than in the ways in which users confront the materials made available.
This essentially conservative approach to new forms of publication and search has recently begun to change; and with it the agenda of the profession as a whole. Both as a result of the sheer quantity of information available online, but also because of the evolution of social software and 'wikis', new possibilities have arisen. The prospect of the semantic web, with its teasing promise of distributed search and analysis has provided one hitherto unrealised avenue for development. And the proven and successful model of Wikipedia has suggested to many that the wisdom and simple hard work of the crowd can be harnessed to historical research and analysis. The addition of a 'wiki' to The National Archives website in 2007 heralded a significant development in this direction.
A range of tangential developments in the same decade have served to further the pace of change, even if they have yet substantially to impact on how people present the history they write. In this same ten years, all major academic journals have been forced to provide an online edition incorporating a back archive of decades of scholarship. Searchable through facilities such as Google Scholar, this development has changed how most people access and read journal literature. We still cite this work as if it was a hard copy on a library shelf, but most scholars actually read it online, or at least as a hard-copy printout downloaded at their desk.
Similarly, most major art museums and image collections have sprouted websites and search facilities, making it increasingly easy to locate visual materials that reflect on historical events and places. Blogs and tagging, Facebook, MySpace and Twitter are gradually finding a place in the academy, with teaching once again leading the way in terms of innovation.
We have yet to witness the publication (in any format) of a truly 'internet enabled' history; of a history only conceivable with and made possible by the internet. But, as Google Books and Google Scholar, ECCO and EEBO, along with a dozen major British digitisation projects, in combination with institutional archives and thousands of small personal websites, make an ever growing proportion of the inherited texts of British society available online and in a searchable, mash-upable form, the very nature of historical research and writing seems set to change.
Tim Hitchcock is professor of 18th-century history at the University of Hertfordshire. In 1984 he wrote his DPhil thesis on a Commodore 64 computer, which is believed to be the first 'born digital' history thesis submitted to the University of Oxford. From 1987 to 1998 he was employed to teach humanities computing and early modern history at the University of North London. In 1996, with Robert Shoemaker, he published a CD-ROM tutorial for the History Courseware Consortium ('Economic growth and social change in the 18th-century English town'). He is a co-director of the Old Bailey Online, 1674–1913 (www.oldbaileyonline.org) and the 'Plebeian lives and the making of modern London' projects.