April 11, 2014

Why I’m a fan of using digital archives

Stephen Basdeo, Leeds Trinity University

In 1802 Ferdinando Davis was executed at Nottingham gallows for the crime of highway robbery. Before the dawn of the Victorian era in 1832 a one James Cook was similarly ‘launched into eternity’ for the murder and robbery of a Mr. Paas in Leicester. The lives of these two men were recounted in contemporary execution broadsides, or the ‘Last Dying Speeches’ genre of literature. The broadside genre of literature formed a large proportion of the research which I conducted for my MA thesis which I undertook at Leeds Metropolitan University. The broadsides which I utilised were from the online archives of the Harvard Library School of Law.[1] I am someone who has made extensive use of online archives at both undergraduate and postgraduate level. In fact, the majority of the research which I have undertaken has been done using digital resources such as the Old Bailey Online and London Lives. The first taste that I had of something approaching ‘proper’ historical research using an actual archive – going to visit it in person that is – came surprisingly late in my student experience when I was completing my MA, carrying out research in the British Library into their collection of penny bloods. Granted, the British Library is not a conventional archive as, being a Library, it holds mainly printed sources. I am now in the early stages of my Doctorate, and I would like to give some of the established academics subscribing to this website an insight into my experiences in using online sources.

The original premise of my MA thesis was to compare and contrast the “factual” representation of property offenders between c.1800 and c.1860 with their fictional representations in Newgate novels and penny bloods. It goes without saying that the search feature on most digital databases saves on the potential time and monetary costs involved in actual archival research. The search feature on the Harvard Law School website allowed me to hone my research to specific offences. As a result of this, the direction of my thesis changed. It has been stated by Gatrell that to read one broadside is to read them all. However, upon my examination I found this not to be the case. To a certain extent that is correct; broadsides usually recounted the ‘Last Dying Speeches’ of felons condemned to the gallows, and at first glance they indeed did not vary greatly over time. However, the fact that the majority of these sources were all in one place, at my fingertips, allowed me to test Vic Gatrell’s statement. What I found was that there were subtle variations in the form and content of broadsides over time. For instance, they changed from being the ‘Last Dying Speech’ of a felon (which I argued in my thesis represented a continuity with eighteenth-century criminal biography) to being predominantly a ‘Life, Trial and Execution’ (which I argued represented a societal shift towards a policed Victorian society). Also, having viewed a large selection of broadsides, seeing changes in the types of images that they carried allowed me to view the transition of the images being ‘totemic artefacts’ (with crude woodcuts depicting a hanging) to being examples of violent entertainment (as argued by Rosalind Crone). It was the ability to select a large sample of broadsides which enabled me to link the excellent work of Gatrell and Crone together.

I would also like to give an idea of the constraints that students, particularly in the North, face when planning conventional archival/library research. Firstly, the cost of visiting London (train fares – often £70 for a return ticket from Leeds if booked in advance) can be quite hefty for a student who balances study with part time employment. Moreover, one of the sources I had originally planned to look at was unavailable. I wanted to look at one text entitled The Wild Boys of London, but a few days before I set off I was informed that it was not available due to conservation work being carried out on it. So my “sample” in effect was reduced from four texts down to three: H.D. Miles’ Dick Turpin (1839), J. Lindridge’s The Life and Adventures of Jack Rann (1845), and my favourite: the anonymously authored Charley Wag, or the New Jack Sheppard (1865). I supplemented these selections with printed editions of A String of Pearls (1845) and The Mysteries of London (1844). The decision I faced before visiting the British Library was deciding whether to concentrate on only a small selection of sources and study them in depth, or to examine a larger selection and only manage to “skim” their content but provide a more comprehensive picture of the development of the penny blood genre. In the end I opted for the former. Naturally, a history student living in and around London would not have faced this problem, as in theory they could have visited the British Library daily if necessary, but for students in northern universities this is one of the challenges you face: time and money in effect dictates the research that you realistically accomplish.

This is not of course to criticise conventional archival research – far from it – excellent histories have been produced as a result of painstaking, meticulous and intense archival research by historians. I think we’re quite lucky as students nowadays to have so many primary sources accessible from our personal laptops. Perhaps I’m enthusiastic about online archives due to the nature of the history which I have chosen to focus upon. I consider myself a historian of the history of literature and publishing. My undergraduate dissertation studied the changing representations of polite society in eighteenth-century print culture, and as I’ve said above, my postgraduate dissertation focused upon Victorian crime literature. My doctoral thesis will also be studying print culture by examining Victorian representations of Robin Hood in broadside ballads, poetical anthologies, chapbooks and novels. As you can see, throughout my academic career so far there has been a focus upon the printed word. Perhaps for a historian such as me, who studies print culture, online archives are the way forward. In fact, with so many ebooks available now, it seems like a logical extension for organisations to begin publishing older printed sources online. I would hazard a guess that the digitisation of manuscript sources, in contrast, would present more challenges for archivists and those involved in the conservation of fragile manuscript sources than would the digitisation of more durable printed sources such as books, newspapers and periodicals. In addition, on a practical level, the printed word is probably clearer and more decipherable on a computer screen than the elaborate handwriting of people in past ages, research into which many historians often require palaeography training. That is to say, then, that ultimately it depends on the type of history you are studying as to whether online research presents advantage or disadvantages.

So for the type of history I study then – the history of literature and print culture – I am a big fan of online archives. They allow you to study a large selection of sources from the comfort of your own home, and I would argue that the quality of students’ research can in some cases be enhanced by using digital sources – if only for the fact that it saves time on research into certain sources in order that no effort can be spared when it comes to having to visit a place “in the flesh”. Online research in my experience was complementary to conventional research. I have nothing but praise for those organisations which have set up websites such as Harvard Law School’s Crime Broadsides, the Old Bailey Online, and London Lives. However, I also think that more work is needed. Many of the online archives featuring British sources which are available today are London-centric – although the Harvard Law School website is unusual in this respect – and this makes it difficult to trace offenders’ lives further than a fleeting appearance in a broadside. This was something I wanted to do in my MA thesis originally but decided against it. For example, I have been unable to find no other online reference for one unfortunate young man, a James Dormand, who was executed in 1793 for four crimes of highway robbery in Perth, anywhere but in a broadside. He seems as though he was an interesting character – very much like my favourite, the well-known Jack Sheppard who you will all have encountered probably at some point. Dormand was ‘of a roving and wild disposition’, brought up to his father’s business but absconded with all the money, and with his friend Robert Rogers, moved to Ireland for a time to commence a criminal career of highway robbery. Returning to Scotland, they carried out yet more robberies before he was captured and ‘launched into endless eternity’. I am guessing there may be other references to this character lying somewhere untouched in an archive – maybe one day I’ll travel to Scotland and see if I can find out more about him! To conclude though, I think, or rather hope, that as more and more students – particularly at undergraduate level – begin to use online sources, that more and more archives will make their resources available online.

[1] http://broadsides.law.harvard.edu/

This article was previously published on the Our Criminal Past website on 24/10/14

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