Thursday 22 May 2008

The Old Bailey on Steroids

The text of a talk delivered at the Humanities Research Institute at the University of Sheffield on 21 May 2008, as a part of the formal launch event of the Old Bailey Online, 1674-1913 (

When in 1999, Bob Shoemaker and I sat in what was then the new British Library and first discussed the possibility of creating an online edition of the Proceedings, it seemed to us a good idea. From conception, to getting the money, to the hard slog of digitisation, to the equally hard slog of tagging and preparation, to the second tranche, in partnership with Clive Emsley and the Open University, to the ever inventive crises of implementation, to the whirlwind of publicity, and the equally chaotic whirlwind of online delivery, I still think it was a good idea.

But, along the way it has become something rather better than the idea we started with. In some ways, even the present on-line edition of the Proceedings the people in this room have made a reality, is an extension of an essentially Enlightenment notion of knowledge and publication. It is a massive serial body of text, indexed and structured, huge in its compass, but essentially recognisable to any historian who cut their research teeth on the old Times indexes, or who built upper body strength hefting the catalogue in the old Round Reading Room. As a result, in its current form, the Proceedings are a beautiful culmination of an old fashioned idea. Perhaps ironically, they are just so last century.

But they form the starting point for something else. The promise of online, searchable, mash-upable, analysable, deracinated text is that it offers the opportunity to do something, not just better, but different. We have yet to see the first volume of twenty-first century history; of internet enabled history. We have yet to see the first major piece of historical writing that could only be conceived as a result of the existence of online resources; but it is the promise that such a new historical form might be created that is now driving the evolution of the Old Bailey.

Through the ESRC funded Plebeian Lives and the Making of Modern London project, which we have spent the last three years helping to make happen, and will spend the next two bringing to some kind of fruition, we are taking the scripts of criminality - the events of a trial, or the retrospective biography of an Ordinary’s Account, the things we have – and adding to them 40 million manuscript words of the scripts of both poverty, and just plain normality.

This new Old Bailey on steroids will encompass eight coherent manuscript archives – the records of St Thomas’s Hospital, the Coroners’ Inquests for Westminster, the parish records of St Clement Dane, St Dionis Backchurch, and St Botolph Aldgate, and the records of the Middlesex Bench - Pauper examinations and depositions, account books, and a massive archive of rotting, quotidian paper. And to this, it will add the electronic leavings deposited by a generation historians in the AHDS; the Cantebury Wills, the voting records of Westminster, the Hearth Tax Returns. And to this too, the death and marriage and birth registers created by shoals of family historians and published as CDs.

No one has ever attempted to digitise manuscript materials of this complexity before on this scale; and more importantly no one has ever managed to order this vast complex legacy of ill-digested record keeping, into a single searchable thing. In undertaking this project, we are building on the skills created in the long process of making the Old Bailey happen. Without the world beating experience built up by the Higher Education Digitisation Service in double entry rekeying, in creating usable transcripts of every kind of eighteenth-century hand imaginable; we couldn’t do Plebeian Lives. Without the expertise of Jamie McLaughlin, without his experience of designing search facilities and making them work, we couldn’t do this project. Without Sharon Howard’s management and technical skills, and simple commitment; we couldn’t do this project. Without Ed McKenzie and Kathy Rogers, without Philippa Hardman and the HRI, we couldn’t do this project. In other words, we have taken a body of expertise built up across a decade between three Universities, re-imagined what could be done and turned it to a new and complex purpose.

The really new thing about Plebeian lives is that it relies for its very sense on the ability of search engines to find a single word in a sea of text. If we could not sift these sands of time for historical meaning at the click of a mouse, there would be no point in digitising these archives – better to leave them in their original form. But, if we can search them, analyse them, link them across archival spaces that have hitherto been unbridgeable; we as historians can move beyond scripts that retell limited stories of admittedly gripping and dramatic events created essentially for an eighteenth-century audience; to telling life scripts, to building life lines that snake through the archives, to evidence each interaction between a beggar or a criminal, or just a person, and the systems on which they relied, or feared, or avoided - to map a collection of lives.

The Old Bailey Proceedings were a good idea because they brought into the digital age the single most important and classic source for history from below, for that humane tradition of writing from the bottom up, and from the single individual’s perspective.

The point is now to move beyond that tradition, to what is only now conceivable. In my own mind, this amounts to adding a collective rigour to the humane narratives of History from Below; to – if you will excuse the historiographical contrast – forcing Raphael Samuel to sit down with Lewis Namier; and then figuring out what they together might have to say to Karl Marx. In the process, what the project seeks to achieve is a new way of understanding how individual decisions, made by non-elite men and women, contributed to the evolution of the institutions of modernity – of hospitals and workhouses, prisons, courtrooms and local government. And it will do so by tracing people’s lives through this massive archive; and in the process will argue that the agency deployed by working people, the decisions they made in difficult circumstances, help to explain why and how things changed, both in the past and by extension in the present.

But more than a new intellectual aspiration, a new explanation of historical change; this project is also about recognising that the audience we need to reach is different than it once was. The point about building upwards from individual lives, is that it allows us to connect in ways that most historians cannot, to the greatest body of readers and historical researchers ever – to the family historians. By making this project about lives, we generate something they want to read; at the same time as we analyse something we want to explain.

And as the tools of social software gain a new maturity; as Sharon Howard adds a wiki to the Old Bailey site; as we create facilities for our users to provide new content; to comment on, correct and add links to the resources we create; and more tentatively, as data mining and the searching of distant distributed resources becomes more achievable; a growing and organic intellectual project is gradually being brought into existence. It will have its monographs, articles, and authors; but it will also have its blogs and mash-ups, and its communities of users. In the process it will tie the unbounded historical interest in the everyday, to the intellectual exercise of academic history; and create the infrastructure that allows us to communicate beyond the academy.

Essentially, and in other words, what began as an attempt to make a humane, individual history from below easier to research and write; has become an attempt to add a new layer to that tradition; to update it in light of the full promise of digital resources, and to make it fit for the politics of today. The project is now about rediscovering the magical combination of narrative, and individuals, and politics that characterised the best progressive histories of the 1960s and 1970s; and adding to those the magic of digitisation and the internet, and turning the whole lot to a new purpose.

One of the great arts of academic life is to trust that an interesting, important conclusion will emerge at the end of a project, will present itself at the end of five or ten or twenty years of hard slog – and that it will be important even if it turns out to bear little relationship to the question with which you began. I still like the idea with which we started, but I have to admit that it has become a shed load more interesting along the way.


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