Thursday 11 April 2013

Hearing the Dead - Ten years of the Old Bailey Online

The Old Bailey Homepage, 2003

The Old Bailey Online has now been around for a decade - and we are celebrating.  But it also seems a good moment to take stock of what went right and what went wrong and just reflect for a moment on fifteen years of project work.

My most vivid memories are of the team of people involved.  They were amazing, and I feel hugely privileged to have worked with them all; most especially with Bob Shoemaker, who has been a constant collaborator and friend for over three decades, through at least five projects and two books.  But also a whole crew of people who came together to make something good happen.  Just in relation to the period before the initial launch in 2003, there was Jamie McLaughlin and Simon Tanner, Geoffrey Laycock, Louise Henson, John Black,  Edwina Newman, Kay O'Flaherty, and Gwen Smithson. What they produced was ground breaking, and that was a simple result of their hard work and good sense. Since then a dozen more people have been involved - most importantly Sharon Howard. 

I suppose the real  question is: if we had to do it over again, what would we have done differently?  Speaking for myself, rather than for the project, I can't think of all that much I would change.  Perhaps we could have chosen better software to begin with, and been generally more technically saavy, and worried less about IP.  But these seem small things from this distance.   I guess I regret the six months of my time, and several thousand pounds of project money spent licensing the images we used for the background pages on the site.  The experience demonstrated to me that the copyright system in online images is broken, but it seems a hard lesson won at a relatively high cost!

I also regret over egging some of the early discussion about the project.  The whole 'new history from below' narrative which we developed in thinking about the site simply raised the ire of a group of historians offended by the hubris; or who felt their own expertise was somehow threatened.  I hold my hands up to the charge of hubris (though I still stand by the need for a 'new' history from below).  Digitisation and the Internet, and Digital Humanities more broadly does lend itself to hyperbole, and I am far from immune to its attractions.  But mainly it was unnecessary, as the site has effected the wider historical agenda and the kinds of history people write with no need for any one to lead the way or yell about it.

And what we got right - however fortuitously - seems to me to outweigh these issues.  Looking back on the decisions we made in the late 1990s, the choice of a double-entry rekeyed text, in combination with XML tagging turned out to be perfect, even if it was through luck rather than expertise (though Michael Pidd's experience and initial steer helped!).  We also got the timing right. Because it was 2003, because we started the project in 1998/9, the launch received a lot of news coverage, and generated what seemed at the time a ridiculous amount of usage - without us having to pursue the kinds of detailed 'impact' plans the funding councils now demand. 

But mainly, I like to think what we got right was our decision and commitment to digitise the most compelling source of social history I know; of history from below.  I am continuously moved by the fact that lots of people now read eighteenth-century trials who would never preoviously have thought to seek them out.  Professional historians have always known what powerful voices the Proceedings contain, but putting them online in a form that is easy to use and free has meant that millions of people who would not otherwise have been minded to read this stuff, have done.  They have used what they found in the Proceedings in novels and on television, in endless undergraduate dissertations and in more books than I want to read; and I take neither credit nor blame for their work.  But, I believe that the decision to make freely available a source that prior to 2003 could only be read by a small and privileged group of academics, was an unproblematic good thing. 

Bob Shoemaker (right) and Tim Hitchcock, 2003.  Clock the monitor!
Most people forget just how elitist and exclusive academic libraries could be (and still can); how hard it was to get access to microfilm, special collections and rare books.  Unless you had been vetted (largely for class and race) by some great institution, you were simply out of luck. I like to think the Old Bailey Online undermines that exclusivity just a bit.  I also like to think that in combination with London Lives the site has helped to make a corner of social history I love, and have committed my life to studying, a little more secure from the infinite condescension of the present.

In the next ten years I very much hope that the Proceedings will form the basis of a growing body of more technically sophisticated analyses, using all the techniques of datamining, corpus linguistics and information science, all made easier by the API.  But most importantly, I hope that people continue to hear the voices of anger and pain it contains; and that for just a second they let their imaginations take them to that brutal theatre of judgement where working people were forced to negotiate with power.