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Connected Histories: a new search engine for historians?

The Institute for Historical Research has launched a new project, dubbed a new search engine for historians. Connected Histories will create a joint search facility for a wide range of sources relating to early modern and nineteenth century British history.

Reading between the tecno-speak on the IHR’s website, it looks like the project will create a catalogue that remotely links sources from other sites. A collabarative workspace will allow users to document the connections between documents. In total, Connected Histories will provide access to 14 major databases of primary source texts, containing more than 412 million words, plus 469,000 publications, 3.1 million further pages of text, 87,000 maps and images, 254,000 individuals in databases, and over 100 million name instances.

A large amount of sources have been made available online by universities, archives and the commercial sector. Many are under-exploited, simply because historians are not aware that they exist. In the first phase Connected Histories will incorporate sources from the Old Bailey Online 1674-1913, Plebian Lives and the Making of Modern London, the Burney Newspaper Collection, the Origins Network, Parliamentary Papers, Clergy of Church of England Database 1540-1835, Strypes Survey of London, the Charles Booth Online Archive and Collage.

I have used several of these sources myself, especially the Old Bailey Online, Parliamentary Papers and the Charles Booth Archive. Its good to see that the Historical community is finally waking up to the possibilities that the internet presents – its funny how history can be so slow to evolve and adapt! I can imagine I will make a lot of use of it, whereas without the search facility, I might not bother. The ability to ‘tag’ linked documents sounds interesting too – almost like a wiki.

Connected Histories is definitely a step in the right direction, but there is still a long way to go. Several years ago the Access 2 Archives project did a lot of good work in producing an online catalogue of the holdings of virtually all of the archives in Britain. You could search them all in one place, and see what documents were held in what archives. Then the funding ran out, and the search engine was moved to the National Archives website. The search engine is not as powerful, and it is much harder to use. Definitely a step backwards.

Another aspect where the historical community is slow at using technology is making documents themselves available online. The National Archives has seriously curtailed its digitisation programme on the grounds of cost. Which means that if you want to look at a document, chances are you will have to go to Kew. Even if its commonly used. Plenty of documents are becoming availabe on sites such as Ancestry and findmypast, but personally I think it is quite sad that you have to pay to become a member to access our heritage. Other countries manage it.

I can’t wait to see the Connected Histories project progress. But lets hope that it is sustainable, and that more historical institutions take note and up their game.

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