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Posts Tagged ‘historical research’

I’ve been spending much time in the last week in the 17th century, transcribing a lengthy poem about a corrupt court judge at Melrose in the 1680s. Doing that reminded me of the talk I gave in September 2013, at the conference of the Economic and Social History Society of Scotland, held in Inverness. I thought it would be nice if I put the PowerPoint slides from that online, so have done that – link here. It was a 20-minute talk, as is usual for academic conferences, so I was limited in how much I could say. But I covered a lot in the time allowed.

My talk was titled “Glimpses into a time of turmoil: examining the regality court records of Melrose, Roxburghshire, 1657-1706”, and was based on the dissertation for my taught MPhil degree at Dundee. I studied the voluminous local court records for Melrose regality, and had a fantastic time. I have ancestral connections in Melrose, going back to this period, and lived there myself for part of my childhood. And as a disabled student it was a perfect project: the records are largely transcribed already, so I could work on them at home, as able to.

In the process of the research I built up a gigantic database of court cases, pursuers and defenders. The index of people’s names recorded is online already, as part of my Melrose one-place study. There were probably only about 2500 people living within the court’s jurisdiction at this time, making the vast numbers of people recorded as using the court quite astonishing.

The slides don’t record everything I said in the Inverness talk though. For example there’s a detailed slide of the many debts murder accused John Halliwall weaver in Gattonside left in 1673 after escaping prison before his trial. I explained more about Halliwall’s story verbally on the day, not on the slides. He escaped on horseback, after a court officer let him out of jail to help him sell ale!

I’ve also spoken about the 17th century court records to the local historical society in Melrose, many years ago, in a well attended talk in the town.

There are so many other stories I want to share about the Melrose community from these records. For example a g… uncle of mine was judge of the court from 1657 to 1665. Well he was, until he was charged with “striking and hurteing of Robert Mott, servitor to John Bowar, portioner of Eildoune”. His own court fined him £10, and he lost his job. But that, and more, is for another day!

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A couple of months ago I reviewed the newly released iOS version of the Mediaeval St Andrews App. Although I praised the content, I ran into an awful lot of problems with the implementation. I encountered lots of bugs, and was particularly concerned about the central design decision that meant the app needed to be always connected to the Internet, so it could download multimedia data, restricting the app’s use out and about – for example on foot in St Andrews – on a WiFi only device like an iPod touch (which I have) and a WiFi only iPad (like my Dad has).

A new version of the app was released a few days ago. I am pleased to say that almost all the issues I raised have been now fixed, including the always online issue. The iOS app design has been completely changed from an 8MB core download with constant Internet downloads of resources to a 312MB one-off installation, which installs all the multimedia resources (pictures, video, sound files) at first installation, which means that the app can now work offline and online. This increases the initial installation time and space required, but makes the app more flexible in when and how it can be used. It also has the benefit of making the app now seem much more snappy and responsive in general use. With the original version there was a noticeable lag opening up sites and multimedia resources, caused by the app constantly needing to download more data. But now that this data is all localised on the device at installation it not only means the app can work offline, but also makes it faster and more pleasant to use.

Other issues solved include location services – the app can work without those turned on, but now produces an elegant error message, and can then be used with map or tour, rather than be unusable. Likewise the erratic video playing bugs, and the strange white-out bug I reported have all been fixed.

Because I ran into so many user interface issues when I first tried the app my last review focused more on these. Now I can focus more on discussing the content, which I have always thought is superb.

The app revolves around three main interfaces: map, site list, and tour. The last of these just has a children’s tour at the moment (which, yes, works offline too now), but more tours are expected to be added in future.

The map includes marked sites of interest. Though I notice it has missed at least one major St Andrews museum: the St Andrews Preservation Trust Museum at the east end of North Street. Importantly the map now works nicely with location services turned off, and in offline mode. You can zoom in to select sites of interest, based on their location, and then tap to learn more about them.

Mediaeval St Andrews App map

But the core part of the app, for me anyway, is the sites section, providing access to the history of 22 locations in the town. As an example of the depth of information recorded, consider the tolbooth, the former town hall. The main entry for this in the app includes a snippet from the Geddy map as illustration, and then gives a potted history of the tolbooth.

Mediaeval St Andrews App tolbooth entry

This is then supplemented by a range of pictures, audio, video, and additional information.

Mediaeval St Andrews App tolbooth video

I still find the pictures main user interface unintuitive, not designed like the rest of the app. I’ve been told this is for implementation reasons, because of the plug-in software used to give this functionality. But I still think it’s a shame. A more familiar interface is available from the main site entry page, if you tap on the Geddy map, and then that pops up bigger, and you can swipe left and right through the site’s images, as below.

Mediaeval St Andrews App tolbooth picture

I particularly like the additional information available for a lot of the sites, giving historical snippets and curios, as this screen-shot from the tolbooth entry shows.

Mediaeval St Andrews App tolbooth additional information

There is an enormous amount of depth of information in the sites section of the app, that is probably best absorbed slowly over time. It would be useful reference material on foot, for example when in the town exploring the sites, but it is also good for home learning and research.

Having said that, if you go to the sites listing, select a site and read about it, it is rather unintuitive to be taken back afterwards to the map interface rather than the sites listing you just used – maybe something the designers might like to look at. Likewise the level of detail varies by site. But usually there is ample to be going on with, and is a good reflection of current knowledge about the town. As someone who has researched a tolbooth elsewhere in Scotland (Melrose) I wish we had as much information about it and a virtual reconstruction like St Andrews!

I am really pleased with this new version of the iOS app. Most of the implementation issues that I discussed before have been ironed out, and it is now generally a pleasure to use. And the change in design, though needing a big install at the start, means it can be used on more devices and in more ways, and is also quicker and more responsive in general use, without the same lag seen originally.

There are still some issues where the app is somewhat unintuitive in use. So I would rate it 7/10 at the moment for user interface and implementation. But that is an enormous improvement on things as they were. And together with my 9/10 rating for content means I give it overall a very strong rating of 8/10.

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First a disclaimer. I’ve something of a vested interest in this app, as a graduate of computer science at St Andrews, before I switched to history and picked up three more degrees. I really like the idea of St Andrews computer scientists and historians working together to provide this resource. And I like that it’s free.

My husband – also a computer science graduate from St Andrews – and I attended the app launch in November 2014, where we got to try out the app on Android tablets provided on the day. We’ve been keen to try it out properly ever since, so as soon as it was available for iOS I downloaded it to my iPad to try.

Unfortunately I have run into a lot of usability issues, which I’m going to detail below. But I want to stress that I think the content of the app is superb, the underlying historical resources which it aims to provide access to. For 22 sites in the town each one has a summary description, with a relevant portion of the Geddy map of the town from circa 1580, and typically additional resources like photos (modern, historical and virtual reconstruction), videos and audio files.

Viewing core details of site

I particularly like where modern and virtual overlap in the app, as in the screen shot below, from the entry for the church formerly above St Andrews harbour.

Reconstruction overlaid on modern photo

The app also has a modern digital map of the town, with its historic sites indicated, providing alternative access to sites of interest. And a section for guided tours, just one tour at the moment, but expect more to be added in future

But the implementation of the app and its user interface proved to be a stumbling block for me, and it’s only fair that I detail the issues, not least to help the app creators improve things. I was testing it on my iPad. However my husband and I also noticed many problems in our brief try out on an Android tablet at the app launch. Particularly how slow the app is to use, probably due to it constantly needing to download information to show the user, an inconsistent user interface design, and troublesome bugs cropping up. However what I’m writing below focuses on my experience with my iPad, an iPad Air 128GB 3G + WiFi model running iOS 8.1.2. I was using the Mediaeval St Andrews App version 1 for iOS.

The first major issue, and it’s a design issue, is that the app requires a permanent online connection. If it’s started with no network connection the screen goes blank and gets stuck in that state. Started with a network though, and all is well. As a long-time user of iOS apps I’m used to offline working, and apps installing everything they need. In practice it’s likely that the amount of data in this case is very substantial, so having an 8MB core app, as it is for iOS, and downloading everything else is appealing. But it won’t always work well. For example I could take the app on my iPod touch to St Andrews, but couldn’t use it as a reference tool without Internet – the iPod touch relies on WiFi, and is not a smartphone. Likewise my Dad has a WiFi only iPad mini, which he wants to use the app on. He can from home, but not elsewhere, including on visits to St Andrews. The constant need for downloading data also makes the app, as we noticed on Android on launch day, often seem sluggish to use, as the user waits for more data to download. And even with a smartphone I wonder how good constant downloading is in terms of data use, especially for larger resources like videos.

On the subject of videos, many of the sites in the app have these linked to them. But the videos would not play reliably for me on my iPad. At the first attempt, and even after rebooting my iPad, they would not play at all. They’d start to download, with a download spinning animation, but the videos wouldn’t play at all. Well apart from any linked sound, as in the Katie Stevenson narrated St Andrews Castle video. The sound started as soon as the spinning animation started, indicating downloading. But no pictures would appear. Fortunately a later attempt did get the videos to work, in a window in the centre of the screen, but I don’t know what was different this time, certainly nothing I was aware of having changed.

An irritating issue when viewing linked photos for sites is that the user interface changes when you view a photo. Normally there’s a back button you tap to go back to the previous screen. To get the same effect when viewing an image, and to close it to return to the previous screen, there’s no back button, but instead you have to look for and tap a small x cross at the bottom left of the screen to close things. I found this very unintuitive and have not got the hang of it.

I ran into other issues. For example the in-app map won’t appear at all if location services are turned off. I don’t normally give iPad apps location services access, and since I don’t have a smartphone I’m unlikely to be carrying this app around as I walk. But turning location services on, even for me located at a distance in Dundee, and suddenly the map worked. I also repeatedly ran into a nasty bug – which I cannot replicate reliably unfortunately to help get it fixed – where I’d be looking at a site’s core listing, complete with Geddy map portion, and suddenly the right half of the screen would go white, and then as I tried to navigate to other sections text would overlay my screen in a very unreadable manner. I also sometimes found the categorisation of linked photos confusing, particularly photos incorporating both virtual reconstructions and modern views, which weren’t categorised as virtual images. But that may be a personal thing for me.

This all sounds very negative, but I can’t stress enough that the underlying content is superb. I’d like to see these user interface issues ironed out, at least the easier ones. Change the photo back interface to use the standard everywhere else back button rather than that confusing cross, fix the app so it at least acts elegantly if started without network connection, and check the videos to see if there might be a bug in there re playing them. It’s probably also a good idea to get the map working with location services turned off. Likewise I’d recommend considering the feasibility of providing an offline version of the app, but don’t know how much data that would take up. Perhaps it might be possible to store the core content for example, such as the core site entry pages, which might speed things up in many places, not least loading up each site initially. But if the app must be used in always online mode, then that should be made clear in the App Store description for people to read before downloading and trying to use it.

At the moment I can’t rate the app higher than 4/10 for implementation and 9/10 for content, giving 6.5/10 if averaged. But I feel that it has much potential, if only some implementation issues could be ironed out in the next version.

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I’ve just discovered that the UK-wide National Register of Archives is to be shut down imminently. Instead researchers are directed towards The National Archives’ new Discovery catalogue, to search across the board.

I’ve rather mixed views about this, generally not very happy. The National Register of Archives (NRA) may not be that well known among historical researchers, but it provided a way of accessing records held in other locations, in particular in private hands. So family estate papers, business records and so on that hadn’t made their way into any of the UK main archives.

When I was doing my postgraduate Masters degree I used the NRA to find the records of the Earls of Haddington, which I needed to check for my research into 17th century court records – a court that was controlled back then by that family. Similarly during my PhD I used the NRA to uncover potentially useful records for my research into Scottish reading habits about 200 years ago.

In some ways the NRA is an artefact of a long time ago, a rather archaic system, reflecting a pre-World Wide Web time, when searches were always conducted offline, in paper catalogues. So on the one hand integrating it into Discovery is progress and makes sense. But I’m concerned that the new search system may not make it so easy to search just these scattered records, and a search could be swamped for example by results from the UK national archive in London. Also as a Scot I’m wondering how well the new catalogue will reflect Scottish-held records, both in main archives like the National Records of Scotland and elsewhere.

Note also that the NRA webpage at the moment is a little broken, inviting users to use the new Discovery catalogue instead, but using a link that is broken and produces a 404 “Not Found” HTTP error. Hopefully that will be fixed.

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A couple of days ago I submitted a revised version of a journal paper that had a revise and resubmit option on it. The revisions were quite considerable, but also surgical in a way. The hardest thing was to get my brain into gear to make them properly, and to make big enough changes. Fingers crossed.

Anyway carrying on the momentum in what remains of Academic Writing Month I am now starting a new journal paper. And it is so much fun, and reminds me just how much I enjoy this stage of the process.

This paper derives from some research I did for part of my PhD, but it only ended up being a couple of sentences in my thesis. But there was far more behind the scenes, which deserves further analysis, so I’m now tackling that. And it’s another thing I can easily work on at home, which is good.

I outlined the article idea in a recent email to a colleague, so used that as my starting point last night. And then, as I always do now, I created a new mind map in iThoughtsHD on my iPad for the article in progress. In particular I’ve developed the opening intro / contextualisation section, although I can see that I need to tie into more historiography there, but that’s easily tackled long term. And then looking over my past archival/research notes I have plenty of material for the middle main section, and should be able to do a nice job.

This article is going to take some time to work through and develop properly, and certainly won’t be finished this month. But it’s nice to move straight on from finishing one journal paper to starting a new one. And rather exciting.

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Two of my history journal papers recently went online freely under green open access rules. Prompted in part by that I thought I’d look back on the first of those.

Entitled “Glimpses into a Town’s Reading Habits in Enlightenment Scotland: Analysing the Borrowings of Gray Library, Haddington, 1732-1816”, this paper was published in the Journal of Scottish Historical Studies in 2006. At the time I was about half-way through my part-time history PhD. Every year the Economic and Social History Society of Scotland runs an essay prize for postgraduate students, with a money prize, and the winning paper published in their journal, the Journal of Scottish Historical Studies. History postgraduates at Dundee were encouraged in my time to enter. I wrote up my then research, but didn’t complete it in time for the competition deadline because of being particularly ill at the time, causing a delay. But I sent it in anyway. The then editor, one of our Professors, asked me if I’d like him to hold it back for the competition in nearly a year, but I said no, please just consider it as a journal paper submission now. With my life-threatening condition I was keen to get on with things sooner rather than later, and a delay would not help.

My paper was accepted without any revisions, which is rather rare in academic publishing. With hindsight I think it gave me an unrealistic impression of journal publishing as an easy thing to do! I’ve certainly found it harder since, not least as I’ve aimed for more and more ambitious journals. But it at least gave me confidence to try more publishing, and it was a delight to see my research in print, only halfway through my PhD. I remember how thrilled I was to hold the print issues. Even the digital PDF was exciting. I had earlier co-authored publications from my computer science time, including some published after I had to leave that full-time PhD as my neurological illness struck. But this was the first time I had a sole-authored history journal paper, and it was a huge achievement.

The paper was based on research I was doing as part of my PhD on Scottish reading habits. In particular it looked at the borrowing records over 80 years or so of a free town library in Haddington, East Lothian. It was very unusual to have a free library at that time, and one that was open to the whole inhabitants of a town. It opened up all sorts of possibilities for contextualising the borrowings, and also researching the borrowers further.

The core part of the research involved transcribing the Haddington library’s borrowing registers and building up a database of library borrowings. For this I used the relational database system MySQL, drawing on my computer science degree and training. I had three linked tables: one recording the details of borrowers, one recording books in the library, and a third table linking the two, recording details of borrowings. And then I could write SQL queries to interrogate the database, and quickly produce answers to different questions.

For the borrowers, about 700 of whom could be identified, I researched in other local records to find out more about them. Parish registers, both Church of Scotland and other denominations, were useful, as were tax records, wills and inventories, later census returns, and so on. For this I was able to draw on my skills as a genealogist, used to working through such records, and was able to discover significant new information on over 240 of the known borrowers.

This extra information, such as occupation, age, family connections and so on together with the relational database allowed me to analyse the borrowings in a number of different ways. A simple analysis was to look at the numbers of borrowings over time, or, having categorised the library books roughly by subject, the changing subjects borrowed by the library users. Another analysis let me pull out the most popular titles, borrowed the most frequently, in specific decades. But I could also analyse the borrowings of specific occupational groups, or, for example, young girl borrowers. All were easy to pull out using the database structure I had built, allowing queries that would be impossible otherwise.

Results, such as differences between male and female borrower choices, could be compared with findings of other scholars elsewhere. And because I knew so much about many of the borrowers I could also write meaningfully about them. For example I was able to identify a watchmaker father and his daughter borrowing books together. As an added bonus this pair were my own direct ancestors.

I was able to show borrowers working through a multi-part title in sequence, getting hold of successive volumes as best they could, and clearly reading them. Clearly there was often competition for different volumes in the same sequence, but I could trace readers trying their very best to borrow the next volume they needed, and this wasn’t an isolated example. Some other book historians, particularly those associated with the Reading Experience Database, are sceptical about the use of library borrowing records as evidence of reading. But I would argue that the records I studied, with their clear evidence of reading sequentially like this, are very much evidence of that, and should not be dismissed so readily. Significantly they also cover a very sizeable local population, which permits a much greater range of analysis than a single isolated reading reference can.

Another nice thing that the Haddington library records showed was the extent of female reading. Many other Scottish reading institutions at this time were restricted in their membership, and often dominated by men. But the Haddington library was open to all genders, and asked borrowers to indicate when they were borrowing a book for someone else. So there are many loans recorded for female readers, allowing a comparison between male and female borrowing choices – and there was quite a difference – and, as noted already, a study of young female readers, who seemed to congregate in the library, particularly on Saturdays.

Overall I’m very proud of the paper, and still think that the research it presents stands up to scrutiny. I’m also pleased that I was able to use my computer science training in building up the databases that it relied upon. And although it gave me perhaps an overly optimistic view on academic publishing, I think without its experience I probably wouldn’t have gone on to do so much more.

The open access PDF copy of the paper is available from my publications page in my personal website.

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I recently gave a talk to a conference for archivists on my perceptions as a disabled user of archives. I have a progressive neurological disease, and sometimes use a wheelchair. More significantly I am very knocked out for a lot of the time, due to brain damage, unable any more to spend long periods working in an archival environment. This is despite me having used archives extensively since the mid 1980s, including a very intensive period a decade ago, when I worked half-time as a Research Assistant for a university project, and my job was just to go to archives and spend long periods there. My disease hadn’t progressed so far at that stage. Things have changed a lot for me since.

Many archives are in cramped locations. I was asked recently to give feedback on a consultation on a particular archive, and one of the points I made was that I hope it might at some point be relocated to a more accessible location. At the moment I struggle to get around there even when just using my stick. When using my wheelchair, which I need to do if I’m going to be there for any quasi-extended period, it’s very hard for me to get in there, and almost impossible to move around the small search room. And as I said at the conference this isn’t just an issue for wheelchair users. Many people have mobility issues, especially older people, and making an archive more accessible can benefit a large number of users, and not always just those you might expect.

Fortunately the archive’s staff are very helpful, and will help me as much as they can. But there are limits to what they can do. This is why I’m such a fan of digitisation on demand. This is very different from an archive initiating digitisation of a major record resource that they decide upon. Rather it’s where a specific user needs to access something – which may be many pages long – and it is digitally photographed or otherwise digitised, so they can work on it at home. I was very lucky during my part-time PhD that various archivists agreed to this. For example my husband photographed nearly 1000 pages of library borrowing records in the Scottish Borders archive at Hawick. And the archivist waived the copying fees (which often have to be paid, even when a visitor does the digitisation themselves) because the copies were needed for disability reasons. And likewise I borrowed many thousands of digital images of testaments and inventories from the National Archives of Scotland, and was able to work through them, looking for evidence of book ownership.

The other key thing for accessibility in my circumstances is good cataloguing of archival material. This is very variable across Scottish archives: some have virtually no catalogues available online, others poor ones, all the way through to better archives with more detailed catalogues. By putting catalogues online, and making them detailed enough, potential visitors or users of the archive can do extensive research from home. If they can then visit the archive themselves then they can make the most of their time there. If, like me, they have to ask for remote copies they are likewise in a good position to do that. Lots of other speakers at the conference also spoke of the importance of cataloguing. I think it’s under-recognised by archive managers, or at least some seem to view themselves as the gatekeepers of archives, and requests for information must be filtered through them. But good catalogues empower users, and give them the opportunity to do essential groundwork themselves. And I think they should be improved where possible.

I closed my talk to the archivists with a list of recommendations for archivists to improve accessibility. I will repeat these here, for the benefit of any reading:

  • Would ask archivists to consider how accessible their search rooms are, including the layout within the room itself. This is potentially of great benefit to physically disabled archive users, but a more accessible layout can benefit users in general as well, for example tables and chairs that are easier to move around, paper catalogues easier to access etc.
  • As a counterpoint to that ask you to be more aware of the potential need for people to research at a distance, and do not always assume lengthy on-the-spot research is practical or the default approach, and consider enabling other modes of provision for users
  • To that end make sure that online catalogues are as detailed as they can be, and improve them where necessary
  • As well as archivist initiated digitisation projects archivists should consider supporting digitisation on demand, including permitting digital photography of records, whether a per page copying fee is charged for such photography, or waived for disability users

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