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Photo of the book "Index, A History of the" being reviewed

I recently read this new book, exploring the history of book indexes over time. This obviously appealed to me as a book historian and bibliophile. But especially so because a couple of decades ago I retrained as a book indexer, qualifying with the Society of Indexers in the UK. I hoped that it would be work I could manage alongside my progressive neurological illness. Sadly after qualifying I found I was already too ill to work reliably as an indexer. But I maintain a great interest in and appreciation for the form.

The book ranges broadly and deeply over what is very much an abstract concept, often difficult to grasp in some of its more theoretical elements. Yet the book explains these well. I particularly enjoyed the early sections on the medieval origins of the index, and the different approaches of the distinctiones (more subject based indexes) and concordances (more like modern web search indexes), and how these ultimately merged in a way to create the modern book index.

As a book historian the discussion of the transition into the printed book era was fascinating, including the establishment of page numbers. I hadn’t known of the practical difficulties early printers faced trying to print these. The book here included helpful illustrations to show how early books were printed and numbered. Indeed the whole book was illustrated well throughout, often showing example indexes from printed books.

Another highlight section for me was the chapter looking at the especially eighteenth century phenomenon of mock book indexes. Despite in my academic historian guise being an eighteenth-century specialist as well as an historian of reading I was quite unaware of these published works. I appreciated how soundly the discussion of the battles conducted to and fro through published indexes was grounded in the world of eighteenth-century publishing.

Moving closer to the present day the book looks at the establishment of indexing societies in the nineteenth century and some of their loftier goals. Surprisingly comparable to a modern Google-type search index, but rather something that was aimed to be built through the medium of traditional subject indexes. Indeed the role of printed book indexes alongside Internet-type search engines in the present day is a topic that the book returned to time and again.

I was most pleased to see the final chapter of the book cover in depth the working methods of modern professional book indexers. So often people assume that this work can now be done automatically by computer. But to produce a good and effective subject index still requires a human book indexer. This was further demonstrated by the book including part of an index to itself that had been generated by automated computer software. The limitations of the resulting index were clear, especially when viewed alongside the also included subject index compiled by a modern professional – and human! – book historian.

Overall this is a thoroughly enjoyable work, and an example of exemplary scholarship. Recommended of course to any bibliophile or book historian, or indeed to anyone who has found a book index helpful in the past and wants to know more. Thank you Dennis Duncan.

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Photo of part of Dundee University campus including an Oor Wullie statue

Autumn 2021 will mark exactly two decades since I started as a postgraduate history student at Dundee University. I thought it would be nice to reflect back on my experiences then. Not least because it was a life-changing step for me.

Originally I was a science student at St Andrews University, and started an EPSRC-funded computer science PhD in 1994. But at the same time I started to develop a progressive neurological disease, aged just 22, which would mean that I had to drop out of the science PhD.

After then I fought for proper diagnosis and treatment, which I got in 1997. The treatment which started then – and has continued – was for many years extremely gruelling chemotherapy, leaving me feeling nauseous and vomiting for much of the time. To take my mind off that I started studying part-time with the Open University. From 1998-2000 I studied history and classical studies, picking up a BA(Hons), helped by credit transfer from my first degree, letting me effectively jump straight into second year. But what to do next?

The Open University offered a taught postgraduate Masters, but one I couldn’t study more quickly than over three more years. Given my life-threatening disease I wanted to get on with things quicker. At the same time full-time study was totally out of the question, given how ill and increasingly disabled I was becoming. This ruled out postgraduate taught history study with St Andrews University, who in 2000 (and shockingly still in 2021) only offered full-time study options.

Fortunately Dundee University – another local university for me (we lived in Cupar at the time) – offered a part-time or full-time taught MPhil degree that could be studied part-time over two years. This course was timetabled to support part-time students, being based around Wednesday afternoon taught seminars for the first year, helpfully followed on the same day by the weekly departmental history research seminars attended by staff and postgraduate students. Over the summer months full-time Dundee history MPhil students would work on their research projects and dissertations, while part-timers were allowed the next year. The overall subject matter of the Dundee history MPhil was Cultural and Urban Histories 1650-1850, using the idea of the city or town as a “laboratory” to explore cultural and other themes. A particular emphasis was placed on Dundee as an example, but other Scottish towns and cities were covered, as well as places in England, mainland Europe, and North America. Good stuff.

The course – and particularly its teaching lead Charles McKean – was a warm and welcoming experience. Also intellectually stimulating, introducing me to the field of urban history, which I found fascinating. For the assessed essays and mini projects I would often draw upon examples from my own family history or local history from the Scottish Borders, my home area. For my year-long dissertation I worked on 17th century Melrose local court records, which involved my ancestors, even a g..uncle judge. I worked from voluminous already transcribed records, building a huge computer database of thousands of court cases, and wrote an analysis of these for my dissertation.

Part way through my MPhil I started working – again very part-time – as a research assistant on Bob Harris’s new Scottish small towns project. My contract was for a year, doing the research locally in Angus and in Edinburgh for the pilot study. Sadly my neurological disease relapsed hugely just after that year, so I couldn’t continue working on the project in its main phase. But the experience deepened my appreciation for urban history, introduced me properly to the fascinating period of change 1750-1820, and also led me to the topic reading history I would research for a part-time history PhD, again at Dundee University.

I’ve blogged before about my experiences as a history PhD student, so won’t cover all the details again. Suffice to say the Dundee history department continued to be a nurturing and stimulating environment to conduct postgraduate research in. My supervisors Bob Harris and then Charles McKean were phenomenally supportive, and as a disabled student – indeed one who was becoming increasingly housebound and disabled as time went on – I felt the university was extremely helpful, making adjustments throughout my PhD and vital practical measures for the viva. Winning AHRC funding part way through my part-time history PhD also helped hugely. By the end I was studying for no more than 5 hours total a week, just way too ill. But I completed the PhD within the 6 years allowed part-time. No extensions were needed, and just a 5-month official medical break, which helped hugely when I was going through a major health crisis and couldn’t study at all for that period and needed total time out.

Although I couldn’t work in academia after my PhD – just way too ill and increasingly disabled – the Dundee history postgraduate study established me confidently as an independent academic. I’ve since had numerous published journal papers and book chapters, and continue working on new research projects. For practical reasons I focus very much on research and writing that I can work on at home, but the wide-ranging training I got at Dundee, and especially in the taught MPhil course, gave me the skills and confidence to continue to flourish as an academic, in both familiar and less so subject areas. I am also very grateful to have been awarded an Honorary Research Fellowship in History by Dundee University in the years since my PhD, which facilitates my academic research, especially in terms of publishing new papers.

My gratitude to Dundee University and particularly its history department is immense. Thank you so much for giving me a fresh chance.

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Recently I read the second in Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy of novels. These books provide the reader with a vividly immersive glimpse of Tudor life, a subject that has fascinated me since I was very young. I still have to read the third novel, probably later this year. But to keep me in the Tudor world for a bit longer I turned to another book, this time non-fiction.

Arthur Plantagenet, Viscount Lisle, was Henry VIII’s uncle, illegitimate half brother of Elizabeth of York. Lord Lisle is mentioned occasionally in the Mantel books, sending a dog to queen Anne Boleyn. But very much as a background character.

Throughout much of the 1530s Lord Lisle was Constable of Calais, then under English control. Later he was suspected of treason, and his correspondence was seized. And this cache of letters, ones written to him and his wife, and copies of letters from them to others, survives to this day. In 1981 a complete transcribed version was published, edited by Muriel St. Clare Byrne. Reading this, even in transcript, would be quite a challenge. More accessible is the abridged version, by the same editor, first published in 1983. I was able to nab a low-cost secondhand copy of the Folio Society edition of this, and have been slowly working through it.

The letters are presented in chronological order, together with explanatory notes about them. Many of the letters concern daily business of governing Calais, but others are letters to/from the royal court in England. The canine gift to Anne Boleyn crops up, as do other letters about gifts of animals.

Read in sequence the letters provide a different view of Tudor court life, seen at a distance and from a somewhat different perspective from usual, let alone as in Hilary Mantel’s popular fiction. For example Thomas Cromwell does not come across well in the letters, frequently acting as an unmovable obstacle to Lord Lisle’s frequent and seemingly reasonable requests for help.

It is also astonishing from a modern perspective to start to grasp the sheer enormity of correspondence and paperwork represented by these letters, many related to the high-level management of one English dependency at the time. It is also somewhat amusing to see the polite and diplomatic – and also extremely verbose – courtly letters nevertheless reveal true feelings and often frustrations, albeit always expressed in the most careful way.

Of course another joy of reading lengthy and detailed correspondence is the insight they give into the personalities involved. Lord Lisle comes across as largely well-meaning, conscientious in his appointed rule, and often frustrated in the difficulties he encounters day to day. His wife Honor is more opaque, but clearly a lady of fashion, trying to keep up her standards, buying things by mail order from London. You do rather feel she feels very cut off where they are.

So a fun set of letters, well presented, in an accessible edited abridged edition. If you want a different glimpse of Tudor life I highly recommend reading these. I believe the book is out of print now, but secondhand copies (both hardback and paperback) are readily available to buy.

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I was invited to speak at the Scottish History Society AGM today. Which normally would be face to face in Edinburgh, but this year – of course – is online, by Zoom. I was speaking about a forthcoming publication I have with them – transcript plus accompanying essay – about a poem recording events at the local court in Melrose in 1682. A poem written back then.

It went very well. I’ve been so extremely ill with my progressive neurological disease lately, and am still recovering from that flare in symptoms, that I was worried I wouldn’t be strong enough, especially if I’d had little sleep beforehand. When my brain shuts down it’s quick and sudden, with initially slurred speech then rapid confusion. And that could have struck at any point through my 20-minute slot (10/15-minute talk, plus time for questions after).

But I made it through. The audience enjoyed the talk, and are looking forward to reading the full piece when it is published. I was able to field the many interesting questions and discussion. The other talks were stimulating and interesting, and I was able to participate in their Q&As too. And best of all I felt engaged in and part of the academic community in a way I haven’t for ages.

Meanwhile though back to sleep more …

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I’ve been thinking quite a lot about my experiences of school history of late. Prompted in part by the musings of other academics, but also as I think about how I view history and what it means to me.

I was at secondary school, at Hawick High School in the Scottish Borders, between 1984 and 1990. I studied history for the first four of those years. I’d like particularly to reflect on the Scottish history content, or more often the lack of it.

For the first two years all pupils studied history, alongside many other subjects. In many ways this was the highlight period for me in terms of a strong representation of Scottish content. In one of those years we studied Scotland in the period before and during the Scottish Wars of Independence, using a published textbook written by several of the Hawick teachers. I particularly relished its case studies, for example a detailed examination of nearby Melrose Abbey and how it related to the surrounding countryside. Even better for genealogist me was an extremely detailed examination of the complex genealogical puzzle over who should inherit the Scottish crown after the death in 1290 of Margaret, Maid of Norway. We also covered in detail the stories and battles of William Wallace and Robert the Bruce, alongside wider discussions of Scottish society and its people at this time.

Also in my first two years my history teacher Ian Landles was determined to teach us history of his beloved home town Hawick. So we learned all about where we lived, its history, including the famous textile industry, key events and people, and along the way guided walks taking us out and about to learn more on the ground. All very much appreciated.

In S3 and S4 (third and fourth years of Scottish secondary school) in my day Scottish pupils studied O-Grade courses, cutting down the range of subjects, to those we would sit formal school qualification exams in. My school year was the last before Standard Grade qualifications were introduced.

I chose history as one of my O-Grade subjects. Sadly S3 was an awful experience, with a teacher who could not control disruptive elements in his class. We battled to learn early nineteenth century British history despite this, but were eventually transferred to another history teacher’s class, thankfully Ian Landles again.

I remember we learned a little history of the Scottish Highland Clearances. But that was a rare Scottish element. I did enjoy the World War One content, and if I remember correctly Mr Landles tried to include Scottish elements. But it was still British history, with an emphasis on learning facts, names, dates, places, rather than the process of doing history per se.

I did well in the history O-Grade exam, but was disillusioned by the approach of school history, learning facts about things I often had little interest in. So I didn’t take Higher History. It’s such a shame, because for me history is such a fun subject, but the school courses, at least the syllabus I encountered in O-Grade, didn’t capture that at all. The magic for me lies in the process of discovery, working with primary sources and other evidence. These were all things I had learned to love myself through my own genealogical and family history research since primary school. This also led me to visit historical archives from age 12 or so, and quickly become hooked on the process of historical research. But again none of that appeared in S3 and S4 history, even if there were elements of it in S1 and S2.

When I went to St Andrews University there were two subjects I would have loved to study for an honours degree. Firstly computer science, which I applied to study, but also Scottish history, which I had to pass on. In the end I got to the Scottish history after all, after I fell ill with a progressive neurological disease aged just 22, and started studying history very part-time, to take my mind off the gruelling medical treatment I was undergoing. Over the following years, increasingly part-time, I picked up three history degrees, BA(Hons), taught MPhil, and PhD. But this was all done despite school history failing to grab me.

Now some might view the presence or otherwise of Scottish history in school history syllabuses as a political one, e.g. nationalism versus unionism, Scottish versus British. It’s certainly true that I’ve been a pro-SNP independence supporter, ever since my teenage years. However for me the issue seems deeper than that, more about learning about where you live, that has worth in learning about, and crucially is something that you can relate to. Luckily I became fascinated by history from age 5 onwards, but what I picked up re Scottish history was almost all due to my own private study from that, not from what I learned in school.

I also feel strongly that teaching facts to be learned by rote is not what history teaching should be about. It’s certainly not the aspect of history that hooked me. It’s also counter intuitive if the facts you are mechanically learning have no emotional resonance for you. Far better I think if you can teach the process of doing history i.e. how can we investigate a given topic? What sorts of evidence can we use? How can we handle inconsistencies between sources? And indeed what does the concept of a “fact” even mean in history anyway?

I have read that Scottish school history syllabuses are better in these respects now. I really hope that is the case, and that they continue to improve. Because if school history doesn’t teach youngsters a country’s history, it is letting them down and the country too. It’s also vital that it teaches the fun of history, and the buzz of enquiry, which should never be purely about learning so-called facts, but more how we can discover things for ourselves.

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One thing I really miss with my neurological illness is being able to walk around a place and explore. I used to love wandering around St Andrews as an undergraduate, and Hawick and other Borders towns when I was even younger. When the illness started in 1994, when I was just 22, it didn’t stop me walking right away, though there were issues. Walking difficulties have increased over time, especially after my major relapse in 2004.

I now always use two sticks out and about, and can hardly walk any distance. Often I have to use my wheelchair. I have had a Blue Badge since 2001 for good reason. It does mean that when we go on overseas trips I am extremely restricted. I have to sleep most days anyway, but even on other days I need the help of taxis or similar to get any distance away from the hotel. In Venice I had a huge struggle walking to the nearest water bus stop. And when I go back to Hawick I can’t explore as I’d like to. On trips my husband becomes my roving eyes, exploring a city on foot, with digital camera in hand, on the days I have to sleep. That helps me “see” a bit more of a place. But there’s still a great sense of loss. And I know I will never recover this. My disease is progressive.

It’s particularly frustrating for me as an urban historian. So much of my academic research in the last 20 years has been on towns, and town development, especially in the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Luckily even with my disability I can make progress with a lot of documentary records – including digitised ones that I can access at home – and old maps and town plans. But there’s no real substitute for exploring a town on foot on the ground.

So yes, it’s sad, but I’m still able to explore my interests intellectually and academically. And life is still rewarding. Albeit not very mobile!

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I recently read the new book by Murray Pittock about Edinburgh in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and thought I’d jot down some notes. I was keen to read it, having studied urban history in my postgraduate taught Masters degree. But I also worked as the research assistant on the Scottish small towns project started by Bob Harris at Dundee, and later involving Charles McKean. Both of whom were successively my history PhD supervisors.

The book considers what made Edinburgh at this time such an ideal breeding ground for Enlightenment ideas. To do this the book examines the nature of Edinburgh society, the myriad of networks and connections within the city, and the wider influences at play, such as European links. A series of chapters focus on specific topics and themes in detail, such as trades and professions, the arts, and the literary aspect of life in the city as seen in bookshops and libraries. Generally these sections of the book worked well, and especially those where the complex intermingling of different parts of society was clearly demonstrated. The huge number of pieces of evidence cited could be overwhelming, but is generally well handled, and used effectively. A rare weaker subsection for me was that on divisions within the Church, which seemed to be more narrative than argumentative, and not adequately tied in to wider Edinburgh society and the core arguments that the book was making. But this was a rare exception in what was, generally, a well-written series of chapters and case studies, which amply demonstrated the complex networks within Edinburgh society well.

I particularly enjoyed the chapter examining demographic and socio-cultural aspects of Edinburgh life at this time. This relied to a large extent on incomplete data, especially for the seventeenth century. Fortunately a number of key sources were well utilised, and this chapter laid essential groundwork for all those that followed. Likewise I was constantly struck by how many connections the book highlighted between Edinburgh and the Netherlands, including in trade, education and the arts. I hadn’t realised that these links were so strong at this time, and the book demonstrated this very effectively.

Happily I also greatly enjoyed the chapter about print and reading culture, with its astute presentation of the state of newspapers, bookshops and libraries in Edinburgh. This was a mix of detailed examples – for example Allan Ramsay – and more numerous pieces of evidence, such as an insightful discussion of Edinburgh bookselling as a whole. I also appreciated, given that this fell within my PhD speciality, that this chapter of the book was reassuringly well grounded on prior research and academic writings.

I do have some other critiques though. Firstly for a book incorporating modern Smart City theory so prominently, including in its title and the publisher’s marketing and advertising, I would have preferred a more straightforward explanation of what Smart City theory is, and, indeed, what constitutes a Smart City. There is some coverage of this in the opening chapter, but not to the point enough for me; a pity in a chapter otherwise very good at introducing key concepts to the reader, such as theories of and approaches to the Enlightenment and relevant wider Scottish history. I wonder if the Smart City emphasis was added later in the publication process, but given the title of the book it would have been good to see it addressed more directly at the start.

The other major omission for me is the lack of any concluding chapter. In the print culture chapter the very last paragraph does act as an overall conclusion of a sort. But it’s extremely short, and it would have been nice to allow more space for reflection and a summary of the factors that made Edinburgh at this time such a hotspot for fermenting Enlightenment ideas. A section briefly addresses this in the opening chapter, but it was a shame not to see the threads of the arguments drawn together at the end of the book. Also some of these ideas have been theorised before, for example I well remember my supervisor Charles McKean covering many similar arguments in our urban history seminars nearly twenty years ago. But it could have been usefully summarised here, along with a clear statement of the book’s new contributions to the academic debate.

Those are downsides, but in other respects I would recommend this book highly to readers, and think that it makes an extremely valuable contribution to Scottish history in this period, and urban and Enlightenment history more generally. I would also like to praise how readable it is, very much a page turner. I found it frequently highly compelling, and dripping with interesting snippets. Also I would like to praise the decision to initially publish the book as a low-cost paperback alongside a more costly hardback version. This is still relatively unusual for an academic history book, and makes the book affordable for a wider audience, as it deserves to be.

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I’ve various academic history research projects on the go, and one of these, still in the early stages, is to look at 18th century Scottish shop tax records. My taught postgraduate Masters degree at Dundee was in Cultural and Urban Histories 1650-1850, and I also worked as a Research Assistant on a pilot study of small towns in Scotland circa 1750-1820. So to study shops and their development in this period is perfect given my background.

Fortunately for me these records have been digitised at ScotlandsPlaces.gov.uk, and so are conveniently accessible. As a disabled academic, with a severely disabling neurological illness, this access is particularly important, meaning I can work on these records at home. You used to have to go to Edinburgh to look at these records in manuscript form, which I certainly can’t do any more.

The shop tax records that survive for Scotland only cover years 1785-1789, but cover many towns across the country, large and small. The amount of detail varies. Sometimes you just get names and no details of shops. At other times you can see what the shops were. For example the image below shows part of the 1787 Haddington shop tax list, including my 6xg-grandfathers Dr Richard Somner (surgeon and apothecary, shop type not specified in the tax records) and William Veitch (watchmaker, recorded in the tax record).

Such a high degree of variation means that the shop tax records aren’t all suitable for study. Indeed a core question is how much of these records are detailed enough for adequate analysis. But more interesting, I think, is to see if we can use these records to explore how developed the shopping hierarchy was in urban Scotland by the 1780s, including how shops varied between different towns. This ties into the work of my PhD supervisors Professors Bob Harris and Charles McKean, whose Saltire prize winning book on Scottish towns addresses this to an extent, and especially so re the provision of luxury goods.

At the moment I’m still in the early stages of this research project, currently part way through looking through the records systematically, to see which towns have detailed shop tax records at specific dates.

Then I want to consider which types of towns can be analysed, e.g. large cities like Edinburgh or Glasgow, versus manufacturing centres like Paisley, Hawick etc., or elite centres like Dumfries or Montrose. Towns in Scotland fell into many types, and it’s important to consider what type each town was when analysing its records.

Thinking along these lines will give me a target list of towns, whose shop tax records I can then transcribe and start to analyse. I will need to formalise my list of research questions more fully, but such questions ought to come partly out of the records themselves, and partly out of the academic literature.

Anyway it should be fun! I would aim to publish the results, but also aim to report back here on progress and findings, as well as any final results.

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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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