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Posts Tagged ‘urban history’

I’ve taken part in Academic Writing Month for the past two years. Some academics use this as a period of very concentrated intensive writing, writing for many hours each day they can manage it. That isn’t an option for me with my neurological disease, which wipes me out for most of the time, and means any writing has to be fitted in occasionally, in short concentrated bursts. So instead I use it to prioritise finishing off some outstanding projects, getting them done and dusted, and out of the house. It’s also a good ritual to go through to build up good writing practices, fitting in writing in limited time around other things.

Academic Writing Month starts on 1st November. For a good description see here.

Because it’s coming up soon I’m going to declare my AcWriMo goals in this blog. I will then blog about my progress during November, including a reflective blog at the end of the month looking back on how things went.

My three goals for AcWriMo 2014 are:

  • Get a journal paper in progress – a cross of book history and urban history – ready for a colleague to read, and thus that bit nearer final submission. At the moment it still has a few too many sections still to fill in, including some relevant historiography.
  • Produce a revised version of an accepted prizewinning journal paper, based on the editor’s suggestions. This will get it nearer to being published. I will have it ready to email to the editor by November 30th.
  • Produce first rough draft of a journal paper based on my SHARP Antwerp conference talk about Doctor Who and its fanzines. This will involve converting my spoken talk (largely improvised on the day, with slides supporting) into written text, and seeing how long that is in terms of words, and which areas might need further development post November.
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So often as an academic historian I’m asked to explain my research interests. It’s rather broad. I typically say I’m a social, cultural, urban and reading historian, with particular interests in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. But of these my main focus is the late 18th and early 19th century – part of the so-called long 18th century – and I was musing on how I got to that.

My first academic history study at university was a 16th century course with the Open University. Then this was followed by a 19th and 20th century course on family and community history, also with the Open University. And then two classical studies courses completed my Open University BA(Hons), on Homeric poetry and archaeology, and the early Roman empire. But although I was interested in all of these periods, none of these completely grabbed me.

I suppose the 18th century beckoned with my subsequent postgraduate taught Masters course in Cultural and Urban Histories 1650-1850. This course was led by Professor Charles McKean, and focused in particular on the 18th century, and the cultural changes that happened, and changes in towns, particularly throughout Scotland and Britain, but also overseas, for example in Europe and North America. And I found it fascinating, particularly from an intellectual viewpoint. It was a period of such change, but also such influence on later times. And it was a period rich in historical evidence to allow it to be studied. Of course I retained my interest in other periods. In particular my Masters dissertation looked at late 17th century court records for the Melrose area, although this was partly because of this being something I could work on easily from home, using largely transcribed records. I was very much not a specialist in that time period.

Then my 18th century interest, and early 19th too, grew further for a year as I worked as a research assistant on a pilot study looking at the cultural development of small Scottish towns. The pilot study looked at the towns in Angus, former Forfarshire, and it was my job to work through a mass of records for the various burghs. This was followed years later by a larger study of small towns Scotland-wide, which has led to a book which is about to be published. But my MS-like illness had progressed too much for me to work on the main project. My year on the pilot study was glorious though. I learned how towns grew and changed in 18th century Scotland and Britain, and how the cultural and social facilities were transformed. Again fascinating, intellectually.

And then my history PhD built on this, again focusing on circa 1750-1820, but this time looking at reading habits. And again there were intellectual challenge reasons. It was a period of huge change in the print trade and growth of reading venues, one of the biggest reading revolutions Scotland, and indeed Britain, has seen. Studying reading habits was more of a needle in a haystack hunt than studying urban history, with far fewer sources to work with, and more need for efficient use of those you could find. But in a way that made it even more fun.

So I suppose I am a specialist now in the 18th century, though I still have much to learn about it. And I still retain my interests in the other periods. For example I am preparing an academic journal paper based upon my Melrose 17th century court research, and still tinker with the 19th century. And, taking things even further forward, my SHARP 2014 book history conference talk looks at the TV series Doctor Who and its fanzines in the late 20th and 21st centuries – quite a challenge for me given my past record. But fun!

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I recently bought Eleanor M. Harris‘s historical map of old Edinburgh, and have now had a good chance to look through it. I developed a strong interest in urban history, and Scottish urban history in particular, thanks to my PhD supervisor Professor Charles McKean, and also the taught PG Masters course I did beforehand in Cultural and Urban Histories 1650-1850. Plus being born in Edinburgh I was always going to be interested in this map!

Layers of Edinburgh folded map

Eleanor did all the artwork and wrote the text, including the calligraphy work, herself. It’s impressive how much she has squeezed in. The map unfolds to open with a so-called “short history” of the city, but it’s full of detail, from the earliest dates through to the 21st century, and gives a good potted account of developments over time.

Layers of Edinburgh short history

But the bulk of the content is on the map proper, on the other side, accompanied with notes about specific places and people. The emphasis is very much on the Old Town, so there isn’t for example any content on the map from Princes Street and further north, the area developed so much in the 18th century. What is there though is generally well presented, with colour coding to show different dates of development, as well as numbers which can lead to further information in the notes section on the back of the map.

Detail of Layers of Edinburgh map

If I have one criticism, it’s a small one, but much of the text on the map is written at all different angles, which can mean you need to turn it around a lot to read the contents. But that’s sort of necessary, given how much information has been squeezed in. And I don’t think it would be a problem using the map in the field so to speak.

For anyone with an interest in Edinburgh’s history, or urban history in general, I strongly recommend that you get hold of this map. If you can use it on the ground, and explore the streets with it to guide you, all the better. Copies of the map are available from Eleanor’s Etsy shop.

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It’s the last day of the month now, and my Academic Writing Month of 2013 is drawing to a close. I thought I’d reflect here on how it’s gone, and lessons I’m taking from it for the future.

This year I had fairly modest goals. Last year I had more goals, but this year I had two main ones: finish revising an academic journal paper that’s been lingering since the summer, and write and submit a conference paper proposal (CFP deadline 30th November 2013) for a book history conference next year. Although they were just two goals, they were big ones. The journal paper was about 10,000 words long, and needed quite significant revisions before resubmission, and that couldn’t be done in a hurry. Equally the conference paper proposal was slightly outside my comfort zone, so I needed to familiarise myself with existing research and writings, before selling my pitch.

I’m pleased to say that both goals were achieved. The conference paper proposal was submitted mid month, and the revised journal paper resubmitted towards the end of the month. I started tackling both of them as the month started, and nibbled away at them, working steadily, as and when I could, until both were finished. So that was really good, and a big result of AcWriMo for me.

Another goal that I added part way through the month was related to my Melrose one-place study, and this was to put a person index, about 9000 persons (names, occupations, addresses, any relatives recorded) who were involved with the Melrose regality (local) court between 1657 and 1676. Although this was primarily a genealogical index it arose from my MPhil dissertation research a decade ago. Again I’m pleased to say this was done, and I blogged about it here.

More minor goals included judging the IF Comp games this year (done, at least 10 of them played, judged and rated), and to move my own text adventure writing project onwards (done: lots of player interaction added and coded up). I also wanted to move on my urban history research, and immediately after I resubmitted my journal paper I started planning a new one, that develops considerably on just a couple of sentences in my PhD thesis, combining book history and urban history in rather a nice mixture. It’s early days, but I will be able to take this forward in the coming month or two.

One thing I didn’t manage was to write any more of my roleplaying / history crossover articles which I am building into a book. But that’s ok, this month was primarily for academic writing projects, and I can tackle that next month. In December I will also be doing another piece of less formal writing: analysing and reviewing the Sapphire & Steel annual for my third article for an upcoming fanzine about the series. Fun.

So overall it’s been a very successful month for me. Although I set myself slightly more modest goals than last year, at least in terms of number and quantity, they were individually ambitious and time consuming, and it’s a big achievement to have managed all the big ones. This helped me finish one project that had been hanging around for too long, finish another that was urgently time critical, and set myself up for the next research project and journal paper I’m working on. And starting working on the AcWriMo projects from the beginning of the month, and blogging my progress week by week, got things done. I never spent a huge amount of time in the week on any one project, but kept working steadily at it, and that way progress was made, and things finished.

All going well I definitely intend to take part in AcWriMo 2014. Looking forward to it. In the meantime I hope to continue the momentum I have built from this year.

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Checking in after another week of the month, and really pleased with progress in the last 7 days.

Conference paper proposal for the SHARP (Society for the History of Authorship, Reading and Publishing) 2014 conference in Antwerp has been finished and submitted online. Was really easy to do. They even asked for my Twitter handle in the submission process! My proposed talk is titled “Fanzines and British TV series Doctor Who, and their changing relationship over nearly 50 years”. I’ll find out by mid February if they’ve accepted my proposal, but I’m going whatever.

And I’ve almost finished my other big goal, revising and resubmitting an academic journal paper this month. I finished scribbling my many changes to the text a few days ago, and last night spent a very productive hour typing them into the Word document. When I originally submitted the paper it was 9999 words long – yes the journal did allow 10000! And I’m amazed that even with all my additions and clarifications the new version isn’t much over 9900 words. Though I did hack out quite a bit of text in one section, including a lengthy table the anonymous reviewer thought was superfluous. I’ll easily be able to finish and resubmit this paper by the end of November, which is superb.

IF Comp also finished in the last 7 days. In the end I played and judged 10 games out of the 35 total, which given my other time constraints I’m quite pleased about. And I now have all the other entrants, including the eventual winner, to look forward to playing more slowly.

I also resumed writing my own interactive fiction game. It’s a whodunnit / mystery, set in a Scottish Borders castle circa 1500. Much of the game involves talking to other characters, to try to figure out the clues. The other night I filled out more of the Inform 7 conversation tables for this, which is great progress, that I’m really pleased with.

So good progress. Alongside finishing my journal paper revisions in the next 7 days I’d like to do more urban history research / thinking, and also roleplaying / history crossover articles for my book in progress. Will see what happens!

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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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Well it’s a week in, and as is normal with Academic Writing Month I’m reflecting on how things have gone so far.

It’s been a great start. Neither main goal is fully achieved yet, but both are well on the way. The conference paper proposal has a first draft written, which came in at almost perfect length even before tweaking/editing. I need to check a few more academic books, and give it a couple of weeks distance for final editing, but I should definitely have a proposal ready in time. I still have to decide whether to submit it, but that’s a separate decision. Main thing is I can if I want to.

My other main goal was to revise and resubmit a journal paper. I’d been quite ill and weak for several months after getting the response from the editors, which caused a delay. But it also helped because the reviewer’s comments were quite harsh, and a bit of distance helps deal with that positively! But a few weeks ago I turned the editors’ requests and the reviewer’s critique into a to-do list of improvements to be getting on with, and I made a proper start on that last night. There were 13 items on my to-do list, and I completed 6 of them in about an hour. The tweaks are all quite surgical, not too lengthy (which is good, because I’d need to cut other words if I add any more), but needed that bit of distance and focus. And Academic Writing Month has encouraged me to finally bring this to completion. I’ll be working on the remaining items over the coming week or so, but am confident I will have it ready to resubmit this month.

On the downside I haven’t done much more IF Comp judging. I have reached the 5 game threshold, i.e. 5 games judged and rated, which means that my votes will count towards the final ranking. But with over 30 games entered in the competition that’s only a very small minority of games judged, and I would like to judge more. The deadline for judging and voting is 15th November, but I am confident, given how my other goals are going, that I should manage some more.

No more work yet on my own text adventure game, but I finished reading After Flodden, which gave me lots of ideas. And in my urban history research I’ve already started looking through and assessing the late 18th century Scottish shop tax lists, to see which would be suitable for further more detailed analysis. So that is a good start in itself.

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