Digitized BT Archives Launched

19 07 2013

AS: British Telecom, the former monopoly telephone company in the UK, has digitized part of its vast archival holdings and placed it online. The e-archive, which was just launched, will doubtless be useful to business historians. The project was developed with money from the New Connections project, a one million pound collaboration between Coventry University [my employer], BT itself, and the UK’s The National Archives, in order to bring an important part of this unique archive and innovations story to a much wider audience.  Note that while I am a business historian at Coventry University, I wasn’t involved in this particular project. My colleague Neil Forbes, who was the driving force behind it, is interviewed here. 

Here is their blurb:

BT is the world’s oldest and most established communications company. Its roots extend back to the UK’s Electric Telegraph Company, incorporated in 1846 as the world’s first national provider of telecommunications services. Few companies in the world have a heritage as rich as BT. Its history is a fascinating weave of invention, innovation, and endeavour – both as a public service and as a private enterprise..

BT Archives documents the leading role that the UK and BT and its predecessors have played in communications technology development from its very beginning, rolling out communications services around the country and across the globe, and the profound impact they had on society and in improving people’s lives. The archives are recognised as having international significance by UNESCO and Arts Council England as an important part of the UK’s cultural heritage.

The overall collection includes records, photographs and films of BT itself, records of the Post Office telecommunications function, and of the private telephone and telegraph companies taken over by the Post Office in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They document the development of the UK communications infrastructure and services to overseas from their earliest days, and major milestones such as the development of transatlantic communications from the earliest telegraph service to satellites and fibre optic cables

The project aimed to catalogue, digitise and develop a searchable online resource of almost half a million photographs, images, documents and correspondence, a core part of the overall collection assembled by BT over 165 years, including over:

·         45,000 photographs and pictures, c1865 – 1982

·         190,000 pages from over 13,500 research reports, 1878 – 1981

·         230,000 documents from over 550 policy and operational files, 1851 – 1983

BT’s archive of  work undertaken at the Post Office Research Station at Dollis Hill, and later at BT’s research laboratories at Martlesham Heath, is acknowledged to be particularly significant as a record of British scientific effort , often overlooked in research into the history of science and technology. For this reason it was established at an early stage that the entire research archive from 1878 to 1981 would be catalogued, digitised and published online as a key part of the BT Digital Archives.

The project has not digitised BT’s complete archive by any means, so extensive research and consultation including user surveys has been undertaken to establish the content, and functionality, that users would require. The records ultimately selected reflect the scope of the topics covered by the overall collection, not just science and technology but also social, economic and even political issues reflecting the vital importance of communications in the history of the nation.

The BT Digital Archives incorporates the public catalogue of the whole collection that is held by BT Archives, and replaces an existing online catalogue first published in 2009. Altogether, the BT Digital Archives website is an introduction to the wider collection occupying over three kilometres of shelving, which is available to researchers for study at the BT Archives searchoom in Holborn, London.

Anyone can view and search the records available on the website. Registered users will be able to download individual images for private non-commercial use. Academic and professional teaching practitioners can register to download higher quality images, and pdfs of whole reports and files, for private study, research and teaching.

Digital Humanities Minor at UCLA

21 08 2011


UCLA has introduced a digital humanities “minor” that students can take along with a more traditional major (e.g., history or English). The students will graduate with a degree  that says they have a major in, say, history and a minor in digital humanities.

I think that this is an excellent idea: many employers are looking for graduates who have both the communications and analytical skills inculcated by the traditional liberal arts education and some knowledge of IT. In fact, I think that joint degrees in IT and the social sciences and humanities are the wave of the future. The two skill sets complement each other: IT is about getting information to the people who need it, when they need it, while the humanities and social sciences are about interpreting information.

Here is UCLA’s description of the minor:

Scope and Objectives

The Digital Humanities minor is an interdisciplinary minor that studies the foundations and futures of the digital world. Digital Humanities interprets the cultural and social impact of the new information age as well as creates and applies new technologies to answer cultural, social, and historical questions, both those traditionally conceived and those enabled by new technologies. The interdisciplinary curriculum draws on faculty from more than twenty departments, five schools, and three research centers at UCLA. It places project-based learning at the heart of the curriculum, with students working in collaborative teams to realize digital research projects with real-world applications. The Digital Humanities minor is intended to provide students with literacy in creating, interpreting, and applying the technologies of the digital world. It examines the cultural and social impact of new technologies and also enables students to harness these technologies to develop their own research projects in a wide range of fields. Students use tools and methodologies such as three-dimensional visualization, data-mining, network analysis, and digital mapping to conceptualize and advance research projects. Students have the opportunity to make significant contributions to scholarship in fields ranging from archaeology and architecture to history and literature. By preparing students to be active participants in the design and production of new knowledge, the minor emphasizes the critical thinking skills, creativity, and collaborative methodologies necessary for success in the digital information age.


# Crs Course Title/Description


1 1 Lower Division Elective Selected from a list of approved departmental course offerings


1 DGT HUM 101 Core: Foundations of the Digital World (offered Fall 2011)


3 3 Upper Division Electives Selected from a list of approved departmental course offerings*


1 DGT HUM  194 Seminar in Digital Humanities (can be taken concurrently with the internship/apprenticeship quarter)


1 DGT HUM  195 or DGT HUM 196 1 quarter of Internship or Apprenticeship*


1 DGT HUM 198 or DGT HUM 199 Honors Research or Directed Research in Digital Humanities


8 8 Courses

31-36 units


The Promise of Digital Humanities

21 08 2011

Digital humanities (DH) is one of the most exciting fields of scholarly research right now. DH has many different aspects, but perhaps the most promising (and most discussed) is the machine analysis of text.

Proponents of data mining herald the approach for its alleged potential to close the gap between the “two cultures” of the humanities and the hard sciences by allowing us to subject historical texts to quantitative analysis.  Traditionally, humanities research has been largely anecdotal, which has allowed researchers to “cherry pick” a few anecdotes to prove their pet thesis. By allowing us to survey many cases quickly, data mining can help us to determine whether the anecdotes selected by other historians were statistically representative.

Critics of data mining have argued that the massive investments in DH technology have so far produced few surprising results and that DH is all a bunch of techno-hype designed to extract funding from gullible research councils. These critics have a point: some of the recent efforts to use computers to quantitatively analyse  primary sources have ended up just stating the obvious.

For instance, researchers at the University of Richmond got a grant that allowed them to analyse the hundreds of speeches delivered in Virginia at the start of the Civil War. (Read more here). Their keyword searches found that there were frequent references to “slavery” in the debates on secession. The researchers then concluded that issues related to slavery were a major motivating factor for Virginia’s decision to leave the Union. Of course, this isn’t telling us anything new. We’ve known for a long time that the American Civil War was about slavery. File this research under:  “No kidding, Sherlock!”

However, one occasionally comes across a data mining project that fundamentally undermines the scholarly consensus about a particular historical topic.  The New York Times recently reported on a project by William Turkel, a historian at the University of Western Ontario. He teaches Canadian history, “environmental and public history, the histories of science and technology, ‘big history’, STS, computation, and studies of place and social memory.” Turkel is something of a polymath and a few years ago he constructed a 3-D printer in his Lab for Humanistic Fabrication.

For a historian with such advanced technical skills, doing machine analysis of primary sources would be relatively easy, I would imagine.

Turkel is a member of the Criminal Intent project, which landed a grant from the prestigious Digging into Data programme. Digging into Data is jointly funded by research councils in a number of countries, including the JISC, the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the Economic and Social Research Council in the UK; the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Science Foundation in the US; the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research; and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council in Canada.

Working with Tim Hitchcock of the University of Hertfordshire, Turkel recently did an analysis of the transcribed court records that had been put online by the Old Bailey Project.  The Old Bailey project, which has involved digitizing and transcribing records of 198,000 trials between 1674 and 1913, is one of the best known DH initiatives.  (The Old Bailey is the central criminal court in London).

Old Bailey in 1808

Old Bailey

Here is how the New York Times reported their research findings.

After scouring the 127 million words in the database for patterns in a project called Data Mining With Criminal Intent, he and William J. Turkel, a historian at the University of Western Ontario, came up with a novel discovery. Beginning in 1825 they noticed an unusual jump in the number of guilty pleas and the number of very short trials. Before then most of the accused proclaimed their innocence and received full trials. By 1850, however, one-third of all cases involved guilty pleas. Trials, with their uncertain outcomes, were gradually crowded out by a system in which defendants pleaded guilty outside of the courtroom, they said.

Conventional histories cite the mid-1700s as the turning point in the development of the modern adversarial system of justice in England and Colonial America, with defense lawyers and prosecutors facing off in court, Mr. Hitchcock and Mr. Turkel said. Their analysis tells a different story, however.

Dan Cohen, a historian of science at George Mason University and the lead United States researcher on the Criminal Intent project, found other revelations in the data. He noticed that in the 1700s there were nearly equal numbers of male and female defendants, but that a century later men outnumbered women nearly 10 to 1.

The Criminal Intent project shows that data mining can indeed advance our understanding of the past beyond what we already know from conventional historical research.

You can read Turkel’s blog here.




UCLA recently inaugurated a programme in the digital humanities. See more here.

Digital Humanities: the State of the Field

7 06 2011

As regular readers of this blog will know, digital history/digital humanities is one of my interests. I’m most interested in quantitative discourse analysis and crowdsourcing.

I’ve often thought about how we can define “digital humanities”. What is it? When and where did it begin? What direction is it going in? Are there any controversies/debates within the digital humanities field? Is there a good literature survey/guide to this rapidly growing field?

Nathan Johnson, is about to join the Depart­ment of Eng­lish at Pur­due Uni­ver­sity as an assistant professor. He studies and teaches about “infor­ma­tion infra­struc­ture, rhetoric, sci­ence, and tech­nol­ogy”. Johnson has written an interesting bibliography of sources related to such questions.  I have pasted it below, but you can see it in its original context here.

Because of my disciplinary bias as a historian, I think that the best way to define “digital humanities” is to explore how the field has evolved since it was created. Unfortunately, the Wikipedia page for “digital humanities” is rather weak on historical background, although we do learn there that before c. 2011 “digital humanities” was known as “humanities computing”.

I therefore read a recent blog post by Eric Johnson, the webmaster at Monticello historic site (the home of Thomas Jefferson) with interest.  Johnson was blegging for advice about how to go about writing such a history. It will be interesting to see what Johnson does with the advice he has been given.

Watch this space!


Interesting Job for Aspiring Digital Humanities Scholar

18 05 2011

I thought I would bring your attention to a part-time employment opportunity for an aspiring digital humanities scholar.

History Workshop Online: Web Manager

The editors of History Workshop Journal are looking for a part-time web manager and administrator to help establish and run a new website, History Workshop Online <http://www.historyworkshop.org.uk/>. This WordPress website is intended to reach beyond an academic audience and to be both a discussion forum and a resource for radical historians and for those interested in the interplay between past and present. The job involves an average of six hours work a week at an hourly rate of £16.50.

To apply for the post please send your CV with a covering letter, plus links to any websites on which you have worked, to historyworkshopjournal@gmail.com. The deadline for applications is June 10th.

For more details, see here.

Was the American Civil War About Slavery or States’ Rights?

4 05 2011

Digital Humanities, States’ Rights, and the Civil War

In the past, I have blogged about quantitative discourse analysis, which is one of the fastest growing fields in digital humanities.

I would like to bring your attention to a great post on the Disunion blog. The post is by Edward L. Ayers, a historian at the University of Richmond. Ayers is the co-host of “BackStory with the American History Guys,” a public radio program.

Ayers reports that:

A new poll from the Pew Research Center reports that nearly half of Americans identify states’ rights as the primary cause of the Civil War. This is a remarkable finding, because virtually all American textbooks and prominent historians emphasize slavery, as they have for decades.  

In Virginia, there was a constitutional convention to decide whether to leave the Union.  The records of the debates of these conventions have survived and provided some insight into the motives of those who vote in favour of secession. Of course, politicians often lie about their motives when speaking in the public, which is why it is so damn important for historians to access their private correspondence. Anyway,  a group of historians have been subjecting the debates in Virginia to quantitative discourse analysis. Their conclusions are as follows:

Some of the patterns in the speeches quickly undermine familiar arguments for Virginia’s secession. Tariffs, which generations of would-be realists have seen as the hidden engine of secession, barely register, and a heated debate over taxation proves, on closer examination, to be a debate over whether the distribution of income from taxes on enslaved people should be shared more broadly across the state. Hotheads eager to fight the Yankees did not play a leading role in the months of debates; despite the occasional outburst, when delegates mentioned war they most often expressed dread and foreboding for Virginia. Honor turns out to be a flexible concept, invoked with equal passion by both the Unionist and secessionist sides. Virtually everyone in the convention agreed that states had the right to secede, yet Unionists in Virginia won one crucial vote after another. The language of slavery is everywhere in the debates…. But the omnipresence of the language of slavery does not settle the 150-year debate over the relative importance of slavery and states’ rights [in the motives of the secessionists], for the language of rights flourished as well. The debate over the protection of slavery came couched in the language of governance, in words like “state,” “people,” “union,” “right,” “constitution,” “power,” “federal” and “amendment.” Variants of the word “right,” along with variants of “slave,” appear once for every two pages in the convention minutes. When the Virginians talked of Union they talked of a political entity built on the security and sanction of slavery in all its dimensions, across the continent and in perpetuity.

Read more here.

On a related note, you may be interested in Eric Foner’s review of Gary Gallagher’s The Union War, which was published in late April.  Gallagher’s thesis is that Northerners essentially fought the war to preserve the territorial integrity of the United States, not to liberate the slaves. The end of slavery was an incidental after effect of this conflict.  Foner is not convinced. Foner said this in his review:

Gallagher also criticizes recent studies of soldiers’ letters and diaries, which find that an antislavery purpose emerged early in the war. These works, he argues, remain highly “impressionistic,” allowing the historian “to marshal support for virtually any argument.” Whereupon Gallagher embarks on his own equally impressionistic survey of these letters, finding that they emphasize devotion to the Union.

Foner makes a good point. It seems to me that the solution is to engage in some quantitative discourse analysis of soldiers’ letters similar to that performed on the transcript of the debate of the Virginia secession convention.  That way, we will be able to determine whether to the letters cited by Gallagher to prove that the Northerners fought to preserve the union were more or less statistically representative than the letters cited by historians who think that the soldiers’ primary motive was to free the slaves. Of course, there is still the issue of sample bias, since not all Union soldiers were literate enough to send letters home. Still, there are ways to correct for this, so it is worth a try.

Update:  there is an excellent post on the blog Dead Confederates that speaks to this issue. Hat tip to WG.

Digitization of Historical Newspapers: Is Canada Trailing Other Countries?

14 04 2011

Digitized historical newspapers are an increasingly important resource for both academic researchers and undergraduates. I think that they are a fantastic teaching tool because that bring primary sources to students, which gives undergrads the sense of being “real historians”.

The Higher Education Academy in the UK was set up to improve undergrad teaching. The various Subject Centres within the academy produce guides of newly available resources for university teachers. The History Subject Centre’s guide on the use of Hollywood films in history teaching is well known outside of the UK.

The centre recently released a guide on historical newspapers that have gone digital. The guide focuses on British and US newspapers (e.g., the Times of London and New York Times databases), but it also had this to say about the progress in newspaper digitization in other English-speaking countries:

Canada, Australia and New Zealand (Greater Britain)

James Belich, in his recent book, Replenishing the Earth, has suggested that Britain’s white settlement colonies were effectively a British counterpart to the American West (Belich 2009). One way of testing Belich’s thesis might be to analyse the newspapers published in Canada and Australasia. Both Australia and New Zealand have major national digital newspaper projects. The National Library of Australia has digitised a selection of newspapers from the period 1803 to 1954, including full runs of major newspapers still in publication such as The Sydney Morning Herald. The National Library of New Zealand Papers Past project covers the years 1839 to 1932 and includes 52 publications from all regions of New Zealand. More will be digitised during the next few years. Unfortunately so far Canada has not funded a national project. However, some provincial newspapers have been digitised in British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba and Quebec. Two national newspapers, Toronto’s Globe and Mail and Star, have also been digitised and are obtainable from ProQuest on a subscription basis.

In the past, most undergraduates studying the history of those countries Belich has grouped together as ‘Greater Britain’, i.e. Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa, have had even less access to primary sources than those studying US history. The digitised historic newspapers that have been made available free of charge by the national libraries of Australia and New Zealand could lead to the provision of more modules on Antipodean history in British higher education institutions.

The guide is right– the Canadian federal government has done very little in this department. The National Archives of Quebec has taken the lead in funding newspaper digitization, but alas most of the historical newspapers they have scanned and placed online would be unreadable to most students since they are mostly in French.  English-speaking Canada is light-years behind Quebec in this area, although the Victoria British Colonist database is an honourable exception to this generalization.  The Toronto Star and Globe and Mail are digitized, but only to subscribers and it is unlike that institutions outside of Canada will subscribe to them. In fact many Canadians universities are having trouble finding the cash to pay for access.

It may be that the Canadian government is unaware of the importance of digitized resources in public diplomacy.  Digitizing resources and placing them online for all to use is a cheap way of getting foreigners to study your country.

Moreover, I see some inconsistency here. The current federal government has paid lipservice to the idea of increasing the Canadian public’s knowledge of Canadian history (e.g., the Discover Canada Citizenship Guide). Yet it hasn’t funded the sort of electronic resources that might further this goal.

2010: The Year of Crowdsourced Transcription

4 02 2011

2010 was the year that collaborative manuscript transcription finally caught on, according to a recent blog post by Ken Brumfield.

Brumfield states that:

Probably the biggest news this year was TranscribeBentham, a project at University College London to crowdsource the transcription of Jeremy Bentham’s papers. This involved the development of Transcription Desk, a MediaWiki-based tool which is slated to be released under an open-source license. The team of volunteers had transcribed 737 pages of very difficult handwriting when I last consulted the Benthamometer. The Bentham team has done more than any other transcription tool to publicize the field — explaining their work on their blog, reaching out through the media (including articles in the Chronicle of Higher Education and the New York Times), and even highlighting other transcription projects on Melissa Terras’s blog.


I agree that Transcribe Bentham was the big digital humanities news story of 2010.


Adam Crymble on Measuring Interest

28 01 2011

Adam Crymble has posted a very thoughtful piece about indexing and the extent to which historians can determine whether contemporaries were interested in a particular issue. This is a question of major important for digital humanities scholars interested in quantitative discourse analysis.

His post begins as follows:

Today, gauging the general pulse of what people are saying or talking about or reading is fairly easy. Twitter’s “Trending Topics” are one of many methods for seeing what people are interested in right now. Others include a scan of the top stories in today’s newspapers, or a comparison of today’s blog posts by keyword.

In the post, Crymble talks about the Gentleman’s Magazine, an 18th century London publication. Using the index to the magazine, he did a work frequency count to see what sorts of subjects it covered. (see image below)


John Bull's Mind

He concludes:

By applying my historical knowledge of Britain during this era, my distant reading of the Gentleman’s Magazine suggests to me the following conclusions:

Wealthy Englishmen in the late eighteenth, early nineteenth century were interested in whichever country was currently causing the most trouble. They wanted to be kept informed of things that could kill them, or things that could disrupt their trade. They were interested in discussing the structure of the Anglican church, but less interested in discussing other religions, or directly engaging with the Bible. And finally, London was more important than America.

Scripto: New Open Source Software for Creating Crowdsourced Transcription Websites

1 01 2011

I have written before about crowdsourcing the transcription of primary sources. I have posted before about Transcribe Bentham. I would now like to bring your attention to Scripto, new open-source software that allows archives and libraries to crowdsource the transcription of archival materials. This information was sent to me by Prof. Sharon Leon of George Mason University, the head of the project and I am taking the liberty of re-posting it here.

The lead programmer for Scripto is Jim Safley, who is Web Programmer and Digital Archivist for the Center. He received his undergraduate degree in history at GMU and is currently working towards his master’s degree in American history. Beginning his archiving career in 1999 at the National Archives and Records Administration, Jim moved through several related positions, including records manager at Phi Beta Kappa national headquarters and archivist assistant at GMU’s Special Collections and Archives. Arriving at CHNM in 2002, Safley applied his traditional archiving experience to his work in digital archiving, web programming, and database administration. His interests include metadata standards, database design, web technologies, progressive history and history of technology. Safley was involved in developing that September 11 Digital Archive.

The Scriptio software is currently being developed the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University for its transcription of the Papers of the War Department, 1784-1800 project. The software will then be made available for others to use and, if they wish, modify. They will be launching the tool to allow for crowdsourcing of transcription toward the end of January.  After that point, they will begin work on writing connector scripts for the tool so that it can be used with common content management systems (Omeka, Drupal, WordPress, etc.).

Scripto uses the wikimedia api and editing interface and some additional scripting to capture the transcriptions and pass them back to the CMS.  Thus, it provides for all of the versioning and notation capacities of wikimedia, but makes the current version of the transcription available to the main CMS for search and association with the rest of the standardized archival metadata.  This is one of the differences between Scripto and the system that Transcribe Bentham is using; the Bentham project is totally contained within the wikimedia interface and has no way to export standardized metadata.  Additionally, the Transcribe Bentham project has created an interface for TEI mark-up (Text Encoding Initiative) of the texts.  The people at the Scripto project  have not added this modification to their use of wikimedia, but since the tool is open source, another programmer could add that modification on a individual basis or could release a plugin for our system.