Microfilm Days and Digital Discoveries: Reflections on Using the Old Bailey Online

In this anniversary year of the Old Bailey Online, I thought I would take the opportunity to reflect on my use of the Old Bailey Proceedings and to consider how the digitisation of this rich landscape of the mundane and everyday and the unique and extraordinary contacts with the criminal justice system has enriched and enabled my research. I first started using the Old Bailey Proceedings in 1992 when I was putting together my MA dissertation, using the microfilms at the Institute of Historical Research in Senate House to trace cases involving juvenile offenders. In these initial forays, I was excited by what the Proceedings could offer me as a fledgling historian who wanted to find out about the children and youths who found themselves in the early nineteenth century criminal justice system. Reading the accounts of children like eleven-year-old John Leary, sentenced to death in 1814 after stealing goods from a dwelling house (t18141130-24); or brothers Francis and Charles Wiltshire, aged twelve and thirteen, transported in 1832 after being found guilty of picking a pocket (t18321129-11), convinced me of the value of this source in revealing snapshots of the lives of plebeian Londoners.

Nevertheless, when I did my original research I was much less alert to the limitations of the Proceedings, which have since been demonstrated by Bob Shoemaker. The process of digitisation has peeled back and revealed the mechanics of publication, building on Simon Devereaux’s instructive essays about the Proceedings. Moreover, the project team took on the unenviable task of constructing a coherent framework for searching the Proceedings (one that could be easily understood and used by a broad spectrum of users). This in turn has shaped the way in which historians and other researchers interpret and analyse evidence from the trials.

The digitisation of the Proceedings has fundamentally shaped my own research, which has increasingly sought to re-construct the lives of criminal and plebeian Londoners from the bottom up. Having spent so many hours trawling the microfilm copies of the manuscript Proceedings, I can truly appreciate the extent to which the search tools provided by the website enable deep searching. Thus work on groups of individual criminals, that I started on the microfilm copies and completed on the digitised version, has been significantly expanded. For example, the life of the owner of disorderly houses, thief and alleged whore Mary Harvey, known to her contemporaries as a ‘noted Virago’, was amplified once I was able to search for her digitally. Mary’s life, at least for a period in the 1720s and 30s, was characterised by a series of encounters with the justice system. Whilst I had found some of these encounters through manual searching and had traced others through archival work on the Sessions Papers in the London Metropolitan Archives, digital searching revealed Mary’s place in a broader set of inter-connecting networks and enabled me to follow linked individuals to produce a much deeper and arguably more meaningful picture of her journey through the justice system.

Whilst Mary’s is just one life (albeit one which intersects with many others) her story tells us significant things about how justice worked on the ground in the eighteenth century Metropolis; and how individual criminals (or the accused) might themselves use, manipulate and even shape the system. The digitisation of the Proceedings has been one of the most significant historical digital projects and arguably remains unique in the scale of material made available, in its accessibility (and not least its open access) and in the ambitions of its directors to establish the website as a pivot linking a series of related digital resources (Connected Histories; London Lives; Locating London’s Past).

Nevertheless, the digitisation of primary sources more broadly is not without problems. Indeed, it could be argued that digitisation has come at a cost. The commercial involvement of corporations like Google and Cengage/Gale has implications in terms of market/reach and access. For instance, the digitisation of the Mass Observation Archive by Adam Matthew has brought this wonderful source out of its Sussex University archive. However, its prohibitive cost means that I am simply not able to draw on this rich source for teaching. A reminder, as Hitchcock has noted recently, that the driving force for digitisation projects comes for the most part from beyond the academy. Hitchcock also points to the impact of digitisation on the ‘practice of academic writing’ (p. 10). Most importantly he reminds us that our academic training, ‘provides a critical reader with the tools to trace evidence back to its origin and to unpack the blocks and shards of detail that make up an argument’ (p. 12). The dangers of disconnect from the research process are, I agree, significant.

Only recently I experienced a salutary reminder of how digital searching may have influenced my research practice. After researching incidents of what contemporaries described as youth ‘gang’ violence in late Victorian London through the Old Bailey Online, the British Library C19th Newspapers and archival work on police court and Home Office records, I turned to the newspaper library at Colindale to look at Edwardian cases. Armed with specific dates and the fruitful results of my digital searches, I ran into a brick-wall. Ranging across the Edwardian press, my search for coverage of violent youth gang conflicts brought rather more limited results than anticipated.

Were early twentieth century journalists simply not as interested in reporting these events as they had been in the 1880s and 90s? Could it be that in these pre-war years events happening on the international scene were impacting on the column inches given to mundane domestic matters? OR could it be that the ability to search the nineteenth century newspapers digitally distorts our interpretation and analysis of the source, by essentially removing it from its broader context, what Hitchcock describes as ‘the substantial deracination of knowledge’ (p. 14)? Hitchcock argues that scholars need to be more honest and more explicit about how we do online research, but that we also need to challenge ourselves by learning more about the resources which we increasingly take for granted by getting to grips with the new tools of data analysis (p. 20). Whilst I don’t disagree, I do wonder a little about my own and others ability to surmount the digital ‘learning curve’. A challenge indeed!

Heather Shore

Leeds Metropolitan University


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2 Responses to Microfilm Days and Digital Discoveries: Reflections on Using the Old Bailey Online

  1. Zoe Alker says:

    Great post, Heather. Similar to your work on gang violence, I used British Library 19th C newspapers to consider how Victorians defined garotting and, particularly, if there were regional differences in the descriptions. A national overview would certainly be a challenge without digitalisation. Sites like OBO can illuminate patterns that we wouldn’t necessarily be able to see before and prompt new and interesting questions about our research.

  2. hshore2013 says:

    Thanks Zoe, despite my occasional reservations, I generally think digitisation is a great thing. It certainly makes life a lot easier when you haven’t got immediate access to the archives. And I think the point you make about regional differences is important as well. Though I’m aware, with the C19th Newspapers Online, how we are steered to rely on the presses selected by the BL. I had an interesting chat with the guy from Cengage/Gale at the Social History conference a couple of weeks ago. Interesting stuff about how they decide what to digitise but also the problems they encounter.

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