Connected histories

Out there a lot of bright-minded people and noble institutions are thinking of ways to make things easier and better for the researcher. They have considered all the digital content that has been produced so far, being it digitised or born digital, and now they want to construct ways of bringing this stuff together in useful ways. Of course, for initial enquiries, Google is there to answer most needs. But for less random, more structured enquiries, particularly the kinds of enquiry that the serious researcher (of whatever kind) is going to make, then you need dedicated resources. These resources depend on good metadata – that is, that all of the digital records under consideration are described in a consistent, logical manner according to agreed rules, so that like can be found alongside like. Consistency breeds discovery.

All of which is preamble to the launch of Connected Histories, a resource which bringing together a number of important digital resources relating to the study of early modern and nineteeth century Britain, under a single federated search system. ‘Federated’ simply means that several subject-related databases have been brought together to form, in effect, one super-database, so you don’t have to search in several different places, but instead just the one. Bringing these databases together allows you to conduct sophisticated searches that couldn’t be achieved singly, and simply to discover more, and more quickly.

Connected Histories bringings together eleven digital resources, two of which have been previously reviewed by the Bioscope. Not all cover our period, but some complement it, and all are well worth exploring anyway:

British History Online
The digital library of primary and secondary sources for the history of Britain, from the Middle Ages to c.1900.

British Museum Images
The collection provides searchable access to almost 100,000 images, relating to early modern and 19th-century Britain.

British Newspapers, 1600-1900
The most comprehensive digital historic British newspaper archive in existence, with 3 million pages of historic newspapers, newsbooks and ephemera from national and regional papers.

Charles Booth Archive
The online archive provides access to guides, digitised images and maps from the Booth archive collections at the London School of Economics and Political Science and the University of London Library. (This is Booth’s famous survey into life and labour in London, dating from 1886 to 1903)

Clergy of the Church of England Database 1540-1835
A database containing details of the careers of more than 130,000 clergymen of the Church of England between 1540 and 1835, from over 50 archives in England and Wales.

House of Commons Parliamentary Papers
The Parliamentary Papers gives access to page images and searchable full text for over 200,000 House of Commons sessional papers and supplementary information from 1688 onwards.

John Johnson Collection of Printed Ephemera
The collection provides access to more than 67,000 scanned items from the Bodleian Library’s holdings documenting various aspects of everyday life in Britain from the 18th to the early 20th century.

John Strype’s Survey of London Online
This is a full-text electronic version of John Strype’s enormous two-volume survey of 1720, complete with its celebrated maps and plates, which depict the prominent buildings, street plans and ward boundaries of the late Stuart capital.

London Lives 1690-1800
London Lives provides a fully searchable edition of 240,000 manuscript pages from eight London archives and 15 datasets, giving access to 3.5 million names. offers online access to some of the richest ancestral information available. The collection searchable through Connected Histories focuses on the early modern history of London.

The Proceedings of the Old Bailey Online, 1674-1913
The Old Bailey Online contains accounts of the trials conducted at London’s central criminal court between 1674 and 1913; and also the Ordinary’s Accounts – detailed narratives of the lives and deaths of convicts executed at Tyburn, published between 1676 and 1772.

Before you get too excited, please note that some of these are subscription services or available to UK higher education users only. Those that are free to all are British History Online (80% of it), British Museum Images, Charles Booth Archive (which I strongly recommend for detailed, socially-informed maps and data on life in late-19th century London), Clergy of the Church of England Database, John Strype’s Survey of London, London Lives, and Proceedings of the Old Bailey. British Newspapers, 1600-1900 and Proceedings of the Old Bailey are the two previously reported on by the Bioscope.

So, what can you find (those of you not paying subscriptions or having subscriptions paid for you by a university). Our traditional search term of ‘kinetoscope’ brings up just the one record, from an 1895 House of Commons parliamentary paper, with the frustrating information that you can’t proceed any further without a password. ‘Bioscope’ brings up eight hits, five free for all to view from the utterly compulsive Proceedings of the Old Bailey, such as the 1911 court case of “ROBERTS, George (19, bioscope operator), unlawfully uttering counterfeit coin; possessing counterfeit coin.” (Do note that the Old Bailey records stretch into the early part of the twentieth century). Searching on ‘cinematograph’ gives us thirty-two record, again with those from the Old Bailey records (eleven) being available to all. ‘Mutoscope’ yields thirty-six (lots of joint stock company reports under Parliamentary Papers).

You get an array of searching tools (keyword, place, person, date range), with filtering by source type, resources and access (so you can limit searches to freely-available content). There are also subject guides on topics such as ‘Family History’, and the ‘History of London’, and registered users can put together collections of documents (‘connections‘) under particular topics, and so your scribe has done his bit and created an “early cinema” connection that you can explore at your leisure. Don’t say that I’m not good to you, at least some of the time.

Connected Histories has been constructed by the University of Hertfordshire, the Institute of Historical Research, University of London, and the University of Sheffield, with natural language processing, indexing and the development of the search engine were carried out by the Humanities Research Institute (University of Sheffield). This is the first phase; in September of this year they will be adding 65,000 19th-century books from the British Library (which I imagine will be free to all); 23,000 19th-century pamphlets from JSTOR (a subscription-only digital store); Documents Online from The National Archives; data from People in Place: Families, Households, and Housing in London, 1550-1720 from British History Online; and History of Parliament Online. They are on the lookout for additional resources, though whether they will be able to extend their reach beyond the nineteenth into the twentieth century is not stated (such are the challenges that British copyright law presents).

A video introduction to Connected Histories

So, though Connected Histories is of mostly going to be of most value to those in our field interested in the origins and earliest years of film, it is a significant indicator of the ways things are going. Institutions and individual databases are becoming things of the past. Concatenations of datasets and federated search systems are going to take over. It’s the globalization of knowledge.