AddressingHistory Launch Live Blog – Professor Bob Morris, the AddressingHistory Site Goes Live!, VUG, and Statistical Accounts of Scotland

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Nov 172010

Note: This blog post is the tidied up and illustrated version of a post typed live from the venue during the AddressingHistory launch. Your live blogger today is Nicola Osborne of the AddressingHistory Project Team.

Cate Newton, Director of Collections and Research, National Library of Scotland: Welcome

Cate Newton introduces attendees to the AddressingHistory Launch.
Cate Newton introduces attendees to the AddressingHistory Launch.

Cate Newton introduced and welcomed everyone to the day. Cate spoke about the National Library of Scotland‘s ongoing interest in the digitisation of historical resources and maps. “The AddressingHistory work in which we have been partners very much fits into both this ongoing work and the collaborative projects we are involved with around both digitised resources and maps”.

Professor Robert Morris, Emeritus Professor of Economic and Social History , University of Edinburgh: Introduction

Chris Fleet, Map Curator at the National Library of Scotland is chairing the first session this afternoon and he began by introducing Professor Bob Morris:

Professor Morris is Emeritus Professor of Economic and Social History in the School of History of Edinburgh University. His interest in social class formation and industrial towns in the nineteenth century has extended to a wide ranging interest in the nature of urbanisation and in all aspects of urban social structure, especially gender, ethnicity, religion and language. All these themes link to an interest in the distinctive nature of urban Scotland. Studies of family, property, power and space also link them to a long term interest in the creation and nature of the urban built environment. He was a past President of the European Urban History Association in addition to being President of the Economic and Social History Society of Scotland and patron of the Thoresby Society.

Professor Robert Morris holding punch card versions of the historical Post Office directories.

Professor Robert Morris holding punch card versions of the historical Post Office directories.

“Well, this is a great occasion and when Stuart talked to me he said: “will you come and launch AddressingHistory here?”. Now, those of you who know the Clyde and those of you who from the Northeast will know that a launch is a great occasion, but you’ll also know that many tasks remain, there’s a lot of fitting out in the ship and the sea trials are still there waiting to be done: this is just such a launch.

But before we look at what has been done I thought it would be useful to see just how far we’ve come. When I first started using directories the way in which you could digitise them was to put them on 80 column punch cards like these (see image above). These are just the “A’s” from the 1834 commercial directories from the city of Leeds. So, although I’m going to raise lots of issues around this don’t forget that that’s where it all came from. And don’t forget that when I started in the 1970s queries were run overnight and you would wait for the cards and the print out to come back and you’d realise you’d put one character wrong in your instructions, or got one parameter wrong and you’d have to start all over again. So just remember how far we’ve gone.

I think a lot of you will know that directories are a major resource for history makers: social history, historical geography, local history, family historians and many more will use these directories. They are one of many sources which historians called “nominal listings”. In other words they have a name and a number of characteristics – voting poll books, rate books, the census, wills, things of that nature. The directories are deceptively simple and hence very attractive to use whether you are describing an individual or a whole social or economic group. The real cost of using a directory is still data entry: there is no easy way to get data in. The ones I have used and others will have used have been put in keystroke by keystroke as you read across from the directory and in that way anybody who has done that – whether you have put in a whole directory, paid someone else to do it or done it yourself – the ambitions and achievements of AddressingHistory are very welcome here.

It’s an ambitious project, it’s a very thoughtful project, and I would say a very brave project in its methodology and the very wide range of audiences it is reaching out to. Will it arouse the curiosity of a 15 year old school pupil? Will it survive the critical scrutiny of the local historian? No one is more knowledgeable on their own particular patch and they always terrify professors like me because they know there area street by street, field by field, person by person. It’s a tough set of audiences here. Will it survive critical scrutiny of the academic, people like me? My answer is a typically academic one as it is “yes” and “no”.

Both in this project and VUG we can see that people are increasingly using maps to explore information and we just have to think a bit about how we view information on a map. They are very attractive, very appealing, very engaging. But the very fun of using a map can act as a barrier to thinking. Don’t be completely seduced by these maps. Historians talk about a spatial term: distribution. Things happen in space. It matters who the people are, it matters where it takes place. I think the map is a very direct way of engaging here and now. You can pull up a map here and go outside and walk out onto that place. In the 1850s you could step out of the door here and within 15 minutes you would be in fields. So we can think about this and how that relates to our experience of urban environments.

Professor Robert Morris demonstrates a search for photographers in AddressingHistory.

Professor Robert Morris demonstrates a search for photographers in AddressingHistory.

So, off I go to look at the preview and look at the Royal Mile – which I’m really interested in. I search for the Cannongate and I look at 96 results that come back. Here they are (image above). I took my courage in my hands and tried the API. And looking at these results I’m already concerned that s a resident has her occupation listed as “New Street”.

I save my information as a word file and import it into Excel and I feel happy again, I’m on safe ground. I then look at the occupation field and the results are not great but a pivot table gives me a rough idea of what it was like to live on the Canongate at this time: the most common professions at that time were the grocer, the painter, the writer – who was of course a library at this time, the tailor, and the watchmaker. We’ve come a long way here from struggling finger by finger inputting and fiddling with the cards. There’s a background noise here of bad OCR but our background noise isn’t too bad because crowd sourcing data should put much of that right in terms of spelling etc. There are some things here that will really test your ideas and ambitions in that way.

Lets plug in the same location in the 1860s here. Something more interesting is happening with many of our 120 addresses. Some of the locations are showing in other areas of Edinburgh though we’ve found them for a search of the Canongate. And if I move onto the 1905 directory the same thing happens again – I’m just being the neive user here, plugging things in – and we find now that people are scattered all over the place. I ask fro Canongate and I get Portobello: what is happening at this particular level?

Lets have a look at some of the entries which are here. There are really wonderful facilities. I mean I think one of the most powerful facilities of AddressingHistory is the way that you can see the PDFs, the way that you can see the image of the directories on one side of the screen. So if your occupation can’t be “New Street” then I can immediately have a look at the original document.

So here’s John D Dawson – he’s got two addresses here so we can start to see where some of our weird results come from. When you spot that second address you can see he’s listing his home and work addresses and this is what’s causing the quirky results. This documents a key feature of urban development, which is the particular way in which home and work become separated. So our Mr Dawson is the head teacher and he does not live in his school, the janitor lives in the school at this time.

More troubling is D. Donaldson who is listed as 1 Canongate and 9 Royal Park Terrace. It’s almost certain that that Donaldson is at 9 Royal Park Terrace (and walked to work) But he’s gotten muddled with another Donaldson here. And mucked things up no end. Even mroe complex is this entry Flockhart Duncan & Company, Manufacturing Chemists, etc. – with a full series of addresses. To cut a long story short these people are part of the pharmeceutical industry of the lower Canongate. They made chloroform for Simpsons. Unfortunately they might be able to handle the demands of the pharmaceutical industry but they mess up AddresingHistory! Why? Because when you set up the structures there there is a reasonable structure that says that every entry has a forename, a surname, a profession and an address. Now as you look more and more through the directories you’ll find that many entries don’t have a forename, they’re simply a company. Many people who have forenames and surnames don’t just have a work address but also a home address. And again you can see Duncan Flockart – do you want his telephone number? Well, it might be useful since it’s available – you might want to get a list of all those entries with telephone numbers. I’m being a bit mean here as I probably have the most complex entry in the whole of the 1905 directory. Nonetheless the challenge that I’m kicking out to the project, and it’s important if crowdsourcing is going to be helpful to you, unless you give them structures into which they can put complex entries such as companies, such as institutions, such as multiple entries etc. then the crowdsourcer will scratch their head.

So there are several points coming from this:

  • There is a high error rate of OCR as I think around 40% of the entries are compromised and, more problematically about 20% compromise the data structure
  • The Google location system is quite good though it is always taking the last address in the list. Google always try but for old street names that can be a bit of a danger and pins can end up in very strange places on the map.
  • There’s the issues of placing correct information in the appropriate field. Occupations showing addresses – there are clearly issues here but the directories will kick up problems again as many entries will be entirely without occupations.
  • And there are issues are not technical but one of the growing complexities of the directories over time. It is hard to tell if it’s an OCR error, a Google error, or related to the changing nature of directories. Are we looking at the changing nature of Edinburgh or the changing nature of directories? Early directories listed only the top professions of the city, by the 1900s these are far more thorough directories with many more and varied listings.

When you put something online it has enormous authority and to get a critical sense, particularly of the sources. We need some sense of context will be useful here – introductory essays such as those on Statistical Accounts of Scotland that explain how and why the directories were put together and that context is something we need to see reflected here.

But these are “sea trials” as I say. OK I’m picking on the problems here but look at this guy: John Deacon Football maker – great fun and he fits the data structure beautifully! There is hugely useful information here and we must not forget that!

So another interest here: Photography. None in 1784 (which is just as well!) but in 1865 we find 29 results mainly along Princes Street and the main shopping areas of Edinburgh. Remember that number of 29. So, we go to 1905 and there is only 20. I know of no economic, social or technical reason for only 20 photographers to appear. I think if you looked in the professional listings you would find a lot more. You couldn’t write an economic history of photography with this data as there are clearly missing entries. And some of our photographers are listed under their home addresses – if you are doing the economic history of photography do you want that?

So lets see here a map I did earlier… of 1890 and 1857 – and that actually represents the artisan level based on this data – we see that the photographers did indeed leave Newington. But I entered this stuff line by line and that takes a lot of time. You can see the sorts of huge gains to be made by crowdsourcing here. So I think this is an enormously interesting project and there are huge gains to be made here, especially compared to those punch cards I showed earlier. But there are enormous problems and risks here so we need context, we need ways of dealing with complexity and we need ways of thinking about data structure. There is also an issue that you are getting a huge amount of information here and we have to think about ways to processing and analysing huge amounts of data like this. There is so much data here that we need to devise ways of presenting and analysing this.

I think this is a ship which has a great future, but it’s not quite yet ready for sea… but I do hope it will be!”

Stuart Macdonald (AddressingHistory Project Manager, EDINA) & Nicola Osborne (AddressingHistory Project Officer & Social Media Officer, EDINA): AddressingHistory presentation and launch

Stuart MacDonald speaks about the project just before it is launched live.

Stuart MacDonald speaks about the project just before it is launched live.

Nicola Osborne of the AddressingHistory project team explains how the project has been using social media.

Nicola Osborne of the AddressingHistory project team explains how the project has been using social media.

Your brave blogger was up on stage at this point in proceedings but the presentations and videos of the event will fill you in on what was said. Stuart spoke about the AddressingHistory project, Nicola spoke about social media and community engagement throughout the project and then Stuart officially launched AddressingHistory!

Professor Richard Rodger, Professor of Economic and Social History and Stuart Nichol, University of Edinburgh: Visualising Urban Geography

Richard Rodger is a professor of economic and social history at Edinburgh University. He has published widely on the economic, social and urban history of Britain since 1800. Recently Richard returned to Edinburgh after a number of years as professor of urban history at Leicester University, since when he has collaborated with Bob Morris and Chris Fleet on several projects relating to mapping the landscape, environment and history of Edinburgh and Scotland.

But it is really the partnership with Stuart Nichol that has proved most productive. Stuart has been a key member of projects funded by the AHRC, HE Academy and the University and hard work and e-learning skills have provided new tools for historical analysis, which Richard and Stuart will present now.

Richard Rodger and Stuart Nichol beginning their presentation on the Visualising Urban Geographies project.

Richard Rodger and Stuart Nichol beginning their presentation on the Visualising Urban Geographies project.

“One thing that I want to start off by saying is to welcome the addition that AddressingHistory makes the history of Edinburgh. It’s a genuinely public history or community history project. A lot of the history that takes place in academic institutions doesn’t leave those walls and I think this collaboration between communities will be hugely fruitful and I want that to be

Location is crucial to identity – even today we are asked for a bill with our address on to confirm who we are. AddressingHistory, in the best sense, really will enhance our historical understanding.

As Chris said we have been doing some work which connects in to this project is Visualising Urban Geographies. It is anti GIS. We don’t want to put barriers in front of students so that they are confronted with a huge learning curve to using spatial data. And so we have been looking for easy ways for users to develop maps. In my own classes I’ve been able to get students who’ve never been able to do these things before from a list to a map in 20 minutes. They look up data, we put that into the system and we map the data and we share the different professions either all together and separately.

I’ve been involved in directories in England for years and the approach there was to go county by country and get a series of directories from each of these. AddressingHistory takes us into a new era with digitising data and promises many possibilities. At this point we should look at the wealth of digitised town maps that the National Library of Scotland have made available. Some of you may use these every day, for some of you they may be new. So we thought we’d highlight the maps digitised and geo-referenced by the NLS but there are other ways in which the tools and techniques could be reused.

The idea here is that you can take data from any different source. For many of us we can make a list of the 50 or 100 addresses we are interested in and then make a map of pretty much anything else we want. In VUG we are taking nominal data and relating it to other data of the period. It is very hard to take data of a particular time without looking at a historical map. I ask my students what distribution they might expect – current knowledge is of the developed modern city so one needs to look at how the map looks at the time of the data and how the city had developed at this time.

Stuart is now demonstrating a search for bakers in 1865 from AddressingHistory and placing them on the map. If you have a lot of spots on the map like this you can get a sense of the clustering and concentrations that take place. We may not have a publishable piece of work but we have something valuable to explore. So by seeing the locations of bakers we can get a sense of the ways in which rental agreements worked for these buildings for instance. So here is the example of how AddressingHistory works – we can switch between maps since the addresses are geo-referenced, we can compare it to data from a different period.

Richard Rodger shows the distribution of legal practitioners using one of the VUG tools.

Richard Rodger shows the distribution of legal practitioners using one of the VUG tools.

Lets try something different using address data but not through the AddressingHistory API. We are looking at 1861 and 1911. This is a list of data (from Excel) and we find the geo-reference from the address. There are about 150 observations in this which is a spatial distribution of solicitors and advocates at two points in time. There is little change to the location of advocates but there is a significant change to the locations of solicitors. I don’t know what is going on for sure but I suspect that the elite addresses have become less desirable and more affordable. And I also think solicitors move from single general practitioners to practices with multiple solicitors covering various specialities. My assumptions may be wrong but using these visualisations in asking and answering these types of questions offers much.

Now with this new visualisation that Stuart has brought up we are looking at areas not just addresses. One area I have been working in is the colonies. It’s very obvious why they were called that when we look on a map – they are colonies scattered across the city and located in greenfield spaces. Where are the growing trends here? We are using polygons to show data on particular colonies – such as the employment rates and types in households in various areas. It’s just a different way to represent that data. Some people, like me, think spatially, and others don’t – this is just a new way to understand and explore the data. You can also construct bar charts of professions in a given area.

And we have another tool here – that allows us to measure the distance of a particular route of, say, a developer of the colonies who is travelling around on foot collecting rent. Looking at his route there are substantial distances involved so he eventually requested a pony and trap! The serious point is that we can test ideas and measure distance and areas of ownership and scale of space. As someone who has calculated the area of polygons before by hand this is brilliant – it’s wonderful to be able to get a sense of land use in this way and this is one of the tools we are developing within the project.

Finally we are working hard to develop an idea of the boundaries of Edinburgh and working on having them expressed as such. When we have information in the census and other sources we have information by ward or by registration district – the boundaries involved are very important. For instance we can look at the male to female ratio in 1861 – one area has a level balance of genders but much of the city has more women than men. These are represented with 3D colourful polygons. By working on these boundaries we have containers – and this is where the crowdsourcing comes in for us! – where local historians can come in and input their data on sanitary districts say. This business of developing the boundaries of the 18th and 19th centuries is immensely complicated – for instance a Google Earth visualisation of 3D boundaries in the city. [Your blogger confirms that Richard and Stuart did show a dizzyingly complex array of overlapping 3D boundary lines here]

This builds on the type of work of AddressingHistory but also goes further to provide tools for further exploration and great utility for academic researchers.

VUG has been working with Edinburgh data but the tools could be used for other places as well. We have a workshop on 6th December and that will include a hands-on demo with much more information so do sign up for that if we’ve piqued your interest here.”

Statistical Accounts of Scotland – Dr Helen Chisholm (EDINA)

Helen is the User Support Manager at the EDINA National Data Centre at the University of Edinburgh and she works with the Editorial Board in developing the Statistical Accounts of Scotland service.

“The Statistical Accounts of Scotland give a feeling for what it’s like to have lived in these parishes around the time of AddressingHistory. The accounts were first instigated by Sir John Sinclair – also known as “Agricultural Sir John”. The First Accounts form twenty-one volumes that were published in 1799 and they were an account of “the quantum of happiness” of the communities of Scotland – I heard something on the radio about something similar this morning so Sir John was very ahead of his time!

The Accounts were an edited account of the parishes based on returned responses from 938 parish ministers. Some166 questions went out to ministers covering climate, agriculture, fishing and wildlife, schooling, health, wealth, poverty… a huge range of subjects were covered. Looking at the questions they are not only thorough but also include some catch-all questions for anything else that might have been missed.

Helen Chisholm talking about the Statistical Accounts of Scotland at the AddressingHistory Launch Event.

Helen Chisholm talking about the Statistical Accounts of Scotland at the AddressingHistory Launch Event.

This was a huge and revolutionary view of life and at a revolutionary time in history since the accounts are timed such that they record life just before and during/just after the industrial revolution and the huge changes that accompanied this.

In the 1990s we started digitisation led by the late Henry J. Heaney (former librarian of the University of Glasgow) with support from SCURL using volumes from the Universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow. This work to digitise 280,000 pages took place in 1998. And further work took place, funded by the Carnegie Trust, to create a transcription and a full text search. After four years of the site being launched the service was handed from the original Editorial Board for the project to EDINA and we now develop and run the service with the guidance of our current Editorial Board, chaired by Dr Ann Matheson.

I will now demonstrate the service by searching for Leith. In this search we are able to view the original scans, the full text, and the links to related gazetteers, and the URLs back to the appropriate account and to the specific page – we have been using the latter in our new tweets from the service (@statacc).

I also wanted to cover some of the highlights of the first accounts here to give a sense of day to day life. We read about shoes, industry, steam boats, etc. and the export of sheep:

At a fair in February an incredible quantity of hare skis is purchased – the number cannot be under 30,000 at a cost of 6ooo pounds.

We also have a very full description of a Cholera Outbreak that took place from 15th Sept to 27th Nov 1832. Two doctors in Dumfries died and a third came from Edinburgh and also died – the first two were missed (the third apparently not so much). Pits are dug for bodies and the bodies are buried in lime. The people think it is the air that is infected so when a thunderstorm eventually comes they think that it blows the Cholera away but with our modern knowledge we can see that it is likely to be the terrific downpour of rain cleaning out the water supplies. During this outbreak some 837 people had Cholera – around one in ten of the Dumfries population at this time.

In the Related Resources section of the Statistical Accounts online service we also have a number of resources that relate to the Accounts. You can also use the essays that set the Accounts in context from the home page of the service.

We also now have a Facebook Page and a Twitter account where Nicola and I have been sharing our very favourite stories and bits of information from the service.

If you are not a subscribed user you can view the full page scans but not search the full text of data. But we do now have personal subscriptions available on our subscriptions page.

When I first started work on the Statistical Accounts I found a painting by Sir David Wilkie age 19 and this is the image used on the flyer. This is the painting of the Pitlessie Fair and as it happens this is actually listed in the Account of 1834-45 of Fife:

Pitlessie Fair which was his first regular effort as an artist, is now in the possession of the proprietor in an adjoining parish, Charles Kinnear esq. of Kinloch. It is a fine picture, containing upwards of 150 figures graphically delineated and admirably grouped, including portraits of Wilkie himself, his father, his brothers and sisters, and many other characters well known in the parish and neighbourhood, during the painter’s earlier years.”