Not knowing quite what to expect from an invitation to join a British History Online focus group, a gaggle of slightly trepidatious graduate library trainees arrived at the IHR on Tuesday afternoon armed with their laptops and were treated to a few hours of gentle mental exercise with one of the leading digital history resources.
We were introduced to the online resource which is run at the Institute of Historical Research by Bruce Tate, Project manager at British History Online, and Jonathan Blaney, its Project Editor. BHO is essentially a digital library which aims to provide primary and secondary sources for the history of the British Isles between the middle ages and c.1900. The team have, to date, digitised more than 1,000 sources and choose these sources based not only on their centrality to historical research, but also their interconnection. The resource also has a strong element of collaboration since users are able to annotate and correct the digitised sources, greatly enhancing their value to the history community. Notable BHO collections include the Journals of the Houses of Commons and Lords, as well as a huge amount of local history sources which draw from the IHR’s Centre for Metropolitan History and Victoria County History, to name but a few. They've even made some nifty online tutorials to help even the most technology averse historian along, which you can see here.
What’s really great about the resource though is the fact that on top of digitisation Bruce and Jonathan are also always looking to develop text analysis features designed to allow historians and researches to search and organise their findings in new and exciting ways. And it was in this area of text analysis features that we, enthusiastic knowledgeable and digitally literate (hmmm) early career librarians that we are, came in. Goodness help us.
In actual fact the features we tested were all manageable, intuitive, and interesting enough for us all to navigate easily and have an opinion on. So we started off with looking at ways the journals of the Lords and Commons could be searched and manipulated to give the user a quick colour coded visual representation of when and how frequently a searched-for topic (eg. Naval budget, war, cattle etc) was talked about in the Houses across a specified period of time. Elsewhere, we created social network diagrams which used the correspondences between individuals in the records to show how connected people in the houses were. Another great resource was BHO use of online maps to organise local history sources, something that can be played around with here
In addition to us trying out the resources and commenting on their usefulness as (broadly) cogent and (seemingly) intelligent young people, it was also a really interesting opportunity to be asked, as library professionals, to consider what other kind of interactive digital resources our respective library users value, or might value if only they had the opportunity. The energy behind the projects was infectious and certainly encouraged me to think about the role of today’s librarian as being - at least in part - a trainer or facilitator in these ways.
Thanks to Bruce and Jonathan for arranging such an interesting afternoon - and for keeping us happy with timeouts!