The Research Challenge of Online Sources

When I was a Master’s student, one of our courses was called ‘Research Challenge’. The premise was simple: in the morning, every Monday for a term, we were given a task – a personage to find out about, say, or a document to track down. At the end of the day we got together to talk about what we had done. The point wasn’t so much what you found as to make you think about how you went about researching. It was great fun. We scurried about the University Library feeling like Sherlock Holmes.

I was reminded of this recently when Dr Maria Fusaro, the Principle Investigator on the project I work for, found a fascinating copy of some ‘Leggi d’Inghilterra’ in an Italian document, and asked me to find the original. Of course, I dived in. So in this post I will look at what I did – all of it online – and what this says about me as a researcher, and about the kind of sources that are available on the internet.

First of all, I went to the English Short Title Catalogue, a free, searchable catalogue of historical books published in England or in English. I searched for relevant terms like ‘navigation’, ‘mariner’, and ‘seaman’. I had a hunch that the laws in question are somehow related to the Navigation Acts, so I thought I would see what had been published, as royal proclamations and acts of parliament tended to be printed. After picking out some possibilities, I hopped to Early English Books Online, a collection of digitised texts.

None of them were right, not even a 1671 publication including the Navigation Acts. I decided I needed to improve my method. I had been looking for a printed copy of the laws: I should be looking for the original laws themselves.

So I went to British History Online. This is a great collection of sources, local, central, government and personal. Still, it didn’t help. I went through the Statutes of the Realm, which contained some very interesting laws – such as this one, forbidding sailors to surrender their ships to pirates – but not my target. The Journals of the Houses of Lords and Commons were much the same. This is really curious: if it wasn’t passed by parliament, it isn’t actually law. So what are we dealing with here?

This is where I confess that I haven’t found the answer yet (suggestions welcome!), though that isn’t such a surprise after a relatively quick search. I am now looking through the Calendars of State Papers, also on British History Online.

But that isn’t the point of this post. Just like the Research Challenge module, I want to reflect on what this little snapshot reveals about my research and about the sources available to historians on the internet.

I – like, I suspect, many researchers – appear to be a creature of habit. I went to the places I know best where I can usually get a quick and easy answer. This is partly strategic, because very often the quick and easy answer is waiting for you. When it is not, though, it reminds you that you cannot rely upon the well-known and convenient research paths. If you do, you could be missing something important. One challenge of using online sources is not to become lazy.

Another, sometimes less obvious but more significant challenge is the kind of sources accessible. There are some wonderful websites (I am extremely grateful to be a scholar of the digital age) but they are limited and they have certain tendencies. Printed sources are common, while manuscripts tend to be available in copies of published editions (such as the Journals and Calendars at British History), not the manuscripts themselves. These are usually government records. The wealth of private papers and non-governmental sources are not represented quite so well.

Just as important is the cost. For EEBO, and some parts of British History (and many other websites) you need a subscription. Fine if you are a student or academic whose university is paying, not so great if you are an independent scholar. Some resources, like State Papers Online – which breaks my earlier rule about original manuscripts – are rather expensive, and even universities subscribe only to parts. Frustratingly for seventeenth-century historians, this is often Part I: The Tudors.

This is even more striking when compared with European collections. The wonderful resources of Gallica at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, or the Digitale Bibliotheek voor de Nederlandse Letteren at the Koninklijke Bibliotheek, are open and free. The Burney collection of English newspapers from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and the British Newspaper Archive (from 1700 onwards) require a subscription or item purchases. At the Koninklijke Bibliotheek you can find and read ‘Historische Kranten’ without paying anything. To find out more about European collections, check out the European University Institute’s great page on primary sources.

Of course, this is not the whole picture. Websites like Old Bailey Online and London Lives are making available – for free – manuscript court records, the bread and butter of social historians like me, again correcting the print-manuscript balance (even if they are more focused on the eighteenth century). A similar ongoing project is Marine Lives. The British Library has begun to open up its treasures and both the British Museum and National Maritime Museum offer visual sources for free. The National Archives will provide digital copies of records for a very reasonable fee – and anything which brings money into archives is good!

Still, I can’t help but wonder why it seems that British collections are used more commercially than those elsewhere, and why this hasn’t featured much in the ongoing debate about Open Access in academia (for more about this, check out some of the letters published by the Royal Historical Society). Correct me if you think I am wrong. Offer an explanation if you agree. Or, if you have any suggestions for where to look for those pesky laws, let me know!


3 thoughts on “The Research Challenge of Online Sources

  1. I guess the answer is a fairly simple one, about the extent of public funding for digitisation projects. And if you get a commercial partner involved, they will need to make a profit, or get their money back as a minimum. But there is also a problem over the ethos of such publications. For example, British History Online claims a copyright over its digitised calendars of state papers. Surely none exists? It is a straightforward digitisation – letter for letter – of a work, so there is no fresh editorial content that they might protect (& if there was, the copyright would exist in that content and not in the work as a whole). The work they have digitised is itself out of copyright, if it is not crown copyright; if it is crown copyright (I have no copy at hand to check), then (as TNA website makes clear) the copyright is waived in return for a proper acknowledgment. And the Calendars deal with texts that are centuries old and owned by the public. And most of the BHO digitisation was done using tax-payers’ money.

  2. Glad to see you blogging, Richard! This is a great post for at least three reasons:

    1) It has reminded me about the ‘Research Challenge’ course. Sadly I’ve never had the chance to participate, neither as student nor teacher, and for that I’m very jealous. However, I have heard it mentioned before and remember thinking at the time that it sounded brilliant and exactly the sort of thing I’d like to do with my students. Now that you’ve reminded me, I might actually get around to putting that plan into action.

    2) I always enjoy reading about other people’s research strategies, which are so rarely revealed in formal publications. I suspect my approach to this particular challenge would follow a similar sort of path. Another site that I’ve recently taken to checking is which is probably not much help for this problem, but is often great for tracking down historical people or places.

    3) It gives me an excuse to do a bit of shameless promotion. This issue of digitisation, with all of its benefits and potential pitfalls, has come up repeatedly at ‘the many-headed monster’. Perhaps the three most relevant posts (and comments), in chronological order are …

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