Further Musings on a Multimodal Analysis of Scissors-and-Paste Journalism (Part 2)

This is part 2 of a 4-part series. The full series can be seen here.

Uncovering how pre-telegraphic newspapers obtained and distributed news must be a collaborative effort. However diligent they may be, and from whatever backgrounds they may hail, individual researchers suffer from the same restraints that have plagued the acquisition of human knowledge for millennia: a lack of time, money and resource. Moreover, these three factors are particularly harmful to the mapping of reprint networks because of the interdisciplinary nature of such a pursuit.

Before the 1840s, and indeed long afterwards, the transmission of news relied upon its physical movement across oceans and along roads, rails and rivers. The distribution of information, held statically in written material as well as mutably in rumour and conversation, relied upon physical social interaction. Whether employed as a courier or undertaking a personal transfer, information could not move without two persons physically meeting—save semaphore or a message in a bottle. Thus, to map the dissemination pathways is to map a social network.

This is not a new concept, of course. The mapping of communication networks is at the core of social network theory. What makes the mapping of 18th and 19th century newspapers particularly problematic is the fact that, unlike modern sociologists or computer scientists, historians have little hope of obtaining a statistically significant sample of network interactions, or, tragically, even determining what a statistical significant sample would comprise.

Leaving aside for the moment the ever-daunting reality of forever-lost material, let us concentrate, for example, on the existing corpus of nineteenth-century British periodicals. What comprises a statistically significant sample? The British Library’s Nineteenth-Century Newspaper Collection could, perhaps, be considered one. Careful consideration of regional, temporal and thematic breadth was undertaken when titles and date-ranges were selected for digitisation. Would mapping the dissemination pathways within this single corpus provide a representative sample?

That, of course, is not the right question. The correct question is ‘how do we map the dissemination pathways of this corpus in the first place?’

Discovering the secret history of a piece of text relies upon corroboration. No one method will suffice because we have no way of determining the repeatable accuracy of any particular methodology. Instead, we have to build up confidences; how likely is it that this scrap of text was obtained in this particular way at this particular time? Which clues have been left behind?

The Dateline – This tiny strip of text, a date and location indented at the start of an article, is our first clue. This snippet does not detail the time and location of the event described, as we would assume from modern journalistic practice. Instead, the dateline provides the writer’s source. A piece on the French capital might have the dateline “Paris”, but was just as likely to say Le Havre, Amsterdam or London, as it indicated the location of the newspaper’s informant, a source who may have only obtained the news second or third-hand themselves. Thus, you might be tempted to draw a connection, and edge, between a newspaper from Leeds or Edinburgh to one of these mighty ports and onward to the city of interest—but you would be treading on dangerous ground.  Like any other word or phrase of a reprint, the dateline could be nothing more than a copy. Although a London daily might have a direct connection to Vienna, from whom it received Austrian updates, nothing demanded a Glaswegian editor change “Vienna” to “London” when the news was reprinted. Indeed, this would have been seen as lessening the authority of the information.  So, while the dateline indicates a node on the map, the connection remains obscure.

The Section – As with the dateline, the source of the information can be gleaned from the heading above it. Those labelled London or France usually indicated that the material had arrived via post or courier from that location; yet others, such as New South Wales or West Indies might indicate origin, but might also only indicate the topic. Nonetheless, mapping the frequency of these sections across an entire run does add a layer of confidence that a particular newspaper did have some connection with these locations.

The Attribution – This beautiful rarity, laying majestically at the top or bottom of a text, declares boldly the source of the content.  Despite the frustrating prevalence of A London Paper—or worse, An Evening Paper—these direct attributions offer the clearest and most unequivocal evidence of the path the news took. Yet, like the dateline, it at best proves only a node, not the previous node. At worst, it is a misattribution, leading the poor researcher down a blind alley.

The Reference – A bit more subtle than the attribution, the reference is a meandering nod to the source (at least, to the source of the writer of a particular text). ‘We find in the Examiner’ perhaps, or ‘An examination of the London dailies shows’. Provisos and prejudices still apply.

The Chronological Consistency – Explicit identifiers are helpful, but are fraught with dangers. Perhaps the most reliable way to track the spread of news is to seek out consistent copies and order them chronologically.  If an identical piece appears first in the Morning Chronicle, and then the Scotsman and then the Berwick Advertiser, with sufficient time separating them to account for movement, it is perfectly logically to assume it took just that path. The chronological consistency model, however, does not account for splits and splinters. How are we to know, for example, that the Advertiser copied from the Scotsman and not the Chronicle directly?

The Change – Splits and splinters are better accounted for by changes and, in particular, errors: An omission or addition of an adjective; The misspelling of a key name; The reordering of the text. Any change, great or small, lends a clue to the evolutionary branching of a given news item.

The Exchange  But perhaps the best clues are not in the text at all. Business records and personal correspondence between newspapers can provide crucial information. Many newspapers maintained subscriptions, formal or informal, to other newspapers. These were sometimes even declared in the first issue of a new regional title. Victorian newspapers, especially, maintained independent exchange editors, who duty it was to scour incoming publications for the best and most tantalising snippets. If a formal exchange between papers existed, it adds another layer of confidence that a particular pathway is correct.

The Family – Newspapers (and their editors) bred. Regional and colonial printers were often the former journeyman of older, more established papers, and children and siblings often joined in the family business. These young men or women often maintained friendly if not symbiotic relationships with their former employers and guardians. The uncreatively named Sydney Herald, for one, was very helpful in supplying Antipodean news to its Glaswegian namesake. With a bit of genealogical elbow-grease, we add another layer.

And finally…

The Well-Worn Path – Once these layers are built up, once we know the postal roads and sea-routes best travelled, or the pages to which the editor’s shears most naturally move, we can see the paths of least resistance. An 1810 snippet on the Swan River settlement with no date, no location, no section, no attribution, not even a passing mention of its meandering path, might still find a place in network. If, before 1815, every identifiable bit of Australian news that appeared in Caledonian Mercury came from the Morning Chronicle. Why not this one too?

With these manifold layers in mind, how best do we approach our statistically significant sample? That, dear reader, is a tale for another day.

Image Courtesy of Marcin Wichary

Musings on a Multimodal Analysis of Scissors-and-Paste Journalism

The concept of scissors-and-paste journalism is not a new. Indeed, the practice of obtaining, selecting and faithfully reproducing news content (without attributing its original author) dates to before the advent of what we would now call the newspaper and into the years of the handwritten newsletter. That historians have not, until very recently, explored the specific nature and nuance of these reprinting practices is simple pragmatism. Whether they are attempting to uncover the dissemination pathway of single article, or to understand the exchange practices of a particular newspaper title, the task is a daunting one.

In order to achieve one-hundred-percent confidence in any given dissemination map, a historian would need to have read every newspaper ever printed, along with the personal papers of every newspaper editor, compiler and printer that has ever lived, and, for good measure, they would need to develop robust methods for examining the conversations that had taken place in every coffee house, tavern and postal exchange across the breadth of the world and throughout the entirety of time.

This, of course, is probably too much to ask of any historian, even a very diligent one.

Although we may never achieve one-hundred-percent confidence, recent developments have made achieving a reasonable degree of certainty more likely. The ongoing digitisation of historical newspapers has made it possible to obtain regular access to a larger percentage of possible reprints. Of even greater assistance are the efforts of certain digitisation projects to provide users with direct access to the machine-readable transcriptions of  these digitised images. These texts, obtained through optical-character recognition software (such as that employed by Chronicling America) or manual transcription and OCR-correction (such as that championed by Trove) lay hidden behind most searchable databases, but only a select few providers have thus far made them accessible, indeed mine-able, by the general public. Yet, even when they remain hidden, and even if their quality remains highly variable, their existence has revolutionised research into dissemination pathways and provided the intrepid reprint hunter with two novel modes of inquiry.

The first is for the historian to select a set of articles for which there is good reason to believe a reprint exists, or for which he or she has already identified a number of reprints in the past. Having identified an appropriate text, the historian can then search for a selection of keyword phrases, or nGrams, in the relevant newspaper databases in order to obtain a reasonable number of hits.

This method of reprint analysis is hampered by many limitations. At best, the historian has a limited idea of where reprints, or indeed the original version, of any given text may appear. The proven commercial viability of newspaper digitisation, for genealogical and historical research,  as well as the efforts of public or part-public projects, has led to an ever-growing number of online repositories. For any dissemination map to be considered robust, each of these must be searched with a consistent list of keyword strings, representing different portions of the article.

More importantly, mechanical limitations, such as variances in search interfaces or the quality of machine-readable transcriptions, often obscure the true reach of a given text. Even if a legitimate version of article does exist within the database, these variances means that there is no guarantee the researcher will ever find it without manually examining each individual page.

Finally, even supposing the historian is able to identify all versions of a given text within all current newspaper databases, this still represents only a tiny percentage of all possible prints. As with any preservation project, the costs associated with digitisation have led to the subjective selection of popular, representative or historically important titles from an already reduced catalogue of surviving hard-copy newspapers. Likewise, even if a newspaper has been selected for preservation, multiple editions and non-surviving issues mean that true certainty will always remain elusive, even with manual examination.

Another method for determining reprints is to retrieve machine-readable transcriptions en masse and analyse them for duplicated phrases or word groupings, a method currently employed by the Viral Texts project. This methodology has significant advantages over manual search-and-inspection research. First, the historian no longer needs to make an initial identification of an article for which there are likely reprints; instead, all articles can be compared with all other articles, highlighting new and perhaps wholly unexpected ‘viral texts’. Second, by using a computer processor, rather than the eyes and mind of a single historian, the time spent in research is vastly reduced, perhaps transforming a lifetime of work into a few dozen hours.

There are, of course, also disadvantages. Although seemingly more efficient than using a database’s propitiatory search interface, this method requires full access to the raw OCR data, something provided by only a minority of databases. It also required a highly specialised procedure for cleaning that data to a level at which no reprints will be excluded—a procedure, moreover, which must be refined to accommodate a range of dialects, typefaces and discourses. Finally, and worryingly, complete reliance on computer matching means that significant OCR errors, those that cannot be overcome through pre-designed replacement protocols, will forever obscure some reprints.

The irretrievability of a certain percentage of reprints is not, of course, a primary concern of the Viral Text project, whose aim is to examine which ‘qualities—both textual and thematic—helped particular news stories, short fiction, and poetry “go viral” in nineteenth-century newspapers and magazines.’ For others, such as myself, who are primarily concerned with the path these texts took, and the practical mechanisms associated with their transmission, we are seemingly left with the unsatisfying conclusion that no true map of the dissemination networks can ever be devised.

Yet, all hope is not lost.

In my next two posts, I will set forth what I believe can be the foundation of robust, high-confidence dissemination pathway mapping: a multimodal research methodology—combining the advantages of manual and digital analysis—and the development of specific digital tools for determining directionality in historical newspaper reprints.

**Image courtesy of  Ram Karthik

Confessions of a Tablet Addict; or, Why I Am Returning to Pen and Paper (Mostly)

When I purchased my tablet computer last year, I knew that it would change the way I worked.

I expected that having immediate, portable access to EvernoteSpiderOakZotero and iAnnotate would make me a more efficient researcher and lecturer.

  • No longer would my right shoulder ache from lugging my laptop computer around; my tablet and Bluetooth keyboard fit easily and discretely into my medium sized bag.
  • No longer would I tell my students that I would email them key references after class; I could locate and send it to them as they stood beside me.
  • No longer would I need to choose between electronic submission and handwritten annotation; I could easily mark essays or review colleague’s articles on the train to work with my stylus.
  • I had Remember the Milk installed for task management and easy access to my calendar and email.
  • I had task timers to make sure I worked efficiently.
  • I could even track my food and exercise, to prevent the ill effects of a research (read: sedentary) lifestyle.
  • Most importantly, rather than take handwritten notes at seminar papers or conferences, I could type notes directly into Evernote for later use.

This was the moment, I thought, that I would finally transition into the superbly organised academic I always wished I could be.

I could not have been more wrong.

In some respects, having a tablet has made me a more effective, organised individual. I am able to mark essays and read electronic articles during my commute, on my couch and in my back garden without printing them off or stretching my power cable through the kitchen window. I am also able to quickly bring up notes, drafts and other files at meetings or during tutorial sessions. My grand schemes for a seamless workflow, however, have fallen far short of expectations.

This is not, necessarily a technological failing. With the exception of being able to easily dock two independent windows (such as Evernote and Word) on a single screen, my tablet and applications generally provide the services advertised. Instead, I have overestimated my own ability to stick to the regimes necessary to achieve these lofty goals.

  • I often forgot my Bluetooth keyboard, or decided to do non-keyboard tasks “for now”
  • My Zotero database, while fully accessible, remains far from organised, and thus relatively useless in time-sensitive situations
  • I rarely remembered to mark my tasks as completed or reference the list regularly. I read my emails, but, unfortunately, did so to the point of obsessive compulsion
  • I timed my work habits but often felt depressed at ‘how little’ I actually worked once mid-morning chats, comfort breaks, and ‘quick’ trips to the shop were removed**
  • Tracking my exercise was automatic (thanks to FitBit) but facing up to my unhealthy canteen lunches was another story
  • Finally, on those rare occasions when I took effective notes at conference, I have not read or referenced them since

Most importantly, I found that my easy access to all my data was eroding what meager powers of memory I had left. The names of the articles I had read, and the authors who had written them, were never entered into my long-term memory. Nor were the reams of evidence from papers I had attended or books I had read. Tasks, once entered into my tablet, became an unobtrusive (1) in the corner of my screen, never to be thought of again. In short, my tablet was making me a very poor academic.

So, this autumn I decided to make a change. Rather than create a digital workflow, I would reintegrate paper into my life. I had tried paper to-do lists and project notebooks in the past, but they often became lost or jumbled. This time, I turned my attention to a short article on Lifehacker: The Bullet Journal. The concept, described in detail here, is simple enough. One book to rule your life, with good old pen and paper. All your tasks, events, contacts and notes go in one place, annotated with a variety of bullet point styles, and, like commonplace books of old, you can index your entries for easy reference.

After four months (and three pocket notebooks later), I am fully convinced of the power of paper, over my own mind at least. I have not abandoned my tablet (as my colleagues will surely attest) but I have integrated it into my life in a wholly new way.  With the exception of marking essays and tweeting, the tablet is now a reference device only. I do not input into my tablet.

Instead, I carry my journal with me at all times, noting down every stray work-related thought, every task I am given, every contact I should know, every interesting reference I should follow up. At the end of the day, I type up all my notes, carefully, into Evernote, my digital commonplace book. I migrate all of my uncompleted tasks into either my master to-do list (at the end of the journal) or to the start of tomorrow’s entry. I then migrate any relevant tasks from my master to-do list to tomorrow’s entry as well. Finally, I write out any appointments I have planned for tomorrow. Shutting the book, I rest for the evening, making sure to keep away from the perpetual glow of my tablet’s screen.

The result? First, while seemingly inefficient, the double (triple, even quadruple) writing out of my tasks lodges them within my long-term memory. Any task that is left unfinished several days in a row becomes a priority, if only to save myself the hassle of writing it out once again. Second, my recall memory of names, dates and events (from my own life) has vastly improved. I have long known that I learn best through spatial positioning. I may not remember the name of a book, but I can remember the exact colour of the cover, where it resides on a given library shelf, and the approximate spot on the page where my fact can be found. By writing out my notes and data, I gain a much stronger visual memory of the content, including the approximate day on which it was written from its position within the notebook. Moreover, by retyping my notes at night, I am practicing the knowledge, shifting it from my short-term and into my long-term memory.

Finally, and this is only a recent development, I have started writing in an unlined notebook, which I photograph directly into Evernote. Why do I do this when I also retype my notes? Because if I can get Evernote OCR to understand my handwriting, I will have finally achieved the consistent penmanship I so envy in the Georgian men and women I study.

*Image Courtesy of Mike Licht, NotionsCapital.com

**My average work day, all breaks and digressions excluded, for this January (no teaching) was about 5 hours a day, seven days a week.

Cargoes of Women: Ill-Repute

This is part four of ‘Cargoes of Women’.
For part one, please click here. For part two, please click here. For part three, please click here.

Georgian Britain suffered from a surplus women problem. With each passing census, its inhabitants grew increasingly concerned about the poor distribution of the fairer sex within their empire and proposed a number of methods for a more equitable distribution. Yet, however tempting it may be to describe it so, the relationship between colonial demand and metropolitan supply was not a simple numbers game.

Although these women were almost universally stripped of personality, of identity, there were aspects of their character that remained. Despite robust encouragement for the emigration of eligible maids, some contributors to the Scottish press made a clear differentiation between women and wives.

In the early nineteenth century, this dichotomy existed primarily in Britain’s antipodean colonies, namely New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land. In the 1820s and 30s, their demand for female companionship had prompted a number of government emigration schemes, including the provision of free passage to unmarried ladies and the offering of an £8 bounty to the head of their family—their father, brother or employer&mash;or to the captain of the ship that took them thither. These bounties were surely a powerful incentive for men to escort their daughters or unmarried sisters around the Cape, but prospective grooms were clearly not as satisfied with the scheme.

In 1829, a Tasmanian correspondent noted mournfully that free female servants, a sought-after replacement for untrustworthy convict labour, were ‘scarcely to be had’ in the colony. More than a mere labour shortage, this paucity of young, reputable working-class women meant that ‘Mechanics and tradesmen cannot get females of this description for wives, and mostly all of them remain unmarried in consequence.’ It is here that the correspondent makes his opinion of the bounty-scheme clear. Although the raw number of unmarried women entering the colony had increased in recent years, ‘those who get free passages are not the caste’ for marriage.

The notion that government was shovelling out the prostitutes, as well as the paupers, was deeply ingrained in the British conception of single-female migration, both historically and in literature. In the seventeenth century, Virginia, suffering from a similar paucity of eligible maids, had received significant numbers of female convicts—many of whom had a history of prostitution—to serve as companions and wives. Despite their questionable past, redemption of these so-called fallen women was a documented reality, leading in part to Virginia’s ‘widowocracy’ and inspiring Defoe in his creation of Moll Flanders. Thus, the idea that female migrants were women of ill-repute became a trope of colonial settlement

More importantly, despite the apparent social mobility of female convicts within North American colonies, the idea of contamination haunted efforts to transport free and convict women to Australia. According to Tait’s Magazine,

female convicts are, with hardly a single exception, the most drunken and abandoned prostitutes; and so great is the dread of contamination to the children from such wretches, that it is usual to employ men in the performance of duties fulfilled by women in this country, and to dispense with servants altogether as much as possible.

Even free servants were suspected of depravity, the bounty system having seemingly led to questionable recruitment practices. Although advertisements for respectable, hard-working women were issued, if ‘a sufficient number of these to fill the ship does not come forward, a supply of sweepings is taken from a workhouse! Here, then, is such a mixture of good, bad, and indifferent, to the amount of two hundred and upwards, that there is enough of evil to corrupt the good.’ Indeed, even reputable women, left unprotected on their journey or upon arrival in Tasmania, had ‘been irrevocably consigned to prostitution, and that such as obtained services found themselves placed among a very different class of persons to that which they had been accustomed to mix with in this country.’

What we must take away from this dichotomy of demands is that, as ludicrous as the gender imbalance had become, as ravenous as settlements were for female companionship, they still had standards, and would not simply accept what they felt was the refuse of England’s workhouses.

In response to these fears, discussions of female migration, especially that of young servants and eligible maids, began to describe in detail the particular care that should or would be taken in their reallocation. In 1836, the Emigration Committee stated that they could no longer ‘conscientiously recommend to the Government to encourage the further emigration of single females, however well selected, unprotected by parents or near relatives, to Sydney.’ Likewise, it was the advice of experienced travellers that

should you bring a servant girl with you, you should have her in the same berth with yourselves […] to take a steerage passage for their female servant, is just using her as bad as they possibly can do–let her character be never so good before she left home, it would be a wonder if she reached N. S. Wales much better than a common prostitute, at any rate she could never prevent language of the most filthy and disgusting kind being addressed to her both by night and day.

When family could not provide the necessary protection, it fell to the colonial companies to ensure their cargoes reaches the antipodes unspoilt. Women travelling to New Zealand in 1841, for example, were said to be ‘under the superintendence of a matron, and there is a doctor on board to attend upon them during their long voyage to the new colony’ and protect them from disreputable influences. Maids, it appears, were a delicate commodity, in need particular care in their transport.

Although the debate surrounding their character seemingly re-humanises these cargoes of women, the continuing lack of specific detail, of names and histories, of dates and trajectories, seems to return them firmly to the realm of trade goods; in every cargo, after all, some hogsheads must needs be tipped overboard to save the rest. This point was, indeed, rather cruelly made by the Sydney Gazette of 17 January 1818:

On Tuesday arrived the ship Friendship, Captain Armet, with 97 female prisoners, having lost four on the passage, Anna Beal, Sarah Blower, Martha Thatcher, and Jane Brown, the last of whom, from a sudden irritability of temper, threw herself overboard, and was drowned.

In some strange foreshadowing of Project Mayhem, it was only in death that these women had a name.

To be concluded next week with ‘Cargoes of Women: From Marriage Ships to Women’s Rights


Questions to explore…can you help?

  • To what extent are single-women migrants in literature represented as fallen women—redeemed or otherwise?
  • How often did the charge of prostitution actually lead to the migration of single-women?
  • How common was redemption and conjugal acceptance for women of dubious reputation in the Antipodes?

If you have any thoughts or comments on this developing research, please share them below, via twitter or email.


**Image courtesy of William Hogarth (via Wikipedia)

Cargoes of Women: A Numbers Game

This is part three of ‘Cargoes of Women’. For part one, please click here. For part two, please click here.

At the heart of the Victorian surplus-women-problem debate was the 1851 British census. In this mighty document lay the seemingly irrefutable proof that Britain was plagued with an over-abundance of women. The reason for this sudden realisation, according to scholars such as Worsnop, was that this demographic survey was the first to publish figures on the ‘age, sex, and “conjugal condition” of the population.’ By recording the precise number of unmarried maids residing in the Britain, the nation finally understood the true nature of its gender imbalance, and a fierce, often inflammatory, debate ensued.

While this was, indeed, the first national census to record the kingdom’s vital statistics in such detail, it was not the first enumeration to provoke debate on gender ratios; the reallocation of women was often discussed by the late-Georgian press. Yet, as discussions of single-female migration were often stripped of any significant personal details, these life-altering changes were more or less reduced to simple statistical statements.

This does not, however, divest them of their cultural value. Despite their shallow nature, demographic details and census schedules were staples of the Scottish newspapers and were surprisingly fertile ground for satirical displays of mathematical prowess. Throughout the period, accounts of extraordinary longevity (and fecundity) were often reported for the amazement, or amusement, of newspaper readers. For example:

A very industrious man, who works at Messrs. Hare and Son’s floor-cloth manufactory, Bristol, was married Jan. 20, 1801, to Hannah Taylor, by whom he has had fourteen children in little more than six years with a speedy prospect of a farther increase to his family. The children consist of three boys, born Oct. 1, 1801; two boys, Oct. 3, 1802; one boy and a girl, July 16, 1803; two boys, May 13, 1804; one boy and a girl, Feb. 19, 1805; one boy and a girl, Jan. 15, 1806; one boy, Nov. 16, 1807.

It was in the same semi-astonished toned that urban sex ratios were pondered by the editors of Britain’s provincial press. In 1831, the editor of the Scotsman, who seems to have taken a particular interest in Britain’s feminine surplus, reprinted the abominable sex ratio of the borough of Liverpool, along with the original remarks of the English commentator:

The comfort and the happiness of the males are, doubtless, greatly increased by the overplus of the softer sex; but, when we view that overplus in its effects on the comfort and the happiness of the ladies themselves, we are filled with alarm for our fair friends. “‘This true, and, pity ’tis ’tis true.” That they cannot all get husbands, unless the men, some of whom deem one wife more than enough for one man, should be compelled to support the surplus female population.

Rather than suggest the exportation of Liverpudlian ladies, however, the Albion saw the solution in ‘an immigration of males’, though from where it does not state. Thus, the idea of a sex imbalance is well ingrained in the public sphere by the 1830s, but the Georgian response is not the same as the Victorian. Rather than a fierce battle in a political or ideological war, it is viewed as merely an unfortunate demographic misalignment and thus proves ripe for light-hearted satirical comment.

The idea of a feminine surplus at home, of course, was not wholly uncontested. Victorianists have convincingly demonstrated that their surplus referred specifically to unmarried, unemployed and seemingly overeducated women of the middle class, who contributed nothing to the home economy and were equally burdensome to the colonies. Conversely, notices in the late-Georgian press toyed with the notion that the colonists were attempting to steal the best Britain had to offer. Liverpool, despite it documented imbalance, was reluctant for its ‘softer sex’ to depart and the same was evidently true further south. One account, almost certainly apocryphal, recounted the whirlwind marriage of James Stubbs, a young mariner, to Charlotte Savage, his shipmate’s sister.

The young woman had recently departed for Australia, in search of a husband, when the young sailor, recently arrived from China, met up with her parents in Portsmouth. The mariner, upon hearing of Charlotte’s impending voyage, declared ‘that she shouldn’t go there for a husband; he would have her himself.’ The three then set off for Bristol and, despite finding her already ‘in the roads’, managed to board the emigrant ship, arrange the marriage with the young lady and depart for Rownham Ferry. The next morning they were ‘married (by license) to the satisfaction of all concerned, little more than twelve hours after the parties had first seen each other.’ Unlike accounts of actual emigration, Miss Savage’s marriage is conspicuously detailed, making it much more akin to the corpus of domestic anecdotes, such as our Bristol cloth-maker, than semi-serious commentaries on emigration to the Antipodes.

The latter are only semi-serious owing to the indulgent flourishes of the Scottish editors included, seemingly to pad out otherwise slim statistical data. For example, in 1837, the Scotsman related a census report from Sydney, noting that while the current generation of Australian men quite outnumbered their female counterparts, there was ‘comfort for the rising generation; of free males under twelve years of age, there are 7164—of free females, 7007—so that, with few exceptions, every Jack may have his Jill.’ This optimism was evidently short lived as by 1843 the same editor offered, under the impressive heading of ‘IMPORTANT TO UNMARRIED LADIES’, the following calculation:

Suppose the whole population of Australia were now grown up and wished to be married, out of every hundred bachelors only forty-nine could find wives. Supposing all the unmarried males now of age wished to be married, out of every hundred only eleven could find wives. Supposing all the free bachelors now in the colony wished to be married, out of every hundred only eight could find wives. As there are at present in Australia 66,366 unmarried males, and only 26,007 unmarried females, it follows that before every son of Adam could be provided with a daughter of Eve there must be introduced into the colony no fewer than 40,359 unmarried daughters!

These computational feats are notable for their relative paucity in the migration debate. Although significant numbers of men and families departed Scotland for North America and the Antipodes before 1840, and statistics of their departure were a frequent addition to local and metropolitan papers, it was only single-female migration that prompted these flights of numerical fancy. No such hypotheses were posited when discussing the proportion of free to convict labour in New South Wales, nor were there statistical debates of religious diversity in the Canadas. The semi-satirical treatment of these statistics was wholly unique.

Thus, the Georgian surplus women’s problem was not an ideological battle over employment rights or marital duties. In the end, it seemed to be nothing more than a simple numbers game.

To be continued next week with ‘Cargoes of Women: Ill-Repute’


Questions to explore…can you help?

  • Where do similarly light-hearted statistics appear in other debates within the periodical press?
  • Are the references to ‘Jack and Jill’ and ‘Adam and Eve’ allusions to the language of ongoing debates or merely standard gender archetypes?
  • Many of these pieces refer to ‘the recent census’ but do not align chronologically to any national enumeration. Were there local Scottish or English censuses that would have been common knowledge to the readers?

If you have any thoughts or comments on this developing research, please share them below, via twitter or email.


**Image courtesy of Citizensheep, provided CC-BY-NC-SA

Cargoes of Women: The Maids

This is part two of ‘Cargoes of Women’. For part one, please click here.

Scottish editors were a cheeky lot. Although I do my best, I cannot possibly begin to share the dozens of sweet, saucy and utterly bizarre notices they placed in their papers. Although most topics were considered fair game, the comedic tragedy of marriage had a perennial place in its pages. Thus, descriptions of female migration focused particularly–and unsurprisingly–upon the idea of the ravenous husband-hunter.

In the Victorian era, those undertaking marital migration were not always treated kindly. Lisa Chilton, for example, notes the outright derision with which the English press spoke of mid-century efforts to settle unmarried women abroad. Julia Bush likewise suggests that many female emigration societies had to robustly defend their organisations by stating their focus was female employment, not colonial marriages (even if they admitted privately that this was often the result).

In late-Georgian Scotland, the situation was quite the reverse. Economic and marital bliss were seen as wholly symbiotic pursuits. Newspaper commentators believed any migrating servant would rapidly procure a suitable husband and, indeed, this quick transformation from maid to matron was considered a key selling point. Rather than disparage unmarried migrants, editors made every effort to encourage marital cruises abroad.

Although marital migration had a long and glorious history by the 1780s, the possibility of success, and the tone of Georgian commentary, relied completely on economic state of the settlement society. As this was clearly beyond the control of the prospective brides, early newspapers reports demonstrated considerable pity towards the unsuccessful. One such piece was a letter written in Calcutta and appearing in Glasgow Advertiser in January 1790. The author lamented that ‘my unhappy country women, who are every season transported to this horrid clime […] have not a chance of a husband.’ According to the correspondent, the machinations of the Governor-General had left the local economy very much depressed and had ‘rendered it difficult for the young ones to support themselves, without the expence of a wife; therefore the most successful must be content with an old dotard or return home much worse that they came.’

This brief notice highlights two key points. First, the matching of young British women to young British settlers was not, in the eighteenth century, an ignominious pursuit, as it would become in the Victorian era. Second, like its Victorian successors, this letter is highly critical of the unthinking exporters of the young girls, chastising the East India Company for failing to ‘check these unnatural parents, in this bartering the beauties of their children’. Thus, readers are left with the impression that the notion of redistributing women is a sound one, but only when properly managed.

On the other hand, a mere four months later, the editor of the Advertiser inserted the follow exclamation. ‘No fewer than nine young ladies are going to the Market of Love in India, on board the William Pitt! What a disgrace to our young men at home!’ However, as the note was sandwiched quite unobtrusively on page three, his outrage seems nothing more than winking gibe at the local bachelors. Indeed, they need not have worried, as, a year later the Advertiser noted that ‘Several young ladies have returned from India by the last ship, without having been able to dispose of their chattels at that market.’

As time progressed, and Britain shifted its attention to its settler colonies in North America and the Antipodes, the idea of providing congenial Jills for colonial Jacks took on a very different aspect. Colonial prosperity, at least for the industrious, became a much more prevalent narrative and with it came the desire, if not outright demand, for respectable female companionship. Although this famine of the fairer sex is most often associated with Australia, the call for wives often rang as loudly across the Atlantic as around the Cape.

In 1820, the Scotsman reported on an English colony, founded by Morris Birkbeck, in Edwards Country, Illinois. ‘One of the most trying privations of the colony’ it noted, was ‘a want of wives, an evil which happily does not affect the mother country, a midst all her other sufferings.’ Thus, in the Scottish press at least, the surplus women problem makes its first appearance some thirty years before the infamous census returns. More importantly, the grim reality of a dramatically unbalanced sex ratio is remarked upon with a clear sense of amusement. ‘The evil’ he suggests ‘has probably been aggravated by some of the colonists forgetting to take their wives with them.’ He continues, wryly, that ‘If matters do not get better in this particular, we may expect to hear of some of the adjoining American towns suffering a Sabine spoliation.’

Although this (facetious) prediction is itself a suggestion that wives were a commodity—to be begged, bought or stolen—it is the second half of his commentary that sets a noteworthy trend. The editor goes on to advise the ‘enterprising export traders’ of the city that

A cargo of young ladies would evidently be one of the best mercantile speculations; and as our own city had a surplus of ten or twelve thousand females at the last census, we have no doubt that some of our enterprising export traders will take the hint, and, by scouring the boarding-schools, complete a choice assortment, adapted to the Illinois market.

The phrase ‘cargo of women’ would be used again and again by colonial correspondents and British editors over the next fifty years, transforming female migrants into a generic commodity for a demanding overseas market. For modern readers it also has a disconcerting resonance with descriptions of the slave trade.

Shifting our gaze southwards to Australia, we find that, in addition to simple companionship, the call for female emigrants was very much linked to a need for their civilizing influence. In 1826, the Scotsman summarised its copy of the Hobart-Town Gazetteand mused that

The scarcity of females is described as a most alarming evil. It has been suggested, that it would be desirable that Government should send out the wives of convicts in many instances, as it has been observed that married men in the colony conduct themselves with more propriety, and are the most industrious, sober, and honest.

The conjugal improvement of free colonists was likewise the focus of intense debate. Another Australian correspondent, appearing the Caledonian Mercury, felt that

The expence of a wife and family here is nothing to a mechanic […and…] They steady a man better than two sermons a day, and are not to be obtained here. Women are more wanted than any thing.

So desperate was the young colony for the fairer sex that the writer quipped ‘I would say, good ones are best, but any better than none.’

By the 1830s, the editor of the Scotsman was jesting that

in New South Wales an old maid is a much rarer animal than a black swan. It is asserted that the fair emigrants from this country receive offers of marriage through speaking-trumpets before they land the ship.

Thus, between 1820 and 1840, the Scottish press diligently recorded the successful migrations of its countrywomen and reminded its readers, time and again, that ‘the ladies who are wanters at home would very soon be wed’ abroad; for example, in 1838, the Mercury reported that ‘a cargo of three hundred and fifty free women’ had landed in Sydney and within a week ‘almost all [were] engaged either as wives or servants! Here is encouragement for the five hundred thousand surplus females of Great Britain.’

What is crucial about the description of these young women, these blushing brides, is that there is none. Victorian condemnations criticise both the useless middle-class spinster and the disreputable working-class reprobate, their characters and physical suitability falling under intense scrutiny. But the Georgian migrants, as described in the press, were mere trade goods, one more or less interchangeable for another. Never are names, ages or backgrounds of specific migrants hinted at let alone explored. So, we are left to wonder, who were these women, and why were the Scottish editors so keen to be rid of them?

To be continued next week with ‘Cargoes of Women: A Numbers Game


Questions to explore…can you help?

  • How prevalent is the ‘cargoes of women’ trope in other media or in contemporary literature?
  • Are these passages really ‘about’ migration, or are the more reflective of an on-going gender debate within Georgian Britain?
  • Are these early references to female migration a uniquely Scottish trait or do they appear equally in the English and Irish press?

If you have any thoughts or comments on this developing research, please share them below, via twitter or email.


**Image courtesy of Bunches and Bits {Karina} provided CC-BY-NC-ND

Cargoes of Women: The Undocumented

As I slowly trawl through the pages of the Scottish press, I now and then come across a humorous anecdote, a winking satire, or a ludicrous lampoon. For the most part, I have shared these as research notes. Yet, as my folio of absurdities grew, a curious trend began to manifest; the marriage and migration of British women appeared almost exclusive in satirical form. Accounts of the migration of men or family groups were occasionally the target of a mischievousness rub, but single women departing Britain were rarely discussed in a serious tone.

As fortune would have it, this realisation coincided with a seminar on the ‘surplus women problem’ within my department’s core module on Victorian Britain. As students debated the truth and consequences of Britain’s surplus middle-class spinsters, I began to ponder my Georgian lassies. Could the humour of their departure have a similar cause? Several satirical accounts had made woeful references to the ‘latest census returns’ at home and abroad. Having already obtained a familiarity with the literature surrounding the Victorian ‘women question’, I endeavoured to discover its Georgian predecessor; I could not.

Although anecdotal accounts of single-female emigration from Georgian Britain are seemingly available, in correspondence, newspaper accounts and civil documents, a wider, quantitative view of the process, especially those traits which distinguish it from single-male or familial migration, is less forthcoming. Nor is this necessarily a disciplinary failing. On the contrary, sociologists have in the past praised historians for their active re-inclusion of women within a ‘gendered’ conception of emigration. Nonetheless, our selection of primary material has had a seemingly profound effect on the direction and focus of our historical enquiry.

Scholarship on gender within nineteenth-century British emigration tends to focus upon two interrelated opinions. The first was that certain colonies, namely the Antipodes, had a deplorable paucity of women; the second, seemingly fortuitous opinion, was that Britain suffered from an equally deplorable surplus of women. The curiosity of this problem, however, is not the seemingly obvious solution—the practicalities of which rendered it far from obvious—but rather its inexorable link to 1851 Census.

In the last sixty years, much had been posited, calculated and written about the movement of Britain’s imperial population. Passenger lists, immigration records and colonial censuses provide the raw data for a rich and detailed (if sometimes impressionistic) image of nineteenth-century migration. Despite this, discussions of gendered migration pathways tend to actively avoid the demographic debate. Instead, they centre on the rise of female emigration societies, such as the Female Middle-Class Emigration Society, the Women’s Emigration Society, and the British Women’s Emigration Association. These societies arose, in part, in response to a mounting debate over a seemingly surplus female population and the legitimacy of women’s rights—a debate engendered by the 1851 British census.

The existing literature on Victorian female migration speaks strongly to the resilience and passion of these groups, who, in the face of ridicule and complaint, attempted to redress gender imbalances through the selective migration of respectable British women. Historians thus frame the surplus women problem as an ideological choice between literally balancing sex-ratios through emigration–and a reallocation of unmarried Jills to needy Jacks–and a more abstract re-balancing of gender norms through education and vocational training within Britain. This uncomfortable dichotomy led contemporaries to blame continuing gender gaps on ‘over-educated spinsters’ who could not, or would not, contribute to domestic or colonial society and the emigration societies who thrust them unwanted upon their colonial cousins. But our focus on this post-1851 employment-emigration debate obscures the relationship of the Victorian surplus women problem with a much a wider and older discourse.

Alongside this British over-abundance, changes in economic and demographic structures–similar but not identical to those in Great Britain–were prompting significant numbers of unmarried Irish women to emigrate in the decades following the Great Famine. Like the surplus women of Britain, Ireland’s unneeded spinsters appear quite miraculously at mid-century, their biographers abstractly referring a very different, if un-described, demography in the first half of the century. Driven by the source material, both contemporary commentators and their historians have seemingly fixated on the Victorian age as a sea-change in female migration. Yet, the issue of female migration, of surpluses and scarcities, goes back much further. The stability of Georgian (and indeed Stuart and Tudor) colonial endeavours had often been threatened by gender imbalances, and seemingly redressed through dubious reallocations of undesirable, or simply unneeded, British women.

Thus, we are left with cargoes of women who exist only as satirical shadows—comedic commodities whose only purpose, it seems, was to fill empty space in Scottish periodicals. But perhaps, upon closer examination, these lampooned lassies can tell us much more.

To be continued next week with…Cargoes of Women: The Maids


Questions to be explored…can you help?

  • To what extent have earlier gender imbalances been recognised as prompt British emigration?
  • Is there any recent scholarship, or current research, on the gender composition of British emigration prior to 1840?
  • Is the perception of a post-1851 shift an accurate reflection of the existing historiography?


**Image courtesy of drharoldland, provided CC-BY-SA

Musings on the Historical Evidence of Wife-Selling in 19th Century England

There are a variety of reasons why a historian might consider a primary source to be misleading. The author may have had a vested interest in portraying an event in a certain way, or may have been somehow impaired in his or her ability to observe or reflect upon the event. Likewise, the historian might misinterpret the choice of language or allusion within the piece because he or she comes to it with a very different set of experiences and expectations from those of the original author or audience.

There is also the issue of satire.

My current sub-project, as those of you who attended the Social History Society Conference this Monday will know, is the manner in which early nineteenth-century female emigration was portrayed in the Scottish newspaper press. I argued that despite a sizable number of serious discussions, Scottish editors also had a penchant for satirical or otherwise flippant portrayals. These ranged from the outright satirical to more subtle jibes about the fairer sex (or their pursuers) within ostensibly straightforward accounts.

Among the many pieces I encountered was the following, printed in the Scotsman and attributed to the Lancaster Herald on 2 May 1832.

(From the Lancaster Herald.)

On Saturday the 7th instant, the inhabitants of this city witnessed the sale of a wife by her husband, Joseph Thompson, who resides in a small village about three miles from this city. He rents a farm of about forty-two or forty-four acres, and was married at Hexham, in the year 1829, to his present wife. She is a spruce, lively, buxom damsel, apparently not exceeding 22 years of age, and appeared to feel a pleasure at the exchange she was about o make. They had no children during their union, and that, together with some family disputes, caused them by mutual agreement, to come to the resolution of finally parting. Accordingly, the bellman was sent round to give public notice of the sale, which was to take place at 12 o’clock. This announcement attracted the notice of thousands. She appeared above the crowd, standing on a large oak chair, surrounded by many of her friends, with a rope or halter made of straw round her neck. She was dressed in rather a fashionable country style, and appeared to some advantage. The husband, who was also standing in an elevated position near her, proceeded to put her up for sale, and spoke nearly as follows:–

“Gentlemen,–I have to offer you notice my wife, Mary Ann Thompson, otherwise Williamson, whom I mean to sell to the highest and fairest bidder. Gentlemen, is is her wish as well as mine to part for ever. She has been to me only a bosom serpent. I took her for my comfort, and the good of my house, but she has become my tormentor, a domestic curse, a night invasion, and a daily devil. (Great laughter.) Gentlemen, I speak truth from my heart, when I say, ma God deliver us from troublesome wives and frolicsome widows. (Laughter.) Avoid them the same as you would a mad dog, a roaring lion, a loaded pistol, cholera morbus, Mount Etna, or any other pestilential phenomena in nature. Now I have shown you the dark side of my wife, and told you her faults and her failings, I will now introduce the bright and sunny side of her, and explain her qualifications and goodness. She can read novels and milk cows; she can laugh and week with the same ease that you could take a class of ale when thirsty: indeed, gentlemen, she reminds me of what the Poet says of women in general–“Heaven gave to women the peculiar grace, To laugh, to week, and cheat the human race.” She can make butter and scold the maid, she can sing Moore’s melodies, and plait her frills and caps: she cannot make rum, gin, or whisky, but she is a good judge of the quality from long experience in tasting them. I therefore offer her, with all her perfections and imperfection, for the sum of fifty shillings.”

After an hour or two, she was purchased by Henry Mears, a pensioner, for the sum of 20s. and a Newfoundland dog. The happy couple immediately left town together, amidst the shouts and huzzas of the multitude, in which they were joined by Thompson, who, with the greatest good humour imaginable, proceeded to put the halter, which his wife had taken off, round the neck of his Newfoundland dog, and then proceeded to the first public-house, where he spent the remainder of the day.

Upon initial inspection, I believed the piece to be clearly satirical. The supplying of surnames was, at first, intriguing, but their commonality, and my inability to examine Lancaster’s parish records at this time, suggested to me that they were likely apocryphal. As this was a case of internal migration, rather than emigration, I set it aside for some future date when time would permit further inquiry. Yet, as I continued through the Scotsman, the piece nagged at me.   Had I discounted the piece as satire simply because I did not believe the practice of wife-selling was possible in 1829? Was I being presumptions?

I did not, as I said, have the ability to travel to Lancaster to search for the Thompsons in the archival record, but I felt they deserved at least a quick search through electronic databases at my disposal.  Nothing more appeared in the digitized press, except the same account in other reprinted incarnations. The secondary literature was more promising, as the practice of wife-selling, or rather, of extra-legal separation and divorce, was indeed practiced at this time.  The Thompson’s themselves, however, remained elusive. As a final effort before returning the article to my ‘someday’ pile, I did a simple, unencumbered Google search of the title and protagonists.

A single page was returned–a transcription from Chamber’s Journal (1861) on WikisourceChamber’s having been otherwise digitized, I was able to quickly authenticate the transcription as accurate.  The content, however, astounded me. According to the author

It is well known that the Englishman of French novels, plays, and essays, is a different creation to the real being who talks upon ‘Change, and rides after the hounds, on this side of the Channel. The former compels the first maiden he meets in a casual walk to marry him, after half-an-hour’s acquaintance; he puts a halter round her next, and sells her in the cattle-market, as soon as he is tired of her; and in November, getting full of yellow fog, and tired also of himself, he throws himself into the Thames. A French essayist of the last century accused the English of making an institution of suicide. ‘They kill themselves on the slightest occasion,’ says he, ‘and often merely to annoy one another.’ This last accusation — thanks to Jean Jacques Rousseau and ‘sensibility’ — soon began to fit the countrymen of M. de Doux far better than ourselves. The first of these alleged Anglican customs is ridiculously untrue. To the second custom, however — wife-selling — we are bound to plead a certain, though ridiculously small, amount of guilt. Some Englishmen actually have sold their wives; and my purpose here is to record a few of the sales of this article that have taken place in our country during the last hundred years.

The piece continued with a number of accounts, from 1766 to the 1830s, of Englishmen selling their wives in various fashions. All had seemingly verifiable personal details, including dates, surnames and locations, and all came to the same conclusion–wife-selling was indeed practiced under George III in the manner described above. While I may someday check up on the Higginsons, and Whitehouses, and Griffiths, and Waddiloves, and Brooks, it was the analysis of our young Mr and Mrs Thompson that interested me then.

The next instance I have to chronicle, although it took place ten years later, and so near our time as 1832, seems to have escaped magisterial notice. Joseph Thompson, a small farmer, renting between forty and fifty acres, lived at a village three miles from the city of Carlisle. He had been married about three years. He had no children. He and his wife could not agree. There was a continual soreness between the Montagues and Capulets, his family and hers. These three things made them resolve to part. So, on the 7th of April, early in the morning, Mr Thompson sent round the bellman to give notice that a man would sell his wife at twelve o’clock in the market. The odd announcement, of course, drew together a considerable mob. The lady placed herself upon a high oaken chair, with a halter of straw about her neck, and a large circle of relatives and friends around her. The husband-auctioneer stood beside her, and spoke, says my authority, nearly as follows:

‘Gentlemen, I have to offer to your notice my wife, Mary Ann Thompson, otherwise Williamson, whom I mean to sell to the highest and fairest bidder. Gentlemen, it his her wish as well as mine to part for ever. She has been to me only a bosom-serpent. I took her for my comfort and the good of my house, but she became my tormentor, a domestic curse, a night invasion, and a daily devil. Gentlemen, I speak truth from my heart when I say may Heaven deliver us from troublesome wives. Avoid them as you would a mad dog, a loaded pistol, cholera morbus, Mount Etna, or any other pestilential phenomena in nature. Now I have shewn you the dark side of my wife, and her faults and failings, I will introduce the bright and sunny side of her, and explain her qualifications and goodness. She can read novels and milk cows; she can laugh and weep with the same ease that you could take a glass of ale when thirsty. Indeed, gentlemen, she reminds me of what the poet says of women in general—Heaven gave to women the peculiar grace,To laugh, to weep, and cheat the human race. She can make butter, and scold the maid; she can sing Moore’s melodies, and plait her frills and caps. She cannot make rum, gin or whisky; but she is a good judge of the quality from long experience in tasting them. I therefore offer her, with all her perfections and imperfections, for the sum of fifty shillings.’

As you can see, his ‘authority’ is that same article within the Lancaster Herald–or rather The Whitehaven Herald and Cumberland Advertiser, which he declared was a faithful reprinting of the Lancaster original. The story is somewhat expanded, and the bard invoked, but is materially the same as that which appeared in the Scotsman. What is most interesting, however, is how the new commentator reacted to the piece.

The reporter, I fancy, must have dressed up this speech. Remembering that the goods and the auctioneer were a not very rich north-country farmer and farmer’s wife, it is difficult to believe that she had the kind of accomplishments mentioned in the speech, or that he really uttered this speech.

The authenticity of the language is therefore questioned, but the event itself remains unchallenged.

So, what does this mean for my transcription? Does it go into a pile of satirical accounts of marriage, migration and divorce? The work of Rachel Vaessen, who studies the symbolic and cultural meaning of Wife-Sale representations, seems to suggest it should. Or does it move into my stack of factual accounts, supporting my examination of female migration and husband-hunting?

All I am sure of is that the next time I read a student’s analysis of a primary source that boldly declares something to be true because it is a ‘primary source’, perhaps I should not be so quick to judge!

**Image courtesy of SalFalko

Research Taxonomies; or, Things that from a long way off look like flies.

Borges] quotes a ‘certain Chinese encyclopaedia’ in which it is written that ‘animals are divided into: (a) belonging to the Emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) inumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies.’

Preface to The Order of Things by Michel Foucault

Several weeks ago, in the midst of AcWriMo, I decided that my filing system was simply not up to par. I could write quickly enough, but spent a great deal of my time searching for stray references, half-remembered quotations, and scraps of prose that I had composed in moments of train-bound serendipity.The problem? I was simply not interfacing properly with my technology.

About eighteen months ago, I began to use Evernote as a 21st-century commonplace book; a single repository for my research and musings. In some ways, this second brain has worked remarkably well. All of my research notes, archival scribblings, and historiographical musings (as well as lecture and seminar notes) are readily accessible on any internet-enabled computer, as well as my smart phone. Indeed, the problem was not accessibility, but retrievability.

Full-text searching is both a blessing and a curse. Although it provides unprecedented access and precision to an otherwise unwieldy corpus, many of the problems associated with digital scholarship lay squarely at its feet. In his 2008 article for The Journal of Academic Librarianship, Jeffrey Beall highlights a number of its weaknesses, and, although not all of these are relevant to my own database, several certainly are.

In sum (for those who have yet to peruse the aforementioned article), full-text searching, for all its power, is flawed because it relies upon remembering, or guessing, the correct word or phrase to bring up a particular entry.

For example, last month I needed to find a specific quotation about bush-rangers. I could not remember who it was by, what article it was in, or any of the exact wording. All I could remember was that it did not actually have the word bush-ranger in it.

I never did find that quotation.

The obvious solution is to tag, code, or otherwise create metadata for my notes. This, in conjunction with full-text searching, should allow me to quickly organise or filter my entries, and therefore find the most relevant material available. And yet, problems remain:

    1. You want to tag, now?
      The main issue is not that I do not see the value in creating metadata, it is that I have 3000 un-tagged notes–all (or at least many) of which are still relevant to my ongoing research.  If I exclude them from my coding, I may miss out on important connections and qualifications when writing up my work at a later date. If I stop my current research to code my previous research, I am losing days (months) that could have been spent collecting or analysing new data.
    2. My previous attempts at tagging have failed.
       This is not the first time I have considered adding metadata to my notes. Indeed, many of my notes are already tagged to a greater or lesser degree according to a variety of different systems. However, with an evolving taxonomy, and an inconsistent application, they provide little overall clarity.
    3. Tagging is a time-consuming processes.
      Yet, perhaps at the core of my resistance is the simple fact that coding research is an extremely time-consuming process. Not only are there considerable start-up costs in designing a taxonomy, extra time is also expended  with each and every entry. It will certainly save time in the future, but sometimes an imperfect system that works now feels more effective than a perfect system that will work in the future.

In the end, full-text searching may not be perfect, but it is surely more effective than binders and compositions books; so, perhaps I should simply be content with my modest gains and leave metadata to those with more time and greater inclination.


When I began collecting data for Demography and the Imperial Public Sphere, I knew that I would be transcribing a huge number of newspaper articles. Thousands, at least. After years of work, it would be a shame (a crime!) to simply file those transcriptions away, to be satisfied with a book and a handful of articles. But what could I do?

In the midst of my musings, a friend of mine was explaining her own data worries. As a microbiologist working with genetic data, her funders required her to deposit her raw data into a publicly accessible database, so that it can be referenced, verified and built upon in the future. Although she was worried that her data would be plagiarised (or rather, published as part of another person’s project before she could publish her own), it offered me a ray of hope.  Was there something similar for history? Was there somewhere I could effectively deposit my own research?

There are already several promising possibilities, and more appear every year. My current favourite is Omeka, a WordPress-like applications for creating digital archives.

The only problem? Online databases–or, at least  effective online databases–need metadata.

So, if I want my years of painstaking research to go beyond Demography, I will need to develop a relevant taxonomy and, most importantly, to apply it consistently throughout my collection. And, if I am going to go to the trouble of organising one part of my workflow, I might as well apply it to the rest of my digital libraries.

So, over the next few months I will begin to tackle my 3000+ Evernote entries, 650+ Zotero citations and 80+ Delicious links.

Wish me luck.

**Image courtesy of BioDivLibrary