Monthly Archives: August 2012

From Blog to PhD

I am happy to announce that, come September, I will be starting a PhD at the University of Southampton, with the debtors’ sanctuaries of late seventeenth and early eighteenth London as my subject.

I started this blog for three reasons. The first was simply to find out what lay behind this enigmatic word ‘Alsatia’. Consulting the usual histories of London would not suffice for what little is known of the sanctuaries is eclipsed by presumption and fiction. This tale was yet to be told. In order to tell it,  the sources needed collecting, transcribing, organizing; and reading, teasing out their many attributes, contents and contexts. Research requires some level of organization (but not too much of it); the ad-hoc nature of the blogging format seemed suitable for it.

This happily coincided with my second ambition, to have a digital history project to call my own. I wanted to get experience of every aspect of building it, from writing and design to curation and coding, and all the mundane maintenance. The total is more than the sum of the parts, yet the parts are entwined and and work upon each other. The nature of the subject has meant that this hasn’t been particularly taxing; being mainly text-based and lacking numerical data there’s little need for anything beyond the standard WordPress features. (This will be changing when I get the amnesty lists in good order.) There are, however, a host of tweaks yet to be made to the site.

Beyond the technical and academic aspects, such a project also has a social dimension. By publishing on the internet, I’m inviting others to read my work; by publishing documents – and specifying their status as public domain – I’m inviting others to share and reuse. And in turn I’ve re-used others’ work – ballads from EBBA, accounts from the Old Bailey Online. This is one example of the happy effects the open internet has on historical practice; without it this blog would not be possible. Partaking of this network – giving and taking, joining in – was my third aim.

The PhD will change my circumstances more than anything else. It gives me time and space to focus on the subject, allows access to those infuriatingly restricted-access databases, and opens some archival doors. The blog will continue, at a higher tempo I hope, gathering the sources but also giving more and broader analysis.

What will not change is my commitment to an open history. I think it essential that any historical argument should exhibit its method and evidence. I see the internet as augmenting the text with all its ‘dependencies.’ I consider the computer to be a most versatile tool for reading. I know that potentially everything can be at everyone’s fingertips.

Yet I am astonished that so much great research is so difficult to access.  I am outraged that documents long in the public domain should – at the very moment when reproduction becomes trivial – be locked up by copyright and paywall. I am mystified that those same documents are often poorly curated. I am dumbstruck at the prices charged for them.

And given that the past flows into our present, that it materially affects our lives, I believe it an ethical imperative that history should be a commons for all to partake of.