Locating the Past, part II

My review of 'Locating the Past' at the IHR, 29 February, continued...

David Thomas, Director of technology at the National Archives explained some of the ways in which TNA is digitising their most popular maps. Nothing particularly radical there, but sorely needed.

Panel 2: Applications

Ian Gregory of Lancaster University,  Richard Coates of UWE, and Nigel Walford of Kingston University showed us how GIS is transforming their research.

Gregory's paper was the most interesting for me, and it dealt with some of the issues raised earlier by Humphrey Southall about geo-semantics. Spatial Humanities: Text, GIS, Places is an ERC funded project seeking to develop a GIS tool for text, amongst other aims.

The pilot project was Mapping the Lakes which data mined the text of the journeys of the Romantics Gray and Coleridge to map their emotional response to the landscapes of Cumbria. Colin Jones raised a query about the issue of literary genre and fictional licence with regard to this project (again the question of spaces of representation came through here).

But I'm really excited about the other parts of the wider project, particular their development of semantic tagging (using xml, possibly natural language processing) of place names in British newspapers. Andrew Hardie of Lancaster is working on mapping places mentioned in London-based newspapers 1653-4, but they also aim to work on the British Library 19th century newspapers.

This is something that I wish to do. I would love a way of automating what I do by hand at the moment: map sites of meetings recorded in early nineteenth century northern newspapers, and use something like natural language processing to associate those place names with their contextual information: type of meeting, numbers attending, etc. This would enable me to map sites of protest and how they changed over time in response to physical changes in the urban landscape (especially significant in the early nineteenth century wave of urbanisation and industrialisation) as well as political pressures.

Panel 3: Audiences and Engagement

Caroline Kimbell of TNA, Bruce Gittings of Edinburgh Earth Observatory, and Nick Stanhope, CEO of HistoryPin showed how outreach and community engagement is the most important and far-reaching implication of all this new technology. This truly demonstrated how historians and geographers can break the barriers of academia and give anyone the power to explore their history and place in ways unthinkable before a couple of years ago.

HistoryPin was,  by a long mile, the most forward-thinking of all the projects showcased today. I initially had been a little agnostic about the project, as it didn't feel that dissimilar from something like geograph.org or indeed flickr in enabling individuals to 'pin' their old photos onto places on the map, showing the 'before' and 'after' of historical change. Yet Nick Stanhope is a public speaker and thinker (perhaps in the 'ted' mode) knocked the spots of all the academic speakers in showing us how to speak and convince. The mission of his company is liberal-social, yet beyond the buzz words of 'enabling communities' and 'bridging inter-generational gaps', I could see the real point of HistoryPin, both socially and intellectually. Their emphasis is on community action and groups, and their experiment with communities in Reading to chart their own histories using their own personal archives of photos seemed like a great achievement.

Stanhope explained how HistoryPin's next objectives involve:

1. further local events, getting more groups together to form community archives.

This is crucial, not just for improving community relations, but also in opening up a wealth of photographs (and they hope oral histories and other documents) previously unavailable to historians. Although arguably local studies libraries and history groups have undertaken this sort of community history for a long time, this project feels like it can achieve much more, from the bottom up, giving individuals and groups a chance to curate their own archives and mini-museums.

2. channels and embeds

enabling local museums and groups a 'channel' on HistoryPin with their own content. This also involves developing the technology for apps and other features on mobile devices.

This emphasis on face to face events to upload material onto HistoryPin has also enabled it to go beyond being just faceless form of social media. However, Ben Anderson of the University of Gloucestershire asked whether this sort of community-based history making risked one group imposing their own narrative over another, avoiding searching questions about local histories that museums and historians might ask.

I look forward to how HistoryPin develops over the next year or so.


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