Nineteenth Century Collections Online - a brief review

I've been having a go at the trial of Gale Cengage's Nineteenth Century Collections Online. It's subscription only otherwise.

Bob Nicholson, the Digital Victorianist, has already previewed the site in his excellent blog - - so I won't repeat his points here.

Rather I'll focus on what is most relevant to my research: the 'British Politics and Society' section of the collection, and in particular the Home Office disturbance papers.

What's useful?

In a nutshell, NCCO contains loads of material, much of which appears to have been newly scanned from items in the National Archives and the British Library. So if you can't make it to London, then you can access most of the major 'Home Office disturbance papers' (including the widely-used HO 40 and HO 42, and the wonderful HO 33 Post Office correspondence). Also included are the records of the Association for the Protection of Liberty and Property (i.e. John Reeves's correspondence) held in the British Library, and all sorts of other political material, including:

The quality of the images is good (and even the scanned copies of the HO 42 microfilms are much better visually than the PDFs you can download for free from the TNA website), though (as with TNA), you can only download them as pdfs.

What's not so good? 

1. catalogue entries: 

I found the descriptions and categories hard to navigate. It helps if you're familiar with the material already before you start, as the accompanying descriptions and catalogue entries often don't help.

Take for example, this section, titled 'Radicalism, Anti-Radicalism and Reform in England, 1769-1861, original papers and minute books'.

This is the first page of records in the section -

It doesn't seem to be in any order, and you have to go to the next page to find out that the 'above-mentioned association established in various places' in the first and third record is the Association for the Preservation of Liberty and Property. Why the John Wilkes papers are in the middle of it are also unclear. If you didn't recognise the reference to 'the above-mentioned association', it would be very difficult to work out what everything is on this page.

Maybe I'm searching the site too much like a seasoned academic historian, and I presume Gale want users to populate the 'tags' and other features which may enable a clearer crowd-sourced cataloguing system to emerge, but at the moment it is difficult to work out what each document is. This isn't helped by.....

 2. citation and referencing

NCCO have established their own referencing and citation system, which I predict will become very confusing when it is used by scholars in their footnotes. Why? Because it doesn't include the full references from the original archive catalogues. 

So take this citation from the 1841 Home Office material.


Gale want us to reference the item as 'MS civil disturbance, Chartism and Riots in Nineteenth-Century England, part One, 1841-1844, box 44, August-September 1841, The National Archives, United Kingdom, Nineteenth Century Collections Online'.

But which box 44? Do they mean HO 44? or HO 40/44, or HO 42/44? Which piece number and folio? It's just not accurate enough, and won't tally with standard historical studies that use the TNA catalogue reference of collection/box/piece/folio in their footnotes. It's the same with the British Library 'Add. MS'.

This is further exacerbated by the fact that Gale have taken off the TNA references from the image files. So if I look at a particular page, unlike on the original TNA microfilm or on the pdfs from the TNA website directly, I've no idea what the full HO reference for the page is:

3. transcription errors

This is again a major problem with regard to the Home Office papers, though I haven't checked it for the other parts of the collection. Here is the itemised list from the 1841 HO correspondence:

There appears to be letters from and to 'C. Hapier', 'Sir Charles Hapeeires' [!!!],  'Sir Charles Sapier', and 'Sir C. Hapier'.

I didn't realise that General Sir Charles James Napier had so many pseudonyms.

If they can't even identify a main correspondent's name correctly at all, nevermind spell it in four different ways within a  list of seven letters, there is a severe problem. If I wanted to find the letters of Sir Charles Napier within this collection I would not be able to. There is a major problem here therefore with transcription or the OCR, which makes indexation and cataloguing useless on this site.

Hopefully these are just bugs that will be fixed soon, but at the moment they're outweighing the benefits of opening out these collections to a wider audience (albeit subscribing).


Popular posts from this blog

Spatial theory, cultural geography, and the 'spatial turn'

Effigies in protest