Navigating the Old Bailey Online

19 Feb

I do not know much about British History, but one does not have to be a British Historian to get excited about the cache of documents available through the Old Bailey Online. Luckily, there is a historical background tab that thrilled my social historian heart and provided me with context about where these documents come from and what they contain. Given my own research interests in social, gender, and legal history, I would ask questions about how women were treated in the courts; what the kinds of cases women were most often involved in; and whether women were sentenced less harshly than men. While these questions could be answered with the search boxes the site provides, it is noteworthy that the Old Bailey Online is coded in XML and is open access. Meaning, that the data is more easily manipulated when historians have the knowledge needed to combined data sets and create their own searching standards in XML. The sources available in the Old Bailey Online and the way it is coded make this database revolutionary.

The textual analysis conducted by using the Old Bailey Online demonstrates how remarkable the site is. Textual analysis traces the changes in a language through analyzing the usage of words and their frequency. Most often these kinds of studies can only be done on published works, which do not accurately depict a language as the masses would have used it. Through building the Old Bailey Online, historians can analyze proceedings from 1674 to 1834. This amounts to over 100,000 trials with about 52 million words and passages. Computers have always been instrumental to the study of text analysis given the massive data sets, but the Old Bailey Online goes beyond what was traditionally done.[1] As Magnus Huber wrote about the site and its materials, the Old Bailey Online “thus offers the rare opportunity of analyzing everyday language in a period that has been neglected both with regard to the compilation of primary linguistic data and the description of the structure, variability, and change of English.” [2] The Old Bailey Online provides easy access to, and manipulability of, one of the only sources that give historians a look at the speech patterns of commoners.

The searching features of the Old Bailey Online are likewise pretty amazing, but not perfect. Textual analysts, for example, are not completely happy because they cannot search for contractions.[3] However, because the database is open access, if textual analysts had a lot of time and money, they could go back and fix that for their own purposes.[4] Personally, I never would have thought twice about using anything beyond the search features until we discussed in class that visitors can access the XML code. Through manipulation of this code, comparing other large databases and cross-referencing for people is significantly easier. Using XML is still a fairly new tool in the digital history world. However, a lot of digital historians prefer XML for the possibilities of combining and efficiently searching large data sets.[5]

The Old Bailey Online launched in 2003 and has inspired a reviewer to write, “as someone who probably visits the site two or three times a week, I am bound to wonder at how we all managed before then.”[6] The largest critique of this historian was that the Old Bailey’s papers are not complete. Responding to this critique, the creators of the site plugged their newer database, London Lives, which attempts to provide a fuller picture of London crime in the same accessible format.[7]

Perhaps in a few years with the help of open access classes, I may become more proficient at realizing the possibilities and shortcomings of XML and sites like the Old Bailey Online.[8] Until then, I cannot pretend my few weeks of studying digital history provides me a full understanding of the significance of such databases. Even a novice can see the site is still encountering some technical issues. The scan of the handwritten original is useful, but I have been unable to open one. As this site was launched ten years ago, I suspect updates are needed. Even with technical glitches, this website is clearly a standout and trendsetter in the field of digital history.

[1] Father Roberto Busa started a project in 1940 which he eventually transitioned onto a computer. The final product was published in 1970. Geoffrey Rockwell and Ian Lancashire, “Electronic Texts and Text Analysis,” TAPoR, (accessed February 14, 2013).

[3] Ibid.

[4] My knowledge of this kind of thing is limited. But, the access to the code and a digitized picture of the original document leads me to believe that anything is possible if one has the time and money.

[5] As Daniel Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig pointed out in order to combine their historical math collections, Cornell, the University of Michigan, and the State and University Library of Göttingen used XML.  Daniel Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig, “Appendix” in Digital History (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005), 249-260.

[6] Dr. Drew D. Gray, review of “The Old Bailey Proceedings Online,” Reviews in History, (accessed February 15, 2013).

[7] Clive Emsley, Tim Hitchcock, Robert B. Shoemaker, “Author’s Response,” Reviews in History, (accessed February 15, 2013).

[8] The Programming Historian is a site run out of the Center for History and New Media. “The Programming Historian,” Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, (accessed February 14, 2013).


3 Responses to “Navigating the Old Bailey Online”

  1. Elena February 23, 2013 at 9:27 pm #

    Jenny, I like how you really get at how open and adaptable this data is and how advantageous that is for historians and other researchers. Since there’s room for further work, I wonder if tagging could be something that becomes crowd sourced, like transcription.

  2. angelabpotter February 24, 2013 at 8:37 pm #

    I liked how you focused on the use for social history. I too was excited by all of the documents. I think that we feel a bit more comfortable this week because analysis of historical documents is more familiar to us, even in this somewhat unusual format. I was glad that you mentioned “London Lives” because it is another great site. That site also linked me to which links textual and visual sources.
    Both of the sites said they use “Natural language processing.” I was not sure what this was and how it related to the XML tagging we looked at. I read a bit about it on wikipedia, ( but still wondering how these sites are set up the same or differently. I guess it is all above my head at this point.
    Great post!

    • jkalvait February 24, 2013 at 9:25 pm #

      Elena, I think crowd sourcing tagging would make the process much more efficient. However, even more oversight and organization would be needed in order to make the tags useful. It is definitely an intriguing question.

      And Angie, natural language processing looks like it has some remarkable uses. I hope we talk about it in class because a lot of that went over my head. The “Connected Histories” site is fascinating though! To my simple mind, it seems no matter what the format, as long as the scaffolding can speak to another set of scaffolding to compare other data sets, it is advantageous for the researcher.

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