The Old Bailey Online: a step toward changing how historians do history

23 Feb

Murder, robbery, scandal! Who would not be fascinated by some aspect of the proceedings of London’s central criminal court (Old Bailey) from 1674 to 1913? This source is a treasure trove to not only historians, but linguists, sociologists, and members of a host of other disciplines. However, without accesses to these sources they are little use to most of the people who could learn from the recordings. The Old Bailey Online seeks to make this valuable source accessible to large number of people by digitizing and offering the proceedings online. But what makes the website really useful is the fact that it is “fully searchable” and provides a variety of tools and resources to help any scholar wishing to explore the material. Although there is a lot to discuss about this amazing project, my focus in this blog post will be the tools and resources that the Old Bailey Online offers.  Having digital textual analysis tools built into the website allows this project to be more useful than a typical digitization project would be. Big data sets that come with digitization projects, like the Old Bailey Online, allow historians to reconsider their methodology and explore new research questions.

            Digitization and digital searches allow historians almost instantaneous access to more sources—and data from those sources—then they once could have only dreamed of processing during a lifetime. In many ways the traditional historical methodology hinders and limits the interpretations we can discover in these big data sets. How this methodology should change is still being debated.[i] Tim Hitchcock, one of the project directors, acknowledges that big data sets, such as the Old Bailey Online, require different strategies: “we can’t even begin to read all the material one would want to consult in a classic immersive fashion.”[ii] The Old Bailey Online website provides ways of manipulating the data to present findings that would not be possible with the close reading methods historians’ typical use to analyze their texts. The “Statistics” search function of this website allows users to “count” trails by specific criteria (such as age, punishment, or offense) and produce tables, graphs, and pie charts based on the data.

This statistical tool allows you to see big picture trends over a specific time period and find patterns that would not be evident if traditional methodology was used. Using this tool allows the user to manipulate variables of time, gender, age, punishment, and crime and analyze them in relation to each other.  Old Bailey Online goes a step further and also allows the user to combine this “distant reading” with a historian’s traditional way of analyzing text at a micro level (i.e. one case and all of its circumstances at a time). In their piece arguing for the need for more methodological transparency in history writing, Frederick Gibbs and Trevor Owens posit that, “As historical data become more ubiquitous, humanists will find it useful to pivot between distant and close readings.”[iii] When I generate a table (such as this random one) I can click on individual intersections of data and find specific cases that fall under the category (for example all the cases of 10 year olds in the 1790s who were accused of animal theft).  By providing this feature Old Baily Online makes it easier for a scholar to combine both distant and close textual analysis and understand their topic on more than one level.

Although helpful, there is a lot more that the Old Bailey database could be manipulated to do. The tools currently available on the website mainly help scholars who are interested in questions about criminals and court proceedings. However, the Old Bailey proceedings can be useful for an unimaginable number of other research interests. For example, Magnus Huber writes about a project that used the data of Old Baily and made it more useful for linguists who are interested in answering questions about the specific words and syntax that were used in the proceedings.[iv] Textual analysis tools that were able to track the month and offence over time might also provide interesting insights into when crime happens. The important point here is that scholars should not limit themselves based on what the Old Bailey Online project has offered for use. The project directors have been very open with their data, and for every case, a XML version is easy to access. Other questions could be explored by developing more digital tools to analyze this data and this should be encouraged.

Old Bailey Online is not the perfect digital source. However, I believe it to be a great example of how a digitalization project can move beyond providing documents to scholars online. Data can change the way historians view and interpret the past but only if there are ways to analyze big data sets beyond the traditional historical methodology. For me, that the Old Bailey Online provides digital textual analysis tools is a step toward a digital project revolutionizing how historians do history.


[i] My recent exploration of Moretti’s Graphs, Maps, and Trees was the beginning of my attempt to understand what new tools and techniques are needed as historians engage in digital sources.

[ii] Tim Hitchcock, “Textmining British Studies: an Overview of Recent Developments,” History Working Papers (2012).

[iii] Frederick W. Gibbs and Trevor J. Owens, “The Hermeneutics of Data and Historical Writing” in Writing History in the Digital Age, ed. Jack Dougherty and Kristen Nawrotzki (Spring 2012 version).

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4 Responses to “The Old Bailey Online: a step toward changing how historians do history”

  1. jkalvait February 24, 2013 at 9:56 pm #

    Christine,
    First, I must state that I like your title. I think it is spot on. The inclusion of the statistical feature in the database is excellent evidence of just that. I also think that your post is an important re-iteration, and perhaps clearer version, of a point Moretti made. The notion of distance reading is a noteworthy one. Because of the plethora of sources available to some humanists, a close reading isn’t possible. I imagine someone trying to write an article on the Old Bailey. Reading every court case in this database would be awful and insane. But the statistic button points researchers to important trends and allows them to logically chose which cases to closely read and which to just summarize. I completely agree with you that these kinds of tools will change the way historians do history and the arguments they make.

    • xtinexby February 24, 2013 at 10:22 pm #

      Thanks Jenny!

      Looking ahead, it looks like we will be talking more about big data and data mining next week so we can continue this conversation.

      • Tim Rainesalo February 25, 2013 at 8:46 pm #

        In reading over several blog posts now, it’s interesting to note that we all seem to interpret the Old Bailey in terms of efficiency, transparency and the ability to inspire playful interaction with the past. I certainly agree that sites like this will force us to rethink the way we develop (and display the reasoning behind) methodological approaches to interpreting history in the digital. I like your continual return to the notion that historians will need to change both our approach to “doing” history by embracing more disciplines and the way we use technology to explore the past. It nicely sums up what our experiences in digital history this semester are all about!

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