Category Archives: Ethics and Digital History

Life stories and their Historians: Bridging a divide?

Most of us have at one time or another wondered about our ancestors. Even the historians whose bread and butter is the study of social, political, economic or cultural histories speculate about their own family’s part in the unfolding of the wider movements and economic changes down the ages. Many others have studied the genealogical websites, and laboured in the archives, simply to chart the family line further and further back until either reliable data or stamina are exhausted. New pieces of information that are discovered may offer a glimpse of a family ‘on the make’ or a family ‘on the slide’. Whatever the case, family history has become a persistent and compelling pastime enjoyed by millions of people.

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(Image via RootsChat)

For those without an aristocratic pedigree to fall back on, family piety used to amount to little more than repeated anecdotes about half-remembered relatives.  Now that the internet has democratized information, anyone with a computer and a measure of determination can go much further.  Archives and public records and censuses are accessible to all, and there’s plenty of advice on how to make sense of them.  The viewing figures for the BBC’s series ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ have held up for a decade, while  ‘Secrets From the Clink’, its lurid ITV cousin, adds a distinctively Dickensian preoccupation with forebears who served time. The investigation of family history has become the third most popular online activity, after shopping and pornography. Primary research is no longer exclusively a matter for academic historians, traditionally concerned with movements that shape national destinies – wars, politics, conquest, or trade.  Amateurs can share the buzz of a first-hand encounter with discovery, retrieving neglected documents and filling in the gaps in a family tree.  If you have ancestors and a search engine, you too can be a historian.

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(Image via

Unsurprisingly, professionals in the business of history have mixed feelings about the swarm of explorers among the databases. Every historian sympathizes with the impulse to learn about the past.  But bare facts about long-buried members of a family can’t reveal much about the broader cultural and economic circumstances that defined their lives, and those who pursue them often do so in the context of their own interests and priorities. Objective analysis takes second place to the resurrected details (revealing self-made success, lost grandeur, anti-authoritarian spirit or helpless victimhood) that best confirm the values of the investigator. Trained historians observe, sometimes disdainfully, that such researchers are looking for archival comfort food. But in general family detectives are too busy digging for the next piece of evidence to take offence, while their denigrators are not seriously threatened by part-time rivals.  The two breeds of historians are more or less prepared to tolerate each other, though there isn’t much traffic between them.

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(MEPO 6, 8 March 1907. Available at

Perhaps the Digital Panopticon can help to bridge the divide? The data provided is clearly of use and of interest to those researching their family history. Indeed the information that can be found in the prison records can reveal more about the character, physique, and exploits of forefathers than almost any other record. In this respect they are a boon to the genealogist, and a first-rate source of information. Each of the life stories revealed by the Panopticon is varied and interesting enough to be studied in its own right. However, when taken together they are invaluable to the social historians as a guide to (for example) the height and weight of the ordinary Londoner, the character of crime and punishment in the nineteenth century, and the long-term effects of transportation and imprisonment on generations of families living in Australia and in the United Kingdom. The next trick might be to persuade the two communities (genealogists and social historians) that they have something in common. They might even learn something by talking to each other, not least because descendants can provide valuable information to historians about the identities and experiences of their forebears. They can fill in the gaps and silences that punctuate the records. In return, historians can add context to family histories by revealing the social conditions in which our ancestors lived, loved, and laboured.


Professor Dinah Birch

Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research and Knowledge Exchange

University of Liverpool

Digital Panopticon PhD Work in Progress- Aoife O’Connor

A previous blog post outlined how crime records are among the ‘most extensively digitised’ source sets.  My PhD will explore the impact of this digitisation on the study of crime history.

What do I expect to measure?  What is impact?  Simon Tanner tells us it is not recognition, neither is it outcomes.  It is change.  In his Balanced Value Impact Model he describes a model for assessing a digital resource through a number of criteria.  It sets a high bar for impact.  As does The Research Excellence Framework, which defines impact as ‘any effect on, change or benefit to the economy, society, culture, public policy or services, health, the environment or quality of life, beyond academia’.   How do you prove an increase in cultural capital, in appreciation, in a fundamental shift in thought process owing to your research in the humanities?  How many historical studies are likely to influence government policy?  If impact is not successful dissemination of research to a wider public, what is it?

The focus of my study will be on the digitisation, dissemination and impact of UK, Irish, and Australian and Tasmania records.  I will use a number of core sites in my research: Old Bailey Online, London Lives, Founders & Survivors, Findmypast and Ancestry.  Other sources that I will examine include online newspapers such as Trove and British Library Newspapers Online, specialist popular sites such as, those that host databases of convict records such as and sites that include broader popular material of interest to crime historians such as Harvard Law Library’s broadside collection. My thesis is also interested in the ways in which crime historians communicate their research in popular ways and looks to online communities such as Flickr, Twitter and Pinterest.

In each case I will assess the accessibility of the resource and the effect that may have on impact.  Are paywalls a bar to impact, or is the requirement for an institutional log in to an otherwise free resource preventing that material from being used?  Are websites being designed for impact?  Are they being designed for particular users?

Impact takes time to manifest.  Change is not seen overnight in the humanities, the reality is even dissemination beyond scholarly publications and the assimilation of research by the wider public can take years.  As a part-time student, who will not be writing up until 2021, I am able to devote more time than usual to gathering my evidence, I expect to begin that process later this year and continue it throughout the coming four years, 2016-2020 via my website (at the time of writing this site is still very much bare bones).

It is easier, then, to talk of potential impacts: the ability to do truly longitudinal studies, the requirement on students to use ever larger sample sizes, the potential for data linkage on a large scale.  But the actual impacts have yet to be revealed.  I will argue that digitisation is change to dissemination, among other things, and that the REF model of ‘proving worth’ should not overly burden researchers or overwhelm our concept of ‘impact’.  I will look at a broad range of impacts to gain a sense of what impact means to different stakeholders.  The impacts of digitisation on access, use, dissemination, research methodologies, teaching, publishing, public history; and the impacts of research utilising digital resources on cultural capital, and users sense of history and self.

One of my key questions will be if digitisation has fundamentally altered the ways in which crime records are utilised.  Has digitisation changed the user demographic?  My data will come from the users.  Their uses of the records produced by the justice and penal institutions will inform the direction of my research and I aim to visualise these in quantitative and qualitative ways.

One area of examination will be how users are using online crime records- either in research, teaching or in popular culture. The use of The Old Bailey Online to engage literature students in a critical discourse about crime and entertainment in the nineteenth century is a particularly imaginative use of these resources.  Social historians are also utilising these sources as evidence of daily life such as Tim Hitchcock’s recent work with Anne Helmreich and William J. Turkel on the portable possessions Londoners as recorded in the Old Bailey trials.  Yet one area which has so far been overlooked has been the ways that popular writers use these resources, and I aim to consider this as part of my work.

In particular, I am hoping to reach out to family historians.  I expect to see both continuity and change.  Family historians have likely always appreciated the value of ‘crime records’, and I want to explore the impact of digitisation on their research process. Previously many would have soughtå out a criminal ancestor based on family lore, but with the advent of digitisation, more are discovering ‘criminal’ ancestors serendipitously.

As an employee of Findmypast I have first-hand, albeit anecdotal at this stage, evidence of the range of reactions these types of users have when confronted with a criminal ancestor- from amusement to horror.  I also see a potential pattern emerging related to level of kinship, and family’s attempts to distance themselves from their criminal associations. In all I have witnessed descendants shrug off, laugh, be embarrassed by, and take pride in their criminal forbearers.

It is this strand of research that, in these very early stages, is dominating my plans. I am beginning to steer away from the ways that traditional crime historians use digitised source sets and am looking to the ways that other users are using digital resources. What has been the impact on their histories and, crucially, how are they being used?

Six PhD Studentships: Liverpool, Sheffield and Tasmania

The Digital Panopticon Project is delighted to announce the availability of six PhD studentships, funded by both the AHRC and the participating Universities.  These are exciting opportunities to exploit the rich resources collected by the Project while working within a large team of interdisciplinary experts in both the UK and Australia.

In each case, applications must be made to the institution at which the studentship will be held. Deadlines are as follows (please note update to Liverpool and Sheffield deadlines):

  • Sheffield: 28 July 
  • Liverpool: 28 July 
  • Tasmania: 31 July

Sheffield/Liverpool interviews will be held 11-12 August. The AHRC-funded studentship (Impact of digital history resources) is open to UK/EU students only. The other LIverpool and Sheffield studentships are also open to international students, but please note that only UK/EU-level tuition fees can be covered, and you would need to make up the fees shortfall. The studentships will also include a maintenance grant (currently around £13000 p.a.). Please contact UTAS for more details about eligibility/funding levels for the Tasmania studentship.

University of Liverpool

Longitudinal studies of the health of the poor

Using prison data (from both local prisons and national penitentiaries) this studentship will examine the height/weight and the health histories of working class men and women over the course of their lives. We have access to a huge and detailed database on the chronic and acute illnesses of thousands of prisoners in the British convict system, and they will allow the PhD researcher to examine what illnesses were prevalent, how they were treated, what impact they had over the lifetime of the prisoner, the longevity of life of the prisoner, and a range of other possible issues. This studentship will appeal to students of the history of medicine; social historians, and crime historians; and the student will be supported by an experienced team of interdisciplinary researchers and experts in convict/health history.

The lives and criminal careers of convicts in the 19th century

This studentship will follow, chart, and analyse the lives of offenders tried at the Old bailey both before their appearance at court, during their sentence, and afterwards when they were released. The PhD will examine the reasons why offenders began their criminal career, the impact that punishment in the British convict prison system had on them, and how that legacy carried over into their lives after they re-entered society. This is an exciting opportunity to study criminal careers using historical data, working with experts in the field. The studentship will appeal to researchers in nineteenth-century social history, history of crime, criminal careers, and/or desistence studies.

For more information on either of the Liverpool studentships:

  • Academic queries about the project and studentships should be addressed to Prof. Barry Godfrey,
  • For information about applications contact Rebekah Hughes,


University of Sheffield

The Social and Spatial Worlds of Old Bailey Convicts, 1785-1875

The studentship will investigate the social and geographical origins and destinations of men and women convicted at the Old Bailey between 1785 and 1875, in order to shed light on patterns of mobility, the causes of crime, and understandings of identity in early industrial Britain.  Using evidence of origins from judicial records, the project will trace convicts from their places of origin, through residence and work in London before their arrests, to (if imprisoned) places of imprisonment and subsequent life histories.  Analysis of the language used in trial testimonies can provide an indication of how identities were shaped by complex backgrounds, and evidence of criminal and convict mobility has the potential to contribute to our understanding of geographical mobility and social integration before and after the introduction of the railroads.   This is an exciting opportunity to use newly assembled data to study the lives of non-elite people. The studentship will appeal to researchers interested in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century social history, the history of crime, and geographical and social mobility.

For more information, and to apply, go to

The Impact of Digital Resources in the History of Crime

This project will examine the impact of the widespread availability of digital resources on attitudes towards crime and its history.  Core case studies will include the Old Bailey Proceedings Online, Founders and Survivors (records of the 73,000 men women and children who were transported to Tasmania), and, following its launch, the Digital Panopticon website.  This project will investigate both academic and non-academic uses of internet information provided in the UK and Australia, using a combination of quantitative and qualitative methodologies.  A wide range of sources can be used to measure the extent to which these sites have shaped how the history of crime has been written, and to assess their impact on users’ perceptions of the crimes and punishments, including individual criminal lives, documented on these websites.  It will also be possible to investigate how using these resources has shaped wider attitudes towards crime and punishment in contemporary society.  The studentship will appeal to researchers interested in the history of crime, public history, and the digital humanities. AHRC-funded.

For more information, and to apply, go to

Criminal Recidivism in 18th and 19th-Century London

The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries witnessed the development of the concepts of habitual  offending and the criminal class.  Taking advantage of the extensive records of both petty and serious crime digitised and linked together by the Digital Panopticon project, this studentship will investigate these phenomena from the perspective of the judicial records, by tracing the incidence and character of repeat offending.  The project will seek to understand the extent to which multiple arrests were a product of policing and/or underlying criminal activity, to identify the social and cultural factors which made some Londoners prone to reoffending and rearrest, and to examine the relationship between the chronology of recidivism and the evolution of contemporary thought about reoffending.  This research will allow the student to draw some conclusions about both the causes of crime and the background to nineteenth-century thought about crime.  It will appeal to researchers interested in the history of crime and policing, and the social history of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century England more generally.

For more information, and to apply, go to

University of Tasmania

Labour Markets and Convict Offending

Who amongst the convicts sent to Britain’s nineteenth-century penal colony in Van Diemen’s Land were put to hard labour or ordered to work in irons? Did these patterns change over time, and if so, were they driven by convict behaviour, changes in penal administration, or the performance of the wider colonial economy?  This project will provide an outstanding opportunity for a student with a background in history, economics or sociology to explore these questions while working as part of an international team of researchers. As well as conducting their own archival research the successful applicant will be given access to an extensive existing database of convicts and associated records.

Applications for the Tasmania studentship close on 31 July.

For more information contact Trevor Scaife,