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?

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