Our Criminal Past

Digitisation, Social Media and Crime History

The first event of new AHRC network, Our Criminal Past: Caring for the Future, drew a diverse audience of archivists, academics and librarians to London Metropolitan Archives to assess the impact of digitisation and social media on criminal history and consider the implications of using these tools for future research and dissemination.

The event was structured by three strands: session one explored the ongoing digitisation of penal histories, session two considered the uses of social media for historians of crime, and the final session took the form of a roundtable discussion where we debated the key issues that had been raised throughout the day. The event was extremely productive in fostering debate about the future of crime history following the digital turn, and two key issues dominated the discussion overall: firstly, that collaboration between universities, museums, libraries and archives is crucial to the future success of the field, and, secondly, the advantages and limitations that digital resources and social media can bring to the history of crime.

Session 1: Digitising Crime and Penal Histories

Chair: Dr Pam Cox (University of Essex)

  • Professor Tim Hitchcock (University of Hertfordshire), Digitising Criminal Justice: Past, Present and Future.
    As one of the directors of the Old Bailey Online (launched in 2003), Tim Hitchcock reflected upon the development of digital archives over the last 10 years. Following the recent 10-year anniversary of the Old Bailey Online, Tim introduced the Old Bailey Corpus Online (OBCO), which allows us to record changes and continuities in 19th-century legal language and administration. OBCO is more than just a window into the administration processes it is a series of documents which chart the social and cultural lives of those subject to criminal justice across the 19th century. Large-scale digital projects such as this allow historians to test and develop new perspectives in the history of crime. Despite a dominant understanding that violence declined over the nineteenth century, Tim’s quantitative examination of the terms used to describe violence actually became concentrated in the trial literature. Tim concluded that macro-approaches, while illuminating fresh ways of approaching crime history, provide a real danger of losing people who were subject to the forces of crime and punishment: the criminals themselves. As such, Tim pointed to new and innovative sites such as The Real Face of White Australia, an image-driven site which shifts this focus back to the offender.
  • Dr Sharon Howard (University of Sheffield), Bloody Code: Reflecting on a Decade of Old Bailey Online and the Digital Future of our Criminal Past.
    Sharon Howard drew upon her vast experience as Project Manager of Old Bailey Online, Connected Histories and Early Modern Web to reflect on the success of these resources and the future of digital archives in the current economic climate. Sharon highlighted the tension between the advance in digitisation technology that has taken place over the past 10 years and the urgent need for funding to support future online archives and enhance audience engagement. Sharon argued that collaboration with libraries, archives and universities is essential for the future of digitisation but, as a network, we need to consider the importance of adequate training to ensure that we deliver archives which are accurately documented and, crucially, useable for online audiences and academic historians. In considering various possibilities for future online databases, Sharon encouraged historians to enter into conversations with key figures in national and local archives and prompt them to help us move forward. Further details of Sharon’s projects can be found on her website.
  • Professor Hamish Maxwell-Stewart (University of Tasmania), Founders and Survivors: Using Digital Technologies to Explore the Long Run Impact of Convict Transportation.
    Hamish delivered an engaging paper on the ways online databases have been crucial to his research on the impact of convict transportation in Australia. Drawing on a huge sample of data stretching from the first convicts to land in Australia to soldiers in the First World War, Hamish and his colleagues at the University of Tasmania examined convict records alongside birth, marriage and death certificates to “get inside” working-class families and assess what height, weight and eye colour can tell us about the conditions that convicts lived in and the implications that transportation had upon health. Hamish recognised the changes in convict measuring that had taken place over the course of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Policing, custodial sentencing, penal capacity and legislation were also transformed across the 120-year period he examined. That convicts’ height gradually increased over generations suggested that the health and living standards of offenders improved as a result of transportation to the colonies. The project’s Founders and Survivors website, a partnership between historians, genealogists, demographers and population health researchers, has enabled the group to circulate its findings to wider audiences and illustrate the importance of collaboration with other organisations.

Session Two: Historians of Crime and Social Media

Chair: Dr John Carter-Wood (Leibniz-Institut für Europäische Geschichte, Mainz, History (Universalgeschichte)

  • Zoe Alker (Liverpool John Moores University), Using New Social Media Technologies in Teaching Victorian Crime.
    In my talk, I discussed two forms of my social media engagement. Firstly, I talked about how my use of Twitter as @VictorianCrime has helped me as both a historian and a teacher. Despite the implications for misinformation on the social network, I argued that Twitter is a positive tool for historians who wish to publicise their research, network with others who share the same interests, and distribute relevant resources to prompt online debate. Secondly, I discussed how I have used digital resources and blogs in Liverpool John Moores University’s Level Five English Literature module, Prison Voices: Crime, Conviction and Confession 1700-1900, where students were asked to do research in actual and virtual space and reflect on their findings in a series of blogs called Walking the streets of Victorian crime and punishment as part of the Journal of Victorian Culture’s online teaching and learning showcase. I considered how the use of digital archives such as the British Library’s 19th Century Newspapers Online alongside field trips to the places that feature in our classroom discussions about the 19th century can provide an immersive experience for students and prompt an active engagement with our criminal past.
  • Adam Crymble, (King’s College London) 'How Blogging and Tweeting Make Me a Better Historian of Crime'.
    Adam, a doctoral student who is using criminal records to explore metropolitan attitudes to Irish immigrants in the 18th and 19th centuries, argued that blogging about research and giving papers at conferences are not as different as people assume. Adam compared the responses he received to a paper he gave at the Institute of Historical Research (IHR) in October 2012 with a paper he posted on his blog from a beach in Belize. Despite the difference in the audience of both papers (his blog attracts readers of the Daily Mail, his Twitter followers and academics), Adam argued the reactions he received on both platforms helped him refine his thesis. Although the paper at the IHR provided him with invaluable feedback from expert criminal historians, his blog allows him to get a broad range of free feedback from people around the world. Adam concluded that social media can act as an informal peer review and encouraged participants to use blogs to test, refine and develop their ideas.
  • Lesley Hulonce (University of Swansea), From the Local to the Global: Victorian Child Poverty and Crime on the Blogosphere.
    Lesley is currently completing her thesis on children’s experiences of workhouses under the New Poor Law (1834-1910). Lesley expands on her research in the successful blog Workhouse Tales, and discussed the ways that her blog has helped her recover the voices of children who suffered under the harsh Victorian regime. Children’s identities were reduced to a number, given when they entered the workhouses, and Lesley highlighted the importance of naming workhouse victims. Naming the children and publicising their stories on her blog has meant her research has been read by family historians, genealogists and students, and opened up new avenues for development. Lesley argued historians shouldn’t forget the emotional engagement we have with our subjects, and in naming them we not only give them back their identities, but also acknowledge the suffering they endured as a result of the Poor Law regime.
  • Lucy Williams, ‘Writing WaywardWomen: A digital discussion of the history of female offending’.
    Lucy Williams, a PhD student examining the personal lives of female offenders in Victorian London and Liverpool, discussed her blog, WaywardWomen. WaywardWomen has allowed Lucy to disseminate her research to a popular audience and, interestingly, track responses to her work. Lucy initially set up the blog because she was fascinated by the lives of the women she examined, and wanted to tap in to the wider public’s interest in 19th-century “bad girls”. Over the past two years, Lucy has seen her blog increase in popularity with 10,000 views from across the world. Despite some rather “eccentric” search terms she has encountered when people are looking for information on prostitution, Lucy has also noticed people are now specifically searching for her blog and regularly engaging with her posts. The blog has also given Lucy opportunities for public engagement and she recently spoke about criminal women in Victorian Liverpool on BBC Radio Merseyside.

Session 3: Roundtable Discussion Current Challenges and New Directions

Speakers: Professor Barry Godfrey (University of Liverpool), Liz Hore (The National Archives), Dr. Helen Rogers (Liverpool John Moores University).

The event concluded with a roundtable discussion about the key issues surrounding crime history, digitisation and social media. Professor Barry Godfrey prompted the audience to consider the growing importance of ethics in the era of digital and social media and to revisit the emotional engagement with historical offenders. Barry noted that the speed and accessibility of online resources has changed our research; we put a lot of trust in digital archives such as those run by Find My Past and Ancestry but know very little about the way they have been constructed and this needs to be resolved. Barry also raised the issue of ethics and emotional engagement, not only for how commercial sites have affected the ways we access the lives of past offenders and victims, but also how we distribute it online. Traditional forms of academic publishing have given researchers protection due to rigorous checking procedures, but we need to be cautious when discussing criminal lives on social media.

Liz Hore informed us of the funding issues surrounding the digitisation of criminal records in the current economic climate. Although only three to five per cent of records in The National Archives have been digitised it would be happy to digitise more of its materials. However, to do this, archivists, librarians and historians need to negotiate with fund managers and alert them to the benefits of digitisation.

Dr Helen Rogers) asked delegates to consider the importance of crowd sourcing. Helen pointed out that digital history is for all of us and can transform how we approach histories of crime through both large-scale and smaller projects. Helen highlighted two areas of crowdsourcing that require attention: firstly, the way that digital and social media can transform students into researchers, an example of which can be seen in Helen’s students’ work on the Writing Lives project, and, secondly, how we can enter into more productive negotiations with family historians.

The event demonstrated how important a network such as Our Criminal Past is in debating the key issues. Many felt the papers and discussions both resolved current issues around digitisation and social media in crime history and also opened up new avenues of inquiry into how we can take these platforms into the future.

Zoe Alker

Research Associate on the Leverhulme - funded project Aftercare: Youth Justice and its Long-term Impacts, 1880-1945, and the AHRC-funded project, The Digital Panopticon, both led from the University of Liverpool.

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