Review of Sources on British History Online

British History Online []

British History Online
British History Online

The internet is a fast-growing source of information. British History Online is a source database which allows students and academics to conduct research into a variety of areas in British history pre-1800, specifically in the workings of parliament and the monarchy. This is a side-effect of the age of technology – people are using digital resources more and more in order to conduct research, rather than visiting a physical archive. This is because digital resources in general do not have some of the drawbacks that physical archives do. For example, you do not have to travel to access digital archives, and you are less likely to have time restrictions on studying them. Travelling to and from archives also tends to be quite expensive, depending on how far afield you have to go. For example, studying American history might mean that the majority of archives are in America. Reading physical documents can be quite time-consuming, particularly if they are old and you have to decipher the handwriting or if they are considered fragile.

There are downsides to physical archives which digital archives are better at. A lot of physical sources have restrictions on handling them, like having clean hands, not leaning on them, keeping them in order, and using book rests for delicate tomes.[1] It also depends on the availability of the sources you wish to look at, as there may be several people wanting to look at the same text, but there is only one copy. Using online sources, this problem does not exist. However, seeing the original texts can be beneficial to give you an insight into style and handwriting, and can give you access to information that has not yet been digitised, as many archives are still in the processing of digitising their sources and it may not be completed for several years. Nowadays people do seem to take it for granted that sources will be available online and that they will not have to travel to archives to get what they want. It is databases like British History Online that are making people complacent. Historians possibly miss important issues by not reading the originals, particularly with relation to style, and if they have been transcribed, because they could have been misread, or be subject to the bias of historians.

The variety of sources on British History Online is wide-ranging, including the Letters and Papers of the Reign of Henry VIII and State Papers from monarchs like Edward I, Elizabeth I, Charles II and Anne, as well as the Interregnum. Aside from this, British History also includes Acts of the Privy Council, Statutes of the Realm, ecclesiastical records, wills and inventories, and a selection of early maps. Some of these, like the Letters and Papers and the Acts of the Privy Council are free to access, and others, like the State Papers are subscriber only, meaning you have to pay for access to them. The website should make it clear from the home page which are free, and which cost. However, it is useful to have so many sources in one place, rather than having to search around for them. It is important that the sources are preserved as far as possible and the easiest way to do that is to digitise them, so that people can read them and write about them without having to handle them, and therefore damage them.

On the negative side, the usability of British History Online is not brilliant. For instance, one is limited by the search function in some sections, like the Letters and Papers, unless you want to read everything. Because the texts that have been digitised have been transcribed into the computer in the above section specifically, you are at the mercy of the transcriber, and their own opinions and biases, which could have crept into the texts. However, not all sources are transcribed. Some are scanned into the computer and then uploaded to the website, like the Acts of the Privy Council. This means that they are not subject to the bias of the transcriber, and that you can interpret them in your own way. But you do have to be able to read them, which can be difficult. Searching within sources, you have to use several spellings of the same word or related words to find anything relevant. For example, for Anne Boleyn, you can find sources under ‘Anne’, ‘Ana’, ‘Boleyn’, ‘Bullen’, ‘Concubine’, ‘the Lady’ and ‘Queene’. The search terms can depend on who you are searching for sources by, and in what period. With the above, for example, ‘Queene’ would be searchable in relation to Anne only between April 1533 and May 1536, and up until January 1536 it could still have meant Katherine of Aragon. Similarly, ‘Concubine’ would generally search up correspondence by Eustache Chapuys, the Imperial ambassador. There are also problems that can arise in digitising sources with copyright, as some archives are very fastidious in allowing their sources to be scanned or transcribed online, although this does not appear to be a problem with British History Online. In British History Online, when you search for a keyword, the entries come back quickly, but are not in chronological order or any order at all, which makes it difficult to organise them, particularly when one letter is an answer to another but a person cannot find the original letter, because of the lack of organisation.

Alison Abbott builds on this and claims that some historians are quite scathing of digitisation because it could lead to false interpretation.[2] Many historians believe that paper sources offer an advantage in being able to see how they wrote and in what style, although the importance of this is limited. If the digitisation has not been entirely accurate then the possibility of a misinterpretation is high, although one is not aware of this happening yet. What Tom Hitchcock points out is that paper sources of different kinds are kept separately and that this also seems to happen with many online databases, like British History Online – parliamentary papers, personal letters, pamphlets and newspapers are all kept separately.[3] This makes it harder to compare them, and also to find them again. Searching for sources becomes difficult because one has to look in so many different places, even within the same site. For example, in British History Online, the State Papers, Letters and Papers of Henry VIII and the Acts of the Privy Council are all completely separate, yet they all relate to one another.

On the other hand, in a lot of ways, using online sources is faster than searching through pages of handwritten for something that may or may not be relevant. Online databases also collect a lot of sources all in one place that relate to a specific topic. For British History Online, that is British history pre-1800. A helpful little tip that British History Online gives you when you access a source is a guide to citing it in academic work. For example, it gives you various formats, so you just choose the one that is right for you: Chicago, BHO and MLA to name a few. The site is not very complicated to use. Everything is set out so that it is easy to use, but what would be better would be if you could view the original source in, for example, the Letters and Papers alongside the transcript of it, where available, in order to see the style, handwriting, and how well it survived. Abbott writes that digitisation allows sources to be mined more effectively, ‘beyond traditional barriers of language and academic discipline’.[4] Looking outside academic bounds will probably introduce new arguments and ways of examining sources that have not before been explored. In my own experience, it is easier to compare sources online, which can lead you to new conclusions. It is easier to click a mouse rather than flick between many sheets of paper.

Early English Books Online (EEBO)
Early English Books Online (EEBO)

In comparison with similar digital resources like the State Papers and Early English Books Online (EEBO), British History Online does seem to be behind the times. The State Papers and EEBO both do what British History Online does not, and gives you scans of the original documents, and allows you to download them to your own computer. For British History Online, this would be a way forward in the future. Also on EEBO you can search by author, which would also be a useful function which British History lacks. However, similarly to British History, when you search on both the State Papers and EEBO the results come back in no order – it appears completely random. All databases need to sort this problem, because it does make research difficult. Although British History Online does give citations, from personal experience they are not always very clear. The State Papers appears to be much better at this. Be that as it may, British History Online is a very valuable resource, although it does have its downsides, like any resource.

[2] Alison Abbott, ‘Digital History’, Nature, Vol. 409, Issue 6820 (2001) pp. 556-7, p. 557

[3] Tom Hitchcock, Robert Shoemaker & Jane Winters, ‘Connected Histories: a New Web Search Tool for British Historians’, History, Vol. 96, Issue 323 (2011) pp. 354-6, p. 355

[4] Abbott, ‘Digital History’, p. 556

3 thoughts on “Review of Sources on British History Online

  1. Your style is extremely unique compared to other people I have study stuff from. Thank you for posting when you’ve got the opportunity, Guess I will just bookmark this page.


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