Wikimania for Historians

Coming to the Barbican in London this weekend (August 8 to 10) is Wikimania 2014, a great gathering of people involved in Wikipedia and its many related projects. There are hundreds of panels and talks, and as an attendee and contributor with predominantly historical interests, I’ve been sifting the program for relevant sessions. Below are a list of those that in some way touch my own interests as a historian; mainly they concern making useful tools for research than the actual investigation of the past.

Note that there is a whole ‘GLAM‘ (galleries, libraries, archives and museums) track as well, which should cover historical matters in some part. The talk on Saturday afternoon about crowdsourcing transcription listed below is part of it.

Obviously there are many other intriguing sessions, and many that can be considered useful to the historian – such as dealing with copyright (and staying out of jail). For the whole lot, go consult the program.

Friday August 8th

10:00, Fountain Room: Free Our Research – Reaching out to academics from the good folk at the Open Knowledge Foundation

14: 30, Frobisher 456: Transforming Wikipedia into the timeline of everything!

5:30, Auditorium: Peter Murray-Rust on Machine Readable Scholarship PMR is doing great work on getting data out of PDFs, that, although centered on scientific literature, could be used to liberate all sorts of historical data.

Saturday August 9th

9.30, Fountain Room: Maps The cartographical session of most interest to a historian.

11.30, Hammerson Room: Humanitarian Mapping The other cartographical session.

12.00, Frobisher 456: The Old New Thing Crowdsourcing the transcription of a historical text, in this case an early c20th Hebrew dictionary.

Sunday August 10th

9.30, Frobisher 123: Wikidata Could be very interesting for ‘big data’ historians.

10:30, Frobisher 456: The Full OA Stack – Open Access and Open Source Panel on getting free software into the Open Access world, featuring Martin Eve of the Open Library of Humanities.

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Records and Music

Old hoarding exposed by rennovation work at 52 Stoke Newington Road, N16.

Old hoarding exposed by rennovation work at 52 Stoke Newington Road, N16.

A piece of urban history recently uncovered by the remorseless redevelopment of Dalston is this old shop hoarding, ‘Records and Music.’

A search on Google Books for 52 Stoke Newington Road reveals it was the headquarters of Sci Fi promoter John Carnell and the ‘International Fantasy Award Committee’; that it sold albums of sound effects;  and in the 80s, under the name ‘Phase 3 Records’ , sold Nigerian vinyl. Most recently it was a Turkish TV and video shop.

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Radical Hackney after World War One

Spurred on by the great Radical Hackney History blog, I’ve dug out some digital press clippings on radical movements in my home borough after the first world war. The first covers an early instance of squatting, when unemployed workers unoccupied properties, the second a rent strike in Shoreditch.

These two articles are taken from the fantastic Trove, a resource built by the National Library of Australia. Most of the digitization of English newspapers has been by private companies, and consequently they are neither accessible nor usable. Hidden behind paywalls, with the most horrendous automated text transcription rendering them both illegible and unsearchable, one wonders whether they even succeed in their main aim of making money.

Trove, on the other hand, is free to view, and allows the reader to correct errors in the transcription. A virtuous circle ensues: the more it is used, the more useful it is, in turn attracting more users and sharing the heritage. Although it collects Australian newspapers, there are many news reports from the United Kingdom, even down to the local level as these two cuttings show.

Aside from the local aspect, these reports caught my eye as examples of spatial contestation in London. This city has been made and remade through conflicts over space, whether as buildings, commons, communities or customs. This is an aspect of my work on the debtors’ sanctuaries of London circa 1670 to 1724, but the long story of the struggles over the terrain of London remains to be written. It’s on my to-do list, but not near the top.

For more North London WW1 radical history, see Ken Weller’s Don’t Be A Soldier.



Seizure of Town Property.

[Australian Press Association.]

LONDON, December 2. [1920]

The increasing unemployment has resulted in much disorderly conduct in some of the London suburbs. In several instances unemployed have seized unoccupied municipal property in order to establish relief organization. The latest step has been the occupation of the town halls of Tottenham and Edmonton. The men hoisted the red flag on the building, and declare they will remain in possession until work is found for them. At Camberwell they seized the Free Library building and 21 empty houses, and at Hackney they have occupied a drill hall. The public are supplying them with rations of bread, ‘bully beef,’ and coffee. There were riotous scenes also at Dalston, another metropolitan suburb, where men out of work attempted to seize empty houses. The police were obliged to draw their truncheons in dealing with the riot. The whole problem of unemployment has become a serious question. Some boards of Poor Law guardians are granting relief to men at the rate of 10/ per week, with 10/ extra for a wife and 5/ for each child.



LONDON, September 7. [1921]

A meeting of unemployed at Shoreditch carried a resolution that no rent should be paid by those out of work until the maintenance of the unemployed had been made a national charge, and a scheme  for the provision of full maintenance for the unemployed was in practice. In order to enforce the “strike,” the   borough was divided into 16 parts, each under a marshal, who will arrange pickets to patrol the streets and give   assistance against the authorities, in the event of any attempt being made to evict a “striker.”


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As announced on twitter, I have decided that every time a paywall or an archive blocks me from reading an academic article, I’m going to tweet it with the hashtag #closed.

I’m a PhD student and so, through my university, have access to a great number of online journals; certainly far more than the general public has. Yet despite this, and despite this material being the raw material for my work, I still come up against inaccessible articles.

This is not to criticize my university’s library. On the contrary, I can fully understand why they can’t possibly subscribe to everything, given their finite budget and the price-gouging of publishers. Even Harvard finds the subscription fees untenable.

My aim is to show that academic publishing is broken even for academia itself. It does not support the work of the academics, librarians, students and researchers who actually produce and curate the content. It follows, I believe, that the best interests of academia are not contrary to those of the larger, global public, of anyone with any interest – but without formal accreditation – in the research carried out in universities. The restrictions in place are for the benefit of the publishers, not the authors, who are denied communication with their peers as well as with any wider audience.

I hope that these tweets will help expose the everyday failure of the current publishing business. Raising the curtain is the prelude to action. In connection with this, it is worth mentioning the fine article by Jeffrey Salaz “Your Paper has just been outsourced” as revealing the production process behind all those expensive journals.

Finally, I want to make a clear commitment to the growing open access movement that wants to free research and knowledge from its proprietary chains. And in this connection it is worth mentioning the forthcoming OAButton project, a tool to track who is being blocked, what is being locked up,  and where else it can be obtained.

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Stella and Fanny

Following the unveiling of the plaque to Herzen (see it on open plaques) in Judd Street last month, the Marchmont Association have just installed another round the corner in Wakefield Street, commemorating the Victorian cross-dressers Boulton and Park, a.k.a. Stella and Fanny (open plaques entry).

Plaque to Stella and Fanny, aka Ernest Boulton and Frederick Park, Wakefield Street, London W1.

Plaque to Stella and Fanny, aka Ernest Boulton and Frederick Park, Wakefield Street, London W1.

‘Cross dressers’ is something of an under-statement. For not only did they drag up on stage but also in public; they were deeply involved in the homosexual subculture of Victorian London; and they were the defendants in a notorious trial that had the crowds  flocking to the courtroom.

Indicted for conspiracy to commit and incite to commit “felonious and unnatural crime”, and for public indecency, they were found not guilty. The police investigation came in for cutting criticism from the judge:

“The act of the police-surgeon in examining the person of the prisoner as he did, without any legal authority, was wholly unjustifiable. He had no more right to do it than he would have to inflict such an indignity on any person in custody, or any person he met in the street. The seizure of the letters of the other defendants also appears to have been without any legal warrant or authority.” Case Report

And the prosecution couldn’t even show it was a criminal offence for men to drag up in public.

In his brief overture to the unveiling Neil McKenna spoke of how the site itself had a larger part than just being the lodgings for Stella and Fanny. Now the headquarters of the United Reformed Church, 13 Wakefield Street had been a ‘house of accommodation’ for young men with a penchant for dressing up in women’s clothes. Consequently, there was quite a community based around it. Not a brothel as such, but not a legitimate lodging house either, it was run by Martha Stacey, probably a former prostitute, who knew what was going on and when to turn a blind eye to it. It was also the scene of the illegal police raid  so criticized by the judge.

So it’s not just these two men who are remembered by this plaque, but an SSSSI – a site of special sexual sub-cultural interest.


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Digital Humanities GIS projects revisited

A milestone: my list of Digital Humanities GIS projects has now topped 100 entries. It currently stands at 103 entries, the latest to be added being the Google-sponsored Routes of Sefarad, mapping Jewish Heritage in Spain, and Placing Literature, an ambitious attempt to crowd-source the locations of novels.

The original aim was to catalogue academic mapping projects; my interest was in how the new digital ‘neogeography’ was being used in universities, and for what ends. But the list has drifted away from this, to cover literary and historical mappings in general. So projects produced outside academe are listed as well.

I’m not aiming to be comprehensive, and have enough data for my original purpose, but I will continue to maintain this list in an ad hoc fashion. Know of a project not listed? Put it in the comments.

For more maps, more than you could possibly explore in a lifetime, see Google Maps Mania – which goes beyond what the name suggests. And for weird cartography, see the ever excellent Strange Maps.

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Spaces between Places

“Space seems to be either tamer or more inoffensive than time; we’re forever meeting people who have watches, very seldom people who have compasses. We always need to know what time it is (who still knows how to deduce it from the position of the sun?) but we never ask ourselves where we are. We think we know: we are at home, at our office, in the Métro, in the street.”

Georges Perec, ‘Space’, from Especes d’espaces, translated by John Sturrock as Species of Spaces, Penguin 1997. (Google Books)

I read these words on a plane, at an altitude of somewhere round 37,000 feet, somewhere over Denmark or Germany, perhaps even Sweden or Holland. I had my phone with me – who wears watches these days? – but it firmly stated it could not locate my position.

At that very moment, when technology had uncoupled, when the view was restricted by a small window and a fixed chair, when only glimpses of land could be made between the clouds, when that land offered only unfamiliar landmarks, I truly did not know where I was.

But I wouldn’t have noticed if I had not been reading this piece by Perec.

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Gorilla in the Roses: The Collages of Halliwell and Orton

“On the frontispiece a picture of a monkey’s head had been pasted in the middle of a rose.”

“On the front, where there should be pictures of eminent persons, there are the faces of cats and a bird has been pasted where the face of an eminent person should be.”

“In a book on the life of Dame Sybil Thorndike there was a photograph of her sitting in a chair in a room, but the picture of a man’s torso had been pasted in front of her face to show her looking at the man.”

Such were the dry descriptions given in court of the vandalism carried out by Kenneth Halliwell and Joe Orton on numerous books in Islington public libraries. Rarely seen, they are currently on display at the Islington Museum until February 25th (the end of this week – hurry hurry hurry!).

The understatement of the court-room minimizes the ferocious transgression of Halliwell’s and Orton’s activities. They had been stealing books for nigh on four years, cutting out plates – some were used for decorating their flat – then redesigning and collaging the covers, sometimes adding fantastically obscene blurbs. They would then replace the books on the shelves, and watch for an unsuspecting member of the public to browse them.

Several themes are apparent in the volumes chosen and their subverted covers. The Arden Shakespeare series are treated with great respect, being given dramatic and exciting images reflecting the subject; the critique is of the plain design of the series, monotone and dull, putting passionate work into the equivalent of a plain brown bag. The pulp literature and easy reading was given a more mocking treatment: the startled simian bouquet of the Collins Guide to Roses (a gibbon according to some sources, a baboon for others, although the Mirror headlined with ‘Gorilla in the Roses’); another monkey and assorted unlikely faces for The Great Tudors; even more apes for Exotic Cage Birds; the betrothed cats – with a kitten implying the motive for marriage – on Agatha Christie’s The Secret of Chimneys. Along with grotesque juxtapositions were queer entendres: the Queens Favourite was wrestling men.

But it is the biographies that inspire the greatest iconoclasm: The Lunts – a theatrical couple of some repute at the time – are portrayed as grotesquely garish childrens’ toys, John Betjeman is tattooed from neck to feet, Alec Clunes’s portrait is a smashed skull and Dame Sybil Thorndike, a statutesque amazon on the front cover, was not just looking at “a man’s torso” but staring straight at the crotch on the back.

Thus far, some inspired defacing. But it was using these works to provoke scandal that brought them notoriety, and gives them a guerilla aspect. They were designed to rupture the staid ambience through a rough surrealism and blatant sexuality. “I used to stand in corners after I’d smuggled the doctored books back in the library and then watch the people read them. It was very funny, very interesting.” said Orton afterwards.

Most of their work was destroyed after a trial that saw both men sent to prison and given fines that nearly impoverished them: “because we’re queers” in Orton’s opinion. What is on display, around 40 covers, is all that survives of these remarkable productions.

The exhibition frames these works as an investigation into the juvenalia of a famous and celebrated playwright. These are his youthful exuberances, before finally ‘cracking it’ and breaking into the mainstream. But given their queer aspect, the lives of their makers and the vindictiveness of the trial, it is worth considering these works without hindsight and in their own moment. Had Orton not been successful, what would have been made of these works? Would they have been less interesting, less intelligent, the work of a vandal rather than a critic?

I think not. Even if Orton hadn’t been successful – and such a way of framing it underplays the equal contribution of the unrecognized Halliwell – these collages would still embody a contempt for boredom, a queer ‘in your face’ aesthetic, and a provocation outside the art gallery, executed with quite some skill. And as at the time, they were a couple of unknown, pre-1967 gays, constrained by and pushing against the mores and the policing of the time, it is in that light they should be appreciated.

Above, film of Joe Orton interviewed by Eammon Holmes Andrews (whoops!) about his library exploits.

Two online galleries of the covers: The Guardian and Joe Orton Online

“Malicious Damage: The life and crimes of Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell in Islington” is on at the Islington Museum until 25 February 2012. A book of the same name is rumoured to have been held up for legal reasons.

Quotes from the trial taken from “Because We’re Queers: The life and crimes of Kenneth Halliwell and Joe Orton”, by Simon Shepherd, Gay Men’s Press 1989. Open Library record. Quotes from Orton from “Prick Up Your Ears” by John Lahr, Penguin 1980. Open Library record.

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Installing Zotero standalone on Ubuntu 11.10

Zotero is an open source reference manager, produced by the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media.  To say ‘reference manager’ understates what it is capable of: you can use it to organize your reading, collaborate with others, and produce bibliographies in a matter of seconds.

Having started off as a Firefox plug-in, it has recently released a beta of a stand-alone application. More versatile than the browser-based version, it is however a little more tricky to install on Linux. (On OS X it installs via the usual click, drag and drop.) Hence this post. These instructions are based on Ubuntu 11.10, with the Unity desktop, but they should work for any variant. Certainly it works for my preferred flavour, Xubuntu.

Warning: this is beta software! Warning 2: these instructions come with no guarantee of success!

1: Download the Zotero standalone tarball. For a 32bit chip, you’ll want the x86 version, for a 64bit get the x86_64. If you don’t know what type of system you have, open a terminal and type:

uname -m

You’ll get something like i686 if you are running a 32 bit system, and x86_64 if you have a 64 bit system. Note that you may be able to run the 32 bit version of Zotero on a 64 bit system, and that even if you have a 64 bit chip, your version of linux might be 32 bit.

2: Unzip it. You’ll now have a folder called Zotero_linux, appended with -i686 for the 32-bit version, and -x86_64 for the 64bit. [Update 1, 16/7/12: I missed a line here: Open the folder and locate the executable file, named ‘zotero.’] Right click on it, choose ‘properties’ from the menu, and then the permissions tab, and tick the ‘Program’ box to allow it to run as a program.

3: As it stands, Zotero will work. But having the package in your home directory is a bit messy, and means it isn’t available for all users of the computer. So to be both neat and useful, open a terminal and type

sudo mv ~/Downloads/Zotero_linux-i686/ /opt

This will move Zotero to your /opt directory. Note that because this is Ubuntu, the command has to be run with sudo. For many other linux distros, you’ll have to log in as root.

4: So far so good, and so easy. The next step is to get the system to recognize that it has been installed. To do this you have to make a .desktop file in usr/share/applications. Copy and paste the following text into a file called zotero.desktop:

#!/usr/bin/env xdg-open
[Desktop Entry]
GenericName=Bibliography Manager
Exec= /opt/Zotero_linux-i686/zotero %f

Then send it to usr/share/applications, where most of the .desktop files reside:

sudo mv zotero.desktop /usr/share/applications

5: And finally, find and run it. Go to the ‘dash’ in the dock – or Application Finder, under Accessories in the Xubuntu menu – search for zotero, and it should show up under applications. Click and all being well, Zotero will start up. If you want to keep it in the dock, right-click the icon and tick the option to keep it there.

Uninstalling: To remove Zotero, open a terminal and type: sudo rm -r /opt/Zotero_linux-[version] and sudo rm /usr/share/applications/zotero.desktop. The users own files are in the hidden folder ~/.zotero.

[Update 1, 16/7/12: Missing line regarding permissions in step 2 inserted.]

[Update 2, 16/7/12: These instructions work for the latest Xubuntu release, 12.04; so presumably they will also work for Ubuntu 12.04.]

[Update 3, 16/7/12: Zotero is currently at version no. 3.0.8. Automatic updating from within the linux port doesn’t work; to upgrade just install the new version of the old, following steps 1 – 3 above.]

[Update 4, 10/7/14: Zotero is no longer beta, is at version for Linux, and automatic upgrading now works. Download link above changed. Further, there is now an Ubuntu PPA for Zotero on Launchpad.]

Further support for Zotero can be found on their documentation pages and forums. This post is copyright under the CC BY license. Use to your heart’s content, but please acknowledge me!

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Locating London’s Pasts

Last week I attended a seminar on the latest venture from Sheffield and Hertfordshire Universities’ family of digital history projects, Locating London’s Past. The aim is to create a sort of geographical front end to a number of London-centred datasets, among them its sister project, the famed Old Bailey Proceedings Online. Using a remarkable rasterized version of John Rocque’s 1746 map of London, the first Ordnance Survey map, parish boundaries, and underpinned by the ubiquitous Google map, the data can be plotted in the context of a contemporary city.

The site isn’t live yet, but attendees were able to have a play with the beta version, and I found it very impressive. First thing I did was check for cases of monetary crime in the 17th and 18th centuries, and their distribution across the region. In a couple of minutes, I had formulated a query and got it displayed in front of me. St James Clerkenwell, St Giles in the Fields and St Martins in the Fields, all outside the City of London, came out top. It has been suggested that coining was a pursuit often practiced in slums; all three areas contained notorious rookeries.

This was a quick experiment and one shouldn’t jump to conclusions. The number of cases was quite low – just 9 in St Giles, if memory serves. Population density and geographical size of the parish need to be taken into account. But it does illustrate the possibilities, and the ease of use, of this site.

There were a few bugs and problems. The old difficulty of markers overlapping one another hasn’t been solved with this site. A toggleable, full-window view of the map would be useful, as zooming in on an area pushes its neighbours out of sight, diminishing context. The lack of unique URLs makes bookmarking and referencing very difficult.

I also felt that it was difficult to see landmarks and thus orient oneself: a number of the test cases claimed to show marked differences between the City proper and Westminster, but without this political geography being explicitly marked on the map it looked more like a contrast between an indistinct west and east. And if this boundary had been explicit, the picture may have been described in a different way. I have a hunch that there are very important divergences between the City of London within the Walls, and the extramural wards. This is not easy to see on the site as it stands.

A concluding discussion on digital history and GIS covered issues such as the lack of an academic GIS infrastructure, the lack of training available and the possibilities of importing and exporting data. The need for easy mapping software was only briefly raised, although the website dotspotting was recommended.

What struck me later was that Locating London’s Past wasn’t your standard GIS-based website but a real investigative tool, requiring a high level of engagement on the part of the user. With many map-centric websites one can do little more than take a virtual walk through an area, looking at a restricted range of points. With LLP, one has to formulate a question, translate it into a search query and then analyze the output, which may be suggestive in itself but by no means obvious. The difference is partly due to the enormous quantity of geo-referenced data LLP has, so much that it cannot all fit on a map. But there’s a qualitative aspect as well, that puts the stress not on cartography but on the database. Without a question, there is nothing to see.

Tim Hitchcock has said that London is the most digitized city in the world. More of its records have been made available online than anywhere else in the world. There’s more to do of course, most notably in relation to areas transpontine, but the focus now has to be on how we use this material. Locating London’s Past offers not just a visualization of data, but also a way of thinking about different uses of it.

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