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British History Online


The Origin of the Student Species

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Modern students study their early modern predecessors

This post has been kindly written for us by Dr Adam Crymble. Adam is a Lecturer of Digital History at the University of Hertfordshire and an Editor of the Programming Historian. He was also the Project Manager of British History Online in 2014.

Where did Oxford University’s 60,149 students from 1500-1714 come from in the first place? Thanks to British History Online and a talented group of students, we’re beginning to understand for the first time.

For many people, the extremely carefully digitized volumes in British History Online are a fantastic way to read about the past. The project calls itself a ‘digital library’, and I think that’s apt. For my undergraduate digital history students at the University of Hertfordshire, it’s also much more. It proved to be a source of digital data that we could map and experiment with.

This past year, a group of 18 students studying history were challenged with mapping the point of origin of all 60,000 students who studied at Oxford in the Tudor and Stuart eras. The task would be impossible if the records weren’t already available. We have two groups to thank for that. Firstly, mini-biographies of each of these students were compiled in the nineteenth century by Joseph Foster, and published in hardcopy, known as the Alumni Oxonienses. Secondly, and much more recently, and with the great care that we’ve come to expect from British History Online, those mini-biographies have been digitized and are fully-text searchable on the site.

For anyone related to one of these individuals, this proves to be a great resource to get some specifics on a life lived. But because British History Online’s texts are easy to download with a bit of cutting and pasting, I was able to convert the volume into a spreadsheet for my students to work with. They then extracted the place of origin from each entry using a step-by-step tutorial at The Programming Historian before mapping them using a free tool called Google Fusion Tables.

Alumni Oxonienses Dataset

Figure 1: The Alumni Oxonienses Dataset

All steps used free tools and free texts, so if you’re curious about the resultant map, I’d challenge you to have a go and find out for yourself using the steps above. You can see a teaser in Figure 2, which shows the origins of a subset of individuals who were knighted later in life.

Heatmap

Figure 2: Heatmap of place of origin of knighted Oxford Students, 1500-1714. Dataset compiled by Corey Albone, Jack Dunne, Namiluko Indie, Bethany Reid, ‘Oxford Knights’, The Oxford Knights Archive (2014-15).

These students were not like our university students today. Many were men of the gentry and upper classes, and probably include a large number of second sons, who would not have inherited the family fortune as would their older brother. University in the early modern era was largely a place for would-be clerics, but also lawyers, scientists, and a growing number of merchants. It’s where you got your religious or legal training before heading off for a life in the monasteries, or preaching the word of God, or as a lawyer in the Inns of Court.

In order to understand what the maps showed us, the class learned about the origins of the English gentry, clergy, and legal professions (among others of a similar sort), and were able to see first-hand what the digital nature of the records makes possible. Digital mapping, like graphing, provides us with a heads-up way to understand patterns in our historical records. It’s a way to see the forest for the trees, in a way that’s just not possible with Foster’s original printed volumes. Thanks to British History Online for making this resource available in a format that we could easily reuse. It’s been a great learning experience for us all.

Digitising the Calendars of Inquisitions post mortem

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This post originally appeared on the Mapping the Medieval Countryside blog and is reposted here with permission from Michael Hicks

Work has continued on making the published inquisitions post mortem freely accessible in the sixteen months since funding ceased, and we are pleased to announce that another major target of the Mapping the Medieval Countryside has now been achieved. Volumes 1-20 of theCalendars of Inquisitions post mortem and 2nd series volumes 1-3 for Henry VII are now freely available on British History Online at
www.british-history.ac.uk/search/series/inquis-post-mortem
(Volumes 21-26 are of course already available on the [Mapping the Medieval Countryside] website).

This means that the whole of this massive series of records, covering the periods 1236-1447 and 1485-1509, are now accessible free of charge to anyone in the world with access to the internet. Not only academic historians, archaeologists and geographers, but local and family historians will find them a key source for their own researches.

This is the product of the collaborations between the University of Winchester and the Department of Digital Humanities at King’s College London, of British History Online based at the Institute of Historical Research, and of course the funder the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Especial credit for the final preparation of the digitised text is due to Dr Matthew Holford of the project and Sarah Milligan and Jonathan Blaney at BHO.

Adventures of a library student

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Laura-auditingHello, my name is Laura Jäger and I am an undergraduate student from Germany, studying library science at the Technical University of Cologne. As a part of my course I was given the opportunity to do my 16 week combined internship at the IHR (Institute of Historical Research) and the BHO (British History Online). This internship has given me the incredible opportunity to work with amazing people in two quite different departments.

My special thanks has to go to Kate Wilcox (IHR) and Sarah Milligan (BHO) which gave me a very warm welcome in both the IHR and the BHO, as well as to everyone else working in both departments. Each and every one of them taught and challenged me to learn many new things in the past weeks and were always open to try new ideas, but also never got tired of providing me with their new and interesting views of things.

Throughout my time here, I have worked on different smaller and bigger projects. My main project at BHO was to construct a new annotation feature for the website, which I was allowed to manage mostly myself. It was amazing to be able to build a part for a website from scratch and to figure out in a lot of meetings how it should work and what features might be more useful for what we want to achieve or what the user will need. Another big project I have worked on included auditing work on the London and the British Local collections of the IHR. It gave me a good overview of the wide spectrum of the library. I also discovered some old books which included autographs of the author, bookplates, added pictures or newspaper articles, letters and annotations of previous owners of the book. Sadly a lot of the older books are in need of repair, which is why we set up a conservation fund where you can donate money to help preserve the extraordinary collections of the IHR.

History-of-Brasted

Book plates, letters and rubbings of previous owners, found in History of Brasted

Smaller projects included learning how to catalogue maps, books and special collection items, how to use a microfilm reader, reclassify a part of the north American collection, write a guide about the 20th century American collection for the website and to sort out and label the map drawer.

Being under the same roof with not just the IHR and BHO, but also the Victoria County History (VCH), the Bibliography of British and Irish History (BBIH) and Reviews in History made it possible, to talk with the people behind those great websites and learn more about their work and the changes they went through especially in the last few years. I was also able to visit the Senate house book repair workshop and look into how this branch of the job is evolving as it goes along and that not every book can be treated the same way.

Working at the IHR opened a lot of doors for me. I was lucky enough to visit not just the British library, but also the Wellcome library, Senate House, the Warburg Institute, the British Film Institute, one of the Idea Stores, The Guardian and the German Historical Institute. Even though all of them are considered libraries, they all have their own unique character and are fascinating to study. Some of us also went to Oxford for a day to represent the library at the Oxford Graduate Research Fair for Historians, which was a lot of fun and an amazing event to represent the library. At the end of November we had our own History day in Senate House, which gave me the opportunity to meet and talk with a lot of different librarians from all over London.

Over the last weeks I learned so much more then I had ever hoped for. A lot more than would ever fit in this blog post. A big thank you to everyone who made this amazing experience possible.

Revealing local history: a follow up

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Editathon imageOn 21 November, we held two simultaneous Wikipedia edit-a-thons in London and Leicester as part of the Being Human Festival. We did a lot of promotion of these events beforehand so we thought we should tell you how they went.  An edit-a-thon is an event where editors get together to write or improve articles centred on a specific topic. These particular edit-a-thons were centred on local history and you can read about how we connected our theme with the overall Being Human Festival theme of “Hidden and Revealed” here. You can also read the story of the day via social media.

My colleagues Jessica Davies and Rebecca Read from Victoria County History (VCH), Jordan Landes from Senate House Library and I were all at the London event. Our Wikimedia UK accredited trainer was Edward Hands, and fellow trainer Jonathan Cardy was also there to lend a hand. The wonderful thing about Wikimedia trainers is that they are volunteers, so we are very grateful to Edward and Jonathan for coming along and teaching our attendees to edit Wikipedia. Overall, we were twenty-one people at the London event. We had a great mix of experienced Wikipedia editors and complete novices. The experienced editors were able to help the novices throughout the day.

The first half of the day was devoted to learning how to edit Wikipedia, especially how to make edits that will last—the secret is to provide references for all the additions you make to Wikipedia. Once they’d been trained, our attendees tried their hands at making some edits.

After lunch, VCH editor and training co-ordinator Adam Chapman gave attendees a quick introduction to the VCH, explaining the historical context of the project and how the volumes are organised. I followed by showing attendees how they could use British History Online (BHO) to search and read VCH, along with many other sources of local history. Since providing references is such a vital part to creating strong Wikipedia edits, we wanted our attendees to know about the rich resources that they can rely on when writing and improving Wikipedia articles, especially those resources that are freely accessible on BHO.

Here’s a list of the articles worked on just by the London attendees:

And here are some of the new articles that were created on the day:

Wikipedia_training_session_leicester_uniAs for the Leicester event, they had ten people in total, including Pam Fisher from the Leicestershire VCH Trust, who helped us organise the Leicester branch. From the feedback we’ve received, it sounds like the Leicester event was just as much fun and just as productive as the London event. Their trainers were Doug Taylor and Roger Bamkin, who both did an excellent job. The only negative feedback we received is that the day should have been longer!

Overall, we all had a productive day, learned lots of new things and met some wonderful people. Thanks to everyone who helped with organisation, promotion and training. And thanks to all our attendees for making it such a great day.

Revealing local history

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DD-SAS c212-10-1 map for web

There is still time to sign up for one of our Being Human edit-a-thons in London and Leicester on 21 November.

As part of the Being Human Festival, British History Online (BHO), Senate House Library (SHL) and Victoria County History (VCH) will be leading two simultaneous Wikipedia edit-a-thons in London and Leicester on 21 November. An edit-a-thon is an event where editors get together to write or improve articles centred on a specific topic. We will provide training in editing Wikipedia and no prior experience is necessary. The theme of our edit-a-thons will be local history, which will involve both editing articles about particular places, but also editing articles about the practice of local history in the UK.

The idea to have a local history Wikipedia edit-a-thon first occurred to us when we had a Wikipedia training session at the IHR way back in March. Our trainer was Edwardx (who conveniently will also be the London trainer for this coming edit-a-thon) and during our session we were amazed at how easy the process of editing and improving Wikipedia articles was after a little bit of training. Jessica Davies and Rebecca Read from VCH were thinking of ways they could improve articles about various aspects of local history, and I was thinking about how to encourage more editors to consult BHO since Wikipedia encourages citing online, accessible materials where possible. Following the session, the three of us agreed that the theme of local history would an interesting one for an edit-a-thon. We envisioned local historians, Wikipedia editors, students and academics all coming together and learning from each other. The Being Human Festival, with its focus on the humanities’ ability to inspire and enrich our everyday lives, seemed like a natural fit for the event we were dreaming up.  Jordan Landes, the history librarian at SHL, had organised the initial training for us and kindly offered to help facilitate the edit-a-thon. Soon we were partnering with a team in Leicester, and taking the edit-a-thon beyond our immediate vicinity and bringing it to a national scale.

We’ll admit we were slightly stumped about whether our events would relate to this year’s Being Human Festival theme, “Hidden and Revealed.” But we quickly realised that the goal of revealing is already behind the work that we do.

2006_0731Image0006_1We believe local history should be cared for and preserved in archives, but it should not remain there. It is our communal responsibility to study history, to learn from it and to share it. With the VCH volumes, authors comb local archives and untangle the history of places in order to present those histories to the public in the form of the VCH red books. What is that if not a process of revelation? They take something that might not be hidden per se but rather, difficult to access, and reveal the history of a parish, a hundred, or a county in a clear, encyclopaedic format.

Similarly, by digitising the red books, BHO further reveals these histories by allowing VCH texts to be freely accessible from anywhere in the world. One of my responsibilities at BHO is to manage our email account, and I love receiving emails like the one from the Australian woman who found the history of the small village where her great-grandmother was born, or from the mayor who learned new things about his own town, or from the homeowners who discovered the rich history of the place where they live, or from the elderly man who is brought back to his schooldays. To all those people and many more, uncovering the history of where they come from is nothing short of a revelation.

And finally, Wikipedia—one of the most visited websites in the world—is driven by a desire to make human knowledge accessible to everyone. Wikipedia relies on source material like VCH, and BHO content is already heavily cited across the site. Wikipedia democratises the construction of knowledge by allowing articles to be edited by anyone from anywhere in the world.

So to us, the revelation of the hidden is about understanding the history of where we come from and sharing that with each other. Our goal in these events is for everyone to feel like they can participate in the creation of their own history. One thing I have learned since being at BHO is that British history is never only British; and local history is never only local. We are connected on a global level and we share a global history, which might begin with the local but it never stays there.

Follow the edit-a-thons on Twitter with the hashtag #revealinglocal.

This post has been edited since a third event in Gloucester has been cancelled.

Behind the scenes at British History Online

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Image1A few months ago, I posted an image of seventeen volumes to the BHO Twitter account. These volumes were from several different series: London Record Society, Victoria County History Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire and Calendar of Scottish papers.

That day, we were sending this entire batch of volumes off to the scanners to begin the process of digitising them in order to add them to BHO.

Since that day, we have published several volumes on BHO, including three from that initial photograph (VCH Gloucestershire volume 7 and VCH Oxfordshire volumes 16 and 17. I thought I would explain what the process of getting one of those texts from that printed volume stage to this one:

Image2

The process is a collaborative one, and can be long and expensive. Depending on the size of the volume, the density of the text and the number of images, a single volume can cost between £900 and £1500 to digitise. However, we think that the final outcome of a reliable digitised text, accessible and searchable from anywhere in the world, is completely worth it.

The first step is sending a book to the scanners. The scanning process usually takes a few weeks and the books are returned to us along with files of high-resolution TIFF scans. We have occasionally considered doing the scanning ourselves, but the scanning company’s machines, with their automatic page turners and unrivalled speed, surpass any machines that we would ever be able to afford. The scanning company is able to produce high-quality scans without damaging the books, which is another important factor to consider. We pull most of our source volumes off of the IHR Library’s shelves so we want to make sure that we return them in the same state that we took them.

Once we have received the scans, we must create the publications and components (that is, the sections that books are split into on BHO) in our database. Each publication and component has a unique ID, which allows us to keep our 100, 000+ text files organised. At this stage, we prepare all the metadata associated with the text, including the tags that are used in our faceted search interface.

Once we have publication and component IDs, we prepare rekeying instructions. Our texts are transcribed through a process called double rekeying. This transcription method involves two typists inputting text independently from page scans. The two transcriptions are then compared and any differences are manually resolved. This process ensures a very high level of accuracy as both typists are highly unlikely to make the same mistakes. All of our texts are transcribed in extensible mark-up language (XML). Our instructions have to explain how to mark up a table or an index, for instance, in XML. We send the instructions, the list of IDs and the page scans to a rekeying company. Again, relying on experts for this kind of work is much more efficient and cost-effective than doing it ourselves. The particular company that we have partnered with for many years has reliably produced hundreds of accurately transcribed volumes. BHO and its users place enormous value on the quality of the transcriptions on the site (which are 99.995% accurate) and it is crucial for us to work with companies that we can count on. The rekeyers also extract any images from the text.

They return the XML and image files to us and it is time for the next step. Although very few people enjoy sorting out copyright permissions, we love being able to show as many images from the text as possible so we bite the bullet. Some of our volumes were published fairly recently and so sorting out what images we can reuse on the web is pretty straightforward. Other times, we find ourselves contacting mostly retired editors asking if they remember the wording of their image licences from thirty years ago! Once we have collected image permissions, we edit the XML texts to make sure that we only show images for which we have received permission. Next, the images are processed further so that they don’t take up too much space on our servers. Conserving server space without sacrificing image quality can be a delicate balancing act, sometimes requiring several iterations before we find the perfect size and resolution for each image.

Next, we upload the XML files to the database and the images to our servers so that we can begin our quality assurances. We visually check each file to make sure that all the formatting has been done correctly and every page looks the way that it should. We verify the URLs and the page numbers. We double-check that the image quality meets our standards and that only licensed images are visible on the site. Finally, we check the quality of the transcriptions themselves in order to ensure that they meet our 99.995% accuracy rate.

After some double and triple-checking, it’s time for the most exciting part: publishing the volume on BHO! Once it has gone live, we do a final check to make sure everything was published correctly, celebrate with a nice cuppa, and then move on to the next volume.

Parliament, page scans and post mortem inquisitions

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1624-parliamentary-diariesIf 2014 was the year of rebuilding at BHO, 2015 is (so far) the year of publishing. Since the team was busy with the redevelopment in 2014, it had been a long time since we were able to add new content so we are now very glad to have an abundance of newly published and forthcoming content.

The first new publication added to BHO is an edition of the Proceedings in Parliament 1624: The House of Commons prepared by Philip Baker of the History of Parliament Trust. This born-digital edition is being published for the first time via BHO. The first batch of materials—the parliamentary diaries for February 1624—were released on BHO 12 February, 391 years from the day of the Parliament’s first sitting in 1624. The March and April materials were released on the respective anniversaries of the Parliament’s first sittings for those months. Each new batch of publications was accompanied by a blog post describing the significance of this Parliament and the efforts involved in producing this new edition. Read the February, March and April posts.

mapping-the-medieval-countrysideThe May proceedings still need finishing touches, but we look forward to completing the edition soon. This edition nicely complements the other parliamentary materials that we have on BHO, including the Journals of the House of Commons and the House of Lords. Read our guide to researching parliamentary history on BHO.

We also reintroduced the page scans for the Journals of the House of Lords and Journals of the House of Commons. We had temporarily removed the page scans in order to replace them with high-quality versions in line with the quality of the rest of our collection of page scans (available with a gold or institutional subscription).

Finally, we have also published volumes 3 and 4 of the Calendar of Inquisitions Post Mortem, which was sponsored by the AHRC-funded ‘Mapping the Medieval Countryside‘ project. Volumes 1 and 2 of the series were published as a test case several years ago. Volumes 3 and 4 will be followed by the remainder of the series. Their release was also accompanied with a blog post introducing these volumes.

If you’d like to stay updated on everything that we are doing at BHO, or to test your knowledge with our #BHOquiz, follow us on Twitter!

Version 5.0 of British History Online now available

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BHOhomepageBritish History Online (BHO) is pleased to announce version 5.0 of its website, launched December 2014. Work on the website redevelopment began in January 2014 and involved a total rebuild of the BHO database and a complete redesign of its website.

For over a decade, BHO has been a reliable and accessible resource for primary and secondary sources for the history of Britain and Ireland. Throughout the years, the project has evolved and adapted to changing technologies, new user demands and a variety of content, but as an eleven-year old web project, it was starting to look its age. We faced a problem very similar to the one described by the Internet Archive: our project had evolved far beyond the capabilities of our website and it was time for a comprehensive redesign of British History Online.

In order to rebuild, we had to start over from scratch. We switched to a new content management system and set about reconstructing our site. All the content has remained the same, but we have created completely new interfaces through which to access it.

The new search interface has been designed in response to user requests to be able to narrow down their search results. By applying one or multiple filters, users can control the level of specificity in their searches. The title search queries series and publication titles, and can be combined with the keyword search to further refine results. The new browse interface allows users to see everything that BHO has at a glance. They can also browse by source type, place, subject or period.

All the changes that we have made to BHO have been to increase the usability and searchability of the site as a whole. We have stripped the site down to its core, but we are eager to add new features over the coming year.

We are also very excited to introduce new subscription levels. With version 5.0, we have added premium page scans to BHO for the very first time. These page scans will be available to institutional subscribers, and we have introduced several new subscription levels to make them available to individual subscribers as well.

Finally, we were inspired by the Society of American Archivists’ Spontaneous Scholarships and came up with a way for members of the BHO community to support one another. We invite BHO users to contribute to our subscription scholarship fund, which will give out free year-long subscriptions to postgraduate students and early career researchers. Learn about how to contribute.

Lots of changes to BHO and we hope our users will be as excited about them as we are (if that is even possible)! We look forward to hearing what you think!

Teaching A Level History using British History Online

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256px-Cardinal_Wolsey_Christ_ChurchThis post was kindly written for us by Alex Porter – Head of History, Parmiter’s School

The paradox of teaching A Level history is that you know very well your students’ education would be better served by studying topics in greater depth but unfortunately this has the potential to hamper their achievements in examination. Nowhere is this more apparent than in textbooks.

An A Level textbook can be a comfort but the range of sources provided in textbooks is very limited. This limitation is for two reasons, the first being the examiners need to hold onto some sources to base examination questions on, but also because the textbook is supposed to be just enough for the average student to get by on. In theory you could use it all on its own and get the top grade. Yet this doesn’t necessarily help make the best historians, and the best students know this. The high achievers need to be stretched and this means more sources.

As a result, many history teachers will punch phrases into Google on a regular basis in the forlorn hope that there will be some magical archive of sensibly arranged contemporary information that could be mined for use in lessons. Those that teach courses on Henry VIII will likely have found solace in the comforting embrace of British History Online. I am one of them.

I was initially searching for contemporary accounts of Henry VII in order to put together a lesson investigating the circumstances of Henry VIII’s accession. What I ended up finding was Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume 1: 1509-1514, an extremely rich seam of court papers and accounts from the reign of Henry VIII. It included a missive apparently from the Venetian ambassador dated 8th May 1509, in which Henry VII was described as ‘a most miserly (miserissimo) man but of great genius, who has accumulated more gold than that possessed by all the other Christian kings’.

This was perfect material. The provenance was such that it afforded the students an opportunity to consider how Henry VII might have been considered outside his realm, but also gave real meat to the idea of his wealth in comparison with others around Europe. It wasn’t long before I was reading details of the condolence note to Henry VIII from Ferdinand of Aragon.

Such information is invaluable to me in the delivery of this course. It provides me with a deeper understanding of the affairs at court in the period and allows me to drop anecdotes into lessons that pique the interest of my students. It also gives me the material needed in the delivery of lessons that go beyond the narrow confines of the set text.

Since this happy find, I have been back on British History Online more than once and not alone. My school has developed a “Bring Your Own Device” policy allowing students to safely use their phones and tablets in lessons, so I was able to encourage my students to undertake their own research in a subsequent lesson. It wasn’t long before a number of them were trawling through these records, attempting to establish the use of the term Alter Rex for themselves to see if it only ever applied to Wolsey.

With the use of websites such as British History Online and the assistance of a progressive ICT policy it has become possible not only to find extremely useful resources for myself but to encourage students to develop their learning independently. In ordinary circumstances I would be harvesting their finds as Wolsey gathered tithes but we have to change our A Level for next year and no doubt there’ll be a new set of narrowly focused textbooks to use. At least this time I’ll know where to look for some sources.

British History Online welcomes new Publishing Manager

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Sarah Milligan, Publishing Manager

Danny asked me to introduce myself to IHR blog readers so I figured I would tell you a little bit about myself and my position as Publishing Manager for British History Online (BHO). My name is Sarah Milligan and I joined BHO four weeks ago. Before that, I was a research assistant for two digital projects, the Map of Early Modern London and the Internet Shakespeare Editions, both of which are based at the University of Victoria, in British Columbia, Canada. My background is in English literature (I did my MA degree on Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese) but English and History tend to intersect quite a bit and I was a long-time user of BHO before I ever came to work here.

I only recently moved to London so I have been settling into the city just as I have been settling into the IHR. Luckily, everyone has been very welcoming and I think things are off to a good start. Here are some of my favourite things about working for BHO:

  • Receiving emails from readers telling me about the myriad of unique ways that they use BHO. On the one hand, having such a wide variety of readers makes it challenging to create a resource that meets all of their needs, but it is also wonderful to see BHO’s texts being searched and consulted in ways that we may have never anticipated.
  • The IHR encourages collaboration, both formally and informally. Whenever I have a question, I can usually pop into the office of whomever specialises in that topic and receive a quick answer. I love the sense of teamwork here.
  • Working in Senate House, in the heart of Bloomsbury, is pretty fantastic. I can’t help but thinking about all the great minds that have lived and worked on the streets surrounding our BHO office.
  • I am joining BHO at a really exciting time. We are in the middle of redeveloping our website and we are thinking about how to make BHO easier to search and more intuitive to use. We also want to develop a stronger sense of community amongst our BHO readers.

I am looking forward to letting you know about all the new developments we are working on. If you want to stay up to date on what we are up to, please follow us on Twitter @bho_history.

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