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Connected Histories

Indian summers in the sources


Intriguingly, a search of Connected Histories reveals only 34 references to the term ‘Indian summer’ (and that from an estimated 5.6 billion words and 140,000 images relating to British history from 1500 to 1900). The reference in the Old Bailey Online is simply to a summer in India, and this may also be the case for the single reference in the John Johnson Collection of Printed Ephemera (the title of a short story in a Table of Contents). The other 32 references are contained in the House of Commons Parliamentary Papers.

It is often mistakenly believed, in the UK at least, that the term refers to the Indian subcontinent, but the ‘Indian’ in question is in fact Native American. The first reference in the Parliamentary Papers (drawn from ‘Reports of progress, together with a preliminary and general report, on the Assinniboine and Saskatchewan exploring expedition’ (1860)) yields the following rather lyrical explanation:

Indian summer is a phenomenon of constant yearly occurrence and marked characteristics in the north-west … the hazy, warm, mellow weather we term Indian summer is a periodical phenomenon in Canada, but the cause does not appear to be quite understood. The characteristics of Indian summer are more decided in the north-west than in the neighbourhood of Lake Ontario. Sounds are distinctly audible at great distances; objects are difficult to discern unless close at hand; the weather is warm and oppressive, the atmosphere hazy and calm, and every object appears to wear a tranquil and drowsy aspect.

This is followed by a table providing data for the incidence of Indian summer in Toronto from 1840 to 1859 inclusive – it apparently lasted for between four and 11 days each year.

Closer investigation reveals that only 13 of the references in the Parliamentary Papers (five from this one report) are directly relevant, and I’ve saved them as a ‘Connection’ here. The short descriptions are evocative of British officials and explorers enjoying welcome relief from extremes of temperature (in both summer and winter) to which they would have been unused:

… mornings are pleasant but cool, and a fire becomes agreeable. This period is termed all over America, the “Indian summer,” and is always looked for, and depended on, as the time to make preparations for the winter season.

The summer heats for a brief season are excessive, vegetation is singularly rapid, and the autumn, which includes the Indian summer, is delightful.

Cold, bleak, misty days followed till the 18th, when the balmy enjoyable weather known as the Indian Summer commenced, and continued till the close of the month …

The first reference to ‘Indian summer’ provided by the OED online dates from 1794 (Ebenezer Denny, Military Journal of Major Ebenezer Denny, an officer in the Revolutionary and Indian Wars. With an introductory memoir. By William H. Denny (1860)), so it is surprising not to see it occur more frequently in Connected Histories. The fact that it deals solely with British rather than American source material is clearly a factor. The Google Books ngram viewer suggests a slightly different picture. There is relatively high incidence of the term in the period 1800-20 (although at least some of these may well refer to summer in India, as noted above) and smaller peaks at intervals throughout the 19th century. However, even here it’s not until the 1970s and 80s that things really take off. Today, ‘Indian summer’ is a staple of newspaper headlines and television weather reports, and will be used many more times before the end of this balmy week in the UK.

(Image: Jasper Cropsey, Indian Summer (1886). Smithsonian American Art Museum, via Wikimedia Commons)

September storms


On a very blustery September day, a search of Connected Histories for the word ‘storm’ produces 36,190 results, including this from Strype’s Survey of London: ‘in the year 1574. on the fourth of September in the Afternoon, there fell a Storm of Rain, where through the Chanels suddenly arose, and ran with such a swift Course towards the common Shores, that a Lad of 18 years old, minding to have leapt over the Chanel, near unto the said Conduit, was taken with the Stream, and carried from thence towards the Thames with such a Violence, that no Man, with Staves, or otherwise, could stay him, till he came against a Cart Wheel that stood in the said Water-gate, before which time he was drowned, and stark dead’ ( Of course, not all of the results are related to the weather, or indeed as tragic. The first for the Old Bailey Proceedings Online, for example, concerns an assault committed by the dramatically named Charles Edward Storm. You can explore further at

Reflecting on digital projects at the IHR


IHR Digital has a growing collection of papers in SAS-Space, the e-repository for the School of Advanced Study. It includes papers relating to projects such as the recently launched Connected Histories, as well as British History Online and the Bibliography of British and Irish History. Topics include sustainability, assessing impact, the future of peer review, and building tools for collaborative editing. View them all in SAS-Space, or click on the handy feed of most recent items in the left-hand column of this blog.

The National Archives’ new Discovery Service


At the launch of Connected Histories yesterday (more to follow on that next week), David Thomas, Director of Technology at The National Archives (TNA) unveiled in public for the first time the beta version of the new TNA catalogue. At the moment you can access the ‘Discovery service‘ via the excellent TNA Labs rather than finding it on the main TNA pages. As the description indicates, this is a first release, and it will be some time before it replaces the existing catalogue. Now is the time for researchers to experiment with the new service and feed in their comments (there is a feedback form for exactly this purpose).

There is a handy browse facility, by government department, but the search is where things really begin to get interesting. A quick search for the term ‘beggars’ (suggested when David bravely asked for audience requests!) produced 104 results, with the term clearly highlighted in a snippet view. On clicking through to a particular record, the full description is given along with an option immediately to order a digital or printed copy of the record. Far more information is immediately apparent than with the current search, where it may take several clicks before arriving at a page which actually makes visible your search term.

Another enhancement is the option to refine the search by subject, date and/or collection. For example, two instances of the term ‘beggars’ appeared in records relating to ‘Privacy and privateering’. The first of these turned out to be a report on one William Caines, a ‘man of colour’, former (presumably not very successful) privateer and now beggar. The ‘Discovery service’ does precisely that, exposing the depth and richness of the collections to an unprecedented extent.

Finally, when searching for a place-name – ‘Stamford’ was the example used – it becomes possible to display the results on a map. Geo-referencing all of the information in the catalogue is, if course, a huge task, and there is a long way to go, but it opens up a range of exciting options for the future.

Digital humanities and British studies


A panel session organised by Tim Hitchcock and Jason Kelly at the North American Conference on British Studies on 13 November demonstrated that the digital humanities, and digital history in particular, are thriving in the field of British studies. The panel brought together 10 speakers, from a range of sectors, in a Pecha Kucha session (a maximum of three minutes per presentation, with strict timing in operation). Questions and answers were in turn timed at 30 seconds each, with three questions allowed per speaker. The idea of presenting a major digital project in less than three minutes is initially a daunting one, but it proved to be an interesting exercise in distilling a project or idea to its key elements. And crucially, the format meant that there was a full hour left for general discussion – a real luxury.

Tim Hitchcock spoke about data mining in relation to the Old Bailey Proceedings, demonstrating what may be possible if researchers are prepared to use digital tools to ask genuinely new questions. Jason Kelly discussed the options for rethinking peer review in the digital age, proposing several models for opening it up to a wider group of peers (more of this later). Two projects employing similar methodologies to connect distributed digital resources were also presented: Laura Mandell talked about 18th Connect, which currently searches 669,719 peer-reviewed digital objects from 10 federated sites; and I offered a preview of the Connected Histories site, which will be launched at the end of March 2011. The latter will create a federated search facility for a wide range of digital resources relating to early modern and nineteenth-century British history, from British History Online to the British Library Newspaper collections. Ian Archer spoke about the Holinshed project, which has produced a digital edition of Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland and finally Dan Cohen discussed new developments for Zotero, which has become of such significance for the management and sharing of research resources.

In addition to this view from within higher education, the panel also included speakers from the library, archive and publishing sectors. Jim Kuhn talked about the Shakespeare Quartos Archive, hosted by the Folger Shakespeare Library, which makes available a digital collection of pre-1642 editions of Shakespeare’s plays, while David Thomas presented the innovative work that is being undertaken by The National Archives of the UK through its Labs initiative. It’s to be hoped that other large archives and libraries will follow TNA’s example in involving their users in the development of digital resources. Jenny Bullock demonstrated Adam Matthew Digital’s new service for teaching and research iAMDigital, and then a cautionary note was struck by Celestina Savonius-Wroth, whose presentation on ‘Paying for the digital humanities’ revealed quite how little space there is for the humanities in a typical library budget.

On this evidence digital history would seem to be in very good health, although there was an acknowledgement in the following discussion that there is still a long way to go. Members of the audience, for example, questioned both whether undergraduates were being trained to make best use of the new digital resources and technologies available to them and how much progress was being made even earlier in schools. However, the question of peer review dominated the conversation. It is clear that the technology is now available easily to support, for example, crowdsourced, open peer review, but it is equally clear that there will need to be major cultural change if established processes of peer review are to be fundamentally altered – if fundamental change rather than gradual evolution is indeed desirable. This can only be achieved through discussion, and this session was an excellent start.

Connected Histories: sources for building British history, 1500-1900


The IHR is collaborating with the universities of Sheffield and Hertfordshire, and King’s College London on an exciting new project, funded under the JISC eContent programme. ‘Connected Histories’ will create an innovative search engine for a wide range of digital resources relating to early modern and 19th-century British history.

Initially it will incorporate:

British History Online
Old Bailey Proceedings Online
Plebeian Lives and the Making of Modern London
17th-19th century Burney newspaper collection
Origins Network
Parliamentary Papers
Clergy of the Church of England Database
Strype’s Survey of London
Charles Booth Online Archive

Other resources will be added over time.

For more information, see the project web pages, where you will also find links to the project blog and Twitter feed.

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