By Philip Carter

Last week the IHR launched its Mission and Strategy, 2020-25 which was introduced in a blog post by the Institute’s director, Professor Jo Fox. Over the next four weeks we look in more detail at key elements of the Institute’s work for the coming years. We begin with digital and digital history.

The IHR and digital history

The use of digital technology, and the pursuit of digital history, are very well established at the Institute of Historical Research. They’ve been a core element of the IHR’s work for the past 15-20 years, and have evolved in that time as technologies and research interests have developed.

But, throughout, the IHR’s digital work has been shaped by three ambitions which we might describe as follows. First, the Institute is a longstanding creator and provider of digital resources that enable people to study the past in new ways.

Second, the IHR is a digital collaborator – working with academic historians – nationally and internationally; with other digital centres; and with holders of primary research content: from the national archives to London livery companies to historical societies.

And, third, Digital has been an innovator: working at the intersection between technology and the humanities, to create new ways of approaching the past – in a manner that recalls the IHR’s origins in the 1920s as a ‘history laboratory’.

Digital is today central to everything we do at the Institute. It runs through many of the activities you’ll read about in this series of Strategy posts, and it binds together the IHR’s teams on shared projects.

Digital is equally central to many people’s perception of, and engagement with, the Institute. Last year, the IHR’s digital resources were viewed 12.5 million times by users worldwide.

British History Online provides free access to nearly 1300 volumes of primary content, 45,000 images and 15,000 historical map tiles.

Many of these people rarely or never visit the Institute’s meeting rooms or Library in central London. But they do connect daily with the Institute through our digital work: not least the services we provide via the IHR website, and specialist research resources such as British History Online (BHO) and the Bibliography of British and Irish History (BBIH).

Our recent research partnerships also lead to the creation of new digital resources. These include the digital publication of thousands of early modern petitions that capture and give access to the voices of everyday people in sixteenth and seventeenth-century England. Or sites like the British and Irish Furniture Makers Online (BIFMO) which allow the intersection of records relating to 60,000 craftsmen active between the sixteenth and early twentieth century.

Such projects in turn help stimulate new research interests and digital practices. The material dimension of furniture-making, for example, lends itself to an interest in applications of 3D imaging and 3D printing in the humanities, and to consideration of the potential value of these technologies for teaching and research.

3D imaging of a 1726 chair frame As part of the BIFMO project.

Similarly our very rich store of information relating to historical people and places contributes to our exploration of network graphs to chart and see historical human interactions in new ways.

The IHR’s digital future

Looking to the future, digital will remain central to the IHR’s mission and strategy for the 2020s. Indeed, as the opportunities — and indeed the challenges — of new technologies grow, digital becomes ever more central to our work, and that of the researchers we serve.

In shaping the IHR’s Digital future, we continue to hold to the established principles of creation, collaboration, and innovation. But – as over the past 15 years – so the focus of future work will evolve, in response both to new technologies and new research questions. What’s key here is the future historical research we’re able to undertake, and which new technologies exist to make possible.

The IHR’s 3D printer is used to build models of historical artefacts for handling.

In mapping this future, the Institute will focus on three principal strands of work. Collectively they speak to our remit for research facilitation, training the next generation of historians, and research innovation.

Relevance, value and content

First, we’ll ensure the ongoing relevance and value of the key resources we provide for the discipline. This will see a focus on our most valuable and unique research assets: British History Online (which is a digital collection of primary sources); and the Bibliography of British and Irish History, which is a unique record of secondary sources — from the foundation of the modern historical profession, in the early 1900s, to the present day.

This work will see the ongoing addition of new research content; the diversification of that content, in line with shifting research interests or priorities; and the closer interconnection between our online resources.

To give one example. The IHR has recently digitised its records relating to 30,000 UK History PhDs, completed between 1901 and the 2010s. From 2020, we’ll start making this content available on both British History Online and via the Bibliography of British and Irish History — and then connect both to the British Library’s collection of digitised theses (Ethos).

Our work will both provide much-needed structure to the British Library’s set of History PhDs; and offer new ways to explore the History doctorate over time. From this, we might study the development of the PhD as a genre. Or establish intellectual genealogies for the British historical profession. Who, for example, was your supervisor’s supervisor’s supervisor? And who else did he or she supervise? Who, in other words, are your intellectual second cousins twice removed?

Digital literacy for historians

Our second strand seeks to foster improved digital literacy among historians. We’ll do this partly at the level of individual resources, such as the Bibliography of British and Irish History, to ensure that students and teachers make much smarter and informed use of existing resources – for teaching and supervision, as well as personal research.

We’re also interested in digital literacy more broadly. We all use digital resources daily. If This crosses our minds at all, we like to think we know what we’re doing. In truth, however, we’re often poorly trained in digital compared to analogue practices. This makes us ill-equipped to navigate the hybrid environment in which much research is undertaken today.

We’re often so grateful to find information online that we spend too little time questioning how we find it, what we’re being served and, importantly, what we’re not finding. The consequence of this should be a concern for us all, and is a core element of the IHR’s remit as a national centre for research practices – along with that of our institutional partners with whom we’ll pursue this agenda.

Research innovation through data

Our third and final strand of work is innovation. Here again we will focus on — and rethink — our core assets, British History Online and the Bibliography for future generations of researchers who now expect more than a set of texts to read onscreen.

Here, the common thread is to think of these resources not just as works or texts, but as data. That is, as sets of information relating to historical people, places, events, objects, and publications that – once free from the traditional structures of print publishing — can be reassembled and connected in new ways, based on an individual user’s research interests.

For example, we can take all the content of British History Online, break it down into its component parts (text, maps, images, people, places, actions etc.) and transform it into a separate data store — with which we can then do so much more than with existing search options. We’re also able connect this data to other sets of content, within the IHR, across the School of Advanced Study, or elsewhere. And, in addition, we can make this richer material more discoverable and accessible. This promises considerable benefits for us all.

The Bibliography of British and Irish History (BBIH) is both 600,000 records of published works and a data set with which it’s possible to chart changing patterns of history writing, research and publishing in the twentieth and twenty-first century.

We can similarly reconfigure the Bibliography of British and Irish – presenting it not just as a record of 600,000 publications, but as millions of bits of information relating to 20th and 21st-century historical scholarship, writing and publishing: authors, titles, publishers, publishing formats, page extents, and so on.

We’re currently discussing with partners a project to view this data at scale, in order to generate new ways of looking at patterns within modern historiography.

In this way, we might chart thematic and personal trends and trajectories through twentieth-century history writing; and then connect this — via Google books and other resources — to the texts themselves.

This, for example, will allow us to study, at scale, the changing forms and language of historical writing over time. Or, via analysis of books’ acknowledgment pages, to recreate the networks on which scholarship has been built, well beyond the boundaries of traditional scholarship. There’s great potential here to discover hidden voices and influences that have So far gone unnoticed in the story of British historiography.

A network diagram showing the principal craftsmen engaged in the construction of Ham House, Richmond, Surrey, 1670-83. All data is drawn from records that show working relations between different craftsmen (furniture-makes, architects, artists, suppliers)

This is not just about using digital to view the past in new ways, important though this is. A data project like this also has much to say on present-day research and publishing trends; enabling us to study the modern profession with reference to gender, age, ethnicity and research funding structures.

In this way, the IHR’s digital research will connect to, and inform, other areas of the Institute’s strategy, including those relating to inclusive histories, accessibility, stewardship of the profession and the discipline, and support for early career researchers.

By so doing we expect digital not just to enrich our future understanding of the past, but also to contribute to the IHR’s shaping of that future.

Philip Carter is Head of Digital and Publishing at the IHR and Senior Lecturer in British History. You can read more about the work of the IHR’s Digital team via the Institute’s website.

Other posts in this series

Following Jo’s opening post in February 2020, we’ve added several more essays looking in more detail at aspects of the new IHR strategy: