Economics Network CHEER Virtual Edition

Volume 9, Issue 2, 1995

Old Manuscript Woodcut

Sharing Resources in the 1990's

A report on the 1995 Annual Conference of the UK branch of the Association of History and Computing, Selwyn College, Cambridge, 19 - 21 April.

This conference, held over a three day period in mid-April, featured a number of lecture presentations, round table discussions, and workshops on various aspects of computing in areas connected with historical research and teaching.

The opening address was delivered by Peter Doorn of the University of Leiden. His paper, 'The End of History and Computing,' examined the development of history and computing over the last decade, noting the growing divergence between the use of computing by mainstream historians, and the methodological focus of articles in history and computing journals. To remedy this, he suggested, computing and history now needs to move on from its methodological orientation to a greater focus on the findings produced by computer-aided research.

Conference presentations examined the practical aspects of using computer applications for historical research and teaching, together with the underlying problems of data standardisation, the computerisation of archival sources, and sharing databases and other computer-related resources. Daniel Dorling (University of Newcastle) chaired a session on the use of Geographical Information Systems (GIS) in historical research, in which a number of presentations were provided to illustrate the potential which GIS offers for the spacial examination of historical data. These included a discussion by Alistair Pearson, University of Portsmouth, on the use of GIS in the multidisciplinary historical project, combining geographical, archaeological and other information to reconstruct a locality's past.

Steven Smith, of the Institute of Historical Research, chaired a session on the potential of information technology to increase the accessibility of archival resources. Several UK archives are already beginning to make their computerised catalogues available on the Internet, while in the foreseeable future many of the sources these catalogues list may also become accessible via the computer. The papers, and the discussion which followed, also touched on the constraints which may limit the potential of archive computerisation, particularly lack of resources, copyright difficulties, and the loss of contextualisation which keyword searching might entail.

A number of presentations also focused on approaches to computer-based teaching in history. James Foreman-Peck, of St. Anthony's College, Oxford, discussed experiments in computer-based teaching in economic and social history, while papers by Joan Unwin and Nigel Williamson (University of Sheffield) examined the use of database construction and analysis in teaching. Several presentations by members of the TLTP History Courseware Consortium were also provided to illustrate the use of computers in the 'enriched lecture.' Sessions also examined the ways in which record linkage and other techniques can best be used to assemble aggregate data from historical records. These included a lively debate regarding the techniques used by the Cambridge Group to reconstruct Britain's population history. Other presentations focused on the construction of historical databases, including a session on the database of Irish Historical Statistics, chaired by Leslie Clarkson, Queens University, Belfast.

The conference provided a useful forum for researchers in history and related disciplines to exchange information regarding developments in historical research and teaching. The social dimension of the conference also proved very successful, Selwyn College providing an excellent venue. As improvements in technology increase the potential for extracting information from the mass of available historical records, computing looks set to make an ever growing contribution to historical research. Together with its considerable potential for enhancing the teaching of history, there is an important need to coordinate and develop the use of computing by historians, which has been well-served by this conference.

Peter Scott
University of Portsmouth

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