Wednesday, 11 June 2008

Blogging the 19th century - a Scottish perspective

I have long since been fascinated by the interplay between the 21st century online emphasis on user generated web 2.0 content and earlier publishing phenomena.

Indeed I once tried [albeit not that successfully] to interest Simon Morton of Radio New Zealand's This Way Up programme in the thesis that early Scottish Broadsheets, then, and still, on show at the National Library Scotland were fascinating precursors to our current blogging tools.

I was reminded of this today by a lovely post from Lorcan Dempsey who is currently in Edinburgh attending the SCONUL conference.
He had been looking at the National Library of Scotland's website earlier and found a reference to a research project alerting PhD candidates of a Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) project  which is trying to find linkages between current blogging and 19th century Scottish heritage correspondence.

AHRC Beyond Text programme
Intrigued I followed Dempsey to the detail. Citing some preliminary work done by the likes of Nancy van House ‘Weblogs: Credibility and Collaboration in an Online World’, 2004). the project challenges the notion that social networking is largely regarded as a novel phenomena of the so-called ‘information age’ with no connection with analogue forms of networking.
It then goes on to construct a research framework which compares 19th century sources and correspondence held in the National Library of Scotland with 21st century blogging sites.

Also involved in the project is the Humanities Advanced Technology and Information Institute (HATII) at the University of Glasgow.

You can find out a deal more about both the research framework and the underlying proposed methodology here. For the moment though, lets note some of the research questions HATII and the NLS hope to expose though this project. But first a brief note to the background premise.

Background Premise
A key background premise of the research is the assumption we have lost sight of the frequency and depth of the postal service in late 19th and eary 20th century European life, and as a  consequence, have but a superficial understanding of how networked some communities and social groups were.

Thus, though it is a common place to cite the example of the Bloomsbury Group being able and willing to write to each dozens of times a day, a less common earlier example would be that of the 19th UK prime minister, Gladstone, who found time to write to his wife three times a day. Even earlier, the likes of Sir Walter Scott, conducted a huge correspondence with extended families and friends.

Much of this material is now held in our heritage collections - and a good deal more context can be found inside the ephemera collections of the same.

It's this seam ,which when combined with the more modern sources of local Scottish contemporary blogs et al, which forms the raw material of the research questions the project wishes to explore.

Harden/Allan collection at the National Library of Scotland.
Included in the earlier sources is the 19th century Harden/Allan collection at the National Library of Scotland.

This collection comprises thirty-two newsletters in separate volumes covering periods of four months from 1801-1811, which were designed to be sent to India to Jessy Allan’s sister.

They are heavily illustrated and are being seen as potential pre-cursors to family blogs and websites, and include drawings of events, activities, and family social gatherings and domestic chores, such as bottling whisky.

Research questions
Below are few of the research questions which I have edited out of the HATII material. Obviously this is just a first cut, and no doubt the successful researchers will find a whole lot more. However, they do offer an intriguing set of beginnings.

1. By comparing the frequency of the interactions with the format and structure of the content how far can the blogs and social networks identified in both domains be characterised as epistemic?

2. What's the relationship between private and public space, what sort of content is posted to networks or kept in the analogue? What are the comparisons - similarities etc.?

3. Are these as much a reflection of societal change as of the technology?

4. How do we expand our understanding of the way in which non textual forms
of communication impact on communication. When for example did the exchange of drawings and photographs become a commonplace and how if at all do photographs taken with a Box Brownie differ from those taken with a mobile phone or that matter from sketches?

5. Is just a question of the technology employed or does the technology radically alter behaviour?

6. What type of content is most commonly posted to networks and how does this differ, if at all, from content kept in the analogue and will this have ramifications for future preservation strategies?
I'm going to follow up on this research, and of course I'm intrigued to investigate how far we could take a similar venture here in New Zealand, beginning with, for example, some of the collections in both the Alexander Turnbull, the Hocken ,the Auckland City Library Heritage collection, and the Auckland Museum, et al . There might even be tie in to some from the material which Jock Phillips and his team at Te Ara have surfaced as part of their research?

There is also a local link in that Seamus Ross the Director of HATII has been a frequent visitor to New Zealand and is I believe one of the reference group to the NDHA, the New Zealand National Digital Heritage Archive.

It would also be fun to go and play inside more of the National Library of Scotland collections. They recently published their next three year strategy, Expanding Our Horizons. It talks of their willingness to build and extend their international relationships. Sounds like fun to me!

In the meantime - just in case I didn't make it clear - the lucky recipients of the research grant have long since been picked. But as I say, there is nothing to stop us growing our own Australasian version.


Paul Reynolds said...

An interesting line of thought. It has always seemed to me that another traditional ‘literary’ phenomenon which has similarities with blogging is the marginal comments to be found on books especially in the 19th century.

True they were private, rather than public, but they did involve an ongoing conversation with the author so they were rather similar to the comments which people add to blogs.

Marginalia (the technical term) can be hugely rewarding to examine, but I have never seen them really used or even made public.

However others have seen the link between blogging and marginalia – see, and

Google, however, is not very supportive and keeps asking me ‘Do you mean Magnolia?

posts on behalf of Jock Phillips - Te Ara

Anonymous said...

Lovely! Just this afternoon I was discussing with some other researchers of things social the continutities of interactions ... thus the medium is not the message?

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