Wednesday, 16 December 2015

The 21st Century Historical Researcher

In between completing recent research commissions for scholars working on Turkish POWs interned in India and Burma in WW1, Iraqi coinage (issued by the Royal Mint - hence the records at TNA) and Greek refugees in the post-WW2 period, I'm currently chipping away at my PhD, trying to render it fit for publication (and not before time given that I finished the thing 20 years ago). The working title of this eagerly awaited masterpiece is 'Venal Hirelings and Despicable Incendiaries: British West Indian Newspapers During the Struggle for Abolition', and what strikes me on revisiting the original text is how different it could have been had I been doing the research now. So many new and potentially rich fields of historical enquiry have been opened up by the Internet that it's difficult to pick any one that would illustrate just how different the experience of the 21st century researcher is to his/her counterpart of a mere 20 years ago. Take the records of Parliament, for example; struggling as I was to get to grips with the Colonial Office stuff at TNA, I never did get around to even approaching this apparently impenetrable mass of material - why! even referencing the report of a nineteenth-century select committee seemed to be an arcane mystery. Thus these invaluable records remained untouched, at least as far as my work was concerned. And what an omission: a few careful searches of the House of Commons Parliamentary Papers website has produced an undreamt of bounty, all of which can be read, sifted and analysed at home and at leisure.

But it's not that simple, and even though the technocratic mystics out there may not like it there are some things that the Internet can never change: individually and collectively, the documents themselves are still what they always were, and I remain staggered at just how complex and multifarious the records of Parliament and government can be (the two are not the same thing, of course). Even finding a simple verbatim account of what was said in the Commons or Lords on a certain occasion can pose problems: 20 years ago as a callow researcher I would have thought that we would be on safe ground with Hansard, but not so - or at least not for the 1830s. In fact, I have found Hansard to be remarkably inaccurate and have had to resort to other sources in the quest to find what I was looking for: the little-known Mirror of Parliament (on which Dickens - a famously accurate notetaker - worked) or the parliamentary reports that appeared in the press, for instance. However, press reports differ slightly from MoP which differs from Hansard - so which should I use? It goes on and on: access to records has improved to an extent that previous generations would have thought impossible, but certain ineluctable research problems remain for the historian to wrestle with.