Westfield College

20-21 March 1987

History and Computing - 2nd Annual conference

Westfield College campus begins increasingly to resemble the set for some grimy Channel 4 documentary on the state of British Education. The exteriors of its gracious 19th century buildings are suffering a rash of desperate fly-posting while their bare interiors remain un-redecorated and unloved. For this conference, the ruins have put on a pretence of being inhabited still, which somehow makes them all the more depressing. In an ambitious moment twenty years ago, Westfield erected a functionalist science block, derelict for the last few years since it lost its science department; for this occasion it has been unlocked and its 'ground floor heating switched on. Ghosts lurk in the corridors, however. Elsewhere, in what was once a library, there are still a few comfortable chairs and a non-stop coffee machine, but all the bookshelves are bare.

Maybe the atmosphere affected my judgement, or maybe it's just that it had a hard act to follow, but I found this second conference less exciting than the first one. There was the same extraordinarily broad-based constituency of delegates, from secondary school teachers to academic researchers, as well as a significant European presence (except for the French who were conspicuously absent): the attendance list includes nearly 500 people. There was also the same abundance of material: around 250 papers crammed into two days of parallel sessions. Considerable effort had been made to group papers on a common theme into the same session, which encouraged more detailed and informed discussion but discouraged the serendipity I had enjoyed at the previous year's event. The distributed nature of Westfield's surviving lecture rooms also made it very difficult for butterflies like myself, once stuck in a group of rather limp papers on the applications of Knowledge Based Systems in secondary education, to escape to the parellel session on "Recent advances in historical demography" which was clearly where the real action was going on.

There were two plenary sessions, of which I attended only the first, which was a "keynote address" style lecture by Roderick Floud. Prof Floud has been somewhat of a pioneer amongst computing historians, having published an article advocating the use of electronic card readers in 1973. His lecture was enthusiastic but decently sober about the micro revolution, stressing that new tools did not mean new methods. In the future, he was confident that data input methods would remain a central problem, however advanced the technology. He described what he called a "prompting data input program" that had been developed for use in capturing US Army pension records and demonstrated the ease with which data could be manipulated by a typical cheap micro dbms/spreadsheet package (REFLEX, no less) and concluded with a plea for historians to fights against the "mythology of computing".

As aforesaid, I made the mistake of choosing the wrong session from the four parallel workshops offered next, from which I gained nothing but a nice new acronym (MITSI - the Man In The Street Interface). The third paper in this group was the best: it was from a Portuguese scholar who had developed an expert system for handling about 2000 depositions of "sinners" as recorded in 17th - 18th century ecclesiastical court records. Unfortunately Carvalho's English was not up to the task of explaining a great deal of its inner workings, though the principals seemed clear enough.

I had no choice in the next set of four: whatever the rival attractions of "Urban and regional studies" (quite a bit), "Higher Education Seminar" (rather less) or "Prosopographical studies" (rather more), I had to attend the workshop on "Relational database method", if only because I was giving the first paper in it. This (a rapid introduction to SQL and the relational model using D. Greenstein's Philadelphia data as example) had to be boiled down from about 2 hours worth of overheads to a very fast 30 minutes, but it seemed to go down reasonably well. Phil Hartland (RHBNC) then gave an unusually clear and jargon-free exposition of the virtues of SSADM in managing large projects: two intriguing examples he mentioned were a projected history of the music hall and also a database about music in the 18th century. Michael Gervers from Toronto ( one of the few non-Europeans present) reported on his Pauline conversion to ORACLE in much the same terms as last year: he has now produced some quite interesting results about changes in the landholding status of Mediaeval textile workers.

Next day, I arrived in time for the last part of an informal workshop on data standardisation chaired by Manfred Thaller, which appeared to be making very little progress: someone was pleading for a set of 'ethical guidelines'. After coffee, I plumped for the session on "Problems of multiple record linkage", thus missing the intellectual ("Recent advances in historical psephology"), the exotic ("Schools Education Seminar") and the ineluctable ("Academic word processing" - a dizzying combination of Tex, Latex and Tustep). My chosen session began with Arno Kitts' (Southampton) solid exposition of the historical and methodological problems involved in accurately linking together Portuguese names as they appear in 19th and 20th century passport lists, electoral rolls, cemetery lists etc. The object of the exercise is to determine patterns of emigration: calculating for example the rates of return migration. The linkage procedure should be completely automatic (he asserted) to avoid subjectivity, but necessarily involved dictionary lookup for some more widely varying name forms. None of these problems seemed to worry the next speaker, our very own A. Rodriguez, whose recordlinkage problems were virtually non existent: her data consisting of some 8000 records of birth, marriages and deaths in all of which surname, forenames, and father's names are all obligingly present. Even SIR could cope with data as simple as this: all that was necessary was a massive sort on the names, followed by a forty line piece of procedural gibberish to insert links between records with the same namestring present, written for her by the obliging D. Doulton of Southampton, centre of SIR fanaticism in the known universe. The last speaker, Ariane Mirabdobaghli (LSE) was using Ingres to link 18th centurty parish and tax records: it was not at all clear how, which is a pity.

The remainder of the conference consisted of five parallel sessions of five "research reports" each, spaced out so as to permit session hopping. I managed to catch Dunk (sic) and Rahtz (sic) on strategies for gravestone recordings (a flatteringly familiar exercise in conceptual modelling); Dolezalek (Frankfurt) on ways of reconstructing manuscript stemma (an intriguing, if apparently hopeless text); Nault (Montreal) on an enormous historical demography project at Quebec (births and marriages of every individual betwen 1608 and 1729) - being stuck with a Cyber 70 they had to write their own dbms, but seem to be doing quite well with it; and finally, Lamm (Birkbeck) who has been let into the MOD's secret archive of first world war soldiers' records with an Epson portable. He is using this to extract a minute random sample of about 8000 records, about thirty variables (height, age, length of service etc) from the attestation papers, personal correspondence, war records, pension and medical books etc etc here stored away on some 64,000 feet of shelfspace. I found it rather depressing that this numerically recoded set of SPSS data would probably be all that remained of this archive by the time it was made public in 1995, the rest - already damaged by fire- having long since crumbled to dust. But my friend from the Public Record Office seemed quite relieved at the prospect.

The AHC (as I suppose we shall have to call it) now has a formal constitution and its own magazine. The enthusiasm generated at last year's conference continues to thrive. But I hope that next year, when it is planned to organise a smaller national conference on more focussed topics, I shall be able to report more substantial fruits from it.