#FLcurious_researcher: resources and methods

How to interpret the past and why the study of history matters for the issues we find most important today, from the universities of Nottingham and Birmingham and the British Library. Three weeks from 3 Sep.

This course introduces a range of resources and methods you can use to explore the past. We will use specific examples to discuss how you can make meaningful judgements about particular kinds of history. But we will also explore how such histories influence the way we think today.

Over the next three weeks we will look at important themes and problems for the study of history and the tools and methods that you can use to access the past. Using the collections of the British Library, we’ll highlight different types of sources, including some hidden treasures from our collections.

Week 1: How to ‘read’ history, and why it matters

The first week focuses on language and the study of history. An important theme is the way in which language itself changes, the challenges that poses for studying the past, and the sorts of research questions that may arise from this.

-> how the raw material of history is collected and made accessible: “One of the unique features of this course is that it emerges from collaborations of those who curate the historical record – who collect, select, catalogue, make accessible and exhibit its raw materials – and those who interpret this record, who make it their job to study and write about historical events.”

Simply to repeat what we find in our historical sources is not to write history. History is always about translating. It is about translating sometimes peculiar or alien languages of the past into words that we can understand, that make sense to us. But it is also about pointing out how language changed over time, and how not everything that sounds or looks familiar in history is the same as the present.

The historian faces three challenges in studying the use of concepts:

  • the meanings of concepts, and the meaning of language used to describe concepts, changes over time and between groups; sometimes this meaning change can be identified by looking at other words used alongside a concept, eg freedom from vs freedom to
  • concepts are contested: different groups or people will try to control an interpretation, and will not necessarily reflect other interpretations in their writings
  • a historian will need to look at the wider historical context within which a group was describing a concept in order to decode the meaning of the language they use

What, exactly, is meant by ‘national sovereignty’ in debates over mass migration, border protection, or Brexit? Who is the nation, who does the country belong to? Is the nation defined by a shared sense of the past, by shared values and lifestyles rooted in the past? Or is it simply a community of citizens, irrespective of culture, religion, ethnicity, who live in one country, obey its laws and pay their taxes? The distinction between ethnic and civic nationalism has a long history – it still shapes political debates today.

->  What are the important political words or concepts for your research theme? Are they ‘contested’, ie do different actors use them in different ways? How might reflecting on such differences shape the way you pose your research questions?

Corpus linguistics and histories of the everyday

Reading critically

  • sources and evidence: primary or secondary? who, what, where, why?
  • ask critical questions, self-reflect to extract yourself from your own social context, consider absences and silences
  • see also 5 tips for historical research
  • from the same team: Propaganda and ideology in everyday life (on watchlist), led by Maiken Umbach (@maikenumbachAcademia.edu | ResearchGate), who has interests in the historical roots of modern identity politics and the role of material culture (buildings, urban design, objects) in shaping national and local identity, as well as ways of seeing and perceiving landscapes, the way that historically created landscapes shape our ideas of what is ‘natural’ and ‘beautiful’)

Week 2: History as images and artefacts

Libraries and archives, maps:

UK Web Archive:

Week 3: Thinking outside the box

Our place in the world: whose history? Histories do not belong just to particular communities and nation states; here, we explore some that cut across traditional borders and boundaries.

Colonial legacies as tourism: the example of Asmara 

What does it mean for formerly colonised countries to market the physical legacies of foreign imperial rule as ‘heritage’ sites for tourists? In 2017 the city of Asmara, the capital of Eritrea in North Africa and home to about 800,000 people, was declared a UNESCO world heritage site.

UNESCO justified their decision to honour this ‘Modernist African City’ in these words, raising interesting questions. The text acknowledges the Italian influence on the architecture, but makes no mention of the fact that the colonisers were Fascists. Nor does it raise any concerns about demarcating something as a key heritage site that was imposed, by force, on an indigenous population. And which was built not for their use, but for the use of Italians. Any yet, UNESCO in many ways just confirmed a practice that had already been developed by modern Eritreans themselves, who have for many decades been promoting Asmara as a key attraction for – mostly European – visitors.

The desire for ‘sightseeing’ is a key factor in tourism. What counts as a ‘sight’ is almost always a product of history. As tourists, we all become consumers of history, but we rarely reflect on the politics of this consumption.

-> What parts of history do you enjoy ‘visiting’? And should those who curate and advertise such tourist sites make visitors aware of the particular histories that produced them in the first place? Or is it legitimate to give these remnants of the past a new meaning in the present? Can we indulge our appetite for a generic sense of nostalgia for ‘the old’ without getting caught up in the actual power relations that produced this ‘old world’ in the first place?

Formulating effective research questions

Questions help manage a research project by providing a clear focus, and by giving objectives for the research. A good research question should encourage an original contribution to the field of study, by posing a problem that can be resolved through research.

Three stages in devising a research question:

  1. Reading what has previously been published on a subject. This will show the different questions that other researchers have asked, and the concepts and methods that they have used to study the subject. Think about any gaps in what you have read. What questions haven’t been asked, or are there different concepts that could be used to think about a particular issue?
  2. Assess what resources you have to resolve problems. How much time do you have for the research? What resources do you have access to? Thinking about these issues will help you decide how broad or narrow your questions should be.
  3. The last stage is to formulate your question or questions. Your questions should be closely related, they should give your research focus, encourage you to explore a problem in an original way, and provide achievable objectives.

Concluding thoughts

A bit of a hotchpotch, this one! But some useful materials on resources and a reminder of methods for my far too broad research project, in particular corpus linguistics and the UK Web Archive.

LitLong Edinburgh: exploring the literary city

last updated: 23 April 2019

Edinburgh has just celebrated its 10th anniversary as UNESCO’s first city of literature. Perhaps not entirely coincidentally, 30 March saw the launch of LitLong (@litlong), the latest output from the AHRC funded Palimpsest project (@LitPalimpsest) at the University of Edinburgh (see Nicola Osborne’s liveblog and #litlonglaunch).

An “interactive resource of Edinburgh literature” currently based around a website with an app to come launched for iOS, LitLong grew out of the prototype Palimpsest app developed three years ago, taking a multidisciplinary team 15 months to build — geolocating the literature around a city is no trivial matter!

550 works set in Edinburgh have been mined for place names from the Edinburgh Gazetteer, with snippets selected for ‘interestingness’ and added to the database, resulting in more than 47,000 mentions of over 1,600 different places. The data can be searched by keyword, location or author, opening up lots of possibilities, such as why is Irvine Welsh’s Embra further north than Walter Scott’s Edinburgh? Do memoir writers focus on different areas than crime writers? See too Mapping the Canongate.

Part of the point of Palimpsest is to allow us to explore and compare the cityscapes of individual writers, as well as the way in which literary works cultivate the personality of the city as a whole.

On the down side, while there is a handful of contemporary writers in the mix, the majority of the content necessarily comes from copyright-free material available in a digitised corpus, ie old stuff they made you read at school. Plus search results can be rather overwhelming (339 hits for the Grassmarket) — filters for genre, time period, might be an idea. However the data is to be made available enabling interested parties to play around as they wish, with open source code and data resources on GitHub.

I’ve had a look at the data around Muriel Spark, who would surely be delighted to be considered contemporary. The prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961) has a section set in Cramond, near where I grew up. Drilling down using the location visualiser quickly brings us to:

“I shouldn’t have thought there was much to explore at Cramond,” said Mr. Lloyd, smiling at her with his golden forelock falling into his eye.

Searching the database brings up three pages of Cramond results to explore, including 17 Brodie snippets. Note that here you can filter by decade or source.

A search for Cammo, even closer to home, brought up a quote from Irvine Welsh’s Skagboys, although the map shown was different depending on which tool I used:

Edinburgh is a city of trees and woods; from the magnificence of the natural woodlands at Corstorphine Hill or Cammo, to the huge variety of splendid specimens in our parks and streets, Alexander argued, a pleasing flourish to his rhetoric. — Trees and woodlands have an inherent biodiversity value, whilst providing opportunities for recreation and environmental education.

location visualiser map - quill not in park

location visualiser map – quill in back gardens rather than the “natural woodlands” #picky

database search map - not Cammo!

database search map – not Cammo!

At the other end of the scale a search for ‘Bobby’ brings up 72 snippets from Eleanor Atkinson’s book, that’s a lot to handle…TBH I don’t really want them, I want a nice map of locations mentioned in the book, or at least a list, to create my own Greyfriars Bobby trail. At the moment it’s not possible to switch between the text and the map from the location visualiser, although you can do this snippet by snippet from the database search.

As things stand LitLong feels like an academic project rather than a user friendly tool – some use cases might be an idea.

Updates: LitLong 2.0 launched at the 2017 Embra BookFest, now with paths …at Being Human 2017, inc a Wikipedia editathonPalimpsest: Improving assisted curation of loco-specific literature (article)

Mapping #some

Update, Feb 2015: Tourists v locals: city heat maps showing geolocated tweets; tourists in CPH can be found in the city centre and at the airport, duh…but interesting concept! Here’s more…

Eric Fisher (Flickr | Twitter):

Cue #SoMe klaxon! Week 4 of #mapmooc looked at social media as spatial data, how social media can be used with maps, advantages and pitfalls…and just how easy it actually is to plot it on a map.

On Twitter few tweets are geotagged.  We’re up to a grand total of three in the #mapmooc TAGS archive – two by me plus:

But not:

See the difference in @asudell‘s stream:


#vandymaps are also having issues:

Seems that tweets made with the web client only get geolocation information (coordinates) in TAGS if they are tagged individually, but not if the user has merely added location in Settings, which TAGS doesn’t collect (htow about the vanilla Twitter API?). OTOH mobile apps, with inbuilt GPS, _do_ offer geocoordinates simply when location is turned on. At least I think that’s right – thanks to @derekbruff and @asudell for sorting this out!

(Update: @derekbruff has set up a #vandymaps archive, and is investigating geotagging tweets. Checking the #mapsmooc archive reveals that two of my own tweets, where I added location via the Twitter Web client, are the only ones with data in the geo_coordinates field. I’ve extracted the data from the user_lang field and will take a closer look PDQ.)

But even a small set of tweets can offer potentially interesting results – see What’s happening in our vicinity from Field Office (an arts project currently going on in CPH) – a snapshot of geotagged tweets using the Streamd.in app, plus the Esri Public Information Map, in the week’s mapping assignment. This shows the real time effects of extreme weather events and other natural disasters, including geotagged social content from Twitter, Flickr, and YouTube. As noted in the forums however this is a rather blunt instrument with a poor signal to noise ratio.

Tweetmap Alpha is a further tool to filter geotagged tweets. As we know geotagging and privacy kinda go together. GeoSocial Footprint looks at the location information you divulge on Twitter in the light of potential privacy concerns. A footprint is made up of GPS enabled tweets, social check-ins, natural language location searching (geocoding) and profile harvesting. It states that “14 million tweets per day contain embedded GPS coordinates and up to 35% of all tweets containing additional location information”, which seems rather higher than in my experience.

Geolocating tweets the hard way

Back in lesson 1, it was noted that locations relevant to a particular tweet could include:

  • the locations mentioned in the message itself
  • the user’s location when they created the message
  • the user’s home location
  • the locations implied by the message

What are you plotting when you plot location? Where people live, where they work, where there is free wifi?

And from a thread, the following methods can be used to determine the spatial origin of tweets:

  • gelocation (geotags?)
  • Geo-IP and user designations (haven’t a clue)
  • the location from the user’s profile

So, there’s more to it than geotagging via GPS. See for example Tweak The Tweet, which uses “a hashtag-based syntax to help direct Twitter communications for more efficient data extraction”.

A bunch of maps were presented on the forums, including a lone Facebook example (Mapping the world’s friendships), leading to extensive discussions on sentiment analysis and how it might/not work. Happy days!

For starters, at least three university projects use Twitter to understand [emotions] in the USA, including…

Other projects which may/not be connected to the above: Emography | Tweetfeel | Twittermood | We feel fine | Mappiness (UK). Enough already! Update, June 2014: Five Labs ” analyzes your Facebook posts to predict the personalities of you and your friends”.

More clues on sophisticated methods IRT geolocation no doubt to be found in:

I could also do with:

A nice story to finish, in the warm up to week 5.  #mapmoocer Tony Targonski created a map of Seattle on an earlier Coursera MOOC: “Larger circles mean more social activity. Greener colour represents more “positive” than expected; redder is less “positive” than expected. In this case “positive” refers to valence (a commonly used measure of sentiment), and “expected” is the predicted valence score based on the walkability measure of the block (overall more walkable places correlate with more positive sentiment).”

Which is an interesting point IRT Happy Denmark. They’re not happy, they just bike a lot (like I didn’t know).

#mapmooc statistics week 4 (7-13 August):

  • 656 (558; 374; 206) tweets, 202 (181, 117, 82) RTs, 264 (212, 112, 61) links (all +/- due to time zone differences)
  • top tweeters: @MapRevolution, @DougOfNashville, @PublicUniverse
  • n=246 (230, 152, 129); 157 (155 (102, 74) have tweeted only once
  • 61 (54, 40, 30) threads 9 (9 (11, 12)%
  • top conversationalists: @MapRevolution, @derekbruff, @annindk

Postscript: among its rather nice web apps Esri offers a social media app (hopefully a bit more stable than the gallery app) plus stuff on making a social media map in minutes – come in! See the Horn of Africa Drought Crisis Map for an example.

As a quick test I took a look at Denmark’s most popular hashtag,#dkpol. Danes aren’t big tweeters, but they are big mobile users and #dkpol people are a pretty vociferous bunch, but the results were rather underwhelming. Putting #SoMe on a map seems to be less about creating a meaningful map and more about simply harvesting the data – see We are on Albert Drive for an example of what can be done. To be revisited.