Thursday, 6 November 2008

Three mind-boggling historical databases launched

by Derry Nairn

It can be somewhat difficult to comprehend the amount of current information out there on the web. One good metaphor goes something like this:

if you can imagine the contents of the US Library of Congress multiplied by ten thousand, this figure would roughly represent what data presently exists on the internet. New data is delivered in the form of a large dump truck reversing into the main hall every two seconds, and dumping a pile of new books on the floor.

Suffice to say there is a lot out there. Well to add to this, three massive historical archives have been launched in recent times whose own size alone is pretty staggering.

The first is the UK Incoming Passengers List, from and the National Archives, a record of the passenger lists from inbound ships to UK ports, in the period 1878 until 1960. Users can find out about their relatives, famous people, or even themselves. The period saw massive influxes of newcomers to Britain from across the empire and beyond, as shown by the most popular surnames within the records: Wong, Singh, Brown and Patel.

For 23 years Tony Patel has been an employee of the project’s partners, the National Archives. He was born in Pakistan and, when his own name was entered in the database, was astounded to discover both himself and his parents were listed among passengers arriving on a ship from Karachi in 1955. Mr Patel was only 6 months old at the time.

Even if you don’t hold any personal connections with the names on the list, a search for famous names such as Winston Churchill or Roger Moore should uncover equally intriguing data. When Elizabeth Taylor arrived back in London from New York in 1958 aboard a Cunard cruiser, for example, the records state her next port of call as, naturally enough, the luxurious Dorchester Hotel.

The second archive is Gale Cengage's Eighteenth Century Collections Online (ECCO). This is an ambitious project aiming to collect every significant 18th Century English and foreign language title printed in Great Britain and thousands of important works from the Americas. When complete (this is the second stage) ECCO will be the world’s largest digital library of the printed book, delivering access to 200,000 volumes of key 18th Century works.

ECCO joins Gale Cengage's other archives, including 19th Century UK Periodicals, which includes more than 600 magazines, journals and newspapers, sourced from the British Library and the National Library of Scotland. Selected by leading academics, these resources offer a full picture of English life in the 19th Century. So whether you are in need of the Bristol Daily Record sports pages from 1878 or the Women's Temperance Journal from the early 1920s - look no further!

The last is not so much a historical database in itself, but a useful link to a myriad of local archives. The Archive Awareness Campaign plans to highlight the wealth of relevant historical information which is easily accessible for most people around the UK. The campaign, which launches today, is very definitely focused on local history research, and will show how different groups and individuals have worked to bring about change and raise awareness of social issues among decision makers and opinion informers.

The campaign will shine regular spotlights on major historical themes such as feminism, human rights and the slave trade. A couple of interesting upcoming shows include:

How Many Miles to Market?

7th Nov 2008: Norfolk Record Office, Kings Lynn

Illustrated talk about food supplies to the people of medieval Lynn

Slavery & Banana Cake

14 November 2008

Northampton Archives will highlight the issue of slavery and its impact locally

Take Your Place In History: An exhibition on the First World War

1st of November, 2008 - 30th of November, 2008
Cumbria Archive Service looks at the different ways in which Cumbria was affected by the war.

Again, the Archive Awareness Campaign as a whole is backed by the National Archives, who themselves have a huge amount of fascinating material to share.

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