I’d like to thank everybody- authors and audience- for the amazing reception we’ve we’ve had for the past few months- it is appreciated by everybody. Our new staff members and guest bloggers have done an amazing job. Our ‘Academic Practice’ series of guest blogs will resume in the fall. This is the first blog in a series for the summer that will discuss a specific project to do naval history, archival sources and databases.
Before I became a historian, I actually started my undergrad studies in computer science. In Highschool, I had been ‘hard sciences’- including programming. Indeed, I really enjoyed coding, and I made computer games with my friends. We were planning to do a big Final Fantasy like game, and we created this whole world and narrative and everything. What we ended up making at first was a 1v1 game that combined Magic the Gathering, Chess and a tabletop wargame like Battletech. We even managed to make it so players could connect over the internet. It was great fun, but when I was in university, I eventually realized that what I loved most about making games was not necessarily the math and the coding, but the world design.
I didn’t make it that far into my CompSci education in university- I only made it through most of the second year courses before I switched to history, but those courses absolutely shaped how I view history. In particular, object oriented programming and concepts directly impacted how I think about institutions, development processes and definitions.
This project, which I’ve codenamed ‘HMS_Excellent’, has been kicking around my head for several years now, inspired by the research I was doing in the archives. I wouldn’t have been able to do my PhD without the current abundance of online sources, particularly documents like legislation. These types of sources, ‘prose’ sources ,such as legislation, orders, and letters, can be photographed, OCR’d, put online as in a fairly straightforward manner. This is because the information in them is best accessed by reading the documents.
There are other documents that have other types of data/information, for which simply photographing them makes the information really no more accessible than the original documents. Since the 1980s, with the rise of the Fiscal-Military/Naval state history, historians such as NAM Rodger and others have harvested data and done statistical analyses of spending, number of officers employed and that kind of thing. They’ve published their findings, but not the data upon which it is based.
What I have in mind for this project is to take two specific series of Admiralty documents, and put them into a database, and then make that database available online so that researchers can ask questions of the data that they would not be able to otherwise.
This project will involve two different types of documents.
The first (in series order) is ADM 8, which is ‘List Books’ in particular, this series- from 1673, contains monthly lists of what ships were in commission, and where they were deployed. There is other information in these volumes as well, such as officer’s lists, but it is the list of deployments that is of the most interest to me, and that I think would benefit most from a database. These documents will be more difficult to turn into a database, but present more obvious answers in terms of actually creating functions for viewing the data.
The second is ADM 107, which contains the reports from Lieutenant Exam boards. These are usually two or four to a page, and are a form document with various details filled in. These documents will be very straightforward to put into a database, since the text is constant except for the standard variables. However, it presents a much more complicated and varied set of options for querying the data.
My main motivation for this project is not really actually getting questions for my own research, but I’m intensely curious what others would do with this kind of data. Now there are some issues, for example Admiralty records are under Crown Copyright, and so I need to figure out how to do this without violating the license available from the National Archives. Although the intention was and is to have the access to the database be through this website, I may end up handing the entire package to the National Archives for them to incorporate into their website. Frankly, that may be an even better solution. Mostly however, I am interested in this project because I want to get back into programming and web development, and this is a project that will allow me to rather develop my skills in that area and also contribute to naval history.
What I have done so far for this project is install wordpress on my old laptop, which I will be using as a development server. I also have two complete volumes of both ADM 8 and 107, so I can start doing some data entry. In the next entry of this blog, I will talk about ADM 8 and 107 in more detail, explore how I’m designing the tables for the database, and talk about some of the various ways I’ve thought about how the data can be examined. I will also be looking for feedback for how the data can be used and I look forward to seeing the responses!