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Bristol Historical Resource CD

Author(s):Wardley, Peter
Reviewer(s):Bud-Frierman, Lisa

Published by EH.NET (March 2003)

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Peter Wardley, editor, Bristol Historical Resource CD. Bristol: University of the West of England, 2000, . Single user cost: ?45/$80; network license: ?200/$350, ISBN: 1-86043-308-1.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Lisa Bud-Frierman, Centre for International Business History, University of Reading, UK.

The editor, Peter Wardley, views this CD-ROM not as a “definitive” history of a city, but as a demonstration of the relevance of new technologies to historical practice. The vast array of historical case studies of Bristol which he has gathered are present as much for their novel research and presentation methods as for their intrinsic value in terms of content. He views this as a radical experimental departure from traditional publications.

Among British cities, Bristol was second only to London as a trading city, port, and population center. Only in the nineteenth century was it overtaken as a gateway to the west by Liverpool. Its history is therefore both distinctive and interesting.

This CD provides a history whose scale is appropriate to the significance of the city. Based at Bristol’s University of the West of England, the creation of the product under review was a substantial undertaking. A large group of authors contributed diverse resources, even though the technical staff available to install them was small, and the project had to be completed on a very tight budget.

The physical size of the single CD-ROM on which the Bristol Historical Resource is mounted provides no clue to the encyclopaedic scale of the content as measured in information terms (with 1,647 files adding up to 83.9 megabytes). Both design and navigation are conventional.

Some users may, however, be disheartened by the application of the technology. This is most apparent when one attempts to launch the program, which is cumbersome. Resources, including some datasets and HIST — a statistical toolkit — are not available for Mac users.

It is a particular challenge for a reviewer to assess such a team effort. Unlike the well-established norms of academic book reviews, which focus on content, an unusual degree of attention must also be a paid to design and technology.

Much of Wardley’s introduction is a paean to the utility of IT and electronic media for historians. He hopes this CD will serve as a forum from which professionals and amateurs, urban and local historians, established scholars and postgraduate students, can obtain useful information and enter into a lively debate. The price of appealing to such a broad audience, Wardley readily admits, “. . . is probably more unevenness in the nature and length of the various contributions than is customary.” The thirty-nine-page introduction itself exemplifies some of the difficulties associated with transferring standard academic formats from paper to VDUs. Long stretches of unbroken text are not well suited to on-screen viewing, so readers may opt to print the material. It would have been advantageous to provide “live” notes here and elsewhere in the CD, which is a convenient feature of most electronic resources.

Irrespective of the technology used, some aspects of the content also require comment. The introduction was not adequately edited and contains numerous typographical and spelling errors plus a page duplication. Wardley’s “Historical Sources and Methods” section presents information about archives and museums in the Bristol area, as well as generic issues raised by the use of written sources (printed and handwritten). His sections on “Visual Sources” and “Maps” are extended essays, which raise important issues about interpretation. They could, perhaps, have been better treated separately in the body of the CD. In the introduction itself a concise summary about the problems of understanding visual representations might have sufficed. Further sections include a useful synopsis of Bristol’s history, from Anglo-Saxon times to the present, and a consideration of local history, statistical and quantitative sources and tools, and public history.

Despite his long treatment, Wardley does not relate his analysis to the important work of Stephen Brier and Roy Rosensweig in the field of public history and multimedia. Wardley has also bypassed a major historiographic issue concerning narrative and interactive media. Edward L. Ayers has eloquently argued that conventional historical writing tends to camouflage rather than reveal the true complexity of the past. Hypertextual narrative in particular, has the potential to prompt historians to think anew about the association of ideas and the structure of knowledge:

Such a medium would offer new ways of making arguments and associations, of arraying evidence and documenting our assertions. It would offer layered or branching or interweaving narratives, or deep and dynamic annotation and indexing. It would permit us to embed narratives in shared networks of communication so that references, connections, and commentaries grow and change. It would hold out a new aesthetics of historical narrative.

Edward L. Ayers (1999) ‘The Pasts and Futures of Digital History’ http://jefferson.village.virginia.edu/vcdh/PastsFutures.html

The CD contains datasets, resources, a glossary, a bibliography, and articles about Bristol. The datasets are valuable and interesting. At the same time, one should note that their presentation on spreadsheets produced with sundry software, is slightly primitive and “clunky.” It would be a shame if less-than-smooth access defeated Wardley’s wish for his audience to readily adapt them for their own uses.

The resource section includes HIST, a statistical toolkit for history students. Pitched at a basic level, it features regression and correlation analysis, time series, growth rates, etc. If students were to lack a fundamental statistical knowledge, it would be important for them to gain guidance from their teachers. For instance, the selection of an inappropriate baseline for moving averages would produce spurious results. HIST is a useful device, but it has one irritating aspect: it does not seem to be possible to correct entries without recommencing the whole process.

A timeline based on the compilation of very detailed information, will be of interest to local historians of Bristol. Other features of this CD are a PowerPoint presentation on the 1774 election, about half a dozen moving images, and numerous visual images; there are however no sound files.

Over thirty authors including academics, students, and amateur historians have contributed a total of thirty-six articles covering the period from the Anglo-Saxons to the present, with a particular emphasis on the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries.

The papers are classified under the headings of methodology, buildings, places and people, economic history, health and social welfare, law and crime and politics. Each is broad in scope and quality but there are some outstanding pieces.

In the “methodology” category, Rob Petre and Richard Burley have written a fine article on the Bristol Record Office (BRO), which offers generic information about historical records and institutions based on exemplary material from the BRO. The electronic medium enables them to include a large array of images, including facsimiles of original documents with transcriptions. Moreover, this article takes advantage of the branching links that distinguish the technology from conventional print. For instance, they describe different types of information (historical, geographical, topographical, economic, and social) which may be found in an archive. If the user clicks on “geographical,” this leads to a choice of further information on “visual” and “documentary” details about landscape history. When the “visual” pathway is followed it points to a “maps” section, which subdivides into material on “estates,” “parishes,” and the “Ordnance Survey.” This facet of the CD is thus a resource of great depth, breadth, and flexibility.

Another article by Petre on handwriting in historic English documents from 1100 onwards contains interesting content for novices in cursive hand but ultimately disappoints because the technology was not properly deployed. Whilst pop-up windows displaying each style of writing are available, no magnification function is provided, nor could the user readily access further resources directly from within the confines of the article. The latter had to be inconveniently obtained by consulting files in a directory elsewhere on the CD, a navigation problem that is rife throughout the articles section.

In the “Buildings, Places, and People” section one can point to “Women and Property in Early Tudor Bristol” by Peter Fleming. This is a well-written article drawing on legal records from the Public Record Office in Kew. It concerns a legal dispute over the possession of a Bristol inn. This examination of a series of court cases in the 1520s and 1530s is an interesting account which clarifies much about the role of women as well as the legal system at the time. “Economic History: Commerce, Trade and Industry” is the longest section with fourteen papers. Madge Dresser leads with the “Atlantic Slave Trade in Bristol, England: Some Reflections on Sources and Approaches.” In the period 1730-1745, Bristol was the main slaving port in the country. After an interesting foray into the historiography of Bristol’s slave trade, 1698-1838, Dresser introduces new sources for scholars. These vary from inventories to poems. She makes excellent use of illustrations, which are at a good level of resolution, informative pop-ups, documents from the Public Record Office, and ample use of material from local libraries, museums and galleries. The bibliography is very complete.

Historians have traditionally focused on Bristol’s overseas and colonial trade in the early eighteenth century. Moving on to a later period, Charles Harvey and Jon Press contribute an article previously published in an edited volume. Entitled “Industrial Change in Bristol since 1800,” this is an extremely thorough survey of Bristol’s economic history covering the docks, staples, coal, textiles, non-ferrous metals, financial institutions, utilities, transport, engineering, automobiles, aerospace, chemicals, and zinc. It also offers broader perspectives such as corporate responses to economic growth and structural change, urban development, innovation and technical change. Harvey and Press argue that the diversified economy of Bristol has contributed to the city’s long-term prosperity.

Derek Braddon and Paul Dowdall deal with “The Historical Importance of Bristol’s Defence and Aerospace Sector.” They begin in 1910 and investigate companies like British Aerospace and Rolls-Royce. The theme of government expenditure in the twentieth century runs through this analysis: at the end of this period Bristol was more dependent on defense spending than anywhere else in the UK. The authors provide production tables, tables of defense expenditure, and some images.

The short and cohesive section on “Health and Social Welfare” includes an article by Archer et al on “Health Statistics, 1838-1995″ which includes a good discussion of debates about public health, sanitation, living standards, and epidemiology.

John Hazlehurst, in “Inequalities in Health in Bristol between the Wars 1918-1939″ has gathered a variety of statistical and other evidence relevant to public health in the period. He found that systemic barriers prevented those with the greatest need from receiving services and also that inefficiencies and lack of resources meant that clients suffered further deprivation. The government blamed the personal behavior of clients for their situation rather than focusing on social conditions of poverty and poor nutrition. This article includes pop-up tables and a glossary of mostly medical terms.

“Law and Crime” is a weaker section in which the bulk of articles, though concerned with the nineteenth century, seem to lack the purpose or context evident elsewhere. An exception is Steve Mills’ work, which considers whether juvenile crime increased in Bristol in the period 1810-20. He analyzes the effects of such factors as demobilization after the end of the Napoleonic war, poverty, urbanization, and alcohol abuse. Mills concludes that convictions increased and juveniles made up a large proportion of the total in the immediate post-war decade. The introduction explains the point and significance of the study, methods used, evidence, and the selection of spreadsheet fields. It contains useful biographical material.

The section on “Politics” is perhaps the least cohesive. Joseph Bettey considers “The Dissolution of Religious Houses in Bristol” in an engaging and well-illustrated piece, which explores the suppression of the monasteries after 1540, including the roles of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII and local agents. His work however is not in any obvious way connected to the other articles in the section.

Conclusion

The Bristol Historical Resource is a fruit bowl from which a reader must pick and choose. Of Wardley’s potential audience he probably offers the most to undergraduate history students. Although the datasets are hard to use, with guidance and motivation students could benefit from the otherwise inaccessible resources and diverse scholarship.

This CD demonstrates both the promise and pitfalls of the electronic medium for historical practitioners. Its significance goes well beyond Bristol to encompass broader questions about methodology and the nature of publication. The producers of this work have drawn on various genres, most notably, electronic editions, digital archives, databases, teaching tools, and books. Measured against the very best in each of these categories, it may be considered to be wanting. An electronic edition like the British Library’s stunning “Electronic Beowulf” has made far better use of the visual medium. It must be said that Wardley’s work does not display quite the historiographic sophistication or superb functionality, interactivity, or design of Timothy Lenoir’s website and electronic archive devoted to the history of human-computer interaction. (http://sloan.stanford.edu/mousesite) While innovative in concept and exciting in its vision, the Bristol Historical Resource offers others opportunities to surpass it in execution.

(The CD can be ordered at http://historycd.uwe.ac.uk/.)

Lisa Bud-Frierman is currently developing a website on globalization and business history to support university teaching.

Subject(s):Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):General or Comparative