Method in the web archive for the arts and humanities: a conference report

[In early December 2014 the Big UK Domain Data for the Arts and Humanities project held an excellent day conference on the theme of web archives as big data. A good part of the day was taken up with short presentations from the project’s bursary holders, arts and humanities scholars all, reflecting both on their substantive research findings, the experience of using the prototype user interface (developed by the BL) and on web archives as source material in general.
In early 2015 these results will appear on the BUDDAH project blog as a series of reports. This post reflects on some common methodological themes that emerged during the course of the day. A version of this was also posted on the project blog. Details of the projects are to be found also on the BUDDAH blog.]

Perhaps the single most prominent note of the whole day was of the sheer size of the archive. “Too much data!” was a common cry heard during the project, and with good reason, since there are few other archives in common use with data of this magnitude, at least amongst those used by humanists. In an archive with more than 2 billion resources recorded in the index, the researchers found that queries needed to be a great deal more specific than most users are accustomed to; and that even the slightest ambiguity in the choice of search terms in particular led very quickly to results sets containing many thousands of results. Gareth Millward (@MillieQED) also drew attention to the difficulties in interpreting patterns in the incidence of any but the most specific search terms across time across the whole dataset, since almost any search term a user can imagine may have more than one meaning in an archive of the whole UK web.

One common strategy to come to terms with the size of the archive was to “think small”: to explore some very big data by means of a series of small case studies, which could then be articulated together. Harry Raffal, for example, focussed on a succession of captures of a small set of key pages in the Ministry of Defence’s web estate; Helen Taylor on a close reading of the evolution of the content and structure of certain key poetry sites as they changed over time. This approach had much in common with that of Saskia Huc-Hepher on the habitus of the London French community as reflected in a number of key blogs. Rowan Aust also read important things from the presence and absence of content in the BBC’s web estate in the wake of the Jimmy Saville scandal.

An encouraging aspect of the presentations was the methodological holism on display, with this particular dataset being used in conjunction with other web archives, notably the Internet Archive. In the case of Marta Musso’s work on the evolution of the corporate web space, this data was but one part of a broader enquiry employing questionnaire and other evidence in order to create a rounded picture.

One particular and key difference between this prototype interface and other familiar services is that search results in the UI are not prioritised by any algorithmic intervention, but are presented in the archival order. This brought into focus one of the recurrent questions in the project: in the context of superabundant data, how attached is the typical user to a search service that (as it were) second-guesses what it was that the user *really* wanted to ask, and presents results in that order? If such a service is what is required, then how transparent must the operation of the algorithm be in order to be trusted ? Richard Deswarte (@CanadianRichard) powerfully drew attention to how fundamental has been the effect of Google on user expectations of the interfaces they use.

Somewhat surprisingly (at least for me), more than one of the speakers was prepared to accept results without such machine prioritisation: indeed, in some senses it was preferable to be able to utilise what Saskia Huc-Hepher described as the “objective power of arbitrariness”. If a query produced more results than could be inspected individually, then both Saskia and Rona Cran were more comfortable with making their own decisions about taking smaller samples from those results than relying on a closed algorithm to make that selection. In a manner strikingly akin to the functionality of the physical library, such arbitrariness also led on occasion to a creative serendipitous juxtaposition of resources: a kind of collage in the web archive.

Understanding the shape of the Anglo-Irish web: a pilot project

I’m delighted to be able to say that I shall be a Visiting Research Fellow at the Moore Institute of the National University of Ireland at Galway in 2015. Here are some details of what I plan to get up to.

The task of understanding what constitutes the nation in the web archive is only in its infancy. Web archivists in national libraries have long known that top-level domains such as .uk or .ie do not encompass all the content that should be considered British or Irish for the purposes of analysis. But even the task of understanding the shape of those top-level domains has only just begun. My project begins that process for the Irish web.

One of the live questions about the nature of the national web is the degree to which it interacts with other national domains. This is of particular interest in the Irish context, since many institutions on the island of Ireland interact in cyberspace in ways that do not respect the physical and political border between Northern Ireland and the Republic.

This pilot study will begin to examine this interaction by the triangulation of analyses of data available from the Internet Archive and from the British Library. In particular, the data from the British Library lists all of the outbound links in the .uk webspace for the period 1996-2010 (see this earlier post). Such a dataset does not exist for the Irish webspace, but by analysing the composition of links from .uk sites to those in the .ie domain, it will be possible to read the growth and composition of the Irish webspace in its reflection in the UK. It will also shed valuable and hitherto unseen light on one aspect of the relation between the UK and the Republic of Ireland.

The initial outputs will be a series of small case studies, documented on this blog. Over time, these will be synthesised into an appropriate article or articles. I also plan to make subsets of the data available for reuse by other scholars.

The Big UK Domain Data for the Arts and Humanities project has shown an appetite amongst humanities and social sciences scholars to understand the content of web archives, and also to understand the methodological implications of working with what amounts to a new class of primary source. I intend to use the period of the Visiting Fellowship to engage with scholars across the humanities and social sciences at NUI Galway and in other Irish universities, with a view to sowing the seeds of a community of scholars interested in exploring the archive of the Irish webspace.

Selling Billy Graham

BillyGraham-Haringey-recto

‘While he’s at Wembley you can read Billy Graham every day in “The Star”. Buy “The Star” outside the stadium on your way home tonight.’

A curious discovery, attached to the inside front page of my copy of Frank Colquhoun’s account of Graham’s 1954 Greater London Crusade, Harringay Story. This postcard was evidently being distributed outside Wembley Stadium during the the climactic evening of Graham’s twelve-week campaign in London on 22 May while, inside, Graham preached to some 120,000 people, including 20,000 standing on the pitch itself.

BillyGraham-Haringey-verso

It’s interesting for the evident emphasis on Graham himself as a figure, whose looks were often likened (positively or negatively) to those of a film star. (See this post on Graham as “Salvation Army plus sex”)

It’s also interesting to see a kind of religious marketing that would have been new to most British people at this time, but which was a standard feature of Billy Graham Evangelistic Organisation campaigns. The significance of the success of the marketing for the 1954 crusade was not lost on the British churches, although it was some time before anything was attempted on the same scale. In both aspects, Graham’s methods were often seen as ‘too American’ to be fully embraced in the British context.

Interview: doing a PhD in history

Some years ago (in 2010, I think) I gave an interview about the experience of doing a Ph.D., as part of an Institute of Historical Research project on the past and future of the history doctorate. For completeness, I make it available here.
Amongst other things, it reflects how different my Ph.D. would have been had resources such as Early English Books Online been available in 1998. The interviewer is the redoubtable Danny Millum (@ReviewsHistory)

Reading creationism in the web archive

In recent years, anti-evolutionist thinking has attracted some attention in the news, mostly because of the role of some Christian free schools in teaching anti-evolutionist ideas alongside or in place of evolution. Anti-evolutionist ideas are however by no means new, and have been a durable minority view in some of the churches, picking up speed from the 1960s onwards. (Although the term ‘creationism’ is colloquially used to cover all the particular variants of this thinking, I use the more general term ‘anti-evolutionist’ here.)

It is not always easy to gauge the strength of the movement, but the archived UK web allows a new angle of view on the question. In theory, the web allows minority views to flourish in proportion with their intrinsic attractiveness and plausibility, no longer constrained by the high barriers to entry to traditional publishing. And in the absence of publicly available web usage statistics for the main sites, it is possible to analyse the structure of links to these sites as a proxy measure of attention (both positive and negative.)

Using the Host Link Graph dataset, available from the British Library, I extracted all the unique hosts that had been found linking to any one of four prominent anti-evolutionist sites at any point between 1996 and 2010. Then, using both the live web and of the Internet Archive’s interface at http://archive.org, I examined each host in order to categorise it, which I was able to do for 91% of the results. One immediate point to note is precisely how many “false” results there are. A large proportion of the hosts (34%) are categorised as Other, most of which were links associated with search engine and other directory-type sites, rather than from any host representing an autonomous actor in the field. Excluding these as well, the analysis of the remainder is shown below:

anti-evolutionists

Of the remainder, 39% are the sites of individual congregations. A full analysis of these sites (39 in total) is yet to be done, but the majority are independent evangelical churches, with a handful of Baptist churches. They include very few indeed from Anglican, Roman Catholic or Methodist congregations. Given that at the time of writing the Evangelical Alliance has a membership of 3,500 individual congregations, the magnitude of these numbers suggests that anti-evolutionism is a minority view even amongst evangelical churches.

As might be expected, a significant proportion (17%) are other anti-evolutionist sites; a later post will explore the nature of this particular network. Interestingly, few inbound links are from secularist organisations, other than the British Centre for Science Education which exists to document (and counter) creationist ideas. Once data is available for the period after 2010, it may be that this interest grows as the schools controversy mounts. There are also very few links in from the mainstream media, which might also be expected to grow after 2010.

A complaint often heard from anti-evolutionists is that the scientific “establishment” does not engage with the critique of evolution which is being offered. That claim would seem to be confirmed here, as both the proportion and absolute number of inbound links from academic domains are also very small.

In sum, this data would suggest that between 1996 and 2010, British creationism was talking largely to itself, and was mostly ignored by academia, the media and most of the churches.

Data
You can download the data, which is in the public domain, from here . Be sure to have plenty of hard disk space as, when unzipped, the data is more than 120GB. The data looks like this:

2010 | churchtimes.co.uk | archbishopofcanterbury.org | 20

which tells you that in 2010, the Internet Archive captured 20 individual resources (usually, although not always, “pages”) in the Church Times site that linked to the archbishop of Canterbury’s site.

Assumptions

(i) that a host “abc.co.uk” held the same content as “www.abc.co.uk”.

(ii) that the Internet Archive were no more likely to miss hosts that linked to these sites than ones that did not – ie., if there are gaps in what the Internet Archive found, there is no reason to suppose that they systematically skew this particular analysis.

(iii) that my sample of four target sites was reasonably representative of the movement as a whole. It is therefore possible that the profile of inbound links is very different for another hosts of the same type.

(iv) the analysis does not include cases where a site moved from one host to another during the time period. The host URLs used are those in current use, and so if another host linked to a previous host and that link was not subsequently updated, then that linkage will not be recorded in this data.

(iv) that the inconsistency in deduplication at the British Library noted here does not affect this analysis.

Visualising the edited collection

A little while ago I wrote a post about the future of the edited collection of essays. In that post, I suggested that there was still a future for the edited collection of essays in the humanities, but that in order to survive, those collections would need to become more coherent.

But how might we understand and recognise coherence in a volume of this type ? That post was inspired by one particular volume in which I had a clear (if subjective) sense that the various contributors were in a continued dialogue with each other, of which the volume was a progress report.

The traditional way in which scholars acknowledge intellectual contact with another is of course the footnote. And so I thought it would be interesting to take this same particular volume, and see whether my subjective sense of this internal dialogue was borne out. It took just a few minutes to go through the volume and record as a dataset each instance where an article cited another piece of work by one of the other contributors to the volume. After some tentative first steps with Gephi I had some rough-and-ready network diagrams to illustrate the relationships.

Untitled

Citations (whole volume)

A pointed arrow indicates a citation from one author to another; a thicker line represents more works being cited; and an arrow at both ends indicates that the two authors cite each other.

This first diagram shows the whole network, and immediately it is clear that all the authors here cite at least one work by one of the others, and in some cases several different works by several authors. In a later post, I shall be showing some diagrams of other collections which I think do not have the same internal dialogue.

We can also begin to see some variations between the authors in terms of the attention they are being paid by the others; and this is shown clearly if we isolate the citations of works by A (top right) and B (bottom left).

A and B

Citations of and by A and B

Authors A and B are clearly the most cited nodes in this particular network. This is explicable if we know that A is one of the two editors responsible for assembling the team of authors; and that A has also published a large number of individual articles in the field, which explains the thickness of some of the arrows, as authors cite more than one of A’s works.

In contrast, B is cited by a similar number of the other authors, but not so many of B’s works each time. This chimes with the fact that B is the eminence grise of the field, but it is their definitive monograph on the topic that is being cited.

A rather different dynamic is at work when we isolate the parts of the network that involve G. While G is a very well-established scholar, the piece in this volume is their first contribution to this particular literature. So, we can see below that while G cites several of the authors in the volume, this is not reciprocated (because, in terms of this particular field, there is nothing to cite.)

Citations of and by G

 

What has Christianity ever done for us ?

A couple of weeks ago I was interviewed as part of (or in lieu of) a sermon at the church of which I am a member, Chichester Baptist Church. The subject was ‘What has Christianity done for our society?’ which needs to be read as if it were the famous Monty Python line “what have the Romans ever done for us”

At one level, I was delighted to be asked to be part of this. I think that the churches have often struggled to find a way to use the historical expertise that they often have locally within congregations, as well as nationally. I was delighted to be of service in this way; and the feedback was so good that I am contemplating a short course of evening classes for the church members to follow it up.

At the same time, if you were to listen to the podcast below, you will hear the sound of a Christian historian crossing from the safe ground of the academy, to the altogether more risky territory of relating Christian history to the present concerns of a lay audience. Given the need to say general things across a very long period in a very short time, expert listeners will also find that almost everything I said could be challenged or qualified in some way. However, I still think that despite this, it was a useful exercise, and so I make it available here. I’m on from about 7 minutes.