Doing (very) contemporary history with the archived Web: Oxford, June 9th

Details of a lecture I shall give next week:

Title: Doing (very) contemporary history with the archived Web: Rowan Williams, archbishop of Canterbury, and the sharia law controversy of 2008

Date: Thursday, 9th June, 1pm
Venue: Weston Library Lecture Theatre, University of Oxford
Booking details: booking is advisable but not essential. It’s free.

Abstract: The decade following the turn of the millennium may have seen an epochal shift in the nature of the discussion of religion in public life in the UK. The 9/11 attacks in the USA, and the terrorist bombings in London in 2005 prompted an outpouring of anxiety concerning the place of Islam in British society. The period also saw the coming to prominence of the ‘New Atheism’ associated with figures such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. The uniquely privileged position of Christianity, and the Church of England in particular, was also under greater scrutiny than had been the case for decades.

Wikimedia Commons, CC BY SA 2.0, by Brian (of Toronto)

Wikimedia Commons, CC BY SA 2.0, by Brian (of Toronto)

This paper examines a crucial episode of public controversy closely connected to each of these trends: a lecture given in 2008 by Rowan Williams, archbishop of Canterbury, on the accommodation of Islamic sharia law into British law. Using archived web content from the UK Web Archive, held by the British Library, it examines the controversy as it played out on the UK web. It argues that the episode prompted a step-change in both the levels of attention paid to the archbishop’s web domain, and a broadening of the types of organisation which took notice of him. At the same time, it also suggests that the historic media habit of privileging the public statements of the archbishop over those of any other British faith leader was extended onto the web.

The paper uses techniques of both close and distant reading: on the one hand, aggregate link analysis of the whole .uk web domain, and on the other hand, micro analysis of individual domains and pages. In doing so, it demonstrates some of the various ways in which contemporary historians will very soon need to use the archived web to address older questions in a new way, in a new context of super-abundant data.

On the relationship between Christian biographer and subject

Bernard Crick, in his biography of George Orwell, thought that the task of the biographer required ‘a prolonged and strange mixture of love and critical distance, of commitment and restraint.’ (George Orwell. A life, p.xxx ) In the last couple of years I’ve published one book about a leading catholic member (and indeed archbishop) of the Church of England in the post-war period, and am deep into the writing of another one. Michael Ramsey retired as archbishop of Canterbury in 1974; Walter Hussey retired as dean of Chichester in 1977. And I recently fell to reflecting on the differences between the two projects, and what one might call my relationship with my two subjects.

The quality of the biographer’s relationship with his subject is different to that of the author writing on a theme or an event. The engagement is somehow more personal, and I think that applies even if the book is more concerned with a career than with a whole life, as mine are. At base one is concerned to assess the doings of a single human being, and so it is difficult (if not indeed impossible) to avoid making judgements on the subject’s success or failure. And even once one allows for their imperfect information, their being a creature of their environment,, there is still a space for judgement of their inherent capabilities, strengths, faults and weaknesses. And it is here that a degree of personal affinity (or lack of it) begins to enter the equation.

After having lived with Ramsey for a period of years, and having tried to assess his work in its totality, I came to admire the man. Why ? It is in part because there is a consistency of motive and aim that can be discerned across his actions, and (quite importantly) that motive appeals to me as a Christian. Ramsey was to his core a worshipper of Christ, and a witness for the Gospel, and that informed everything from his patronage of the Royal School of Church Music to his interventions about immigration or capital punishment.

Things are different with Walter Hussey, however. Hussey was a key figure in Anglican patronage of the arts, with a remarkable series of commissions to his name and who emboldened many others to do the same. By and large I am much in sympathy with that aim. However, I don’t think it a central concern of the churches at all times and all places; or at least, I cannot give the religious arts the kind of central place that Hussey evidently did. And, as I shall argue in the book, there is considerable evidence that, as a result, Hussey neglected other and arguably more important parts of his role as dean of Chichester. To be frank, there is also a queasiness induced in me by the rather fawning attention Hussey seems to paid to all “top people”, not just artists and musicians. There have been times where I been frustrated, irritated or bored by him, in a way that I never found with Michael Ramsey.

Most readers will be familiar with more than one example of life writing where the love and commitment to one’s subject to which Crick referred spills over into something more closely approaching hagiography. Less common is the spectacular falling out of love that is evident in one biography of the novelist Anthony Burgess: a project that began as an exercise in literary fandom but became (for one reviewer) a “poison-pen letter” marked by a “kind of petulant, triumphal vindictiveness.” What would it mean if biographers were to think of their task in terms of a sense of relationship with their subject: a relationship that involved a commitment, that incurred responsibilities? As historian of religion John Fea noted recently on Twitter, “people in the past are defenceless. They are at the mercy of the historian. We must be careful about how we use such power.”

At this point there are some resources in the Christian tradition. Rowan Williams, in his splendid little book Why study the past? makes the point that both the Christian historian and those Christians whom (s)he studies are caught in a ‘network of relations, organised around the pivotal relation with Jesus and his relation with God, into which Christians are inducted’ (p.29): in other words, we are both members of the Body of Christ. As such, the Christian historian has just the same relationship with a Christian in sixteenth century Germany as with one in present-day Africa or London. This would suggest that the historian has the same responsibility to Christians of previous ages as we would more easily recognise as existing with Christians living. And, if I am frustrated or irritated by my subject, then I must work at that relationship, as it were, just as much as with a living person.

If this seems abstruse (and it may), there are further resources with which to think about the issue, that more readily help with historical writing by and about those who are not Christians. We might fruitfully think of the historian’s duty in terms of what is often referred to as the Golden Rule: do as you would be done to. Were the roles to be reversed, and I found myself the subject of a biography, I should be prepared to accept the prospect of my own faults and failings being laid bare, but not that I should be treated unfairly overall. I would want to think that, once I laid aside any defensiveness about my own life and any concern about protecting a reputation, I would be able to accept how my life had been written as a just assessment. This would suggest that we should write history as if our subject was able to read what we write.

Who is religious history for, anyway?

It’s now just over a year since my book on Michael Ramsey was published, and there has been a series of reviews, all of them more or less favourable. Between them, though, they have pointed up quite sharply a question that faces the historian of the contemporary church: for whom, exactly, are we writing? Consider this passage, from Sam Brewitt-Taylor in Reviews in History:

‘It seems worth stating at the outset that, from a historian’s point of view, The Shape of the Church’s evaluative focus does not seem very fruitful. As Webster fully recognises, evaluation is closely dependent on whichever partisan criteria the historian might happen to be using (p. 133), and readers will accept or dismiss such evaluations depending on whether they like the criteria or not.(2) Webster takes the only sensible way out of this problem, which is to organise his book’s concluding historiographical summary by political and theological outlook, distinguishing between radical, liberal, conservative, and reactionary views of Ramsey (pp. 135–6). Yet since these distinctions are primarily about morality, and only secondarily about Ramsey, it would have been preferable to have transcended such debates by using a more historically-grounded framing question. As it was, the evaluative focus took up space which might otherwise have allowed Webster’s unique expertise to engage at length with the strictly historical questions surrounding Ramsey’s tenure.’
Ramsey - cover
I would accept entirely that this is a legitimate criticism to make from the point of view of the academic study of history. But the irony is that, amongst another section of the readership of the book, it is precisely this evaluation that is required. The questions are asked: was Ramsey right or wrong to have done something, or not to have done something? Is the Church of England, and the worldwide Anglican church, and indeed Britain as a whole, in a better or worse position now as a result of his actions and omissions? What might the contemporary churches learn from his experience? These are different questions, to be sure, but they are certainly questions that are asked, by those in the churches to whom the current state of British and world Christianity is a matter of real importance.

For evidence of this, see two other reviews: one in the TLS and in particular that in the Church Times, both by senior Anglican clergy. ‘As you read Webster’, wrote Peter Sedgwick in the TLS, “the debates and challenges become contemporary, and you wonder how the Archbishop’s staff will swerve around the next pothole in the road. [The book] has brought [its] in some ways unworldly subject alive in a vivid and well-documented way. It is good to hear Ramsey’s voice again. His vision of a Reformed Catholicism lives on, despite everything [my italics].” Graham James in the Church Times was less sanguine about Ramsey’s legacy, but was in no doubt that it was still felt. Ramsey’s moves to win for the Church of England greater self-governance led to it becoming “increasingly captive to its own internal political factions. Ramsey seems to have been innocent to this possibility…… His grasp of ecclesiastical politics was immeasurably weaker, and his interest even less. We suffer from the consequences still [my italics].” It is also this kind of evaluation that is required by the media, such as this piece of mine commissioned by the religion section of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC Religion and Ethics). (see the discussion thread, and a similar one on the same article here.)

At base, the book was trying to show that Ramsey had a coherent theological vision of the nature of the church, to which all of his actions can be related. I am also convinced that the model of church-in-relation-to-culture that he offered is a more sustainable one in the conditions of the late twentieth century and early twenty-first century west, and that he was ahead of many of his contemporaries in seeing the need for a transition in that direction. Perhaps to make such a statement is to step out of the legitimate territory of the historian, but to write the history of the contemporary church is always to walk that particular line. Such evaluation is what a significant proportion of the readership seems to require. There is a certain irony in that for academic writing to reach those outside the academy in this way might (in some other disciplines) be described as “impact”, an altogether Good Thing.

(For a particularly acute statement of the dilemma, see my review of Euan Cameron’s fine Interpreting Christian History, and his response, and also my review of Alister Chapman on John Stott.)

What do we need to know about the archived web?

A theme that emerged for me in the IIPC web archiving conference in Reykjavik last week was metadata, and specifically: precisely which metadata do users of web archives need in order to understand the material they are using?

At one level, a precise answer to this will only come from sustained and detailed engagement with users themselves; research which I would very much hope that the IIPC would see as part of its role to stimulate, organise and indeed fund. But that takes time, and at present, most users understand the nature of the web archiving process only rather vaguely. As a result, I suspect that without the right kind of engagement, scholars are likely (as Matthew Weber noted) to default to ‘we need everything’, or if asked directly ‘what metadata do you need?’ may well answer ‘well, what do you have, and what would it tell me?’

During my own paper I referred to the issue, and was asked by a member of the audience if I could say what such enhanced metadata provision might look like. What I offer here is the first draft of an answer: a five-part scheme of kinds of metadata and documentation that may be needed (or at least, that I myself would need). I could hardly imagine this would meet every user requirement; but it’s a start.

1. Institutional
At the very broadest level, users need to know something of the history of the collecting organisation, and how web archiving has become part of its mission and purpose. I hope to provide a overview of aspects of this on a world scale in this forthcoming article on the recent history of web archiving.

2. Domain or broad crawl
Periodic archiving of a whole national domain under legal deposit provisions now offers the prospect of the kind of aggregate analysis that takes us way beyond single-resource views in Wayback. But it becomes absolutely vital to know certain things at a crawl level. How was territoriality determined – by ccTLD, domain registration, Geo-IP lookup, curatorial decision? The way the national web sphere is defined fundamentally shapes the way in which we can analyse it. How big was the crawl in relation to previous years? How many domains are new, and how many have disappeared? What’s the policy on robots.txt (by default) ? How deep was the crawl scope (by default)? Was there a data cap per host? Some of this will already be articulated in internal documents, some will need some additional data analysis; but it all goes to the heart of how we might read the national web sphere as a whole.

3. Curated collection level
Many web archives have extensive curated collections on particular themes or events. These are a great means of showcasing the value of web archives to the public and to those who hold the pursestrings. But if not transparently documented they present some difficulties to the user trying to interpret them, as the process introduced a level of human judgment to add to the more technical decisions that I outlined above. In order to evaluate the collection as a whole, scholars really do need to know the selection criteria, and at a more detailed level than is often provided right now. In particular, in cases where permissions were requested for sites but not received, being able to access the whole list of sites selected rather than just those that were successfully archived would help a great deal in understanding the way in which a collection was made.

4. Host/domain level
This is the level at which a great deal of effort is expended to create metadata that looks very much like a traditional catalogue record: subject keywords, free-text descriptions and the like. For me, it would be important to know when the first attempt to crawl a host was, and the most recent, and whether there were 404 responses received for crawl attempts at any time in between. Was this host capped (or uncapped) at the discretion of a curator differentially to the policy for a crawl as a whole? Similarly, was the crawl scoping different, or the policy on robots.txt? If the crawl incorporates a GeoIP check, what was the result? Which other domains has it redirected to, and which redirect to it, and which times?

5. Individual resource level
Finally, there are some useful things to know about individual resources. As at the host level, information about the date of the first and last attempts to crawl, and about intervening 404s, would tell the user useful things about what we might call the career of a resource. If the resource changes, what is the profile of that: for instance, how has the file size changed over time? Were there other captures which were rejected, perhaps on a QA basis, and if so, when?

Much if not quite all of this could be based on data which is widely collected already (in policy documents, or curator tools, crawl logs or CDX) or could be with some adjustment. It presents some very significant GUI design challenges in how best to deliver these data to users. Some might be better delivered as datasets for download or via an API. What I hope to have provided, though, is a first sketch of an agenda for what the next generation of access services might disclose, that is not a default to ‘everything’ and is feasible given the tools in use.

Towards a cultural history of web archiving

This week I’m writing the first draft of a chapter on the cultural history of web archiving, for a forthcoming volume of essays (details here). It is subject to peer review and so isn’t yet certain to be published, but here’s the abstract.

I should welcome comments very much, and there may also be a short opportunity for open online peer review.

Users, technologies, organisations: towards a cultural history of world web archiving

‘As systematic archiving of the World Wide Web approaches its twentieth anniversary, the time is ripe for an initial historical assessment of the patterns in which web archiving has fallen. The scene is characterised by a highly asymmetric pattern, involving a single global organisation, the Internet Archive, alongside a growing number of national memory institutions, many of which are affiliated to the International Internet Preservation Consortium. Many other organisations also engage in archiving the web, including universities and other institutions in the galleries, libraries, archives and museums sector. Alongside these is a proliferation of private sector providers of web archiving services, and a small but highly diverse group of individuals acting on their own behalf. The evolution of this ecosystem, and the consequences of that evolution, are ripe for investigation.

‘Employing evidence derived from interviews and from published sources, the paper sets out to document at length for the first time the development of the sector in its institutional and cultural aspects. In particular it considers how the relationship between archiving organisations and their stakeholders has played out in different circumstances. How have the needs of the archives themselves and their internal stakeholders and external funders interacted with the needs of the scholarly end users of the archived web? Has web archiving been driven by the evolution of the technologies used to carry it out, the internal imperatives of the organisations involved, or by the needs of the end user?

Evangelicalism and the Church of England: a review

It’s very good to see on the Fulcrum site an extended review article of Evangelicalism and the Church of England in the Twentieth Century, edited by Andrew Atherstone and John Maiden, and featuring an article of mine on Michael Ramsey. The reviewer, Andrew Goddard, has some very kind things to say about that piece, which I reproduce below. (There’s an extended summary of the article here.)
Maiden Atherstone - cover
“Evangelicals in the Church of England are often remarkably confused and ignorant about their recent past. The wider church knows even less about who we are and where we come from as evangelicals despite our growing significance at every level of the church. Often as evangelicals we tell each other a story which fits our particular form of evangelicalism and fails to recognize the complexity and diversity. This volume, the fruit of a conference at Wycliffe Hall, is a wonderful (if sadly expensive) resource which ably rectifies such failings. After a fascinating introductory essay by the editors it presents ten papers from scholarly experts who both distil their previous work and offer new insights and material.
[…]
“Peter Webster focusses on the varied evangelical responses to Michael Ramsey, on whose archepiscopate he has recently published a significant study. One of his most interesting arguments is to challenge “a common conservative evangelical self-image, of a remnant in a hostile church which sought systematically to exclude them, with little alternative than to contend vigorously for truth” (182). In reading this chapter it was impossible not to think of what had changed and what was similar roughly forty years later in evangelical responses to an Archbishop very similar to Ramsey – Rowan Williams – and what lessons we still need to learn as evangelicals in relation to non-evangelical bishops and Archbishops.
[…]
“A constant theme [of the whole volume] is the diversity and sometimes consequent divisions and tensions among self-identified evangelicals revealing a history where “the ability of evangelicals to co-exist should not be overstated, but neither should it be overlooked” (38). Its various accounts raise the question as to whether we need to escape the myth of a golden age where we were all in broad agreement with one another (with the supposedly crucial role of John Stott in securing this consensus) and instead learn the importance of recognizing that last century there were a number of leading evangelical figures (most of them now forgotten to us) and various places of meeting across different groupings that now need to be re-created in order to share in fellowship, discussion and discernment.

“We will undoubtedly face the future better as evangelicals in the Church of England if we know our past – including our recent past – better and so overcome ignorance and misleading, sometimes polemical and self-justifying, narratives. This collection of papers is an indispensable guide which enables us to do just that.

Reviews in History on Michael Ramsey

The latest review of my book on Michael Ramsey is now in, this time in the online Reviews in History, to which I myself have frequently contributed. It is by Sam Brewitt-Taylor of Lincoln College Oxford, to whom my thanks are due for an engaged, critical and constructive review.

I am of course very pleased that the reviewer thinks that the book:
Ramsey - cover
‘is the best introduction to Michael Ramsey’s archiepiscopacy at Canterbury currently available, and should be read by everyone interested in the state of the Church of England in the 1960s. …. As a report from the archives, The Shape of the Church is highly successful. It is eminently readable, it covers a very good range of issues, and it does so using an excellent level of detail. It makes a valuable contribution to a complicated subject, and it opens up some of the Ramsey archive to a wider readership. It should certainly be included in relevant undergraduate and graduate reading lists…. a fine addition to the literature.

Brewitt-Taylor makes a number of detailed criticisms, which are (as he states) suggestions for further work in situating Ramsey in his historical context. These are all welcome, and I may well return to them in print at a later date.