Monday, 14 May 2012

History as data

J's Great^3 grandfather was a self employed seedsman in Barnard Castle in County Durham in the early 1800's.

We know this because we have one of his project management books from 1819. There must have been more but we only have the one.

The first thing that's really remarkable is that it looks like just one of my project management books, except that it doesn't have any postits inside. Otherwise its pretty much the same. You get the feeling he'd have loved Evernote. It's all there. Notes, scribbles, rough calculations, even when he went to the pub on a wet afternoon to do business with someone

Yesterday, because J has been doing some family history stuff we spent a couple of house going through it in detail. And it contains a wealth of information:

  • who his clients were, what they bought and and what they paid
  • what he planted when
  • who he worked for as a jobbing gardener at slack times and what the going rate was
  • drafts of letters asking for payment and offering stuff for sale to other suupliers
  • what sold for what in the local market
  • the weather - when it was too wet or cold to work outside, for example when there was spring snow
  • recipes for traditional remedies to kill blackfly

and on and on.

Tabulated it would give a picture of life in the early 1820's. Prices of seeds, prices of labour, what people spent money on, and how work was divided up. Combined with other sources it probably would tell you a lot about rural life in County Durham in the 1820's.

Of course it doesn't as it's sitting in an archive box in the study at home. Which is fine as an heirloom but not as a history resource.

So, having gone on about digitisation ad nauseam it's probably time to practise what I've been preaching and try a bit of home digitisation ... The first stage is probably to build a diy bookscanner - easier for us to save handling the books, and when we have the images put them on the web and add transcriptions as we do or find them ...

[update 15/05/2012]

I've just found a $3.50 bike camera mount on ebay. With a coule of old retort stands, clamps and a horizontal bar could probably use the mount to accurately position a camera above the page to take good quality images without building a diy book scanner ...

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