Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Meet the team

Donna Baillie recently joined the Institute of Historical Research as Project Officer for ReScript. With an interdisciplinary background encompassing qualitative and quantitative research methods in the social sciences as well as experience in media production, Donna is involved in incorporating feedback from user groups and key stakeholders into the design and functionality of ReScript, creating usability tests for the iterative designs, and producing instructional screencasts for the website. She is also responsible for reading through the approximately 1.4 million words of the Parish Clerks' Memoranda from St Botolph’s Church in Aldgate, and key tagging the content for inclusion on the ReScript website.

Jonathan Blaney joined the Institute of Historical Research in 2007 as Project Editor for an AHRC-funded project to complete the digitisation of the National Archives’ Calendars of State Papers via British History Online (BHO). He now continues to work for part of the time on BHO, as well as contributing to a range of other IHR Digital projects. Jonathan has worked as lexicographer for Oxford University Press and as an editor on the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. He subsequently worked for the Oxford Digital Library, where he was a Text Encoding Reviewer on the Early English Books Online Text Creation Partnership and Eighteenth Century Collections Online Text Creation Patnership, and also advised on a number of digitisation projects.

Jonathan will be involved with the analysis phase of the project, conducting user testing and evaluating the findings. Like all members of the team he will also have some responsibility for dissemination of results.

Bruce Tate has been Project Manager at the Institute of Historical Research working on British History Online since 2002 and has overseen the site since its launch in June 2003 through to the present day. He is accountable for all aspects of planning, budget, timeframe and quality, and is PRINCE2 (Practitioner) certified. He also developed the front end of the JISC-funded Connected Histories website. Previously, he worked for the Audit Commission and commercial publishers including Macmillan and Wilmington.

Bruce is responsible for project managing ReScript as well as for the development work required to incorporate user feedback (two iterations). He also plays a key role in the dissemination of the project findings. Bruce will be very busy over the next few months as he is also leading a Strand B Usability project for British History Online.

Peter Webster is Editorial Controller of British History Online and Manager of SAS-Space, the digital repository for the School of Advanced Study. He also contributes to a range of other IHR Digital projects, and has particular responsibility for the analysis and benchmarking of user behaviour. Before joining the IHR, Peter completed his PhD at the University of Sheffield, and was Technical Assistant to the AHRB Russian Visual Arts Project in the Sheffield Humanities Research Institute. He also taught in the University's Department of History.

Peter will be involved with planning and running remote and in-house usability/learnability testing and will also contribute to dissemination activities.

Jane Winters has been Head of Publications at the Institute of Historical Research since 1999, and of the new IHR Digital since the autumn of 2010. She is responsible for the IHR's publishing and scholarly communications strategy, including the management of a range of research projects focusing on the provision of digital resources for historians. Currently, she is Co-Director of the JISC-funded Connected Histories project; Principal Investigator of the AHRC-funded Early English Laws project to digitise Anglo-Saxon legal texts; and Publishing Editor of the Bibliography of British and Irish History. She is also Executive Editor of the IHR's journal, Historical Research. Before joining the IHR, Jane completed her PhD at King’s College London.

Jane is the Director of the project, and will be particularly involved in the dissemination and writing up of our findings.

Aims and objectives: ReScript usability / learnability enhancement


To enhance the ReScript interface to match the expectations of a variety of researchers working with very different texts, and with differing levels of expertise. This will make the project more attractive to a range of third-party projects looking for a collaborative editing solution, strengthening its case for sustainability.

Our primary outcome for this project is to learn how both editors and readers will interact with the source data and to produce recommendations for ways in which the identification of issues can be built into the ongoing managerial process. We will also build two iterations of the service, with improving quantitative success metrics, thus demonstrating the project's ability to learn from user insight.

The choice of goal was dictated by the Institute of Historical Research's commitment to supporting the study of innovation in humanities research and the study of history more generally. This means looking at the current level of technical skills/proficiencies among researchers, as well as the range of content types which projects are currently producing. Only by using an adaptive and learnable model will the ReScript project be able to match researchers’ expectations as it is likely that each build phase will, at least in some small way, advance their understanding of both what is required and what is possible.

Success measures

Produce evidence of improved quantitative ratings and qualitative feedback on revised designs in each of the areas under review, in two iterations enabling longitudinal analysis. Second, reflect on the specific conditions under which the tools and techniques used generate the most value.

All of the usability components are employed to baseline performance during the initial analysis phase. After the first build phase, remote testing will be used, but will include both quantitative and qualitative strands, with the intention of comparing the two sets of results. Some tests, such as the SUS, will be used through all consultation phases, enabling a complete longitudinal analysis to be produced.

The measures are clear enough to be understood by different roles within the organisation, i.e., they can be used equally to justify change to business managers and to indicate development areas to the information architect or developer.

Conducting the research within the project means that the ambition of the changes proposed is realistically linked to the amount of resource which the project has its disposal, leading to recommendations that are practicable to implement.

A simpler approach would be to identify and invite a small set of researchers to join a closed list in order to discuss proposed changes. However, it becomes impossible to judge where resources should be assigned to the maximum effect (are two medieval historians better than one early modern?). It would also become difficult to decide on action based on quantitative data if it meant overruling the research group.

The project could also have focused wholly on canvassing either qualitative or quantitative feedback and extended the depth of consultation. However, that would be to assume that what people say and what people do is materially equivalent, which would not necessarily be true.


The following techniques will be used throughout the project: interviews, remote testing (e.g. click, annotation, labelling of system designs), user groups, and the system usability scale (SUS).

What people say What people do
Initial analysis
  • Individual Interviews
  • User group
  • SUS

  • Click tests

Between build phases
  • Annotation tests
  • SUS

  • Click tests
  • A/B tests

Final analysis
  • Individual interviews
  • Annotation tests
  • SUS

  • Click tests
  • A/B tests

The initial analysis phase will result in a number of identified usability issues which will be presented as report cards. The report card device is easily understood and may not only be re-used by other projects, but also serve as a starting point for discussion around usability issues. This may be critical to the widespread recognition of usability as a core component of academic information service provision.

Monday, 27 June 2011

Making ReScript easy to use

So far on this blog, we've discussed some general issues relating to digital editing, as well as presenting some of the texts with which we'll be working. However, we're also going to be recording the progress of our JISC-funded project to improve the usability/learnability of the ReScript editing platform. ReScript has been in development for about eight months, and we've reached the stage where we have something we can test with researchers. It's a complex resource, with a back end that will support a variety of structured editorial workflows and a 'sandbox' area that will give historians the opportunity to experiment with draft texts without disrupting the editorial process.

ReScript is designed to be of value to a range of users, from different disciplines and with different levels of exposure to formal editing. Individuals will engage with it in a variety of ways, from those who wish to make use of the full set of editorial tools to those who would simply like to suggest a correction as part of a crowdsourcing initiative. Consequently, it needs to be immediately easy to use but also offer a learnable pathway for those who want to undertake more complicated tasks and even customise what's on offer. It has to support users who 'dip in' irregularly as well as those working on longer, concentrated projects.

The IHR has a remit to facilitate and promote research at the national level, and the requirements of the history community are at the heart of what we do. We've already undertaken research to establish demand for a centralised editorial service like ReScript, and identified some of the features that historians would like to see, but now we need to make it usable!

Friday, 24 June 2011

Tales from the Parish Clerks' Memoranda No. 1: The Collapsing House

Having, recently joined the IHR as Project Officer for the ReScript project, part of my role involves reading through the approximately 1.4 million words of the Parish Clerks’ Memoranda (PCM) from St Botolph’s Church in Aldgate, and key tagging the content so that you will be able to discover interesting facts and connections through ReScript. The PCM transcript was prepared by the Centre for Metropolitan History team as part of their ESRC-funded Life in the Suburbs project. These books cover much of the period between 1583 and 1625, and record in extraordinary detail the comings and goings of the resident population of this area of London. As I explore the documents over the course of the next few months I will be sharing some of the stories which I find particularly gripping and which I hope will interest you.

What has struck me so far is how details of very personal events can shine a light on much wider social issues. For example, an entry from 2 July 1616 describes how

A woman, and hir Child who by a fall of a House in Pond alley where shee lodged, were both slaine: after that the Coroners Quest had viewed them, they were buried in our new Church yard the second day of July Anno dm 1616, hir name none there could tell vs because shee was vnknowen. (City of London, London Metropolitan Archives, P69/BOT2/A/003/MS09223 f.254v)

This tragic story, in which a mother and child die as the result of their lodging house collapsing, highlights one of the darker facts of life in 17th century London: poorly constructed and maintained housing stock meant that collapsing buildings were not uncommon, and houses with a transient population were particularly likely to suffer from such dangerous neglect. At a time when this area of London was experiencing a dramatic population explosion, it would not be difficult for a mother and child to find themselves in such unsuitable and dangerous accommodation in a neighbourhood where they had no friends or family and were completely unknown.

Many thanks to St Botolph without Aldgate and London Metropolitan Archives for permission to reprint extracts from the Parish Clerks' Memoranda.

The Parish Clerks' Memoranda transcripts were prepared by the Centre for Metropolitan History team as part of their Economic and Social Research Council-funded Life in the Suburbs project (Grant Reference: RES-062-23-1260; http://www.history.ac.uk/projects/life-in-the-suburbs).

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Digital editions and crowdsourcing

Crowdsourcing has been discussed as an element of digital editing projects for some time now. In practice, however, it has come to mean the crowdsourcing of transcriptions, at least in an academic context. There are some strikingly successful examples of this approach. I can hardly fail to mention the Transcribe Bentham project at University College London. At the time of writing it has 1,291 registered users and there have been 11,383 edits. The project seems to have been particularly successful in building a sense of community among those who have contributed, and is careful to acknowledge their efforts (for example in a 'leader board').

Another project which has received publicity recently is the Civil War Diaries Transcription Project at the University of Iowa. The interface is extremely simple, and unlike Bentham, there is not even a requirement for users to register (an email address is optional). There is also no real editorial guidance provided so it will be very interesting to see the general quality of submissions (which will be checked before publication).

Both of these projects have developed bespoke interfaces, albeit a very simple one in the latter example. A new tool from the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University may help others to adopt this approach without having to spend time on potentially costly software development. Scripto is described as 'a light-weight, open source, tool that will allow users to contribute transcriptions to online documentary projects' and has enormous potential in a range of humanities disciplines. Crucially it supports version control and a full, presumably customisable, editorial workflow.

It remains to be seen whether the success that has been achieved in the crowdsourcing of transcriptions, or in the correction of OCR, will transfer to other elements of the editorial process. ReScript, for example, is planning to produce a crowdsourced new edition of the Alumni Oxonienses, with contributors identifying individuals, suplying corrections and adding new information. This is a much more subjective process than transcription (although of course there are subjective elements here too) and it remains to be seen whether we will be able to make it work for a scholarly edition.