The Case of the Peppered Potato

As a student historian, I’m always juggling projects in various stages, some related to specific assignments, others are more vague, not connected to my MA or PhD. One of the things I do as part of this is to manage the social media page of a local history related group, which involves researching local history stories.

In the course of doing that, I stumbled across one newspaper story that rather surprised me, and that I wanted to dig into further (although it’s not really suitable for use on the local history social media group, so I’m doing it here instead). I think this quite often happens for historians, by the way – something small, a spark, that triggers a question or a sense of curiosity that sends us chasing down the research tunnel. It was a small story, reported in The Illustrated London News, from Saturday April 26th, 1862. A lad had been hauled into court; he’d given a potato to two children and forced them to eat it. It eventually transpired that what the two children had been told was ‘pepper’, sprinkled on the potato, was actually arsenic. Bit gruesome, bit unusual, attempted murder via poisoned potato, but so far, not unduly eyebrow-raising. Then I read the unusual bit. ‘The boy was taken before the magistrates and discharged with an admonition’.

Uh…. discharged? He committed what amounted to attempted murder and he was discharged?

Naturally, I had to dig further! Delving into newspaper reports via the fabulous British Newspaper Archive, further details soon came tumbling out‡. The lad in question was ten years old, with the surname of Letts. The two children he poisoned were listed as being the Hales children, a boy, aged 5 and a half, and a girl, aged 2 and a half, who were on their way home from school down Harvey Lane, around midday. The Letts boy told the Hales boy that it was a nice potato and that he was to eat it there and then. Hales did, and gave a little to his sister, but when they got home, they began to vomit so their mother went for the doctor. He applied the usual remedies. When they recovered, they told their mother about the potato and the boy and she went looking for the Letts boy, and met a girl with the surname of White, aged 8 years old, who told her that the Letts boy had earlier offered her the same potato and when she refused, he struck her on the nose and made it bleed. This led to the discovery of the Letts boy who admitted giving the Hales children the potato but could not say why he gave it to them. It turned out that the mother of the Letts boy had bought arsenic coloured with soot to kill vermin, and he had put it on the potato to make it appear peppered. The children being ‘quite recovered’, he was released with the already mentioned admonition.

This story was reported in a number of newspapers around the country – the Glasgow Herald, 19th April, 1862; the Nottinghamshire Guardian, 18th April, 1862; and the London Evening Standard of the same day, and the Glasgow Herald reported that it got the story from the Daily News, and the London Evening Standard that it got it from The Leeds Mercury. It was clearly well, and widely reported.

Thornton_Lane_1965

Thornton Lane from Harvey Lane, copyright Dennis Calow, part of the University of Leicester ‘Vanished Leicester’ Special Collection, shared under a creative commons media licence. More information can be found at the Vanished Leicester homepage.

No further news sources were found, so I turned to the census to see if I could obtain christian names for the people involved. I was delighted to find that I actually could: It soon transpired that the Letts boy was in fact Oliver Letts, the son of John and Sarah Letts; he was a foundry man and she was a baker, and he was part of a large family living on 42 St. Nicholas. The two Hales children I soon identified as Francis and Mary Emily Hales, the children of Edwin and Elizabeth Hales, a labourer and seamstress respectively, living at 51 Thornton Lane. This, and Harvey Lane, the scene of the ‘crime’, no longer exist – they were part of the old parish of St. Nicholas in Leicester, and they were possibly taken out by the development of the ring road in the 1960s. They probably lay somewhere around what is now the Holiday Inn on St. Nicholas Circle, near the Jewry Wall. The picture, which shows Thornton Lane from Harvey Lane in 1965, prior to their destruction, shows how close they were. Sadly I was unable to conclusively identify the White girl – there are five possibilities living in Leicester at the time.

The ‘coloured with soot’ part of the articles intrigued me, so I kept digging further, and came across a book called The Arsenic Century: How Victorian Britain was Poisoned at Home, Work and Play by James C Whorton (Oxford, 2010). In it, he described the easy availability of arsenic for multiple purposes, including killing vermin, from pharmicists, and the way that society seemed to accept its readily availability and use as a tool of murder (and suicide). It was the March, 1849 murder of Henry Marchant in Bath that seems to have been the trigger for the removal of this ready availability. He was murdered by his wife, through colourless arsenic, but three days after his funeral, she married another man, which aroused suspicions. Eventually Marchant was exhumed and inquest carried out; the wife was tried and convicted by August. Pleading pregnancy, the death sentence was commuted to transportation for life. The 1851 Arsenic Act followed; pharmacists were required to keep a register of sales of arsenic, and arsenic sold in quantities of less than ten pounds in weight was to be coloured with soot or indigo to prevent accidental consumption. The thought of it being used as a ‘pepper substitute’ seems not to have occurred to lawmakers!

So the soot question was easily settled. The motive, however, was much less clear cut. Was the arsenic employed because Oliver Letts was trying to make the potato look like it had pepper on it, and he didn’t understand that arsenic was so deadly, i.e. a prank? Or did he fully understand that arsenic would make someone ill, and was trying to pass it off as pepper? The newspaper reports are less than illuminating on the subject, and sadly, a search for Oliver Letts after the date proves less than illuminating. An Oliver Letts is found in the 1871 Census, ‘visiting’ the Doores family with a Robert Letts – both were  described as ‘Shoe Finishers’. He doesn’t hit the news again – at least, as far as I was able to find in the British Newspaper Archive – and there is no Oliver Letts listed in the 1881 Census. No Olivers are listed as having died, but there is a William O Letts who was born in the same year, who died in Wednesbury in June 1937, which raises the possibility that Oliver, perhaps tired of his notoriety, or perhaps for more nefarious motives, changed his name and moved on. Regardless; the fact that he offered the potato to more than one child, and thumped the girl who refused, suggests that this was important to the ten year old Oliver for some reason, and it goes beyond a mere joky type prank. It also suggests that it wasn’t the Hales children themselves that were in any way a particular victim, although the fact that Elizabeth Hales, the mother, was able to find Oliver Letts with no real difficulty suggests that perhaps the White girl and Francis Hales knew Oliver Letts – by sight at least. It may have been a cruel-type prank; perhaps Oliver wanted to make his ‘victims’ vomit in the street or something like that, which would explain why it seemed so important to him that someone ate the potato. From here, we can move into the area of Victorian working class children; how much were pranks a prevalent part of their culture, and what type of pranks prevailed?

But for The Case of the Peppered Potato, there it ends. These research quests quite often end this way because of the limitation of documentary sources. Sadly, the reality of documentary historical research is that unless you have a diary or some similar document where the writer has poured out their heart and soul, questions of inner motive and emotions and ‘whyyyy?!’ quite often remain unanswered. The historian can speculate, sometimes with some accuracy when they’re able to build up a solid picture of a person and their life, but no more. To some, perhaps, that’s deeply dissatisfying. Like a crafty, mystifying whodunnit with no answer. To me, it speaks of the enormous variety of human emotions and human lives. The reasons why we do anything are always myriad, and although it can be tempting to think that emotions largely do not change over time (we all love, feel sadness, anger, and so on), and therefore can be detected in the documentary record, the Case of the Peppered Potato shows quite clearly that it can’t. I don’t know why Oliver Letts did what he did. For that matter, even HE might not know what he did. But part of me wants to have faith that that Victorian Mayor, who let Letts off with a ‘stern admonition’, Mr Samuel Viccars, knew what he was doing. That the Peppered Potato was accidental, a prank gone wrong, rather than the ugly alternative, a glimpse of a ten year old psychopath-to-be.

 

‡ The British Newspaper Archive has a £1 offer on for a month till 2nd April this year – well worth a mooch around!

Edit: typo on the dates corrected. Thanks due to my eager proofreader!!

planning research: the early thought processes and decisions

In any research project larger than, say, 8-10,000 words, from an academic article, or an undergrad dissertation, right through to a PhD thesis or monograph, have a number of required elements which need to be considered at the beginning of the research project.

I’m actually starting the research for my 20,000 word MA dissertation now. I’m in a funny position because I’ve known for some months (since early last summer) what the subject would be, and I’ve been collecting source material for it for a while – it’s researching something that has already been covered by another historian, but I’m going to be tackling the same material, with totally different questions, so it makes for an easy beginning to the project, because all I need to do is to follow the other person’s references to the source material (to begin with, at least). But only now am I actually considering the planning of it, which is quite the wrong way to do things. I was struck by this yesterday, as I drove to pick up my partner at the end of the day from the station (good thinking time that, driving), and it occurred to me that knowing the subject, and having that list of references and source material making it easy, meant that I’d not really stopped to think about really key elements that do have to be considered in any research project, and at a fairly early stage.

First up – its not enough to say, for example, that you plan to research XYZ. Anyone can say that, can say, oh, for example, that they plan to research the impact of the Queen on British Society in the twentieth century. However, attempting to research a project with only a topic like that will struggle to succeed – at least, at academic levels – partly because it’s a huge topic that would be difficult to do well in a smaller project (e.g. dissertation) and partly because it’s unlikely to undertake the critical analysis that is required at these levels. A good way to do that is to have Research Questions (caps intentional!). These serve to both limit the project so that more indepth analysis of the subject is possible, and to prod critical thought. One way to think of research questions is to think about the wider themes that the material or subject includes. So, to take the Queen again, these could be women, fashion, monarchy, society, economics, politics, political structures (there are more), then slowly narrow the themes down till at a point where its sufficiently narrow that a question can be constructed. So, going with our previous example, Research questions for this might be: Did the Queen have an ongoing impact on what society thought was socially acceptable during the period (politics, political hierarchy)? How much influence did her style of clothing have on British fashion (fashion, economics)? It is possible to see the expression of her own opinion in her Christmas broadcasts (politics)? These kinds of questions lend themselves well to further restriction and definition, such as – what’s ‘socially acceptable’? what period of British fashion are we discussing? Should we include, for analysis, the audio-visual material that is presented as part of the Christmas broadcast as well?

In addition, further elements need to be decided on. A line of argument is absolutely critical – whether a simple one, which you might have in a smaller essay – through to a much more complex piece of work, a line of argument is what keeps you focused on maintaining a tight thread all the way through. In the former example it might be that the Queen had a massive impact on British Society – but it could also be that the Queen only had a massive impact after a certain date, or before a certain date, or that she had no impact at all. Whatever your line of argument, every point, every paragraph has to contribute to that argument, even if you temporarily take another perspective to show why an alternative argument just won’t wash.

In larger projects, an extension of the line of argument is how you’re going to break it down – what chapters are you going to have, how many, how big will they be, what are their individual lines of argument, how do those individual lines contribute to the larger whole? Some academics correlate a key research question to each chapter, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be this way. In the Queen example, the book could take a chronological approach, discussing her contribution to social mores, fashion and the christmas broadcasts in first the 1950s, then the 1960s, then… you get the idea. It could also do a chapter on each – the social mores, then fashion, then the christmas broadcasts.

Needless to say, I’m not researching the Queen’s impact on British society in the twentieth Century! I’m actually examining the case of a vicar who, in the post-Restoration period, had an affair with a parishioner. His other parishioners found out, and took him to court to try to get him removed from the parish as their clergyman. There are a number of different ways in which this material can be approached, exploring different themes. In writing and thinking about this blog post, I’ve had the themes playing in my mind, and I’ve been slowly writing ideas down in a seperate file. I still don’t have all the answers, but I do have a better idea of how I’m going to take this material forward. Suddenly, my 20,000 word MA dissertation doesn’t seem quite so daunting after all!

[I think it’s important to say – I don’t claim to have all the answers when it comes to doing research. I’m still learning myself! I just enjoy the process of learning by writing: by explaining here, to some imaginary, nebulous blog reader, I’m also explaining to myself. If, however, you are interested in reading something by someone who does know what they’re doing when it comes to research, then these two books may be a good starting point:

I hope they’re of use!]

 

Catch up and plans

I blinked… and suddenly, it’s January.

Last I knew I was giving a paper at a conference, and then it was a case of … well, head down, and keep on charging through. I didn’t really get time to think, let alone think about writing here. I have missed it though, which is why I’m back here today: things have cleared enough that I’m no longer impersonating a bull determined to get through that red cloak if it kills him, and I can put my head up and breathe…. and think, reflect. Continue reading

Women presenting history in the media

History is all around us. I don’t just mean in the sense of being able to read events from the past in the landscape and urban environment, although that’s also true. It’s also all around us in a digital sense too, especially in this last week. Dan Snow set up History Hit, a regular series of podcasts on history, and last week extended that with History Hit Live, where a number of celebrity historians presented talks on a whole range of subjects. People like Suzannah Lipscombe, Neil Oliver, Bettany Hughes, Tom Holland, Frank McDonough, and others. The event was tweeted and transmitted live, and was a sell-out event. Fantastic! I always like to see history being spread, accurate information being transmitted in a variety of mediums (although the less said about ‘The Tudors’ the better….).

And then I saw a tweet that stopped me dead. I’m not going to say who it was by as I don’t see the point in starting a witchhunt, and I’d rather discuss the underlying issues than attack one guy. But the basic tweet was a photograph of Bettany, along with the text: “Bettany speaking at History Hit. Fascinating, who knew historians could be so good looking?”

Bettany is a wonderful historian. Passionate about her subject, she is particularly good at putting across complex ideas and I thoroughly enjoyed her last series which explored the lives and philosophies of three groundbreaking philosophers, Aristotle, Confucious and Buddha, learning a great deal about all three in the process. Intelligent, knowledgeable, a best-selling author of two critically acclaimed books and presenter of innumerous television programmes. There are few historians – male or female – out there with a track record to match, but instead of focusing on all that, on all her intellectual, knowledgeable and historian-like qualities… it focused on her looks.

Both Bettany and Suzannah are good looking. This is undeniable, and they are telegenic too; to a certain extent, their broadcasting careers will depend on this as much as their intellectual capabilities. Their fellow male historians on the panel are also good looking and telegenic – many women seem to find Neil rather attractive (he has a tumblr blog devoted to him), for example, but I wasn’t seeing the same bias being applied to Neil, that day, as I was to Bettany and Suzannah. For the male historians, the focus was on what they were saying. For Bettany and Suzannah, it was on their appearance. I doubt that Bettany and Suzannah are alone in this, or even female historians – I’d go so far as to say that women academics altogether probably struggle with this. One of my tutors regularly dresses down in casual jeans, shirt, and what looks to be a well loved, much patched, rather bedraggled, in places, jumper. There doesn’t seem to be any kind of approbrium attached to that. It is simply how he is – he’s a wonderful teacher, a fantastic lecturer (If I can ever deliver a talk as half as well as he can, then I’ll be happy) and his dress sense is simply a part of who he is. But I cannot ever imagine a woman dressing the same way, not and be taken seriously in academia. This double standard is pervasive in society and in academia, and seeing things like that tweet really make me think about it. I find it distasteful – and only one person picked up on the tweet, pointing out that there were far better things to focus on than Bettany’s looks.

So… if we agree that this kind of message is unpalatable, that the underlying culture of regarding men and women differently needs to change, how do we go about changing it? There, I get a bit stumped. To paraphrase a grumpy Doctor McCoy from Star Trek; I’m a historian, not a sociologist! But I do think that women deserve to be regarded in the same terms as their male compatriots, to be regarded first and foremost as intellectual, high-achieving, insightful, knowledgeable … all these things, before any mention of looks. Men do too, to be quite honest, but, the Neil Olivers of this world apart, it seems to be less of a problem for men. My partner, playing devil’s advocate, suggested that perhaps the original poster was comparing Bettany’s image to that of the traditional historian, that of an old, grey man, in a grey cardigan, smoking a pipe by a fire, complaining bitterly about the modern world. Perhaps that was the tweeter’s original intention. But as I said to my partner, if that was the case, why not use a photograph of the entire panel, both men and women? Why not specifically say something like, “modern historians, putting the old image of fuddy duddy historians to bed”. That would have been quite doable in 140 characters. Why focus on Bettany’s looks, rather than the message of the lecture she was delivering? The same person posted pictures of some of the other presenters of that evening. Neil was described as a “TV presenter and author” and a “lovely guy”. Dan Snow was described factually, as a “historian”. Peter Snow, in the audience, as a “Historian and TV Presenter”. With Suzannah he said she was “captivating the crowds”, and that she “apparently was talking about witches” (suggesting that he was watching her without taking in a single word of what she was saying. righttt….). However, I find it interesting that the pictures of Suzannah and Bettany, and the original tweets have disappeared from this chap’s twitter stream. Perhaps the penny dropped as to exactly what he was suggesting with all this.

Either way, although the original tweets seem to have gone away, the attitudes have not. That the original tweets have gone suggests a certain level of shame, which is at least suggesting that parts of society are starting to realise that these attitudes are unacceptable – the first step in changing attitudes is to make people realise that the original attitude is wrong in some way, to hold those attitudes up to the light, to hold an open debate about it

I read a really interesting article this morning on the BBC news site by Roger Scruton, about freedom of speech and the importance of it in making arguments, in discussion, in determining the correct course of action in any debate. In debate, the right to utter offensive words needs to be sacrosanct, to go against, where necessary, the conventional tide, to present an alternative viewpoint, to suggest something that can help people to see matters differently, and to improve the society around us. That doesn’t mean that I think the original tweeter should shut up. It means that I want them to speak out about what they think, because in so doing, others can point to the statement (not the person) and say “see that, that is indicative of this general underlying trend that we think is wrong and needs to change”. Shutting people up, driving attitudes underground is never the answer. And in a way, I feel saddened that the original poster removed their tweets, because in so doing, they almost removed the impetus for a debate, to discuss how intellectually capable women are regarded in society, how they are described differently to men.

These attitudes must be questioned. Statements that reflect them must be held up, not so as to shut up the person making them, but to help to educate the world, to help change the attitudes in the first place. This, rather than legislation, I think, is the way forward to change in a whole range of issues, is how we reach the tipping point in overcoming any kind of cultural hegemony, and the best way to improve a society for the better. And this is why I love history. It reflects people, it reflects society, and helps us, the individual and the society, when we’re willing, to improve for the better.

Jackanapes to historical self-awareness

I’ve mainly been wading through a book by David Cressy, Travesties and Transgressions in Tudor and Stuart England: Tales of Discord and Dissension (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2000), which covers a range of case studies, including the fantastic tale of a woman who gave birth to a cat. If you want to know more you’ll have to read it yourself, but it’s a great book, which touches on my research interests in a number of places. At the moment I’m reading a chapter on the language that was used by the laity towards the clergy – usually because the person was cross with the clergyman, for a number of reasons. Such incidents, where clergymen were told they were a ‘scurvy rascal knave!’ or a ‘jackanapes’, or even compared to an ‘ass’ (as in donkey, rather than the current equivalent of a backside, all found on page 138 of his book), could be very upsetting to the clergyman concerned, undermining his authority and it could mean that the person spitting the insults was taken to court (the church courts), which is how the records of these incidents have survived.

I was reading this in the bath (I do my best reading in the bath – I just read, obviously you can’t take notes, and that frees up the process, I think. Churchill did the same – working in the bath, that is) and as I put the book down I got to thinking. We are all products of our time. There is a school of thought in History which says that it is impossible for us to truly understand the past, as we are not of their time, but of ours, and which is why we study History, and not the past. I see the world – and the past – differently to how my mother sees it, and differently to how her mother saw it.. and so on. But it isn’t even a generational thing – someone just 5 years younger than me will see the world differently – have largely grown up with the internet, with mobile phones, whereas someone older than me will remember, even more clearly than I do, a time without those things.

The world has changed a great deal in the last 15 years. 9/11 had a massive impact. Terrorism, which in the UK, at least, seemed to have gone away (since the Irish question had been… well, not sorted out, but at least the various sides were no longer resorting to terror to solve it), surged back into people’s awareness. I remember, vividly, in the pre 9/11 years, working with someone who was Muslim, asking her questions about Islam, with no sense of worrying that she, or her family, might be extremist. It never crossed my mind at all. I just learned, and when I was asked if I would consider marrying into her family, I took it as the compliment it was intended (although I said no). The rise of al-Quaeda, and then of ISIS, is shaping a whole new generation of historians. I grew up with the threat of IRA bombings in my life. It never changed what I did, I never came close to them, but it was still a presence. Just going to the museum, having your bags searched. Things like that. I went to a boarding school – with children from all over the country – including 2 from Northern Ireland. One Catholic, one Protestant. And I learned, from them, about the enmity of the two groups for each other. I experienced – at a remove – that dichotomy, and it shaped my understanding, as an adult, of history. Where I differ, I think, from those who are growing up now, who experience the terrorism of ISIS, of other extremist Islamic groups, is that I saw – rightly or wrongly – that what was going on in Northern Ireland, and to a certain extent in the UK, as a war that we were caught in the middle of, waging war on the innocent, yes, but also with each other, and the British Government. Both sides were resorting to this. It didn’t make it okay, but it was different to what is going on now. With ISIS, with what is going on with the attacks in France.. there is only one side, them, waging war on the innocent. Sure, there were extremist Muslims in the seventies, and I remember the fatwah against Rushdie, but it didn’t register on my radar in the same way as the Irish terrorism did.

My time, as it were, has turned me into someone who sees ‘sides’, polarity, dichotomy, very readily. I don’t think its any co-incidence that I’m studying relationships – dichotomy again – or religion, and how people have experienced it. Will someone growing up now, see the Reformation differently? As a group of extremists – early Protestants – doing all in their power, to force the masses to worship the way that they wish? They wouldn’t necessarily be wrong, just different. This is why in studying History, we study not only the facts of the past, which are relatively straightforward – e.g. Henry VIII died in January 1547 – but also the shifting theories, the shifting histories. Never mind ‘Who do you think you are’ … ‘WHEN Do you think you are’ becomes important too. It shapes your thinking, and that self-awareness is critical when developing a history. For that reason, I think, all historians should have an awareness of modern history, at least as it pertains to their own lifetime. The idea that scholars can live, oblivously, in an ivory tower, has long gone. And good riddance too.

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A quick catch up on the last few weeks…. they have been busy. Unfortunately, not so busy with my studies! Between housework (or work to do with the house, to be more accurate), home admin stuff (the car needs MOTing, for example), other admin, work that I’m doing for Leicestershire Victoria County History – and voluntary research for Charnwood Roots… I have done my own work but not so very much of it. This will be changing though – next week, I will be heading into the archives in Hereford and I am thoroughly looking forward to it!

Making smartphones work for you in the archives

Archive work has changed a great deal since the second world war. Not only have record offices gathered together information in a way that is more readily available, and opened it to the general public as well as historians, the advent of things like the internet have made family history research easier than ever before, as programmes like ‘Who do you think you are?‘ demonstrate. All these tools also make life easier for the historian – they can asertain what sources are available, in what condition, before they visit the archives, and in many cases, also ascertain if there are any specific conditions attached to viewing the material before they make a long, expensive and fruitless visit. I know of at least one set of documents, for example, with very stringent conditions attached to viewing them: you have to have written permission from the owners of the documents to view the documents you wish to view before your visit. If, during your visit, you happen to see another document in the collection that is key to your research, you may not view it, but you have to return home, reapply to the owner, and get written permission to view THAT document, and then return. As you can imagine, this can get very expensive, if you have had to travel some distance to view the document. Fortunately, most documents do not have this kind of restrictions placed on them.

In addition, if you do not live near to the archives, then staying in nearby accommodation can also make the trip expensive, while you take the time to fully transcribe what you need from documents. This is why many people who do research in archives choose to photograph documents, with the idea that they can get through a lot of material relatively quickly, then go home and transcribe it on a more leisurely basis at home. The development of digital cameras has helped a great deal with this as well, and most record offices permit photography – for a fee – and with stringent rules set up surrounding the use of the resulting photographs as well as rules surrounding how photographs are taken (no flash; limitations on what you do with the material to enable photography, for example).

The development of smart phones has taken this facility a step further. Scanning apps are becoming more popular now because they enable photographs to be taken of a series of pages, and which then keep them together in one file, usually a PDF, which can then be accessed through a computer or tablet later on. This has a major advantage over photographs in that it is clearer which ‘collection’, and therefore source, an image belongs to, and you can include a photograph/scan of the documentation information to ensure that referencing is retained for the source. [Any one who has had to frantically go back through their research to find the reference for source that is a key part of their argument will tell you, fervently, how it is a mistake that you only make once.] In fact, I do much the same thing with scans of secondary source material – chapters from books, or journal articles (where they’re in print) so that I have them readily available later – and when I do this, I always ALWAYS make sure that I scan the book title, and the reverse side of that page, which contains information such as publication place, date and publisher name, and similar information for a journal. Its a good practice to get into – both in the library and in the archives.

Although I use Camscanner, there are many different scanning apps available – see here and here (iphone) for discussions of the different apps that are out there. For me, the advantage to Camscanner is that it is possible to view the actual photographs that the app takes, as well as the PDF that is created. This is particularly useful if you need to zoom in to see the finer details, or if you need to isolate the photograph from the PDF in order to send it to someone (for example, one voluntary project that I am currently working on, asks for photographs of all the primary sources that we use, so that they can be read/checked by other people). The actual photographs are in a hidden directory, so whatever file manager you use on your phone, you need to be able to set it to view hidden directories, so that you can copy them to your laptop or whatever, for further work with there.

Two provisos with this:

  1. If you turn the scanned file into a PDF, upload the PDF to your laptop or wherever to read, and delete the scanned file from Camscanner, this also deletes the photographs on which your PDF was built. The PDF will still be readable, but obviously, you won’t be able to view your photos if you need to zoom in closely. If there is any possibility that you need to do that zooming in, or that you’ll need the corresponding photograph, make sure you upload the photograph(s) as well to your laptop.
  2. This process is data hungry. I can easily fill my phone on a visit to the record office, which makes it slow and clunky till I can get the material off my phone. the PDFs aren’t too big, but if you are routinely saving the photographs as well as the PDFs, then you will need to think about storage of all these big files. Personally, I wouldn’t bother keeping photographs for articles or books that have been scanned, particularly if those books/articles are readily available in your university library.

Camscanner will allow you to either carefully scan a page, with various steps, where you can view the result at every step, or it will allow you to automate the process, and scan multiple pages very quickly (without viewing the results till the very end). This is of particular advantage when scanning a book or article quickly. With this facility I can go into my uni library with a list of book chapters/articles, and walk out an hour later, having scanned what I need and then go home and work in comfort.  🙂 I do, however, recommend that you check the resulting PDF before you walk out. The automated process means that some pages can be only half scanned (especially if its got a picture taking up half the page – the automated part of it sees the bottom line of the picture frame as the bottom of the page, for example) or pages can be scanned a bit blurred or something that makes the text unreadable. A quick moment to look through the PDF to make sure that all the relevant bits are there and readable can save a lot of frustration later – and I would suggest the same process for archive work as well. If a page isn’t legible, then just rescan it.

Smartphones can work for you in other ways as well. The internet functions can be used to check odd bits of data that you need – that date, that you can’t quite remember – or it can carry your notes. Many people swear by apps that keep notes together across devices, like Microsoft’s OneNote, or EverNote, for example (this post compares them) but there are plenty of other apps that do similar things, of different complexity (this post reviews some of them). These can be really useful for toting around large amounts of info on the go – very very useful, if, like me, you have a tablet that you can view this on while using your smartphone to scan documents. But… these apps are dependent on the internet, and if your net connection goes down, or you go somewhere that doesn’t supply wireless (my tablet is wireless only, for example), then you’re in trouble. For this reason I always take my basic, must-have info in with me on hardcopy, and take a pencil and paper with me as well, and note the sources that I have worked on, as well as the pages that I have scanned. That way, if the worst should happen and my phone goes FUBAR between the record office and home, I only have to replicate the scan, and not the search (which any research will tell you, often takes longer than the scan). In addition, those paper notes are a useful back up for referencing – they saved my bacon a few times!

Does anyone else have any other uses for making researcher’s lives easier in archives, with smartphones/tablets?

source material – the ethical issues

This morning’s lazy wakeup read through the BBC News website over my first coffee (which I do every day, as part of my wake up routine) made me sit up in startlement this morning. The BBC was reporting that The Sun had published a clip of the Queen, as a child, larking around in the garden, with her mother, sister and uncle, and who had, along with her mother and uncle, given the nazi salute. It was in 1933, at the time of the Nazi Party’s rise to power, and she was around six to seven years old.

Regardless of whether The Sun was right to publish this or not, or the public response, as historians, the whole issue – and The Sun‘s approach to it – raises important questions about source material – the the appropriate use of it, and what we, as historians can learn from the incident.

I think the first thing that can be learned – or, perhaps, re-emphasised – is that as historians, we largely deal with source material pertaining to people, and that it is important to consider, when we use that source material, if we are doing so ethically. Journalists work to a different set to criteria (arguably, including ethical standards) but as historians, it should always be asked: are we behaving in a way that is ethical? Certainly my own university, and, I would imagine, most others, have a set of ethical standards, which, as academics, we are bound to comply with. To use an image like this in one’s research, several important things would need to be satisfied, but amongst them must be authenticity and context. While the figures in the video are recognisable and there is no doubt that it is them, every historian must be aware that audio-visual material can always be edited to imply a different story than the original. I remember as a first year undergraduate being shown photographs that showed quite a different impression when viewed one way, than if you viewed them in their original setting. Context is crucial, as is critical questioning of that context. The full context of the video (and its source) is unknown. The Sun itself admits in it’s editorial that it believes the Queen and her sister were ‘larking around’, and, having viewed the video, it is entirely possible that the Queen Mother, seeing the Queen wave to the camera in a way that mimiced, inadvertently, the nazi salute, picked up on that and mockingly gave it as well – and that this was then laughingly joined in with, by the Queen and her uncle, the man who would go on to be Edward VIII (and, if you believe The Sun, a Facist sympathiser). The editorial of The Sun suggests this… but their headline ‘Their Royal Heilnesses’ – does not suggest this at all.

Context is everything.

But, perhaps, more importantly, is the concept of ethical use. All Historians, but particularly historians working with the more recent past, have to remember that the material they use often comes from people. Sometimes, those people are either themselves still living, or people who have close family members still living, and it is important that source material is not used in ways that harm those people. Academic historians conducting this kind of research have to abide by a complex set of ethical rules handed down by their university. This does not necessarily mean that source material like this should not be used – as the Guardian has explained, this video is of genuine historical interest and could be crucial for someone exploring, for example, the social impact in England of the events in Germany in the 1933-39 period. For a historian researching this, how would they ethically deal with the video, so as to use it in their work?

Let’s, for argument’s sake, pretend for a moment that the video is of a middle class, suburban family, with no journalistic sensationalism attached to who they are. In this case, the historian would have a number of options. Assuming the historian knew who they were, and had traced modern day descendents, then he/she could obtain written permission to use a still from the film, perhaps with the faces anonymised. He/She could obtain permission to refer to the film, but the actual film or images from it, not to be included in any written work arising from the project (e.g. a thesis or journal article). Or permission could be refused, and that would be that.

[To demonstrate how scrupulously academic historians abide by the no permission element, there are actually oral histories (that is, people talking on audiotape about their memories, their life experiences) on file at a number of institutions that cannot be transferred to digital media because the original participants have since died, and the original agreement that they signed did not ask for permission for their recordings to be used in a different format or to be made public, e.g. on a website. Although agreements now are including this kind of permission, to allow for different formats/use in future, it doesn’t help those old recordings – since the original particpants have died, nothing can be done except looking after the old tapes as best as possible.]

If – again, for argument’s sake – a social historian was wanting to use this clip, of the Queen and her family, having come across it in the royal archives at Windsor, and it had not been published before, what would they do? Ask permission. Offer anonymisation, as above – it could quite easily be anonymised and presented as a family from “the aristocracy” and still demonstrate the impact that the nazis were having in the west – this was never made public at the time, so in that sense, this is a private family responding to public events, exactly as it would be if it was Mr and Mrs Suburbia, and can be reflected so in any argument – who they were, prescisely, is, to a certain extent, irrelevant. And if it was denied, again, that would be that. End of.

Having said that, now that the material is in the public domain, what now? As ethical researchers, should we shy away from using the material because it was (possibly) obtained and published in ways that are less than ethical?

Here, the answers are less clear. Someone researching the role of the media in affecting the image of the royal family, for example, or the impact of the phone hacking by the News of the World, cannot really ignore material that was less than ethically obtained – it is, after all, the whole point of their research. How, then, as an ethical researcher, can you ethically research these types of question? [and which tips into the field of ‘using unethically obtained data, ethically – and this is a well studied subject – as a simple google will show.]

Perhaps the best way to do it is to take extra care to use source material ethically. Yes, the material is in the public domain, but this does not mean that it has to be used unethically yourself. It would certainly be possible to quote them, reference them (as public domain material), but not use images yourself in your work. You could even try to obtain permission for one or two images to be used – from both the copyright holder AND the person in the photograph, although you may be less than successful at that, as they may fear issues being dragged up again – this is, after all, the basis on which EU citizens have a Right to be Forgotten). But even this is not always possible. Images of people who are dying, for example – the faling man or the falling soldier. How do you behave ethically then?

Sometimes, it may not always be possible to meet the ethical standards as completely as one might wish. Sometimes, there just aren’t any right answers. But I do believe that it is possible to at least personally behave ethically. For example: part of the research ethics standards concern treating people with respect. Even if you don’t have the permissions to use material in your research (and, I freely admit, I do not have any permissions to refer to any of the material I have supplied links to here, although everything is in the public domain) you can write about people with respect. This can be as simple as referring to people correctly, with respect – with their title, instead of their given name. I think most researchers would do this instictively anyway – academic language and the way of thinking as you write – usually does not allow for informalities in which disrespectful references to people might creep into one’s work (at least, that is the case for me).

I think most of all this incident shows that as historians we need to keep thinking about these issues, periodically pull them out, examine them, ask ourselves the difficult questions – and where necessary, adjust the way that we research and write accordingly. Perhaps, in the end, that is the true answer to the question of whether it is ethical to use unethically obtained information – to keep examining, to keep discussing, to recognise that there are always exceptions to the rules, and that utimately, the world around us does not share our ethical standards – but that does not mean that we should be lax ourselves.