Keeping the Archive alive

The value of digitisation projects is often framed in terms of broadening access to rare, unique or otherwise difficult-to-access material. Our project is no different – the archive of the Board of Longitude is a major source for 18th Century history of science, but also has much to tell us about the great voyages of discovery, the natural world, and the whole cross-section of British society in the period. Despite Dava Sobel’s bestseller and the accompanying TV series, the archive itself is little-used, and the wealth of information it contains remains comparatively obscure. Our experience with the digitised Newton Papers tells us that making this kind of material freely available on the web (and now on an established and stable platform) increases not only the number of people able to access the material, but also the type of people – with feedback from schoolteachers, children, amateur historians, and many other groups who would be unable for one reason or another to see the originals.

However, we want to do more than simply increase access to the material – the context of the digitised material, and how it interacts with the wider world of web resources is equally important. The project itself is a partnership with the National Maritime Museum and an AHRC-funded project researching the history of the Board. We are taking some of the outputs of the research project (summaries, essays, bibliographies) and embedding them into our presentation. And we are linking through from the Archive to relevant objects from the National Maritime Museum’s online collections to draw out the complex connections between our documents and their artefacts. We are also highlighting connections with other material in our own digital collections – connections which will grow as our pool of digitised content grows. We are using standard vocabularies for names, places and subjects, and releasing metadata in standard formats to facilitate connections with other digital collections. And we will contribute metadata directly to cross-collection discovery sites such as Manuscripts Online and 18thConnect.

In short, making the material available online is only part of the challenge. We want the Archive to come alive in the digital world – to be intimately connected with related material (whether it be ours or held by others), to be firmly embedded in research and educational contexts, and to be open for reuse. And in a sense, we see this as the real route to sustaining the output of the project in the long term. By adopting practices and approaches which integrate the material into the wider world of research, education and the web, we are hoping to ensure the long-term use of the collection. And it is this ongoing use, this interest from and connection with many spheres, which will do more than anything to ensure its long-term life.

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Massey and Burt: a tale of professional rivalry

One of the most fascinating aspects of the Board of Longitude collection is its illumination of the human stories behind many of the greatest maritime inventions and discoveries. A multitude of individuals wrote to the Board with proposals or inventions, each with their own different story.

While cataloguing a volume relating to proposed innovations to increase safety and speed at sea (RGO 14/31) I came upon the papers of Edward Massey and Peter Burt, two contemporary makers of nautical instruments who were clearly professional rivals. Both men had invented a sounding machine (an instrument to determine the depth of water below a ship) and had their invention adopted by the Royal Navy, and both wrote to the Board of Longitude in the hope of financial support and endorsement. Clearly, they had each recognised the other as their main competitor, and their letters to the Board reveal an intense professional rivalry in which each disparaged the other’s machine while promoting his own invention.

More is known of Edward Massey than of Peter Burt. In addition to his sounding machine Massey invented a patent log (for measuring a ship’s speed through water) and made various improvements to other instruments. Among his submissions to the Board are a letter of recommendation from the engineer Sir Marc Isambard Brunel, endorsing improvements he had made to a chronometer, as well as testimonials from various sea captains who had tested his instruments at sea. These documents capture the spirit of the age and show the vital importance of improvements to navigational instruments for those who spent their lives at sea.

Massey had been awarded £200 by the Board for the ingenuity of his invention before Burt’s sounding machine, known as ‘Gould and Burt’s Buoy and Knipper’, came to their attention, at which point the Admiralty Office ordered comparative trials of both machines at sea.

Perhaps concerned at the appearance of this rival, Massey appears to have taken the matter into his own hands in quite dramatic fashion, by organising his own comparative trial in a very public setting to decide the matter of whose machine was best. Among the Board of Longitude papers is an advertisement announcing that this trial was to take place on the River Thames at London Bridge on 16 July 1818. The advertisement invites all naval officers, ship owners, and ‘every Person connected with Navigation’ to come and witness the trial first-hand, including those who had previously been impressed by Burt’s Buoy and Knipper (RGO 14/31: 146).

In a letter written a few days after the event, Massey proudly reported back on the outcome, informing the Board that in repeated experiments his own sounding machine provided the real depth ‘in every instance, without any variation’, whereas Burt’s machine showed a reading ‘so much greater than the real depth, as to endanger, in the most immanent degree, both the ship and the crew’ (RGO 14/31: 151).

Examining Peter Burt’s letters, I discovered that they in turn were equally dismissive of Massey’s invention. In one letter, for example, Burt points out the ‘superior strength and durability’ of his Buoy and Knipper, as well as its cost effectiveness compared to Massey’s machine, which, he notes, had cost the Royal Navy almost a thousand pounds in repairs in the first year of use alone (RGO 14: 181-182). In another letter, Burt even asks to be given a greater reward than Massey (RGO 14/31: 189-189a).

In the end, however, the Board appear not to have endorsed Burt’s machine due to the unfavourable reports on its effectiveness, and the last letters in the series see Burt demanding the return of his papers. Massey must have been pleased!

The letters provide a fascinating glimpse into an exciting world of competitive invention and discovery, at a time when improvements in navigation could literally save thousands of lives. The digitisation of this collection will undoubtedly reveal many more stories of the people behind some of the greatest maritime innovations.

Interested in navigational instruments and want to see more? Examples of Massey’s sounding machine and patent log are held in the National Maritime Museum and can be seen on their website:, and

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Discovery, use and reuse

This week Huw and I attended a meeting in Birmingham, which, under the banner of “Making sure your resources are discovered, used and reused”, brought together representatives of projects funded by JISC under several of its programmes:

The combination made for quite a large gathering, with a range of different perspectives and priorities, but also, as it turned out, what felt like a considerable level of common interests.

For the core part of the meeting, we divided up into three themed discussion groups, covering business cases, open data/licencing/rights issues, and technological aspects, of which I attended the latter. The session was thoughtfully facilitated by Owen Stephens, who structured it broadly into three parts/topics, the first inviting us to share any particular technical challenges we were facing, the second surveying the various approaches to making data available, and the third examining issues arising from aggregating data from multiple sources. (The notion of developing and working with “aggregations” was one of the core principles established in the work of the JISC/RLUK Resource Discovery Task Force, which has shaped approaches taken within some of the JISC programmes.)

From the second topic, one of the issues arising was the potential tension between working to make data available to meet the requirements of some known audience or application and trying to facilitate a range of perhaps currently unknown or unspecified uses, now or at some point in the future. As data providers, to what extent do (or can) we know (all?) the requirements of consumers, and what does this mean for how we design our data? Even when we expose data using “standard” ontologies or formats or protocols, those are, to some degree, “opinionated”: they reflect choices made by their creator communities, perhaps to include some content or features and exclude others, to enable or prioritise some functions over others.

Under the third topic, we discussed contrasting approaches to aggregation (can/does the aggregator specify or control the forms in which it obtains data, or does it “take what it can get”?). What constitutes “quality” in aggregated data? This in turn led to thorny questions of context: what is “good” within one context may turn out to be rather less satisfactory in another. This echoes the issues of the previous topic, from the perspective of the data consumer: the aggregator as consumer may operate in a context which introduces requirements or constraints not known or anticipated by the providers of the individual data sources.

I’m not sure we arrived at any concrete solutions, other than that such “gaps” between provision and use may be worthy of some further investigation. But I enjoyed the meeting: it’s always valuable to hear from different projects, often exploring similar issues in slightly different contexts. And indeed one of the points highlighted in the closing plenary discussions was that it might be useful to have some sort of ongoing exchanges between projects “on the ground”, particularly those tackling similar challenges.

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User-Centered Design

I have recently attended a JISC Workshop on Understanding User-Centered Design, which has lead me to start thinking more about how much we know about our users and how this information can be used to improve the user experience, especially as we look to adding new content and functionality.

So who are our users?

From Google Analytics we can get some information, but this doesn’t tell us an awful lot:

  • Mostly use Firefox, Chrome, IE and Safari (95%+)
  • From almost every country in the world.
  • Mainly new visitors with an increasing number of return visitors. With some people visiting the site hundreds of times.
  • A small percentage of users are using mobile devices (~5 – 6%)

We’ve also received a lot of direct feedback from users through our feedback form placed on a prominent place on our site. This allows users to provide feedback on their experiences while using the website and make any suggestions.

Using this form we’ve received information on who the users are, researchers, teachers and from members of the public around the world, and what they are using the site for.

We’ve also received some new functionality requests, which we’ve been able to act on. For example we had many requests to allow you to page forward and backwards through a document while you are in fullscreen view. This was something we realised would be a small change that would make a big difference to the way people were able to view the items. We were then able to put this feature in our next release.

This feedback form has been very useful, but I think we can learn a lot more from interviewing a small selection of users and from observing how they use the site. This is something we would like to do in the future. During the workshop I was able to see a new user performing an image download for the first time which, even on it’s own highlighted some areas we can improve on.


There are a number of different ways that you can prototype a system, but it’s most important to try and prototype a design as early as possible and get real users ideally, to give their opinion.

We will be facing the need to prototype new designs very soon, as we have to alter the site to deal with more content types and more collections which will involve a significant change to the site layout.

We will also need to support a lot more functionality, for example we need to start looking at how to add the new features:

  • Bookmarks
  • User customisation
  • Different views for different types of items (e.g. images, maps etc)
  • Tags and user comments
  • Searching within an item
  • Displaying metadata at the page, the chapter and the book levels.
  • Showing details of conservation work
  • Mobile support

As more features and content is added we want to make sure that the interface is easy to use and that navigation is clear.

In order to look at how these features and how the new content can be added to an existing site I would like to mock up some simple HTML prototypes which will allow us to see how intuitive different options are to use and how they effect the tasks users are coming to the site to perform.

I think as the content grows search will become more important so we will also be looking at improving the search so that it is more obvious why certain matches have been found.

So plenty of design work to do!

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Musings on metadata

While the primary aim of the project is to mount c.65,000 lovely images on the Cambridge Digital Library, for our users to navigate and make sense of the material we’re going to need a whole lot of metadata.

Now we already have a considerable amount of metadata for the collections – EAD records down to series level which feed into our Janus archival catalogue. We’ll need a slightly finer level of detail to draw out the full richness of the Longitude material, so one task will be extending these records down to item level, and enriching them with lots of names, places, dates and other hooks. I’ll talk about the standards we’re using in another post – suffice to say we are using standards!

That’s all well and good, but we’re also interested in another kind of metadata. One of the really exciting things about the project is our partnership with an AHRC research project into the history of the Board of Longitude. Our plan is to not only use traditional “library-style” metadata, but also to capture some of the research outputs of the project in our presentation of the material. This will allow us to firmly embed the Longitude papers in the relevant scholarship. Each of the volumes in the collection will be accompanied by an interpretative summary, and we’ll also be presenting a range of biographical and thematic material – all written by scholars working on the AHRC project.

Which raises two problems. The first is that we’re entering new territory here. Library presentations have traditionally been all about certainty, dealing with established facts such as physical description, title, author, etc. Any ambiguity is brushed under the carpet, and the nearest we get to an opinion is the assignment of subject headings. Now we are presenting scholarly material which is very definitely full of opinions and interpretation – essentially acting as publishers. Which means that we have to deal with all sorts of new issues such as currency, debate and authorship.

The second is finding mechanisms to bring the two metadata worlds together. Traditionally, cataloguing an item has been a one-person job, done on one piece of software and according to one set of rules. Now we are looking at metadata production, and curation, being an ongoing event through the life of the digital object, involving various people from different backgrounds and different institutions, with different (and very strongly-held) opinions.

We’re already dealing with these issues – take a look at our presentation for Newton’s College Notebook. There would be no place in a traditional library record for the long, interpretative summary – nor for the accompanying video! But we’ll need to keep developing our interfaces and tools to make the collaborative production and curation of metadata a smooth and seamless process, and to ensure that our interfaces make the best of the data available.

Who would have thought metadata could be so interesting!

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Introducing the project

Welcome to the blog for Navigating 18th Century Science and Technology: the Board of Longitude – a JISC funded project to digitise and describe some 65,000 pages of fascinating content relating to the Board of Longitude. The public profile of the Longitude Problem is fairly high, in part due to the bestselling Longitude by Dava Sobel, and accompanying TV series (our project partners have recently discovered another modern cultural reference), but the material itself has been divided between institutions and difficult to access. We aim to bring these collections together online, and in doing so to open an important window onto many aspects of 18th Century life for researchers, educators and the public.

Our project partners, the AHRC funded Board of Longitude Project and the National Maritime Museum, put together this short film to highlight the significance of the Longitude problem, not just for the 18th Century, but also for contemporary scholars.

We will be bringing together collections held in Cambridge and the National Maritime Museum and providing extensive links to NMM’s Collections Online to draw out connections between the papers and the scientific instruments they describe. The AHRC project is writing the history of the Board, and we will be collaborating to ensure that as much of their output as possible is integrated into our interfaces to put the digital objects in a firm intellectual framework.

The project started on 1st November, so this post is slightly belated – but we have not been idle. We have visited our partners at the Department of History and Philosophy of Science here in Cambridge, and also the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. We have been finalising the material we are going to be digitising, including an extraordinary set of the letters and private papers of a marine astronomer (of which more later …). And we’ve been getting all the frameworks and plans in place to ensure that everything runs smoothly.

We’ll be delivering the content via our new Cambridge Digital Library infrastructure at – and while you’re waiting for the Longitude material to go up you could do worse than take a look at our (also JISC supported) collection of Newton Papers. We’ll be launching the Longitude material in mid 2013, but there’s plenty more to go up in the interrim, so it really is worth watching this space!

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