Digital Methods

Digital methods underpin all stage of my research process, from data collection and analysis through presentation of results.

From Immigrant to Settler

Historical data is notoriously incomplete and challenging to standardise but dealing with data is an essential part of the modern historians role.

For this project, I developed relational database of more than 18,000 artefacts and demographic information on single female assisted immigrants extracted from shipping records.

Even simple techniques like using a Pivot Table can be powerful for finding trends in historical data. Here, I’m exploring the relationship between religious affiliation and literacy in a sample of nineteenth-century female immigrants arriving in NSW.
Using an Access database makes it possible to manage large quantities of data with less redundancy and less risk of data errors.

This plan shows the plant remains from Level 2 and Level 3 plotted based on the locations they were found. This shows concentrations of plant remains at the edges of rooms and near the doorways, consistent with sweeping the rooms. Even though eating in the dormitories was officially banned, the fruit and nuts found in these rooms point to a lot of snacking happening in these parts of the building. We can also see a particularly strong concentration on the landing of the Level 3 staircase which also had a lot of pipes and matches; this seems to be an area where the women were able to socialise with minimal supervision.

Spatial data requires more specialised tools, but these skills are highly transferable and therefore very desirable for students. Knowing how to geo-rectify a historical map or how to create a simple site plan are now basic tools for anyone working on historic sites.

In my case, the unique taphonomy of the Hyde Park Barracks site means that artefacts can be traced to located within different parts of rooms. Using a Geographic Information System like ArcMap lets me look at the distribution of different types of artefacts and, ultimately, for different activities between and even within rooms.

One of the challenges of working at Hyde Park Barracks is that it has been restored to look like the earliest convict period. Over nearly two centuries the site has gone through many different stages and many buildings, including at least three kitchens, have been built and then destroyed.

3D reconstructions produced in SketchUp are a simple but very effective way of combining archival and archaeological information to represent different phases of occupation.

Detail from City of Sydney – Trigonometrical Survey, 1855-1865: Block GH1. City of Sydney Archives. You can see the long kitchen building extending from the south-east corner of the barracks building on the right hand side of the image.
SketchUp model showing the rear of the main barracks building with the verandah built c. 1864 and the long kitchen (seen in the plan above) which extends out from the corner of the building. This kitchen was built at some stage after 1855 when the Volunteer Rifle Company took over the south range which is visible in the background of the image.

This image combines digitised technical drawings of locally-produced ceramics from Hyde Park Barracks with photographs of the glaze and decorative treatment.

The final method I used extensively in this project was digital illustration. In the modern workplace, familiarity with illustration and photo editing software is a valuable skill.

Recipe Books

Over the last 15 years manuscript (hand-written) recipe books have become increasingly important for historians studying food and medicine, women’s literacy, and their social networks. While more and more have been digitised, it’s generally not possible to use OCR to make searchable transcriptions. This prevents large-scale comparisons of the corpus as a whole or quantitative analysis of ingredient use or recipe frequency.

A page from the Dorothea Rousby cookbook which was digitised by Stanford Libraries.
A page from one of Margaret Baker’s recipe books, now Folger VA 619. I first encountered the books during the EMROC transcribathon and was intrigued by the family attributions (e.g. Aunt Corbet’s recipe for …) to try to track down Margaret Baker. This research has now been published in the open access journal Aphra Behn Online.
Using the online transcription platform From the Page to transcribe a page from the Dorothea Rousby cookbook.
Talking students through the use of XML tags
during the 2019 transcribathon.

One solution for creating more transcriptions is the use of crowd-sourcing platforms. My identification of Margaret Baker and research on her cookbooks came out of the Early Modern Recipe Online Collective transcribathon and since then I’ve been using From the Page to transcribe the Dorothea Rousby cookbook which was digitised by Stanford Libraries.

Use of digital platforms for transcription is perfect for the classroom, and allows me to teach paleography and basic XML mark-up in a real-world environment. Transcription events have the added benefit of providing a collaborative and supportive environment for students to practice transcription, in concert with more advanced scholars, while contributing to real research goals.