Welsh Wills Online Expert Seminar – Digital Research & Development

Held at the National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth

I was recently invited to the Welsh Wills Online seminar at the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth. The building is a beautifully imposing place, and the list of guest speakers equally so. The discussion on the table: the Library’s collection of probate records, those which passed through the ecclesiastical courts between 1521 and 1858, and those which were administered by district registries from 1858 to approximately 1940. 

Amongst the keynote speakers at the seminar (Hilary Peters of NLW and Dr Susan Davies of the Department of Information Studies, as well as Dr Elisabeth Salter and Professor Lorna Hughes) was Michael Pidd of the University of Sheffield, discussing the seminal digital humanities project, The Old Bailey Online.

Pidd discussed the high-profile project, originally funded by the Opportunities Fund, which has now been running for nearly 10 years and usually sees 3 to 4 million users per year. The site is impressive, utilising semantic tagging and NLP algorithms, but Pidd conceded that the site hadn’t had much uptake from academic communities (I wonder whether this is because of a belief amongst some academics that sites such as The Old Bailey Online are mainly for “family historians”, a differentiation between levels of research which Dr Davies suggested could be quite a damaging attitude).

The National Library holds around 190,000 wills and administrations, and these are currently available in facsimile form through the National Library’s website. They provide a full picture of the life and culture of Wales and despite the fact that researchers are currently unable to search the corpus for specific items, or people, approximately 7 million pages have been viewed since 2009.

The highlight of the day for me was Skype-ing Dr Donald Spaeth of Glasgow University and enjoying his mellifluous tones as he discussed digital representations of probate records and the potential in that, and afterwards the humorous Dr Tim Causer of the University College London detailing the collaborative nature of The Bentham Project and its use of crowd-sourcing. This interesting article in the New York Times detailed the project’s aims, and led to the project’s volunteer base numbers trebling overnight on its publication. 

The value of the Welsh Wills Online project is, to my mind (as a beginner to the field), absolutely huge, and if the Library were to incorporate some of the development techniques as used by Pidd and his team on the Old Bailey Online project, or indeed the crowd-sourcing techniques utilised by The Bentham Project, the Welsh Wills Online project could be a jewel of a resource, and could be utilised for any level of research.

It was genuinely thrilling, once again, to be in the company of Andrew Prescott, who is extraordinarily knowledgeable about the advancements in the field of digital humanities and live tweeted throughout the seminar. 

The event was eye-opening in many different ways, not least in how the different techniques utilised by these other projects could be applied to the development of the Hengwrt Chaucer project. The free tea and cake wasn’t a bad inducement to attend either, and hopefully I gave a good account of myself (despite not speaking at all throughout the event – give me time!) and will be invited back to some more DH events. 

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