Apr 102015

After several months of preparing and curating data for our online bibliographic tool, last week we were excited to see the new design for the GUI produced by EDINA’s resident designer Jackie Clark.

Throughout the development process we’ve been working with a functional but deliberately sparse interface which shows results in a simple table alongside filter terms. While this has been entirely fit for purpose during checking and testing phases, it shows its database origins very clearly, it’s quite text heavy and requires lots of clicking through lists and tables to get to publication entries.  As we’ve become aware during the development, this has implications in terms of navigation, as you need to retrace your steps by going back in your browser, and it has meant that comparing between different searches is not easy. We’ve discussed various options to resolve these issues, considering for example whether to introduce a ‘shopping basket’ feature that enables you to collect records together for comparison.

the development/working interface

the development/working interface

These usability concerns were on our mind when considering potential designs. The new design was selected to solve some of these problems for us, i.e. by simply separating out the search terms from the results. As well as skinning the tool in the same design as our blog, Jackie has moved the long filter lists into a more visually appealing table design which allows scrolling within boxes rather than within the page.

the first design for the new interface

the first design for the new interface

This means that you can always see the chosen filters from the same view, making your search parameters very clear, which wasn’t the case in the development version. In addition, the new tab system means that each search opens a separate results tab, so your search page remains with your parameters within view and you can toggle back and forth between the search and the results if you want to check these. In addition, if you want to compare the results of a number of searches, you can run the search several times keeping the results tab produced each time open, and then toggle between these. An added benefit of this design is that it thins out the content, giving more space on the results page. We’re now considering how best to use this space, considering what information we might add in order to best enhance the records. It’s a great example of how a good design can create elegant solutions to functional problems.

We’re looking forward to launching the new interface via this website in a few weeks’ time, so watch this space!

Mar 312015
Folded Map from the 'revised' survey of North Wales published in 1810

Folded Map from the ‘revised’ survey of North Wales published in 1810

As I described in an earlier post, cross-checking between bibliographies and catalogues has formed a substantial part of the work that has so far gone into building our bibliographic database of the holdings of the County Surveys.  In order to make sure that we are identifying and locating as many of the surveys as we can, we have also been checking our holdings information against county maps. If we can say that we have found surveys that document all the counties, then we can be confident that we have the significant majority, if not a complete set.

The task is complicated by the history of the counties in Britain. Firstly, the borders of regions, districts and other administrative areas have changed frequently over the last two hundred years, meaning that the areas referred to by a county name in 1800 can be different to the areas referred to by the same name now. Secondly, as these changes have taken place, the names used to refer to areas have also changed, in some cases quite dramatically. What we now call Dumfries and Galloway, for example, was historically three counties, Dumfriesshire, Wigtownshire and ‘the Stewartry of Kirkcudbright’. We decided that for the twenty-first century researchers who would be consulting our online collection, the ability to search by modern names would be important.

To map our list of survey holdings to the geography of the British Isles and to the areas defined by modern names, we turned to the Ordnance Surveys. Ordnance Survey have been responsible for mapping and surveying the UK since the 1790s, the same decade in which the County Surveys were commissioned. Their most recent county maps represent Britain in the mid-Twentieth Century, when counties were still the primary administrative entities across the nation (since the 1970s, regional authorities have replaced counties), so the list of their maps represented as authoritative a list of modern counties as we are likely to find.  This has become both our ‘canonical county name list’ and the list of geographical areas against which we can map the areas covered by the surveys.

We hope, in time, that this work will enable us to create an intuitive map interface for our collection.  In itself, though, the process of mapping the surveys to the areas has been very valuable in that it has turned up quite a few queries about our holdings data and about the surveys themselves. For example, it has enabled us to identify no less than four surveys that deal with the same geographical area under different titles, for example Kings County in Ireland is also surveyed as Offaly, and the ‘Central Highlands’ survey of series one describes itself as dealing with Perthshire, although there are three other surveys with Perth in the title published in the same series.  The process has also allowed us to check geographically neighbouring surveys in order to establish the boundaries of the areas dealt with: for instance, in the first series there appears to be no survey for Bute. Checking Clydesdale, Argyle, and Ayr, the areas which might conceivably contain or neighbour Bute, reveals no trace of the Isle, suggesting that it was probably completely neglected during the first phase rather than incorporated in another survey.

This kind of cross-checking and mapping is time-consuming but necessary to ensure the integrity of the data and of our mode of presentation. In a sense it is an echo of the work done by the original surveyors, who also sought to compile information about areas and fields for which there was no guide place. “In obtaining an account of the present state of husbandry in North Wales several difficulties occurred”, wrote George Kay the first surveyor of the area in 1794. “Among others, no distinct map of it could be procured, although I enquired at all the shops in the principle towns from Edinburgh to Chester.” (p.1) Charting previously uncharted territories, the surveyors laid the foundations of Sir John’s pyramid of enquiries, enabling new questions to be posed and answered. At a much more modest scale, we hope our online collection will help researchers chart the bibliographic landscape of the Surveys and facilitate new research on this fascinating material.

Mar 162015


'Sunday Afternoon ' (1853) by  Edward Thompson Davis. Collection: Wolverhampton Arts and Heritage

‘Sunday Afternoon ‘ (1853) by Edward Thompson Davis. Collection: Wolverhampton Arts and Heritage

When you are working with old books, it’s often quite easy to find information about production and distribution: authors, publishers, and printers are often noted within the volume itself, frequently alongside information about the materials used and occasionally the circumstances under which the writing took place. Sometimes booksellers are listed and other clues to circulation can be gleaned from paratexts like  book plates and advertising. It is considerably more difficult to find out about reception: reading is an ephemeral, private process in comparison. Subtle trails can be left—marginalia, for example, or references to the book, usually gathered from quite diverse sources.

Perhaps the most valuable resources for those researching reception are book reviews.  Reviewers are conscious of their role in elucidating the book to those who have not yet read it: as they articulate their understanding and their evaluation, they reveal priorities and assumptions that illuminate contemporary readerships. This is as true of the reviewers of the County Surveys as of any others. In a review of William Aiton’s survey of Bute, for example, published in The Farmer’s Magazine (Vol 18.71 August 1817), the unnamed author explains that for such an important and potentially useful series, the surveys have some serious flaws. He complains of the verbose and repetitive nature of the surveys in a manner that suggests the fault would be widely understood by his readers.  “It seems to have been thought no part of the duty of the Reporters to confine themselves to the circumstances of the particular county on which their labours were to have been employed,” he remarks, and instead they have “wandered at large, often in controversial form, into almost every department of human knowledge” (337) This is of course precisely what makes the surveys so interesting today, but to this contemporary reader it was evidently a frustration. There were other faults too: “to some, the great length of these works, and, to others, the expense of purchasing them, may be serious objections; and the difficulty of consulting them has seldom been lessened by the addition of an index to their contents” (338) With his list of shortcomings, we get a real insight into how contemporary readers wanted to use the surveys (as manuals and reference guides) and how, in practice, they would have engaged with them (borrowing rather than buying, dipping in rather than reading from start to finish).

Reviewers are exceptional readers, however, and this also serves to marks them out from their peers. In some future posts, I’ll try to explore a few other clues that shed some light on who the ‘common readers’ of the County Surveys may have been


Mar 032015

One of our first steps on this project has been the creation of an online bibliographic resource, aggregating holdings information from a number of significant collections of the County Surveys.  Our aim has been quite simple really: to identify where print and digital copies can be found, in order to assess the accessibility of this set of publications. We want to get a grasp of what is out there already before we consider which individual surveys we could most usefully digitise as a part of this project, and we also want to make this resource available to researchers, enabling them to more easily find and consult specific volumes and editions. It turns out that this is rather easier said than done. In this post, the first of two, I’ll describe the steps we have taken to build our database and some of the challenges we have encountered.

The primary difficulties in gathering data stem from the number of surveys and the ways in which they were produced and published. The County Surveys were undertaken in two phases, the first (known as ‘the original reports’) totalled 91 surveys, and the second (the ‘revised’ or ‘corrected’ reports), another 85. There was also a series of Irish surveys corresponding to the second phase, adding another 24. As the disparity in numbers between the phases indicates, the revisions were not merely of the texts: the names and areas covered also changed significantly. So, to give a couple of examples, there are four surveys covering Perthshire in the first phase, but only one in the second; there is no survey for Bute in the first series, but there is one in the second series. To add to this confusion, some areas were surveyed twice by different surveyors and many of the ‘revised’ surveys were reissued with changes in the first few years. In total, we think that we are dealing with around 200 reports for around 135 different named geographic entities. We can’t be entirely sure because we do not have any list of the complete set. It is quite possible that some surveys were commissioned but never published. It is also possible that others were published, but aren’t held in the collections on which we have been drawing. In short, we are building up our database and our knowledge about the Surveys by bringing together and comparing different collections, each of which may be partial and incomplete.

We were lucky, however, to have some solid foundations on which to build. In 2012/13, an authoritative bibliography of the County Surveys by Heather Holmes was published, detailing the collections of Edinburgh University Library, the National Library of Scotland, ECCO and the library of the Royal Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland among other collections. In order to extract this information from Holmes’ prose article, we created a spreadsheet indicating the titles listed and the collections in which they were held. This forms the basis of our bibliographic resources, which we are adding to through gathering additional data from other known collections. We requested and were given a spreadsheet listing the holdings of a major collection held by the Perkins Agricultural Library at the University of Southampton. Using a simple title search, we manually extracted the holdings data of the Surveys from Hathi Trust, a laborious process, and then brought the various spreadsheets together to create a master list. We then requested holdings information from the NLS and EUL, asking them to extract lists from their catalogues so that we can compare their lists with our master list, cross-checking to ensure that we have all the data available from these sources.  We also hope to get holdings data from the British Library, and we are currently exploring methods for extracting data from Google books. Although some libraries and collections have been able to extract data from their catalogues, and in some cases we have been able to harvest or scrape it, in most cases there has been quite a bit of manual work involved.

At the same time, the software engineers on the team have been building a database and interface that allows us to look at the information through different filters and to edit individual holdings information. At present we can filter by author, country, county, and phase. This has been invaluable in helping to bring gaps and anomalies to light, making cross-checking much more manageable. Conversely, the process of cross-checking has stimulated our thinking about how the structure of the database might be developed and the kinds of filtering and comparisons mechanisms researchers might need or want as part of the interface. Through this iterative method, as new data sets arrive, our online collection is gradually taking shape and the requirements for the interface are becoming more clearly defined.

In a future post, I’ll discuss another way that we are checking the completeness of the holdings data: mapping the Surveys against the geographical coverage they represent.

Jan 222015

Cover of: The code of agriculture by Sinclair, John Sir

The County Surveys project is closely related to EDINA’s Statistical Accounts of Scotland service, for together the surveys and the accounts form the foundations of Sir John Sinclair’s ambitious ‘pyramid of agricultural enquiries’. The insights and lessons gleaned from these extensive reports were collected in Sinclair’s 1817 book The Code of Agriculture, the pinnacle of his pyramid, which represented the culmination of decades of work with the aim of ‘rendering, a general knowledge of the principles of husbandry, more easily accessible’.

Although they both belong to one larger vision however, there are significant differences between the Statistical Accounts and the County Surveys. Most obviously, they focus on different geographical entities. The Statistical Accounts are concerned with individual parishes and are confined to Scotland, while the Surveys broadened the scope of the enquiries across Britain and Ireland and considered farming practices and land management at the level of county. They therefore provide information about much greater and more diverse areas, enabling comparison across different regions and nations. In this lay their value: the aim of the enquiries was to excite the spirit of ‘improvement’ across the land and, by comparing practices, farmers and landowners could pool their knowledge and share the benefits of others’ experience. Some of the surveys were published with appendixes encouraging such cross-pollination of ideas and methods, for example the General View of the Agriculture of Northampton contained a comparison of ‘the English and Scotch Systems of Husbandry, as Practised in the Counties of Northampton and Perth.’

Another significant difference between the parish accounts and the surveys lay in their authorship. The accounts were written by local ministers: living among the communities they described, they knew intimately the circumstances of their flock but were often less  informed about the other subjects on which they were tasked to report. This led to some far-fetched speculations and assertions, such as the fantastic tale of a (non-existent) loch, reportedly 100 fathoms deep, at the summit of Meallfuarvonie, a hill in Glen Urquhart.  As David McVey puts it,  ‘simple facts of topography and natural history ,[…] sometimes wander into the realms of folklore in the [Old Statistical Accounts] – a warning, perhaps, to approach other information with some caution.’ And, as McVey goes on to point out,

‘sometimes what is omitted is more telling than what is included. In the entry for the Parish of Golspie, scene of some of the most notorious incidents in the Highland Clearances during the early 19th century, the Revd Alexander MacPherson made no mention of the resulting hardship, merely commenting that there had been a decline in the parish’s population occasioned by agricultural improvements. He did, however, indulge in several purple passages of praise for the House of Sutherland, the sole landowners in the parish.’*

These biases, inventions, and idiosyncrasies are part of what makes the accounts such rich resources for historical research.

In contrast, the surveys were commissioned from laymen rather than clergy, sometimes surveyors but often ‘intellectual farmers’ and others who had a professional interest in agriculture. If they are less idiosyncratic, however, their authorship is no less revealing in terms of prevailing attitudes and social and moral codes. Consider, for example,  William Aiton’s impassioned attack on the country ‘sports’ of Ayrshire.  Describing ‘low jockies’, who beat their charges to perform, Aiton writes:

I consider it to be unworthy of the noblemen and gentlemen, who patronise these races, to give their money to such men, and for such purposes. […] The races at country towns are still worse and ought to be prohibited. […] The exhibition is calculated to shock the feelings of humanity. Three or four meagre, jaded, lame, starved animals, are mounted upon, by as many unfeeling blackguards in a state of intoxication, galloped on a rough, hard road, for several miles and cruelly cut and bloodied with whip and spur, for the amusement or sport of the rabble that attend. Such exhibitions are unworthy of an enlightened age, shocking to humanity, and none can be innocent who contribute to, or give them countenance.  (William Aiton, General View of the Agriculture of the County of Ayr  p.577)

Aiton’s remarks are illuminating in several respects, highlighting attitudes towards animals, towards the nobility and the poor. They show that the surveyors brought their own opinions and concerns to their reports, creating thick, rich descriptions that offer valuable insights into rural life in the late 18th century.

The Statistical Accounts and the County Surveys are ‘sister’ enquiries rather than twins. They complement and enrich one another, enabling researchers to compare different perspectives at different scales, and local concerns and practices at slightly different historical moments.  Creating an online collection of the County Surveys, a sustainable service like the Statistical Accounts of Scotland, would be a step towards digitally reconstructing Sir John’s pyramid and would enable researchers to easily read across and between both sets of documents, enabling new insights and readings of both.


* McVey, David. ”The Scottish “Domesday”‘ Practical Family History, Sept 2010, pp. 46-47)