Jul 022015

Palm_House,_Royal_Botanic_Garden_EdinburghOver the last few weeks we have been working in partnership with the Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh, who hold an excellent collection of County Surveys as part of their impressive collections. The RBGE is currently in the process of having their rare books comprehensively catalogued by the Rare Book Cataloguer from the Centre for Research Collections (CRC) at the University of Edinburgh, and we are pleased to be able to contribute to this process by assisting in the cataloguing of the County Survey holdings. Once they are complete, we hope that these new electronic records will from the basis of another data set for our online demonstrator.

The RBGE also has state of the art equipment and digitisation specialists in house: although they are currently involved in an extensive project to digitise specimens from the internationally renowned herbarium, staff have generously shared their knowledge and allowed us to use their equipment to digitise a few of the surveys. We are pleased to report this work is going very well and we should be able to make the digitised copies available soon, 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 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.