Dealing with the digital past

Historical Geography Reading Group 13/12/12

Session 4, Semester 1

In a recent radio broadcast, the writer Will Self admitted to a growing preference for the past over the present, suggesting that this may be because:

“the hard drive of my computer is overloaded with digital images of the places I’ve been and the people I’ve met, all of them timecoded to a tenth of a second…[I]n the past decade or so the half-life or our memories has become artificially extended. Instead of curling photographs and yellowing newspapers, we are possessed of a shiny and permanent now.”

What are the implications for historical geography of this digitisation of everything? Dr. David Beel[]’s] research speaks to this hefty question from a specific empirical example. In collaboration with computer scientists, Dave is helping local history groups in the Outer Hebrides to manage their digital collections. 

Apparently, local history is big in the Hebrides, at least for certain sectors of the population. A means by which Hebrideans come to understand their identities, local history archives are also seen as a source of tourist income, enabling a far-flung diaspora to track down and revisit ancestral roots. This results in what Dave described as a kind of ‘heritage from below’, with people from the Hebrides telling their own stories about themselves. As part of this, community history projects have digitised large quantities of material for access via the web – genealogies, oral histories, songs, folk tales and so forth [].

However, the systems used to date have been based on commercial software that is not easy for community groups to use or adapt, and does not interface well with the wider world of search engines and social media. The computer scientists think that the needs of Hebridean local history would be better served by systems based on open source software, open data and linked data. In vastly oversimplified terms, this means making databases compatible with each other, so that a single search can be run across several archives at the same time. The vision is unashamedly utopian: a future in which data is freely sharable, globally accessible and fully cross-compatible.

For Dave, all of this has raised some critical questions, which were taken up by the group for further discussion:

  •  The consequences of open data for local community ownership and control. How do people in the Hebrides feel about sharing their personal histories with anyone anywhere?
  • If data is free, who does the work of collecting it, who gets paid, and where does the money come from? The projects Dave described rely on volunteers and grant funding.
  •  Differences between physical and digital records. Digital records may be easier to store and access, but they are also easier to lose through accidental deletion. And there is a physicality to digital media that needs to be acknowledged, attending to the material spaces of devices, screens, hard drives, servers, against the notion of a virtual ‘cloud’.
  •   Issues of excess. Do we really want to hang onto everything? Are things becoming over-remembered? In a world of open data, might deletion, degradation and ruination of data offer possibilities for resistance or creativity?

Thanks to Dave for kicking off a really interesting discussion of these issues.


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Call for papers for RGS-IBG Annual Conference: New and Emerging Research in Historical Geography

London, 28th-30th August 2013.

Session Organiser: Kim Ross (University of Glasgow)

Sponsored by the Historical Geography Research Group

This session aims to provide an informal and relaxed forum for postgraduates undertaking research in historical geography to present at a major conference. Building upon past successful HGRG postgraduate sessions, it is hoped that a friendly and supportive atmosphere will produce stimulating debates on the issues raised and provide postgraduates with helpful feedback on their work. There is no chronological or geographical limit to papers and they can be variously theoretical, empirical and/or methodological in orientation. Papers are encouraged from PG students at any stage of their PhD research, or Masters dissertation topics.

If you are interested in submitting a paper, please send an abstract of no more than 250 words to Kim Ross ( by Friday 8th February. If you would like any more information about the session, then please get in touch.

When submitting your paper please include the following information: 1) name 2) institutional affiliation 3) contact email, 4) title of proposed paper, 5) abstract (no more than 250 words) and 6) any additional technical requirements (i.e., video, sound (there will be data projection facilities)).

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‘Tales from the archive: methodological and ethical issues in historical geography research’

Historical Geography Reading Group 28/11/12

Session 3, Semester 1

Reading:  Moore F.P.L. (2010) ‘Tales from the archive: methodological and ethical issues in historical geography research,’

It is coming into that busy time of year again and although we had a small group than usual, we still had a very interesting and enjoyable session.  The topic of our discussion was a paper by Francesca Moore on the methodological and ethical concerns within historical geography research.  Moore speaks from her own experience of her PhD research on abortion in 19th and 20th Century Lancashire.  Through this, she explores the ethical dilemmas faced as a result of going work on sensitive subjects and sheds light on the potential for politics in the archive.  She also brings attention to the ways in which the aims and objectives of the academic researcher may conflict with the opinions of the local community.  All of us found this to be an excellent paper for discussion as we could all relate to our own research.

Much of the subsequent discussion was formed as a result of our individual experiences of doing historical research, and we began by considering what Moore intended when she spoke of the potential conflict of interest between researcher and local historians.  Some of our group agreed with Moore’s suggestion that if an archive is largely used for local and family history research, then investigation of more sensitive topics, particularly those that might highlight unsavoury practices within a local area, might encounter a greater deal of resistance.  This opinion was countered by others’ experiences of working in an archive where there is often very little contact with the local historians, and feelings of resistance were rarely, if ever, felt.

We moved on to discuss whether we, as researchers, have the right to investigate something like historical abortion practices that were deliberately conducted in secret.  It was put forth that such research puts us in a position to decide whether to maintain such secrets or expose them.  We agreed that the researcher has to make some very careful ethical decisions regarding sensitive subjects, particularly if investigating within a small community.  It was suggested that the authors’ proposal of changing the names of individuals that were named in the archives might not be sufficient to guarantee complete anonymity within a tight-knit community.  It was also noted that we have a responsibility and duty of care and respect to friends and relatives of dead individuals’.  This also brought up questions of how our ethical standpoint has the potential for change with regard to the dead and living.

We briefly digressed to consider the politics surrounding ownership and housing of archival material.  It was suggested that the various interests and intentions of collectors and archivists may have an impact upon where a collection is stored, or how it is catalogued.  This led us on to the point raised by Moore in which she described how it became necessary to re-frame her research aims in order to locate particular documents in the archive.  Many of us were able to relate to this issue and noted how contextualisation of our research interests, or how we explain them to others, may change depending upon the situation.  It was remarked that such approaches might cause the researcher to unintentionally (or in some cases, intentionally) ‘hide’ the true objective of their research from archive custodians in order to find the necessary documents.  This comment brought us back to discussing the ethical responsibilities of researchers and whether we should focus on a broader ethical horizon with regard to collecting information.

All in all, the session was extremely interesting and engaging, and provided ample food for thought.  As we were a smaller group, we had the opportunity to share some of our own project concerns and queries, which made for particularly helpful discussion.

Thanks to all attendees and to Paul for bringing along the sweets!

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HGRG Practising Historical Geography Conference

Official Summary:

The 18th Annual Practising Historical Geography conference took place at the beginning of November 2012 at the University of Hull, and was attended by 36 delegates and speakers from 13 different institutions. Four Glasgow University post-grad geographers attended, as well as one staff member. The conference provides postgraduate students of Historical Geography a taste of the breadth and vitality of work in the sub-discipline, as well as providing a welcoming environment for students to learn, experiment and expand their own theoretical and methodological skills to further their own research.

Furthermore, the conference also serves to provide a friendly environment for students to network and converse about their shared experiences of working and studying in Historical Geography.  This year, this was started the night before the conference, when many of the students and academics met for a meal. This was a fantastic way to spend the evening, as most people were in Hull that night anyway, and it provided the perfect opportunity to meet fellow Historical Geographers in a relaxed atmosphere.

Again breaking from tradition, this year the conference started with two small-group practical workshops. This year, these were facilitated by Hilary Geoghegan (UCL), who helped us engage and explore our passions for the research process and work dissemination through her session “Loving Historical Geography: enthusiasm as part of the research process”, and Kevin Milburn (University of Nottingham) who opened up the possibilities of different research sources and methods through his session “Sonic Histories and Aural Geographies”. These small-scale workshops help open up dialogue between students, allowing engaging and interesting discussions to unfold, as well as learning a little more about a number of different topics.

This year, the keynote papers were given by Uma Kothari whose paper was titled ‘Contesting Colonial Rule: politics of exile in the Indian Ocean’, (University of Manchester) and Elizabeth Gagen who presented: ‘From muscular health to emotional intelligence: historicising governance in mind/body relations’, (University of Hull). Both speakers gave empirically rich, substantive and thought provoking papers which together demonstrated the diversity of historical sources and approaches available to students. This was further evident in a fascinating short presentation given by recent undergraduate dissertation prize winner Tom Crawford (University of Bristol) titled ‘Production, Power and Performance in the Atlas Novus of 1645 by W. and J. Blaeu’. Tom’s presentation covered a range of theoretical areas, and was empirically rich and was extremely well presented, many people urged him to continue researching within the field of Historical Geography, as he clearly has a real flair and passion for the subject.

The day also includes a postgraduate voices session, a question and answer forum which allows current postgraduate students to listen to recently completed PhD candidates on all manner of their experiences. This year’s speaker was Cheryl McGeachan (University of Glasgow) who spoke about different opportunities and tools available to students to help boost their academic profile and learning experience, from teaching, to reading groups, to writing workshops. Cheryl’s enthusiasm is infectious, and it was great to have the opportunity to hear about different skills that could be gained throughout the research process through various, often creative, methods.

The day as a whole provided an opportunity, over lunch, refreshments and in sessions, to engage with Historical Geographers, and Historical Geographies, and I would like to take this opportunity to thank all of the speakers for their interesting presentations, Carl Griffin (QUB) for providing some funding for the evening refreshments, and a special thanks to Lucy Veale for both chairing the sessions, and organising another fantastic Practising Historical Geography conference.

Kim Ross (HGRG Postgraduate Committee Member)

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‘Come and see the Empire by the All Red Route!’

Historical Geography Reading Group, 24/10/12

Session 2, Semester 1

Reading: Sarah Britton (2010) ‘Come and see the Empire by the All Red Route!’: Anti-Imperialism and Exhibitions in Interwar Britain

The reading group met today to discuss Sarah Britton’s paper on anti-imperialism and exhibitions in interwar Britain. Britton’s work highlights a West African student protest and a working conditions campaign against the 1924 British Empire Exhibition in Wembley before moving on to consider the 1938 Worker’s Exhibition in Glasgow which coincided with the Empire Exhibition also in the city. She provides a fascinating insight into different forms of resistance against the exhibition tradition of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The three forms of protest are positioned against the two largest exhibitions in British history which had a combined cost of approximately £31million. Her unique style effectively works across a 14 year time period and between two distanced UK cities, raising key questions regarding the historical geographies of empire exhibition culture. Our own discussion of the text focused on the local circumstances of the exhibitions, the contrasting forms of protest used, possible implications for writing a ‘history from below’ and some speculation on the links of these histories to the present day and ‘mega-event’/festival culture.

Firstly we explored the three examples of resistance which raised different questions regarding the empire exhibitions. The West African Student protest exposed the treatment of human exhibits and directly opposed the representation of African culture provided by local journalists. We discussed the explicitly apolitical stance of the union and considered the forms of solidarity developed, and perhaps those underdeveloped, within the student group. The workers conditions movement highlighted key problems within the actual environments in which exhibition staff would work. Interestingly though, the position of the Trades Union Congress (TUC) regarding the exhibition remained fairly ambiguous and failed to provide a sustained critique of the imperial and colonial basis of the exhibition. In contrast, the Worker’s Exhibition in Glasgow posed a direct ‘attack’ on the imperialism of the 1938 exhibition. This example was particularly interesting given its local significance and led to substantial discussion regarding how Glasgow’s history is framed and continually retold. Some of the group felt that Britton could have provided more information on the significance of the political figures involved in the Glasgow exhibition (George Padmore, James Maxton & Ethel Manning) and that the spatial connections made between these political actors and groups could have been explored further.

The tensions of writing a ‘history from below’ or simply the fragmented nature of historical enquiry also came through in our discussion of the paper. Some felt that it was hard to fully comprehend the scale of the worker’s exhibition without greater detail of the content within the exhibition itself. Whilst others felt the explicitly political nature of the exhibition and the links it forged with the Independent Labour Party provided substantial evidence for its significance. This led to debates over how we choose to write ‘marginal’ or ‘minor’ histories and the weight writers give to certain material. These debates were applicable to many of our research interests and raised key questions over how we, as researchers, frame and present historical material.

Towards the end of the meeting the group moved on to the links between this research and the debates regarding ‘mega events’ such as the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow and the numerous festivals held across the UK. In many ways this article raised issues still extremely relevant to present day exhibitions and events, highlighting the continual need to think critically about how events are justified and practiced. The exhibitions considered by Britton were justified through ‘the promise of boosting tourism, raising the civic profile and increasing trade and industry’, which in many ways parallel with the aims of more recent events, but her article and our discussions highlights how these ideals were not experienced by all.


Thanks to all that attended the group and for the cakes baked by Mhairi!!

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Historical Geography Research Group – Conference

Practising Historical Geography

The 18th Annual Postgraduate and Undergraduate one day Conference for postgraduate and undergraduate students of historical geography will be held at the University of Hull on Wednesday 7th November 2012 between 9:30 and 5.

Organised by the Historical Geography Research Group, the day will include keynote lectures from Dr Liz Gagen and Professor Uma Kothari, workshops exploring research methods, a ‘postgraduate voices’ session and a brief talk by this year’s HGRG undergraduate dissertation prize winner. It will also be an excellent opportunity to meet other researchers in your field!

A small charge of £10 will be payable on the day of the event and will include lunch and refreshments through the day.

The final schedule will be finalised and circulated in the next couple of weeks but please keep the date free.

If you would like to receive a registration form please email Lucy Veale (Conference Officer) at:


09:30 Conference registration and coffee

10:00 Keynote lecture: ‘Contesting Colonial Rule: politics of exile in the Indian Ocean’, Uma Kothari (University of Manchester)

11:00 Postgraduate voices: Cheryl McGeachan (University of Glasgow)

11:30 HGRG dissertation prize winner: Tom Crawford (University of Bristol) ‘Production, Power and Performance in the Atlas Novus of 1645 by W. and J. Blaeu’

11:45 Historical geography workshops

 I.    ‘Loving Historical Geography: enthusiasm as part of the research process’, Hilary Geoghegan (UCL)

II.   ‘Sonic Histories and Aural Geographies’, Kevin Milburn (University of Nottingham/RGS-IBG)

 12:45 Lunch

 14:00 Historical geography workshops

I.    ‘Loving Historical Geography: enthusiasm as part of the research process’, Hilary Geoghegan (UCL)

II.   ‘Sonic Histories and Aural Geographies’, Kevin Milburn (University of Nottingham/RGS-IBG)

 15:00 Coffee break

 15:30 Keynote lecture: ‘From muscular health to emotional intelligence: historicising governance in mind/body relations’, Liz Gagen (University of Hull)

 16:30 Closing comments

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The Politics of Inebriety – Alcoholism Treatment in Scotland since 1800

Historical Geography Reading Group, 26/09/12

Session 1, Semester 1

The Politics of Inebriety
Alcoholism Treatment in Scotland since 1800
Dr Iain Smith

The reading group kicked off its third year today with invited speaker Dr Iain Smith, a psychiatrist at Gartnavel Royal Hospital, who has a particular interest in the history of his area of expertise, alcohol dependencies. Dr Smith spoke to us for about an hour about the changing methods of alcohol treatment over the last 200 years, outlining various places, acts, ideas and reforms which were to have an influence on the ideas and management of ‘alcoholism’ in Scotland.

Dr Smith was quick to highlight Scotland’s difficult relationship with alcohol, exampling higher consumption and related diseases than in England and Wales, but also noting that Scotland was the seminal place in conceiving alcohol problems as being medical problems (although also recognising the difficulties of labelling ‘alcoholism’ as a disease). Comparisons can be drawn between the work of Dr Smith and David Beckingham, who has written on the history of inebriety in England and Wales.

Different spaces of treatment were discussed, the first being the use of “Island therapy”. Evidence from Luss parish records showed that as early as the 1830s, habitual drunkards were sent to ‘dry’ islands on Loch Lomond and boarded with local families, purely to keep them away from drink. Towards the mid to late 19th century, psychiatry inevitably became involved, and there was shown to be a link between increased alcohol consumption and increasing asylum numbers. Dr Yellowlees of Gartnavel Royal argued in 1872 that half the cases of insanity in Scotland were due to intemperance.

With growing numbers, inevitably there was an increase in the number of laws, inquiries and ‘solutions’. One such experiment was the use of inebriate reformatories, which, like many asylums at the time, were based on moral rather than medical therapy, removing the drunk from the drink. The Scottish inebriate estate was not large. Other solutions included the temperance movement, a shift towards Draconian taxation and restrictions on alcohol sale, particularly during the inter-war years, which saw a massive fall in alcohol consumption.

In our whistle-stop tour of alcohol treatment, Dr Smith took us up to contemporary views on alcohol treatment, arguing for the resurgence of alcohol as a medical concern: increased consumption, increased harm and thus increased treatment. In way of conclusion, it was suggested that throughout Dr Smith’s study period, history had a habit of repeating itself, either through levels of consumption, spaces of treatment, or modes of legislation.

Many thanks to Dr Smith for squeezing us in to his busy timetable and for presenting such a fascinating presentation, to the participants who came along, and to Hazel, Paul and Mhairi for supplying the cakes.

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