Blogging Our Criminal Past, part 1

This is a draft of the first part of a short article I’m writing on blogging the history of crime. It’s for a special issue of the online journal Law, Crime & History which will examine on-going discussions at the Our Criminal Past network, organized by Heather Shore and Helen Johnston.  I’m not sure how much of what follows will make the final cut or if it says very much. But it is a kind of roll call of whose active in the history of crime blogosphere which I hope might be helpful. Apologies if I’ve missed you out – and please shout at me so I can include you! 

 

In a recent blog, ‘Doing it in public: Impact, blogging, social media and the academy’, Tim Hitchcock suggests that ‘If there is a ‘crisis’ in the humanities, it lies in how we have our public debates, rather than in their content.’  Though ‘the role of the academic humanist has always been a public one’, he claims, traditional academic platforms – conference presentations, scholarly journals, and research monographs – have too often limited the audience to specialist libraries and researchers, or at best the Higher Education classroom. Social media lets us open the doors to the research community to include amateurs and practitioners, archivists and curators, creative writers and artists, learners and teachers across the educational spectrum, and readers with potentially infinite interests, expertise, and curiosities.  ‘By building blogging, and twitter, flickr, and shared libraries in Zotero, in to our research programmes – into the way we work anyway – we both get more research done,’ proposes Hitchcock, ‘and build a community of engaged readers for the work itself.  We can do what we have always done, but do it better; as a public performance, in dialog amongst ourselves, and with a wider public.’ [1]

In this article I examine how historians of crime are using social media, and blogging in particular, not only to share their research more widely but to enter active conversations with diverse and multiple audiences. But I want to suggest that blogging is not just a tool enabling us to reach more readers and users, to do what we have always done but ‘do it better’.  More radically, it can be a medium which allows us to view our sources from new perspectives, to re-present and understand them in different ways, and to shift our relationship to the past. As open platforms fostering interactive dialogue, blogs provide space for addressing some of the political and ethical challenges confronting those of us researching the history of crime and punishment, whether in the classroom, the museum or the media: how to balance public desire for education and entertainment; how to make records accessible and where to preserve anonymity; how to convey painful historical experiences which touch directly on the personal experiences of those currently living with the effects of crime and punishment.

Historians of crime were among early academic bloggers. Sharon Howard, a pioneering blogger, has been posting at Early Modern Notes for ten years and is now re-blogging items from her extensive blogchives. On her website she hosts a wonderful array of blogs, including The History Carnival, Early Modern Commons, and the New Newgate Calendar which collates the latest blogs by crime historians.[2] Multi-author blogs, such as the Crime in the Community Blog of the Old Bailey Online, also managed by Sharon Howard and, more recently, Our Criminal Past play a crucial role in opening up the blogosphere to the uninitiated, providing a space for writers new to blogging to test the waters. They also allow bloggers to showcase their work and engage with writers and readers in other areas of the field or from different disciplines.[3] These platforms are offering crime historians an immediate and flexible form of online communication for work-in-progress to complement online, open access journals like Law, Crime & History produced by the SOLON network.

Blogging platforms provide a vital online presence for collaborative research projects, whether in sustaining and developing long-running projects, as does Crime in the Community for the Old Bailey Online, or in generating interest in new projects and drawing wider participation into discussion of research design, as do newcomers on the block, The Carceral Archipelago: Transnational Circulations in Global Perspective, 1415-1960 and  The Digital Panopticon: The Global Impact of London Punishments, 1780-1925. Blogging and the micro-blogging tools which underpin it – notably facebook and twitter – form an indispensable infrastructure for the research network. They have enabled Our Criminal Past to create a virtual network extending well beyond the academy that keeps archivists, curators, educators and researchers in dialogue before and after face-to-face meetings. Most conferences now have their own blog and twitter feed that foster conversations before the event, the exchange of pre-conference papers, and post-conference reflection.

Until recently academic use of blogging and related social media generated considerable anxiety across the academy, particularly over research ‘ownership’ and copyright. Doctoral students and early career researchers were often advised to hold back work-in-progress and not to publish their theses online, to avoid their research being misappropriated or to enhance the prospect of publication with prestigious journals and presses. Such caution now seems ill-advised as more and more researchers come to see how ‘openness’ can dramatically extend the reach of their scholarship, while sharing work in public enables ideas to form and take shape in dialogue with others and sometimes follow directions the lone researcher might never envisage.

Postgraduate students and early career researchers have played a major role in developing this more sociable and interactive scholarly practice and have been leading the way in showing how blogging can help fashion new kinds of research identities and career trajectories. Adam Crymble has been one of the pioneer users of blogging in postgraduate research, beginning Thoughts on Public and Digital History  in November 2007 while studying for an MA in Public History at the University of Western Ontario. Fittingly, for a scholar who would push at the boundaries of what a research blog might do, his first post, How to Get Feedback from your Exhibit Viewers Without Their Realizing it, reported on his surreptitious use of an empty display cabinet in the History Department to stage an interactive exhibition on ‘The History of Wearing a Poppy’, combined with collecting for the Royal Canadian Legion.[4]  Crymble continued to blog regularly throughout his MA and now completed PhD, ‘Understanding the London Irish Immigrant Experience through Large-Scale Textual Analysis: 1801-1820’, mostly on methodologies and tools used in his thesis and on wider issues concerning Digital Humanities and public history, such as Open Access. The blog is not just a work-in-progress site but has become an educational platform in its own right, hosting related digital and pedagogic projects, including the co-authored open access resource, the Programming Historian.

While early bloggers in the history of crime tended to be associated with large-scale digital history projects, notably the Old Bailey Online, a new generation of bloggers have begun to emerge in the last couple of years.[5] They join a growing community of blogging historians whose online conversations are not limited to particular fields within the discipline but span interdisciplinary studies of medicine and disability, emotions and material culture, gender and sexuality, and all aspects of history from below. Again, PhD students and early career researchers have been at the forefront of this move, including Lucy Williams who discusses her blog Wayward Women: Victorian England’s Female Offenders in this issue.  Like Lucy Williams, Guy Woolnough (Victorian Policing – Bottom-up history:  what happened at street level) and Rachael Griffin Victorian Detectives: Detective policing and criminal justice in the Victorian capital) began their blogs about half way through their doctoral theses. To date, however, historians tend to launch their blogs once their research projects are firmly established. Lesley Hulonce (Workhouse Tales) and Nell Darby (Criminal Historian: Working with Dead People) began blogging towards the end of their theses, while Vicky Holmes (Victorian Domestic Dangers) and Jade Shepherd (Voices from Broadmoor) started shortly after completion. For early career scholars like these, blogging provides a vital link to the scholarly community during the often long and isolating period of transition from PhD to employment but it also offers a creative space to repurpose academic research beyond narrow specialisms and to open it up for a wider audience.

But perhaps we are on the cusp of a new trend, already well-established within digital humanities, where students will begin blogging as they embark on their research degrees and discover, as did Adam Crymble, how social media can enhance research design and development from the outset. Laura Mair (Victorian Ragged Schools) and Jim Hinks (Other People’s Children: Histories of Paid Child Care, 1860-1910), for examples, launched online profiles in the early stages of their PhDs, and use their blogs and feedback from readers to help define their research parameters and questions, test out methods and interpret sources. And, as my second year undergraduate students have shown in their work for Prison Voices: Crime, Conviction and Confession, c. 1700-1900, blogging can be a way of introducing students to online research and communication while also involving them in demonstrating to a public audience the richness of digital resources such as the Harvard Crime Broadsides or Tasmanian convict records.

It is striking that most of the early career crime history blogs I have discovered are by UK-based scholars, with the exception of Rachael Griffin’s Victorian Detectives and Melanie Newport’s blog on the US Cook County Jail in the mid twentieth century. My tweet to #twitterstorians calling for blogs by historians outside the UK yielded no responses. This reinforces the importance of online networks, such as Our Criminal Past, in supporting historical work in the blogoshere and providing an audience for bloggers. It is notable, too, that all the early career historians mentioned above have consciously designed their blogs to appeal to an audience beyond academia. They do so by making considerable use of contemporary pictures, paintings, advertisements and, where possible photography, to illustrate their discussion and make their posts attractive and interactive. While their posts implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, involve interpretation and analysis, they avoid heavy use of jargon and specialist discourse. Where blogs within the Digital Humanities tend to focus on method and conceptualization, evaluating and critiquing tools and processes, overwhelmingly, it seems, bloggers in the history of crime are principally concerned with recovering from the criminal justice archive the multiple histories and voices ‘from below’.  Above all, they foreground stories, allowing the sources – and historical actors – to speak for themselves.

In doing so, it is important to recognize that academic historians are part of a vibrant online community including independent researchers, local historians, writers and archivists using social media and blogging to explore ‘our criminal past’, including Angela Buckley (Victorian Supersleuth – Investigating 19th Century Crime), Jill Evans (Gloucestershire Crime History), Christopher Impey (London’s Oldest) Prison), David J. Vaughan (Mad, Bad and Desperate – Crime and Insanity in Victorian England) and Sarah Wise. Writing as ‘the Gentle Author’, Lee Jackson showcases the richness of the criminal archive for local history in his superb blog Spitalfields Life, while his huge following demonstrates the public appetite for history from below when told in a lively form. Also noteworthy is Executed Today, by far the most prolific blog in the field, and a ‘daily chronicle’ of executions on ‘This Day in History’. Executed Today  makes inspired use of social media’s ability to link past and present timelines to combine criminal justice history with public advocacy against the death sentence in all parts of the world. The potential of social media to allow us to write history in new ways and adapt it for different purposes will be the focus of the next part of this discussion.

[1] Tim Hitchcock, ‘Doing it in public: Impact, blogging, social media and the academy’, Historyonics, 15 July 2014.

[2] Sharon Howard, Ten Years Blogging, 17 June 2014. See her History Blogging page at www.sharonhoward.org for links.

[3] Medieval historians were among the early academic bloggers.  For a report on the collaborative blog In the Middle, begun in 2006, see Karl Steel, Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Mary Kate Hurley and Eileen A. Joy, ‘Why We Blog: An Essay in Four Movements’, Literature Compass, 9 (12) (2012): 1016-1032. doi: 10.1111/lic3.12012

[4] 29 Nov 2007, accessed 12 August 2014.

[5] For pioneering PhD and early career bloggers in the field of Victorian Studies, see Amber K. Regis, ‘Early Career Victorianists and Social Media: Impact, Audience and Online Identities’, Journal of Victorian Culture, 17.3 (2012), pp. 355-62 in conversation with  Paul Dobraszczyk , Rag-picking History: Unearthing Hidden Places & Pasts, Charlotte Mattieson,  Bob Nicholson, The Digital Victorianist,  and her own blog “Looking Glasses at Odd Corners”.

 

3 thoughts on “Blogging Our Criminal Past, part 1

  1. I like this a lot, but I think it’s not quite right to characterize the various things of mine that you mention as ‘multi-author’ blogs or as collaborative. Early Modern Commons, Newgate Calendar, etc, are just aggregators, and not blogs themselves; the process of capturing content from blogs’ RSS feeds is completely automated and in most cases involuntary on the bloggers’ part (although I deliberately show only snippets of their content). The blogs are still completely independent entities – I certainly hope that it helps to foster collaboration by juxtaposing blogging from different places and making bloggers more aware of what each other is doing, but (am I being pedantic?) I don’t think that’s quite being collaborative in itself.

    • Thanks Sharon! You are absolutely right (not pedantic). I’m not good on the lingo! Will edit now accordingly. But point remains the same – your aggregated blogsites (is that correct way of putting it?) are a brilliant way of bringing blogging community together.

      Helen

  2. I couldn’t agree more: blogging is a vital route for those outside the academic elite of full-time, permanent academic historians (i.e. laypeople, archivists, librarians, local historians, students, postdocs, etc.) to both create, disseminate and access historical writing. It’s been wonderful to be able to read history by people who I would otherwise never encounter and to have them contribute comments and suggestions on our blog. Infinitely more enlightening than yet another conference of dozens of 20 minute papers!

    It also certainly seems like the history of crime is particularly well-endowed with a lively blogosphere, due in no small part to Sharon Howard! You’re very lucky to be working in such an exciting subfield.

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