31 May 2007

My Digital History Internship

As I noted in my last post, I am currently working with Bill Turkel on a digital history internship. I'm using MIT's Exhibit software to create a website that documents street name changes in London. The idea came out of a major paper I wrote last term on the same topic.

My website is going to be a very simple, interactive site providing information about street name changes such as: the original name, the new (not always current) name, the date of the name change, who initiated the change (was it a private citizen, a corporation, or the municipal council?), the bylaw that changed the name, and, where possible, I may opt to include a little social history behind the name change.

The last component is a sticky part for me. The reasons why people wanted to change the names of their streets in London was what I examined in my term paper. Luckily, in the paper, I could limit my focus to the number of streets for which I could find evidence. I found eight. Eight, for a website-creating internship of this nature, was, to play on a hackneyed old television show name, not enough. Bill told me I should aim for 20-30, just to make the website interesting.

Finding the social history behind the eight street name changes required a whole lot of digging, hair-pulling, and frustratingly long hours in libraries. That's history work, for you, though. I suppose.

I didn't have enough time to do an equivalent amount of research for the additional 12-22 streets. Nor do I believe that the information I would need is even available.

Surprising as it may seem, why someone wants a street name changed from one name to another is not always a requirement of street name changes in London. And often, the name changes occurred because of an annexation (there have been 17 in London between 1826 and 1993), where duplication of street names poses a potential for communication error with the 9-1-1 system. Think about it: if a call for a fire truck goes to the wrong Elm Street, the repercussions could be deadly. Literally.

What all this means is that the social history on my website will likely not exist (except, perhaps, in those eight cases where I already have it). Which is fine.

It's fine because, while I was not engaging in the kind of historical work most historians crave, developing London Streets Renamed (the website's tentative title, coined by Bill) has been a useful learning tool for me, both in using code (HTML, JavaScript, and JSON), and in understanding the difficulty in conveying useful, interesting information to the public in a format other than a written document.

So now I've a couple more tools to add to my public history tool belt.

**A short post-script: You'll have noticed, no doubt, that I did not provide a link to the website. It doesn't yet exist, but once it does, I'll post a link.

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