Online 1882 Gazetter of Scotland

In the late 2000s, not long after moving to Tiree, I came across John Wilson’s 1882 Gazetteer of Scottish place names at the Internet Archive and thought it would be a lovely if it were properly usable as an online resource.

For various reasons I never finished at the time, but over Easter I returned to the project and now have a full online version available, browsable page by page or entry by entry.  There is more work to be done to make it really usable, but it is a beginning.

I’m using this and other digitisation projects as ways to understand the kinds of workflows and tools to help others create their own digital resources based on archive materials.  In the InterMusE project, recently funded by AHRC, we are working with local musical societies to help them digitise their historic concert programs and other documents.


just hit search

For years I have heard anecdotal stories of how users are increasingly unaware of the URL itself (and certainly the term,  ‘web address’ is sometimes better).  I recall having a conversation at a university meeting (non-computing) and it soon became obvious that  the term ‘browser’ was also not one they were familiar with even though they of course used it daily.  I guess like the mechanics of the car engine, the mechanics of the web are invisible.

I came across the Google Zeitgeist 2008 page that analyses the popular and the rising search terms of 2008.  The rising ones reveal things in the media “sarah palin” way in there above “obama” in the global stats.  … if Google searches were votes!  However, the ‘most popular’ searches reveal longer term habits.  For the UK the 10 most popular searches are:

  1. facebook
  2. bbc
  3. youtube
  4. ebay
  5. games
  6. news
  7. hotmail
  8. bebo
  9. yahoo
  10. jobs

Some of these terms ‘games’, ‘news’, and ‘jobs’ (no Steve, not you) are generic categories … and suggests that people approach these from the search box, not a portal.  However, of these top 10, seven of them are simply domain names of popular sites.  Instead of typing this into the address bar (which certainly on Firefox autocompletes if I type any I’ve visited before), many users just Google it (and I’m sure the same is true for LiveSearch and others).

I was told some years ago that AOL browsers swapped the relative sizes (and locations I think) of the built-in search box and address bar on the assumption that their users rarelt tyoed in URLs (although I knew of AOL users who accidentally typed URLs into the search box).  Also recalling the company that used to sell net keywords that were used by Netscape (and possibly others) if you entered terms rather than a URL into the adders bar.

… of course if I try that now … FireFox  redirects me through Google “I feel lucky” … of course

Incidentally I came to this as I was trailing back the source of the, now shown to be incorrect, Sunday Times news story that said two Google seaches used the same electricity as boiling an electric kettle.  This got challenged in a TechCrunch blog, refuted by Google, and was effectively (but not explcitly) retracted in subsequent Times online item.  The source turns out to be a junior Harvard physicist, Alex Wissner-Gross, whose own source was a blog by Rolf Kersten, one of the Sun Green Team (Sun the computer manufacturer not Sun the newspaper!), so actually not an unreasonable basis.

In fact Rolf Kersten’s estimate, which was prepared for a talk in 2007, seemed to be based on sensible calculations, although he has recently posted a blog saying the figure was out by a factor of 35 … yes it actually takes 70 Google searches to boil that kettle.  Looking deeper the cause of the discrepancy appears to be the figure he used for the number of Google searches per day.  He took 2005 data about the size of the Google server farm and used a figure of 40 million searches per day.  Although Google did not publish their full workings in their response, it is clearly this figure of 40 million hits that was way too low for 2005 as a Feb 2001 Google press release quoted 60 million searches per day in 2000.  Actually with a moment’s reflection it is clear that 40 million hits per day (500 per second) would hardly have justified a major server farm and the figure is clearly in the billions.  However, it is surprisingly difficult to find the true figure and if you Google “google searches per day” you simply find lots of people asking the same question.  In fact, it was through looking for further Google press releases to find a more up-to-date figure that got me to the Zeitgeist page!

A Eamonn Fitzgerald’s Rainy Day blog nicely lays out the timeline of this story and sees it as a triumph of the power of media consumers to challenge the authority of the press due to what Jay Rosen refers to as  ‘audience atomization‘.   Fitzgerald also sees the paradox that the story itself was sourced from the somewhat broken sources on the internet; in the past the press would have perhaps used more authoritative sources … and as I noted couple of years ago at a Memories for Life panel at the British Library, the move from BBC to YouTube could be read as mass democratisation … or simply signal the end of history.

There is another lesson though, one that I picked up in a blog “keeping track of history” not long after the Memories for Life meeting, just how hard it is to find pretty straightforward information on the web.  At that point I was after Tony Blair’s statement about the execution of Saddam Husssein, in this case trying to find out the number of Google search hits.  Neither are secret, propriety or obscure, but both difficult to track down.

… but we still trust that single hit of a search button

keeping track of history (Blair, Iraq, and all of us)

I had been struck by Blair’s long-awaited statement about the manner of the execution of saddam, that he belatedely made last Tuesday evening. However, I wanted to be suer of what he said, so yesterday evening attempted to find out. Perhaps I am just too poor a web-user, but I found it incredibly difficult. Google seraches fund many earelier news articles about the fact that he hadnlt said anthing at that stage, and ones from earelier last week saying what he was about to say something and what it would be (now-a-days it seems news is written before the event), but nothing reporting what he said or when he said it (I couldn’t recall the exect day either).Having found earlier or later articles in newspapers and on the BBC I thought it should be easy to trace from them to related ones and hence the statement I was after … but no. While most seem to offer long term “most important stories in 2005” archives, there does not appear to be an easy way (or possibly any way) to say “what was the BBC online stories for Wednesday January 12th 2007?”.

I did find the ‘number 10‘ site that does have a list of the prime minister’s speaches and statements, but of course not all his statements, just the ones they want you to read!

Eventually yahoo! news came to the rescue (albeit found through Google!) with a more recent article, but with links to background including a guardian online article from last wednesday … which yes! did have the full text of the relevant part of the statement:

As has been very obvious from the comments of other ministers and indeed from my own official spokesman, the manner of the execution of Saddam was completely wrong. But that should not blind us to the crimes he committed against his own people, including the death of hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqis, one million casualties in the Iran/Iraq war and the use of chemical weapons against his own people, wiping out entire villages.

So the crimes that Saddam committed does not excuse the manner of his execution but the manner of his execution does not excuse the crimes.

Now to be fair, knowing this was accessible I tried an alternative tack and searched inside the guardian site using keywords and was able to find the article that way. Having realised this and did some searches on the bbc site and got the video of the statement. (Once I’d found suitable serach terms!)

So on newspaper and the bbc sites it seems you can do google-style searches, but not (unless I’m still missing something) ask “what was on the news last Wednesday” or (reasonably completely) what are the related articles to this one.

Obviously in a pre-web world I would not expect to be able to do this. I could (and still could) visit the British Library for old copies of newspapers (I assume they keep them) and for the last week possibly the local library. But of course when information is available it is not what you could find that counts, but what is easiest. The information that is available is the information that gets seen. Even in university our students are reluctant to read books as they believe they can find all they need on the web.

Now the reason I wanted to find the Blair statement was the reference to “one million casualties in the Iran/Iraq war”. He was rightly pointing out that the failings of the legal process of his execution should not blind us to the horror of his crimes. Now given the delay I assume the words were well prepared, and yet of three crimes things he noted one was this.

I guess the figure of 1 million sounded good (big numbers always impress), but to mention this without also noting that that war was waged with the complicit and explicit support of many countries including the UK and US seems at best amnesiac and at worst deceptive. Does he really not know this? Or is he simply hoping most who hear it won’t?

I can recall the Iran-Iraq war as a young adult, but those younger will have been in school and even for those around at the time I’m sure the memories get a little fuzzy, so perhaps he can get away with this type of manipulation. Or perhaps it is tht he only partly recalls the events and honestly presents this?

The US involvement is well documented, both in terms of miltary presence in the Gulf at the time, officially neutrally, but with minimal pretense acting against Iran who was then the ‘evil power’. Indeed (recalling my own and Nad’s earlier posts about the execution), in looking for this I found George Washington University’s National Security Archive of declaissified documents. In this there is a photograph of Donald Rumsfeld, then a special envoy from President Reagan, shaking hands with Saddam Hussein. This is not surprising, diplomatc have to do this all the time. Significantly though this meeting was, as the national secturity archives show, shortly after US intelligence had confirmed Iraq’s use of chemical weapons (Blair’s point 3) and discussed this at a presidential level. The US (in full knowledge) then went on to block UN resolutions deploring Iraq use of chemical weapons … initially with UK support. the ful story of UK support, I’m sure is there, but even harder to find … I seem to recall British warships in the gulf, but it was more than 20 years ago!
I an age of instant information, it is amazing that getting the basic facts of ongoing news items is so difficult. I recall a year or so back there was a call for journalists to give more context in theor reporting. However, when interviews a respected journalist insisted that theor job was the news, the changes not the backgrund … but without the background the interpretation of what we hear is different.

If journalists do not see it as their job to give such background and it is still so hard to find elsewhere, then politicians can go on deceiving themselves and their people.