The Proceedings of the Old Bailey: London's Central Criminal Court, 1674 to 1913
Created and maintained by Clive Emsley, Tim Hitchcock, Robert Shoemaker, and Sharon Howard
Have you ever wondered if any women in London, aged 15 to 40, were convicted of a crime against another woman between January 1675 and January 1780? (In case you have, in August of 1678, an unnamed servant girl, 15, was convicted of theft of her mistress' goods and ordered to be flogged 10 strokes.) Are you interested in rates of rape and conviction in a particular London ward before 1800? Are you interested in almost any aspect of London's criminal history in the years between 1674 and 1834? oldbaileyonline.org will have answers to any of these inquiries.
At http://www.oldbaileyonline.org, the records of London's Old Bailey court, site of over 100,000 trials, are now accessible through searchable, multi-field databases users can sort by name, crime, verdict, age, gender, occupation, victim or defendant address, and/or location of the crime. Each record has been transcribed, with clickable thumbnails of the original records situated unobtrusively at the top right corner of the page. Four contemporary maps of London allow users to find crimes by location and situate them within their eighteenth-century milieu. Browse functions for yearly sessions and trial numbers are also available, as are resources for creating charts featuring combinations of all of the above query fields. This site is a wonderful example of how a text archive can be made useful in wonderful new ways through the use of technology — the type of information gathering and sorting and data mining that is possible on this site could take hundreds of hours if compiled by hand. At first glance, the sheer volume of information available on the site may seem daunting, but careful instructions and hints on the search pages help users navigate through the process.
This attention to making the copious data useful carries through all over the site, which includes a For Schools section that provides structure and hints for primary and secondary teachers using the site in UK schools - everything from lesson plans to online tasks for students. Essays contextualize the Old Bailey in London's history and the social issues that affected crime and punishment within England's larger history; topics include London and Its Hinterland, Community Histories, and Gender in the Proceedings.
Most significantly for users interested in the development of digital projects, the site's About This Project pages include detailed information about the technical specifics surrounding the development of, launch, and ongoing upgrades to the site. Just to note, the original Proceedings were double-keyed and then marked up by hand, although software developed for the project made computerized name mark up possible in 80% of the cases. Further, a Research User's Page gives researchers the opportunity to report on their work and become part of a community of users; the current postings on this page link to the first online symposium on the Old Bailey Proceedings Online. Unfortunately, there does not seem to be a consistent stream of postings, which would make this a really valuable feature, but at least an attempt has been made to engage with users at this level.
Also in the About section, information about the project's developers Tim Hitchcock and Robert Shoemaker and other project contributors makes the collaborative nature of the project clear. Backed by multiple universities, and funded in part by the UK version of the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Old Bailey project has the heft of a serious academic endeavor combined with a commitment to technology. The page also includes recognition of the various funding bodies and sponsors of the project, as it should, given that almost $1 million in grants have been awarded at various stages. (It is also one of the few digital projects to rate coverage in Smithsonian Magazine April 2007).
So, the site is well-funded, its technology and data are constantly being updated, it loads quickly, every attempt is made to make the search functions useful, and the complexities of the British legal system are explained at length — what is wrong with it? Not much...aside from a few niggling design issues that result from too much information being shoved onto one screen. The left-hand navigation bar features basic topics that expand when the main page for a topic is accessed, so that is not a problem, but each page is so full of information it is slightly disconcerting. The pages are laid out with strong bolds and larger fonts setting off sections, but there is still a sense of "too much" that likely takes some time for regular users to get past. Regardless, oldbaileyonline.org is a great place to visit and must be a godsend to historians of the era.
University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Reviewed: February 2007