Nineteenth-Century Business, Labour, Trade & Temperance Periodicals
Welcome to BLT19!
The BLT19 Project (19th-century Business, Labour, Trade & Temperance), run by Professor Andrew King at the University of Greenwich, helps us understand the history of how we think of “work” – what it is, what values we associate with it, and where our ideas about it come from.
Work is a central preoccupation of the news media today: employment figures, gender, class and ethnic inequalities, job losses and job creation are constant features. In the fictions of films and television, the intersection of work and private life often forms the core of the drama, from Casuality and Line of Duty to Star Trek.
Under the guise of “employability,” work is a core preoccupation of universities and schools. There is a great deal of academic research on work in sociology and business studies, as well as in history, but there has been almost none on how conceptions of work and its practices were formulated and disseminated through the Victorian periodical press.
To promote this understanding, we have digitised Victorian periodicals that are hard or even impossible to find elsewhere. Some are connected to specific trades or professions, while others, like the British Workman or British Workwoman, much more generally extol the virtues of work and keeping a clear head so as to do it better.
Unlike other sites, we are entirely free. With the school prizes and some administrative help supported by the University of Greenwich, we’ve tried at all times to do the most for the least amount of money, avoiding expensive web development or digitisation processes. We are always adding more as time and materials allow.
Unlike commercial sites, BLT19 has only the resources to digitise partial runs of selected nineteenth-century periodicals, even if many of them are very rare or even unique. Unlike many commercial sites too, we have been very intent on enriching the sites in various ways to help us understand them and see how they relate to us, through explanatory essays, blog posts, image galleries, teaching materials, records of the creative work and exhibitions we’ve put on, and not least fiction (we believe fiction is a great way to show understanding).
BLT19 was inspired indirectly by the values of arte povera, the 1970s Italian “poor art” movement that used discarded and overlooked objects to challenge the values of the commercialised art system. Like arte povera and endorsing the values that motivate many contributors to the internet (like Wikipedia), BLT19 uses unglamorous, readily available and cheap software that openly shows its construction and its gaps as well as its content. Though BLT19 aims for the highest academic standards, it really doesn’t aim like some (usually very costly) projects to offer a smooth and unproblematic surface that papers over the cracks in knowledge and technology. Rather, by showing where the cracks are and openly discussing them, we think we can enable others to take their own thinking, research and creative work forward in new ways beyond us. We are, then, deeply committed to the future of the past.
Not least of these “cracks” is how remediation operates. How “faithful” can a remediated text be? The original periodicals scanned in on BLT19 were printed on paper. While some individual numbers have been scanned in, many were scanned from collections of issues bound in volumes. Volumes allow us (in theory at least) to trace stories across issues and therefore across time – but all in one sitting. This is very different from being able to read just one issue at a time and having to wait until the next week or month or later. And whether periodicals survive in single numbers or in volumes has very different effects on what we can digitise and how we can digitise it. That in turn affects how we understand what we see on the screen (for more detail on paper v. the digital on BLT19 see here).
One of the key softwares we have used repeatedly for long runs of a periodical – for volumes – is Metabotnik, a project from the University of Amsterdam (see e.g. British Workman). Metabotnik allows users to quickly scan a huge range of material – looking for images, for example. We can zoom in and out of hundreds of pages. But it can’t be used for text searches. PDFs can – in theory – be converted so we can run OCR – Optical Character Recognition – software on them, which do allow us to search for words. But as we show with one of the earliest periodicals we digitised, the British Workman, OCR is very unreliable. We may think we are getting complete answers by searching for how a word is used in a scanned text, but, in reality, there will be a lot of false matches and even more misses, where the software just won’t recognise the characters that make up the word we are looking for.
We are then very concerned to show how different on-screen formats and different media will suggest different understandings of and conclusions about the same original materials. While we are concerned with how we came to think about “work,” we are very conscious that the form of the media as well as its content influences us. That was the case with Victorian periodicals and it’s the same now: the effects of the micro-stories that Twitter tells are very different from a rich site like this!
We hope the site encourages you to think about how our attitudes to “work” and what stories we can tell about it have always been influenced by the media. Whether we are thinking about housework or running a stationery shop, how temperance played a role in regulating work, what the army and navy do, child labour or running a distribution centre for agricultural machinery, it’s all here, and a lot more besides!
Our serial The Story of Work starts here.
Why not follow us on Twitter @BLT19Project ?
Our email address is BLT19@gre.ac.uk.