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PhoneBooth Begins!

November 28, 2011
Last Tuesday (22ndNovember) the class visited the library instead of having a lecture, and entered a room with books all prepared and set up for them to peruse, one in front of each seat in a big circle. We had a lovely presentation from Anna, who talked about the archives and how they came to be housed at LSE, and then walked the students through what exactly it is we have, how to access it, and how to cite it. Each of them had time to skim through the original Booth notebooks and look at early printings of Mayhew’s book, and that was definitely the highlight of the visit for all of the students according to later feedback. All of them really appreciated actually being able to hold the original material in their hands. At the same time, many of them still felt that the archives were a little intimidating, still weren’t entirely sure how to access them on an every day basis, and in a digital age felt a trip to the library might dissuade them. Even where that wasn’t true, everyone agreed that it was fantastic that they were also available online, and really liked the idea of a phone app where it would be even more accessible. Several seemed quite taken with the idea of being able to access information while walking around the city, and one even went so far as to call the phone app ‘fun’ which should bring joy to every teacher.One issue is certainly that not all students have smart phones, I’d say from the original shows of hands, at least a quarter don’t, but I confess I was a bit surprised at how many did. Given it’s LSE I maybe I shouldn’t have been too surprised. I imagine in a year or so it will be very few students who don’t have access to them, but I think ensuring that it as accessible to the whole student population is really important, and some thought must go into helping students who don’t have phones and need to access this resource for classes without any onus. I see it as a rather transformative way to interact with a historic resource, and to limit it would be both tragic and unjust.That said, the following Friday we had our first discussion class, Ed was present from the digital collections to say a bit about the project and then immediately we were off, it was quite exhilarating. I think we came up with a lot of great ideas for making a truly killer phone app, though we shall see how many of them are remotely possible! I don’t think the students expected the raciness and the brilliant detail of the Booth diaries at all, and who would? But they contain descriptions of opium dens, Irish wakes with the pub being set on fire (just like Finnegans Wake in fact, but no one made the connection sadly), and an immense amount of detail about the ins and outs of prostitution. So they definitely wanted the phone app to reflect just how exciting the material could be, through guided walks or specific maps set up and looking at prostitution or crime…the meaty stuff. They were also interested in being able to pull up things that still exist today as they did in that time, which in a sense is the best possible way to experience the continuities between past and present. The Booth map pub crawl was a brilliant idea.There are three key things that I hope, as a teacher, will be quite doable, the first is making it possible to access the data in different ways. To pull up your own location on a map using GPS and see where the nearest diary locations are, or to overlay the actual Booth map over the present day map is of obvious benefit, and immensely interesting. But I hadn’t thought about the possibilities of creating maps, or creating your own walks based on more specific requests. Some of the ideas students had: to explore by Booth’s colour code, to explore by occupation or industry, to have points of interest in women’s history, or the settlement patterns of the Irish, or areas of high crime or those known for opium or prostitution. The level of detail in the diaries should technically allow all of this, and it would be a fascinating way to narrow in and study these specific geographies.

The second key point: they also wanted a way to save the link or to record details, the principal thought was through an easy way to email yourself the information. This would clearly be a key component of making it an effective research tool that can be easily integrated into your everyday movements, and another thing I hadn’t thought of.

The last key functionality as I see it, is to create a way to interact with other users in the form of comments and knowledge-sharing, with ideally the potential of uploading your own personalised map to a central webpage, or even make it available through other forms of social media like facebook. In this way there could be a community of users learning from each other in how they are using the materials and where additional information can be found to augment what LSE’s archives contain.

Not as key, but potentially quite brilliant is that you get a text or a ping from your phone wherever you pass a point with diary material that you have requested it for. Again, I cannot conceive a more interesting way to integrate archive material into daily life, or integrate the past with the present. This would make you aware of such history literally wherever you go in London, whether on a night out or a trip home to see your family. It’s a fascinating thing to imagine how this might change your perspective on present surroundings that are easy to take for granted.

There were many other interesting ideas, though they seemed to be a bit more of a wishlist in terms of technical difficulty or time-intensiveness but would be quite good to think about making a reality at some point. Or I might be surprised in how possible they are now, I won’t know until these go to Andrew! But they involved making this a multi-media as possible, with audio of key journal entries, or recorded audio walks that could be done to avoid always looking at the screen and get away from some of the difficulty in reading the handwriting of the scanned versions. Students wanted as much material available as possible through the application: photographs and sketches from various times (at best like street view), the ability to compare Booth maps with census data and the 1930s population survey, the ability to overlay the crime maps.

Monday’s class wasn’t quite as exuberant or generate as many ideas, perhaps because almost a week had passed since the archives visit, or because it was a Monday morning, or because I wasn’t as energetic…but even so, it was fascinating to see how similar many of the ideas were. The first comment was again on how hard the original sources were to read and the desire to see them as both scans and text. Students also immediately spoke up about wanting to access the data in different ways…again, interestingly, occupation was the first thing mentioned. Religion was a new cut on it. They definitely wanted as many extra links as possible, and the other key points were also hit: to be able to save searches or entries or locations (whether through logging in and using bookmarks or by emailing it to yourself, they didn’t seem fussed), and the ability to comment and interact with other users. A key addition to the comments was the ability to make your comments public or keep them private. It’s obvious that would be a really great functionality.

All together, the students were quite excited about what this could do. Below is the list I put up on the whiteboards as we were brainstorming. The black is from Friday’s class, the blue X marks the same idea from Monday’s class, and comments in blue are new suggestions.

  • Walks built into app, with podcasts X
  • What about streets that no longer exist? Need an overlay
  • Photos/ sketches available, combine with other resources
  • Link to census data (ie animated graphs from the economist)
  • Link to crime maps
  • Link to Mayhew
  • Access handwritten/ transcribed records – issue with legibility, should be able to access both X
  • Be able to access data in different ways / categorise the contents X
  • Womens history
  • By occupation or industry X
  • Religion
  • By race/ ethnicity
  • Rankings (colour of map)
  • Crimes / prostitution
  • People – Genealogical info
  • Direct interviews v description – direct interviews more interesting
  • Stations and transport?
  • Puns (no wait, we might have added that in…)
  • Audio quotes of choice passages, to switch to audio as you walk
  • Make maps also available on line for those without phone, able to print out etc
  • ‘on this day’ quotes
  • Street view (where you can hold your phone up and overlay a picture with what is currently there…)
  • Alternative to street view, be able to toggle back and forth with google earth – you can easily see what is there now
  • Things that still exist as they were in that time – is pubs –Booth pub crawl
  • Alert system that sends you a message when you pass something of interest – tag alerts
  • Create your own map and save it, publish it not only to homepage but also facebook, other social media
  • Users can interact with each other – can see popularity of certain places or entries, other users comments and the ability to add links and etc augmenting the info with additional sources
  • Second class used the example of YELP, user comments can be pasted, could see level of interest of that particular entry or location
  • For comments, should be able to make public or keep private and save them
  • Ability to save your maps, journal entries, notes – email to self X
  • Alternative is to be able to bookmark things via a login process, 2nd class didn’t see either as preferable

So now this goes to the amazing tech guys and they tell us just what they can do…we’re looking forward to it!

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