Digging for Data in Archives

Since our last post the Trading Consequences team have been working with our identified and potential data providers to begin gathering digital data for the project.

As the various data providers were sending us millions of pages of text from digitized historical documents, I flew over to London to spend some time in the archives.

A major component of our Digging Into Data project will involve doing traditional historical research, in archives and using the digitized repositories, to provide a comparison between what the historians are able to find and what the data mining and visualization components discover. So I set about researching a few of the more interesting commodities flowing into London industry during the nineteenth century. This included archival records related to the palm oil trade in west Africa and records at Kew Gardens’ archives related to John Eliot Howard’s scientific investigations into cinchona and quinine. John Eliot was one of the “Sons” in Howard & Sons, who manufactured chemicals and drugs in Startford (near the site of the 2012 Olympics) throughout the nineteenth century. After photographing most of his papers at Kew, I also spent time at the London Metropolitan Archive, looking through the company records. It was at the LMA that I was reminded about the disappointments often associated with historical research. It turned out the single most interesting document listed in the archival holdings, a ledger listing the imports of cinchona bark throughout the middle of the century, had been destroyed at some point and a second document on their trade with plantations in Java is missing.

After collecting enough material to begin my study of the relationships between factories in the Thames Estuary and commodity frontiers in South America, Africa and India, I focused my final day in the archive on a set of sources that will directly assist with the data mining aspects of the project. I recorded four years of customs ledgers, which record the quantity, declared value and country of origin of the hundreds of different commodity categories imported into Britain (everything from live animals to works of art). This source will provide the foundation of the taxonomy of commodities that we will create over the next few months, which will then be used to mine the data. Moreover, these ledgers provide a good starting point for our research into Canada’s trade with Britain and we are recording the quantity and value of all the goods shipped across the Atlantic. Just in through the monotonous process of photographing a few thousand pages, the major changes between the early and late nineteenth century began to stand out. Not only were there a lot more commodities by the centuries’ end, but Britain was relying on far more countries to supply it with raw materials.