To Boldly Go: Historical Prospects of the Old Bailey Online

It’s ten years since The Old Bailey Online rolled out and what a glorious ten years it’s been. The Old Bailey Online (or OBO) provides, online, the complete texts of printed accounts dealing with criminal trials at London’s General Criminal Court circa 1674-1913. That’s almost 200,000 records!

I’ve been a fan since the very early days: looking back through my teaching dossier, I know that I stumbled upon the site in 2003 and began teaching with it that year. The website enabled students to run statistical searches and see, even tweak, the results immediately – a powerful tool when learning to do quantitative history. In the decade since, I’ve learned to love the site for much more than its awesome pedagogical power: it’s become a linchpin in my own historical research. Looking forward, I can’t see a time when I won’t find the OBO to be a vital historical resource. Why? The genius lies in the source’s searchability. Any trail you choose to blaze, you can follow!

The unsung heroes of historical research are those who provide finding aids. Whether they`re calendars of collections or indices or what-have-you, archives or even publications without some sort of search function are daunting piles to work through. A researcher can lose herself in the task of simply wading through dozens to hundreds of volumes, boxes or rolls. The early days of computerization gave researchers a few glimmers of hope but, even so, there was nothing easy about consulting one set of books to identify the catalogue number of the source you were interested in, another book to correlate the catalogue number with the microfilm reel number and then, only then, trot off to the microforms room to request the reel to run in the machine to read the book you originally wanted to consult.

The genius of the OBO is that, by integrating so many levels of searchability, almost any question you want to ask you can pursue in robust ways. Are you interested in a specific individual, whether as a scholar or a genealogist? The Old Bailey Online can be searched by name. Are you interested in seeing how many women were put on trial for breaking the peace in the nineteenth century? You can find that out. (There are 963 items returned when I search those parameters, 641 with guilty verdicts. Of course, some are duplicates as mu) Or let’s say that you’re interested in seeing how language changed in the time – great! The Old Bailey Online lets you search the entire text by keywords. There are place and map functions – do you want to track eighteenth-century criminal behaviour in the streets and by the parishes? Go right ahead!

The Old Bailey Online is more than just an excellent tool for historical research: it’s fostered an amazing community of scholars who’ve come together at conferences, who share their work online and whose publications citing the OBO add up to an amazing bibliography growing all the time.

Have I got you excited about the Old Bailey Online? Great: Click here to get started.


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