by Edda Frankot
The first outing of the Law in the Aberdeen Council Registers (LACR) project at an academic gathering took place at the bi-annual conference of the European Association for Urban History (EAUH) which, this year, met in the beautiful capital city of Finland, Helsinki, from 24 to 27 August. The conference was held in the grand central building of the city’s university, which shares a space along Helsinki’s Senate Square with the beautiful Lutheran Cathedral. As we learned at the conference, the buildings around the square were all built as part of a great overhaul of Helsinki’s city centre in the 1820s and 1830s by German architect Carl Ludvig Engel, on orders from the Russian tsar, to a state befitting its new role as capital of the autonomous Finnish province of the Russian Empire (from 1809 to 1917). A statue of Tsar Alexander II (assassinated 1881), popular among Helsinki’s citizens, has been given pride of place at the centre of the square. At the end of August the city appeared very lively, partly due to a cultural festival in the city centre.
Statue of Tsar Alexander II in front of the former Senate building
Approximately 750 attendees gathered for a wide array of papers relating to urban history from all regions of the world and from ancient times until the present. The conference started in the early evening of the 24th with a general welcome, a pair of keynote lectures, by Riita Nikula and Maarten Prak, and a lovely musical intermezzo by a small male choir. The remainder of the conference consisted mainly of various long parallel sessions which were split into two, with some shorter sessions included as well. The longer sessions allowed for a wider than usual range of aspects concerning a subject to be elaborated upon. Most of the speakers uploaded a full version of their paper before the conference, but at the conference itself only shorter versions of these, of about 10 minutes each, were presented. This generally allowed for more time for discussion, though one session I attended actually included eleven speakers (!). Because the presentations were brief, this ended up not being too much of a strain on the senses, though the discussion did have to be cut rather short. The conference also included a most welcoming reception in a beautiful room at city hall, at which we could also enjoy the hilarious Bonk exhibition.1
Conference reception at Helsinki City Hall
There were some excellent papers. I particularly enjoyed a presentation on residential segregation in nineteenth-century New York City by Gergely Baics, who is a very engaging speaker. The keynote by Maarten Prak, urging urban historians to focus their research more deliberately on a specific agenda to aid the success of funding applications and increase impact, was also enlightening. Prak suggested three main topics of research as part of this agenda: immigration, creativity and citizenship. Of these three citizenship, especially what Prak called practical citizenship, including political, economic and military participation (in, for example, city councils, guilds and civic militias), is most relevant to our project.
The paper which I presented, entitled ‘Opening the Registers: Digital Humanities and the Aberdeen Burgh Records’, focussed specifically on the Digital Humanities side of the LACR project and the question how archives and urban historians can best work together in the age of digital transformation.
In the case of LACR the objectives of the City Archives and urban historians, as well as scholars from law, computing and socio-linguistics, at the University of Aberdeen come together naturally. Our focus upon the UNESCO-recognised Aberdeen Council Registers, the only source of its kind from urban Scotland which covers (almost) the whole of the fifteenth century, is very straightforward and logical. But in other cases the choice of which archival sources to digitise may not be so clear-cut. There is, therefore, a real danger that certain sources will be quietly forgotten when they remain available only in an analogue form while others, which are considered more important for various reasons, are made widely accessible through digitisation. Resources for digitisation are limited, and choices need to be made, but archivists and historians need to cooperate to ensure best practice.2
Other papers in the session also focussed on digital archives relevant for urban history, both medieval and modern. Of particular relevance to LACR was the paper on the Du:cac (Dubrovnik: Civitas et Acta Consiliorum) project.3 This is producing transcriptions of a similar source to ours from medieval Dubrovnik, Croatia. That project is concerned with geographical locations, which are then linked to the relevant spot on a map of the city which was produced specifically for this project (see screenshot below). The result will be a useful resource for the study of historical urban development. From the perspective of our project, it is an inspiring example of what can in principle be done with material like that for Aberdeen. Once we have produced the digital transcription, the possibilities of what might be done next are wide-ranging indeed!
Another paper in the session was presented by two archivists from the Copenhagen archives who spoke about their efforts to digitise some important (modern) resources for social history by making use of crowdsourcing, whereby volunteers transcribe or index documents. Crowdsourcing presents a specific set of challenges, but has been used successfully in a number of projects.4 Very interesting was also the presentation on the iron and steel archives of Middlesbrough. As the steelworks there have recently closed, the remaining archives and sites related to the works have become an important focal point of public engagement with the city’s heritage. This is a nice example of how history, archives and heritage can inspire civic public engagement. We hope that our project can set the foundations for similar opportunities for Aberdeen, while at the same time providing abundant material for historians, lawyers and linguists to study.