Citing digital resources

Guest blogger Jonathan Blaney, Project Editor for British History Online, explains why, if we use digital resources, we should cite them:

I work for British History Online, which is a digital library of historical sources relating to the British Isles. Most of our material is freely available to anyone and we get a very healthy readership. What’s more, we’ve been going for 10 years now (we’re celebrating our anniversary this summer: if you’d like to you can enter our Flickr competition here) and we’ve built up the library slowly and carefully, going for quality over quantity. Perhaps for these reasons we don’t get many complaints, but when we do they’re likely to be about one thing: page numbers.

At the beginning of the project, 10 years ago, a decision was taken not to display page numbers in the running text. As you’re reading a text on British History Online you won’t know exactly what page of the original book you’re on at the time. We give a page range at the top of each webpage, as, here for example, and the table of contents gives the page range of each ‘chapter’ (we sometimes have to divide up books rather arbitrarily, to stop each part becoming too long, so the notion of a chapter is hazier in some cases than others).

What are people complaining about when they write in? They want to cite the original book, the one they’ve been reading on BHO, and they can’t easily find the relevant page number of that book. Let’s be clear: they want to cite a book that they haven’t read. They’ve read the same text, on BHO, as they would have read if they’d got hold of the print version (which is not always easy, in some cases), but it never seems to occur to the people complaining to cite BHO itself.

What we aim to produce on BHO is exactly the same text as in the print version, but in a different form: it’s a different entity. Citing the print version, we therefore think, is misleading at best. Now certainly there are arguments for preferring print citations to be given additionally, but I don’t know any good argument for not citing the digital version when it’s the version you used. However, no one has ever written in and said that they want to cite the print version because they don’t want to cite the digital version – in my experience the arguments against digital citation tend to be post hoc reasoning, given to justify a feeling that print is better because it is somehow more scholarly.

Usually the people who write to complain also mention how valuable BHO is for their research. They presumably wouldn’t want it to disappear. But sites like BHO have to justify their existence and one way to do that is show that they are useful to researchers. How can they show they are useful to researchers? By showing that they are cited. And there lies a problem.

Jonathan Blaney

EEBO-TCP: Simplifying the study of Early Modern England for the Blind and Visually Impaired

For our first guest blog post, we’re delighted to introduce Troy Heffernan.

Many of the EEBO-TCP’s advantages are clear. The benefits of having access to tens of thousands of rare and hard to find documents from anywhere in the world with only an internet connection speak for themselves. This extraordinary range of works is why my lecturers and professors have talked passionately about the advantages EEBO-TCP can bring to researchers, while I have also witnessed lecturers of universities without access to EEBO-TCP enthusiastically encourage their students to join libraries or institutions that can access this wealth of material.

I completed by Bachelor of Arts and Master of Arts at Sydney’s Macquarie University from 2009-2012 where I focused on Early Modern England, and I was constantly amazed at the information I had access to. However, the benefits of EEBO-TCP were perhaps greater to me than many others. As a legally blind student EEBO-TCP revolutionised the way and speed with which I was able to access material, and reduced the time I had to spend in libraries searching for physical texts. To be clear, I am not 100 per cent blind. I am fortunate enough to be able to read most texts if I have access to the ‘toolbox’ of magnifying aids I have collected since childhood, to my selection of prescription glasses needed for different situations, and if the lighting conditions are correct. My appreciation for what EEBO-TCP has done for blind and visually impaired students and researchers grows further still as I was also a university student between 2001-2004 when I studied secondary education, specialising in English and history. This was a time when, at my university at least, EEBO-TCP did not exist.

Research and university study has always been possible for the visually impaired, and of course EEBO-TCP does not mean researchers no longer have to spend time in libraries and archives, but it can reduce the time they spend in these institutions and can help focus the time they spend searching for texts. Improving how the time of a visually impaired researcher is spent in a library is a great advantage because if they are not fortunate enough to live in college or near their university libraries, transport can often be difficult. Like most things, transport for the visually impaired is possible, but navigating public transport can be difficult and is time consuming; as anyone who uses public transport is well aware. Friends and family can often be relied upon, but this is not always the case and maintaining a certain level of independence is very important to many visually impaired people.

The complications continue once you reach the library. Using computer catalogues, reading shelf numbers, and finding books are all tasks which can be difficult for anyone, but are usually a little more problematic, and takes a little more time, when you are visually impaired. Once you have found the document you wanted, things do become a little easier. Since the creation of the magnifying glass people have been striving to create better and more advanced aids to make difficult texts as clear as possible to read. I have had the privilege of using most of the aids created over the last two to three decades and technology certainly reached a point where even the most faint writing or script was readable to someone with visual impairments similar to mine. However these aids almost exclusively rely on variations of cameras and computer screens, meaning they are rarely transportable with any level of ease, and are often expensive.

EEBO-TCP removes all of these barriers; the difficulties in transport, finding texts, and reading them. Having tens of thousands of documents online provides the perfect place to begin or continue any research project, and this can be done without having to get to a library or museum and sort through their archives. For the blind and visually impaired, one of the great advantages of EEBO-TCP comes from what can be done with the information on the screen. Once a document has been selected the text can be altered at the click of a button. The text can be enlarged, the colours can be inverted, the colours can be altered; in 2013 these are everyday functions of modern computers but the ability to apply these processes to centuries old documents makes an unimaginable difference to the visually impaired. I also know from experience that even text-to-speech software has an amazingly high success rate when applied to these texts due to the clarity with which the documents are presented by EEBO-TCP. Hand written manuscripts or letters are of course difficult, but basic text-to-speech software works with a good level of success, and I am by no means privy to the latest software developments in this area. The onset of mobile devices also allows research to be conducted at virtually any location. No longer are the visually impaired limited to working only in the correct lighting conditions, or where their magnifying screens and aids are located; research can now be conducted at virtually any time or any place.

Qualities such as these make the study of Early Modern England accessible to a much broader group of researchers. EEBO-TCP ensures that visually impaired researchers now face significantly less hurdles than they had to overcome even a decade ago. EEBO-TCP not only simplifies the otherwise difficult and time consuming task of accessing centuries-old texts, it most crucially allows these tasks to be completed in a time frame that is comparable to that of the able sighted.

Troy Heffernan


Troy recently completed his Master of Arts in History at Sydney’s Macquarie University. His Masters thesis Assessing the Response to the Great Fire of London 1666-1681 was completed under the guidance of Dr Kate Fullagar and examined Charles II’s response to the reactions and suspicions of the English public. He is currently compiling his PhD proposal Rethinking the Perception of Queen Anne as a Weak Monarch for the Australian National University under the supervision of Dr Alexander Cook and Dr Mark Dawson.

Guest blog posts

The SECT project will be coming to a close at the end of July, and over the next few weeks we’ll be posting a series of guest blog posts looking at some of the themes which have emerged over the course of the project. The process of stepping back and looking objectively at the impact and sustainability of EEBO-TCP has thrown up interesting questions and challenges, but has also allowed us to talk to other projects, scholars and digital humanities experts. Their views have been enormously valuable, and we’re delighted to be able to share some of them here over the coming weeks.