Social Science blog

3 posts from February 2014

25 February 2014

My notes from a conference

Robert Davies, Engagement Support Officer for Social Sciences at the British Library, writes:

In January, I was pleased to attend the one day conference ‘Working with Paradata, Marginalia and Fieldnotes: The Centrality of By-Products of Social Research’ at the University of Leicester.

The conference was convened by the University of Leicester, the National Centre for Research Methods (Novella Group) and the Institute of Education. The aim of the day was to provide an opportunity ‘for dialogue across disciplines and research paradigms: across the social sciences and humanities, historical and contemporary data, primary and secondary resources, quantitative and qualitative approaches’.  The programme and range of speakers truly reflected this aim.

On arrival one of my fellow delegates asked me the question:

‘So which area of interest brings you here?’

To which I responded:

‘Well, I suppose, I come at this from two directions; as a former conservator of manuscripts and printed books I understand marginalia, as an Engagement Support Officer for Social Sciences I am fascinated by how we might re-use more recent ‘secondary data’ to help understand contemporary society, but I am not sure what Paradata means.'

So what do we mean by marginalia and paradata?  To quote Henrietta O’Connor:

‘…[they are] material collected as part of, supporting or in addition to the research process.  Annotations and augmentations revealed through the analysis of original documents.  By-products, non-standard ‘data’, ephemera, letters, pictures, notes.’

Speakers and delegates went on to consider methodologies for undertaking the analysis of marginalia and field-notes (such as the application of narrative analysis); the potential ethical implications of undertaking secondary analysis of ‘historic’ surveys and following up with the subjects of those surveys; how the analysis of marginalia and field-notes can cast a light on what we understand to be ‘acceptable’ research practices at any given point and how such perceptions shift over time. It included discussion of the latest technological developments which can, and are, being used to collect paradata during large telephone and on-line surveys to understand low response and drop-out rates and to make appropriate adjustments to the surveys as they progress; how individuals may feel that data is being collected by ‘stealth’; and the potential for, and difficulties of, including cognitive and behaviour coding in surveys.

The conference concluded with an examination of the marginalia and notes of the writer Vernon Lee (Violet Paget). It examined the importance of capturing marginalia during digitisation projects and the sustainability of data which is ‘born’ digital (regardless of whether the digital content is generated through digitisation projects of ‘historic’ material or via large national household surveys).

In the spirit of the conference, to gain alternative perspectives on the day I thoroughly recommend reading Llordllama’s Research Ramblings and viewing a storify by Dr Helen Kara of the tweets posted on the day.  I hope the bibliography below may be of some use (although it is a very small selection of the books and articles available on the subjects covered during the conference).


Andrews, M.; Squire, C.; Tamboukou (editors) Doing Narrative Research, Sage, 2008.  British Library shelfmark: YC.2012.a.10037

Crone, R.; Halsey, K.; Owens, W.R.; Towheed, S. (editors) The History of Reading.  vol. 1. International perspectives, c.1500-1990. vol. 2. Evidence from the British Isles, c.1750-1950. vol. 3. Methods, strategies, tactics. British Library shelfmarks:
Volume 1 - YC.2013.a.1041; Volume 2 - YC.2013.a.1042; Volume 3 - YC.2013.a.1043

Elliott, H.; Ryan, J.; Hollway, W.  Research encounters, reflexivity and supervision, International Journal of Social Research Methodology, Issue 5, Volume 15, pp 433-444. (2012)

Gillies, V.; Edwards, R. Working with archived classic family and community studies: illuminating past and present conventions around acceptable research practice.  International Journal of Social Research Methodology, Issue 4, Volume 15, pp 321-330. (2012)

Groves, R. M.; Heeringa, S. G. Responsive design for household surveys: tools for actively controlling survey errors and costs.  Journal of the Royal Statistical Society. Series A, Statistics in society. VOL 169; NUMBER 3, (2006),pp 439-457.

Kirgis, N.;  Lepkowski, JM. “Design and Management Strategies for Paradata Driven Responsive Design: Illustrations from the 2006-2010 National Survey of Family Growth,” in Improving Surveys with Paradata: Analytic Use of Process Data, Krueter, F. (editor). New York: J.W. Wiley & Sons, (2013).

O'Connor, H.; Goodwin, J. Revisiting Norbert Elias's sociology of community: learning from the Leicester re-studies. The Sociological review. VOL 60; NUMBER 3, 2012, pp 476-497.  Blackwell Publishing Ltd , 2012.

O'Connor, H.; Goodwin, J. Through the interviewer’s Lens: Representations of 1960s Households and Families in a Lost Sociological Study, Sociological Research Online, Volume 15, Issue 4, (2009).

Turner, Malgorzata New perspectives on interviewer-related error in surveys : application of survey paradata (2013), University of Southampton, Thesis available via the British Library Electronic Theses Online System (EThOS).

Other Resources

The Research Ethics Guidebook: A resource for social scientists Online 

Developing Generic Ethics Principles for Social Science: An Academy of Social Sciences Initiative on Research Ethics

UK Reading Experience Database 1450 -1945

11 February 2014

Sport in the archive – remembering London 2012

Andrew Rackley, a collaborative doctoral student at the British Library and University of Central Lancashire writes:

I have a confession to make: I am a bit of a Luddite. I don’t really get technology. I graduated as a historian, a medieval one at that, before qualifying as an archivist. My mother was a librarian and my father a paper maker, so books are kind of 'my thing'. Of course I maintain a web-presence, I have a Twitter account, although it’s a little on the quiet side; I subscribe to Facebook, have done for a decade, not that it helps me understand quite why I do so; and I even have a smart-phone, which I’m fairly sure operates a considerable number of IQ points higher than myself. So how did I find myself at the British Library working towards a PhD entitled ‘Archiving the Games: collecting, storing and disseminating the London 2012 knowledge legacy’, a project that is principally interested in digital archives? The answer is quite simple really: I like sport.

As I write, I find it hard to disassociate myself from the excitement surrounding the opening of the 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia. Not everyone will share in my enthusiasm, the Winter Olympics sometimes feels like it’s considered the less glamorous cousin of the Summer Olympics – winter is to Eddie the Eagle as summer is to Usain Bolt – no disrespect to Eddie or the Winter Games of course; maybe it is just that the UK hasn’t had quite as much success on the snow and ice as it has the track and field. On Sunday, Great Britain secured a first medal on snow, matching the haul from Vancouver in 2010, where Team GB took home one solitary medal (albeit gold). In fact, over the twenty-one Winter Olympics to date Britain has claimed a total of twenty-three medals compared to the sixty-five obtained on home soil in 2012 alone. Beyond this, Britain has never hosted the Winter Olympics, whereas no other city has played host to the three summer Games that London has.


Above: Great Britain’s Amy Williams won gold for the Skeleton at the Vancouver Olympic Winter Games in 2010. By jonwick04 [CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Which brings me neatly back to London, where I now find myself, still hardly able to believe that eighteen months have disappeared since waving goodbye to the Olympics. During this time, there has been a lot of talk about legacy, often about how it has not yet delivered one (see also Donavan, 2012), but little attention has been paid to the documentary residue of the Games; that body of material, both analogue and digital, that resides in our museums, libraries and archives as testament to the nation’s heritage. This is where my interest lies. This is London 2012’s knowledge legacy.

There are many issues surrounding the archiving of an occasion such as the Olympic Games, not least of which is the scale of the event. London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games were just under six weeks in the execution, but over a decade in the planning, during which time a multitude of records in a great variety of formats were created. Alongside many physical records held at The National Archives, a vast amount of digital material is also available including the British Library’s Web Archive, which includes Winning Endeavours, a page devoted to digitizing images from London’s Olympic history, and the People’s Record – a website dedicated to documenting the efforts of community groups around the UK as they entered into the Olympic spirit and joined in with the Cultural Olympiad. In addition, the British Library’s Sport & Society website takes a look at the Olympics through the lens of the social sciences, suggesting many different uses to which records of sport can be put, many of which are not always obvious.

The Olympic flame may now be burning bright in Sochi, but the legacy left to London doesn’t reside solely in the stadiums, housing or participation the media constantly reminds us of. There are many stories waiting in memory institutions, in the knowledge legacy, that serve to demonstrate how important sport can be to bring people together and unite communities. The scope of the records generated by the Olympics may have presented challenges for collection and storage, but the sheer variety of content available to disseminate to researchers is what makes these records a fantastic resource.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I believe the Curling is about to start, and I do like a bit of sport.

Further information and references

For extensive collections on sport, from Eddie the Eagle to Usain Bolt to curling, please search the British Library’s catalogue here: Explore the British Library.

Donovan, T. (9 August 2012) London 2012: Olympics Job Legacy 'falls short'. BBC News.

For a Google Search on Olympics Legacy articles, click here.

About the author: Andrew Rackley is a collaborative doctoral student at the British Library and the University of Central Lancashire. His research principally focuses on how a national institution, such as the British Library, documents a Mega-Event like the Olympics, and his interests include sport and the relationship between memory and archives. Follow him on Twitter @andy_rack.


05 February 2014

World War One: old controversies and new interpretations

Ian Cooke, Lead Curator in International Studies and Politics at the British Library - See more at:

Ian Cooke, Lead Curator in International Studies and Politics at the British Library, writes:

The controversy at the start of this year which followed Michael Gove’s comments on interpretations of the First World War reminds us that there is still much to be uncovered and re-assessed in our understanding of the War. 2014 will see the start of commemorative events across Europe, of which the British Library’s exhibition Enduring War will be part. A common feature of many of these projects – perhaps spurred by an understanding that, as we approach the centenary, so the War is passing completely from lived experience – is an attempt to understand the private experience of the War, and to collect and recapture personal and family memories.

Last week, two related online resources were launched which bring together current research on the War with access to a vast number of digitised objects. Europeana 1914- 1918 provides access to more than 400,000 digitised objects, and 660 hours of film, from galleries, libraries, archives and museums across Europe. An important part of the project had been a call for members of the public to bring personal objects and stories for recording in the Europeana database. This aspect of the project provides access to items previously unseen and also reveals the stories that we have been telling about the War within our families, adding a more personal dimension to the way that the War has been understood and remembered.

WEB SMALL military-cemetary-chalons-sur-marne
Above: Military cemetery at Châlons-sur-Marne, June 1917 by Felix Vallotton [copyright public domain]

The British Library’s World War One website draws on the collections in Europeana 1914- 1918, and contains more than 50 articles written by historians, curators and others on a range of themes, including: civilian experience; life as a soldier; propaganda; race and empire; and representation and memory. Dr Annika Mombauer gives a timely overview of the history of the debate on the origins of the War, and how attempts to ascribe or absolve from blame have shifted with changing geopolitical conditions. The website contains over 500 images of objects, and resources for teachers in secondary schools. A useful feature of the website is the information about copyright for each of the images featured, making re-use of materials easier where permitted.

Elsewhere, digitisation of resources is being used to expand and link the knowledge that we have about the conduct of the war, and how this was experienced. The National Archives has digitised over 300,000 pages of War Diaries, and aims to have digitised a further 1 million pages by the end of the year. It is using crowdsourcing, calling on members of the public to tag names, places, activities and other information mentioned on the diaries. This information will be shared with the Imperial War Museum’s Lives of the First World War project. This project will link data between digital records such as census returns, service records and diaries to create digital life histories for more than 8 million of people across Britain and the Commonwealth.

These, and other, projects show that the centenary of the First World War will be marked by projects which seek to increase access to, and understanding of, a huge range of objects and documents that were produced by governments, commercial publishers, and, often, private individuals during the war. The creation of new digital objects offers potential for new discoveries and new links to be made between different sources.