State Papers Online transforms early modern historical research at top UK universities
Amongst the first UK institutions to offer students online access to the largest set of government documents from the Early Modern period, the Universities of York and Durham are taking 16th and 17th century historical research to a new level. State Papers Online, 1509-1714, from Gale, part of Cengage Learning, offers easy access to the full range of the Tudor and Stuart governments’ domestic and foreign activities in a searchable digital format. Dr John Cooper, history lecturer at the University of York, and Dr Natalie Mears, senior lecturer in early modern British history at Durham University, discuss how this resource is opening up new avenues of scholarship and transforming the field of early modern studies.
The University of York has one of the largest history departments in the UK and a very prestigious research culture, attracting students from all over the world. The university first implemented State Papers Online (SPO) Part I in 2008 and has recently purchased the fourth and final part, completing the collection.
Digital access to irreplaceable original artefacts
Dr John Cooper, history lecturer at the University of York, comments: “State Papers Online is already having a significant impact on research by providing students from undergraduate to PHD level with unrestricted online access to almost three million original historical manuscripts. The manuscripts are linked to fully text-searchable Calendars, which provide a summary of contents in chronological order, thereby reducing the need to consult the originals.
“SPO has removed the cost and burden of travelling long distances to access these documents, as well as the complexity of searching for them. Now students and staff can spend more quality time on developing their research rather than fishing for the information. This can be done from their own PC, considerably speeding up the time it takes to reach the information they need.
Dr Cooper explains how SPO can take undergraduate studies to a whole new level, as it helps to improve the research base for dissertations:
“During my six years at York, the most interesting dissertation I have marked is from a third year undergraduate that used SPO to trace records on cultural minority groups, studying the experience of non whites and Irish immigrants and travellers – ‘gypsies’ or ‘Egyptians’ as they used to be called in Elizabethan times. It is very difficult to research this topic as gypsies rarely left records in their own voice. However, with SPO, it is possible to trace official attitudes, such as what the government thought of Irish travellers moving around, and how and why they worried about gypsies.
The advanced skills this student displayed, by going beyond the minimum expectation of reading the Calendars to reading the actual manuscripts themselves, would normally be expected of an MA student, and so helped earn them a distinction”.
Digital archive supports flexible independent learning
Durham University has been ranked third in The Sunday Times University League Table for 2012 and 15th in the QS World rankings of Universities. Dr Natalie Mears, senior lecturer in early modern British history, has been working at Durham University for seven years as part of a 30-strong history department. She explains how SPO supports the changing nature of the way students now work: “When I was a student 20 years ago, we would sit in a library and read through the documents. Now, students are more likely to sit in their room late at night to study; with SPO they can go online anytime and work how and where they want.
Training students to read 16th and 17th century handwriting
Dr Cooper goes on to explain the importance of accessing the original manuscripts, not only the Calendars: “We implement training courses for undergraduate and MA students on palaeography to help them with the study of 16th and 17th century handwriting so they are able to read the original documents. There are also online tutorials, available through the online archives. I introduce my MA and PHD students to the SPO site, teach them about links between calendars and manuscripts, and how to interpret them.
Dr Mears comments: “Prior to the SPO palaeography tool, I would direct students to an English handwriting book, of which there is only one copy in the library, or to the Public Records Office (PRO) website. Undergraduates are normally daunted by original manuscripts but with SPO they are given tools to easily decipher them, meaning more students can now focus their dissertations on the early modern period”.
Teaching first year undergraduates about how historians researched their stories
Although SPO is mainly used by third year undergraduates and above, first years at York University are also being introduced to it. As Dr Cooper explains: “Using SPO we have built in to our new first year undergraduate programme a series of York-based case studies to teach students how historians have researched the stories they are learning about – this is something they will not have learned at school. We ask students to read important works, compare articles and discuss the relative significance of York-based stories. For example, Henry VIII’s visit to York in 1541 came about following the Pilgrimage of Grace rebellion of 1536-7 which generated enormous correspondence – all of which can be found in SPO.
Developing students into young researchers
Dr Mears comments: “Students often use SPO to search for key words, as they would on Google, however, they are very receptive to the training we have given them on using proper research paths rather than just key word searchers. This is helping them to develop the skills that a proper researcher would deploy. SPO helps replicate the research process and enables them to discover manuscripts.
SPO helps our students tackle primary sources more confidently and independently. A couple of my students have been inspired to stay on to complete a Masters degree next year as they feel confident they will be able to do real research using SPO”.
Boosting postgraduate recruitment amidst cuts in research funding
Dr Mears explains: “SPO has helped us to attract more postgraduate students, who can now access invaluable research material despite being situated hundreds of miles away from the Public Records Office in London. There was huge cross-departmental demand at the university to purchase SPO to help deliver value for money to students and attract postgraduate students. As a result, we have seen an increase in the number of MA and PHD applications in the last three years.
“As external research funding tightens and research grants disappear, SPO opens up access to a wider variety of original sources, helping students to complete their dissertations on a diverse range of topics without needing to leave Durham. Having SPO will also help us to secure external research grants, as it demonstrates our commitment to investing in top research resources. SPO has also been part of Durham’s investment in increasing our status as a top international research university”.
Attracting international students
Dr John Cooper comments: “York is very prestigious on account of its research culture and SPO helps us stand out both in the UK and internationally. For example, we have attracted students from Canada and Taiwan studying PHDs in 16th and 17th century English history – they would not have had access to SPO at their own institutions and they chose us over any other British institution because we have it”.
Advice for other institutions
Dr Cooper concludes: “We live in austere times and SPO is a considerable investment for a university, however, it is beneficial to have all four parts. SPO, alongside ECCO (Eighteenth Century Collections Online) and Early English Books Online, completes our online access to major early records. SPO has the potential to revolutionise the availability and usability of manuscript records, which are the principal records of the 16th to 18th century. Any university that is serious about recruiting PHD students in early modern British history should consider offering access to these records”.