Wills and Digital Ways

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Extract of the will of Oakley Leigh of Brongest, Lampeter, 1711, proved in the episcopal consistory court of St David’s (National Library of Wales/Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru) http://hdl.handle.net/10107/591810

I am a PhD student based at the University of Wales Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies.  The overall aim of the project is to analyse digital humanities approaches to large corpora of textual archival data by using the digitised wills collection, held at the National Library of Wales/Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru, to critically evaluate the potential of digital humanities tools and methodologies for research to scholarship across the disciplines.

The collection includes digitised images of over 190,000 wills and related documents, such as administration bonds and inventories, that were proved in the Welsh ecclesiastical courts before the introduction of civil probate on 11 January 1858.  Dating from the mid-sixteenth century (although few original wills and administrations survive from before 1600) and covering the majority of Wales, the collection is rich in content and serves as an important source of information on Welsh social and cultural history.

Researchers are currently unable to undertake free-text searches across the whole corpus because of the lack of full-text transcriptions.  This limits, to some extent, who will use the resource and how it can be used to those searching on relatively precise and small scales.  Central to my research, therefore, is the question of how to make the digitised wills more usable as research resources by considering the application of digital tools to open up the collection to new audiences and to allow for the wills to be analysed on both a micro and macro level.  Treating the corpus in its entirety rather than as a series of individual, unrelated documents would allow for large-scale patterns, trends, attitudes and practices to be explored both spatially and over time.

At the same time, consideration must be given to the potential barriers to using digitised images where the researcher lacks the necessary experience, training or contextual knowledge to make effective use of the source material.  In relation to the wills, these potential barriers include palaeography, diplomatic and common form, legal terminology and linguistic difficulties such as Latin, Welsh and archaic English.  How do we replicate the ‘searchroom experience’ in a digital environment with a view to providing appropriate support to maximise the ease of access to, and research potential of, this major resource?

Ultimately, I hope to demonstrate how we can make archival collections of large, unstructured textual data more accessible and usable for research, whilst also retaining the integrity of the archive in terms of its materiality and its historical and organisational context.

The PhD scholarship is funded by the University of Wales and will be undertaken in collaboration with the Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies and the National Library of Wales.

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