3. The purposes and nature of this CD
3.1 The purposes of the CD.
It is important to recognise that this CD does not provide a history of Bristol, and its editor never held the ambition to construct here the definitive history of the city. Rather his intention was demonstrate some of the potential applications which IT could offer historians, harnessing current historical research on the city to demonstrate the range and diversity of practice.
This objective allows some latitude usually precluded by the usual conventions of publishing. First, and most obvious, there was the opportunity to use new technology to offer historical research in novel ways. Second, as the technology has yet the reputation and standing of traditional forms of publication, it was possible to offer both established historians in the locality as well as younger or more recent practitioners the opportunity to demonstrate their work and ideas.
Third, and this follows naturally, the CD provided a place for experimental work, especially by postgraduate students whose archival work has produced valuable resources that might otherwise be neglected. It follows from these latter two points that there is probably more unevenness in the nature and length of the various contributions than is customary. This is unlikely to discomfort those who seek data relating to Bristol, after all they are being offered hours of labour. However, the range and relative quality of the contributions is more likely to stir academics, particularly those wedded to more traditional approaches, though it should pose few difficulties to a careful reader thoughtfully aware of their subject. As ever and always, information should be used with care.
Fourth, the CD makes available various data sets assembled by scholars whose focus was national but who had painstakingly constructed resources of use to historians whose research focuses more closely on Bristol. Naturally, there is some reciprocity here; the data provided here by Bristol's historians has the potential to illustrate national phenomena and they also provide information which will allow a comparative perspective capable of illuminating the history other urban centre or regions.
Finally, the CD also presents an opportunity to encourage a revisionist, even an iconoclastic, view of history. Bristol's popular history, like the popular history of any nation, region or institution, often appears a recitation of a series of established tableaux or stages. Such a conventional tale can serve as a comfort, a soothing balm. The narration of a familiar story can reassure an audience that they share an acknowledged past, hold an undisputed and communal view of the present and aspire to a undisturbed collective future. One such classic myth relates how the London 'Blitz' of 1940 saw a divided society pull together in adversity, bravely and fairly sharing risks and resources in the face of a deadly and ruthless enemy. Another recounts Victorian values without reference to the realities of that period while asserting the benefits of their adoption in a society far removed from that assumed to have existed.
In Bristol's case the familiar personalities, signposts and landmarks often include: an unknown Saxon bridge builder; Norman aristocrat, the architects of abbey and castle, to glory of god and themselves; a pair of Cabots and their voyage of discovery to Newfoundland; turncoat Bristolians in the English Civil War; the remunerative but distant trade in west African slaves; Bristol riots; insanitary Georgian Bristol; Brunel and his various local engineering feats; and, the victims of the German bombing of Bristol in 1940.
All this is Bristol's history, at least in any meaningful sense of the word. But it is not all of Bristol's history. The pantheon of conventional history should not exclude the rest of Bristol's history, especially that previously unremarked. Bristol's heritage is rich and there is much which remains to be discovered. Great scope exists for the recovery of many aspects of the city's neglected past without discarding a perspective appreciation of what is familiar.
Authors contributing to this CD have revisited some of the more familiar landmarks of Bristol's history, though the routes they have taken may stray from the broken path; in consequence they have returned with different stories. By contrast, others have ventured into terra incognita, a different Newfoundland of Bristol's past, to shed light on previously disregarded aspects of the city's history. I hope this CD will prompt and encourage further such investigations.
3.2 The nature of the CD.
In short, the CD offered authors a forum for work which was more experimental, less conventional or much more data-orientated than might usually be the case. Furthermore, not only is this format different from traditional modes of publication, the book and the journal article, but it is also new. The conventions of traditional publication have developed over centuries; though many are more recent than historians usually acknowledge, especially the currently deployed full-blown academic apparatus of the learned journal. The equivalent conventions of electronic publication have yet to solidify. While the content may be exactly the same, the optimal way of presenting this material in the new medium has yet to established.
This state of flux is clearly apparent in the construction here. Despite the best efforts and intentions of the production team, authors did not necessarily stick to the prescribed format. Attempts to cope with the range of interpretations of our editorial instructions led, perhaps, inevitably, to a more flexible implementation of texts, and citations in particular, than had been intended. Where a publishing house may have been able to revisit this to standardise practice at the latter stages of production, the resources available for this project precluded a thoroughgoing revision of some of the earliest contributions to the CD. Nevertheless, there is some small consolation in the thought that a second edition would offer the opportunity to impose the uniformity originally envisioned.
Like its forerunner, the Bristol Historical Databases Project, this is a pioneering venture in historical computing which is designed to both present historical research resources, so that they are easily available to any user, and provide new interpretations which are based on these materials. Obviously, it is also experimental in nature. This is a novel approach, one intended to demonstrate the potential of historical computing in all its guises, which is ambitious in terms of its scope, and probably goes beyond anything published to date. Certainly, I would be surprised if any other project achieved as much with such a constrained budget. However, in itself, this CD is yet further confirmation of the range and extent of possibilities now offered to historians by modern information technology.