London's Pulse: Innovating Sustainability

By Kaplish, Lalita | Online Searcher, May-June 2015 | Go to article overview

London's Pulse: Innovating Sustainability


Kaplish, Lalita, Online Searcher


The Wellcome Library collections include the historical Medical Officer of Health reports. These reports have long been a valuable resource for social and medical historians researching 19th- and 20thcentury public health in Britain.

In 2013, as part of the Wellcome Library's mass digitization program, the reports for the Greater London area went online as London's Pulse: Medical Officer of Health reports 1848-1972, a freely available website with more than 5,500 reports (wellcomelibrary.org/moh). Any gaps in the Wellcome Library holdings were filled by reports digitized from the London Metropolitan Archives collections, so the final set of reports is very close to a complete set of all the existing reports for London spanning 124 years. The project was co-funded by the Wellcome Library and JISC.

In the 19th century, the Medical Officer of Health (MOH) represented a new kind of health official, one who took a more scientific and systematic approach to monitoring public health. As well as recording statistics for births, deaths, and diseases, the officers' work expanded throughout the next 100 years to include the inspection of the following:

* Schools

* Housing and sanitation

* Working conditions

* Food

* Social services such as child and elderly welfare

All their findings were recorded in the MOH report. Published annually by local authorities, the reports provided regular "snapshots" of health, social, and working conditions at a local level.

There was no fixed format for how the data was presented; each MOH had his own method and style. Medical officers also had a great deal of autonomy over the content--many pursued their own personal research interests (for example, the 1909 report for Willesden includes an anthropological study of European face shapes (wellcome library.org/moh/report/b1979664x/138#?asi=0&ai=138&z= -0.3306%2C-0.0156%2C1.6535%2C0.7474), as well as reporting on local issues.

This highlights a problem with the reports: They are hugely variable in content and format. Many of the earlier reports lack indexes and lists of content. The reports are a mix of written analysis, tables of numerical data, and graphical displays of statistics.

LONDON'S PULSE PROJECT

The MOH reports are a familiar sight to Wellcome Library staff. Users researching public health and social history in England and Wales frequently request them. It's not unusual to see researchers in the library with a trolley-load of reports laboriously going through each report to find relevant bits of information. Frequent use has led to inevitable deterioration, which made the reports a prime candidate for digitization.

The Wellcome Library is in the midst of a large-scale digitization program. We had already launched one major digitized resource, Codebreakers: Makers of Modern Genetics (wellcomelibrary.org/conections/digital-conections/ makers-of-modern-genetics), based on 22 archive collections held by the Wellcome Library and five library partners. Digitization is becoming part of "business as usual" for the Wellcome Library (and many other libraries and archives). Building on what we learned from Codebreakers, we wanted to experiment with more innovative, accessible, and sustainable models for presenting digitized content.

The variety of special content and identifiable users made the MOH reports a perfect choice for a pilot project to explore and develop new search and access models while utilizing our existing resources, such as the library catalogue and our in-house media player.

DIVERSE AUDIENCES

The first stage of the project was to consider our users and determine their needs.

We identified several potential audiences for the digitized material:

* Existing academic historians

* An "amateur" audience interested in local studies or family history in London

* Researchers working with text and data mining techniques

We interviewed a range of these users to find out what they thought about digitizing the London reports. …

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