State Papers Online: Eighteenth Century, 1714-1782 – Part One: State Papers Domestic and Privy Council Back

This is the first of a four-instalment publication – the last stage of the major endeavour to digitise the contents of the State papers held in the National Archives – and it consists of the domestic end of things. Readers here won’t need telling about the major historical events covered in this period – the South Sea Bubble, Jacobite uprisings and down-puttings, Wilkesite riots, to name but a few. This addition to the database contains over 1200 volumes of manuscript documents (approx. 300,000 folios). This archive has of course already been mined by scholars of all stripes for many years (the Gale-Cengage publicity insists on referring to these documents as ‘confidential,’ as if they have just emerged from protection by some kind of official secrets act). However, like all such databases, the real virtue here is accessibility—an accessibility limited in practice, of course, by the cost of subscription—and the ability to come up with unexpected collocations through keyword searching. As most of us know, this way of interacting with material is not the same as sitting in the archive, but it is a new way of navigating that archive and exploring its scope. It is also possible to browse the collection through the calendar or by manuscript, so there are ways of preserving (or rather simulating) the ‘integrity’ of the physical documents.

Users familiar with other kinds of scholarly database will have few problems negotiating State Papers, which has sensible search interfaces (quick and advanced) and an equally sensible default setting of arranging results by ascending date (and not the usually-irrelevant ‘relevance’ other engines are so fond of). It’s particularly nice that users can access high-quality images of the manuscripts, though the interface for navigating those images is a little awkward at times – it’d be good to be able to move zoomed-in images around with the mouse, rather than having to go to the scrollbar at the bottom of the page (particularly annoying when small handwriting means that the only way of making a manuscript legible makes the lines of text wider than the viewing window). Still, it’s not nearly as awkward as getting a train or a plane to Kew. There is a ‘notepad’ function in the image viewer, where users can type their observations and save them to their accounts. I suppose some may find this useful but I’m not sure it does anything that one can’t do with a word processing program open in an adjacent window. It’s also possible to view manuscripts side by side to compare them. There doesn’t appear to be anything stopping users from saving these manuscript images to their hard drive with a right-click (a manoeuvre which also gets around the interface problems noted above). I only wish this was something I had realised before paying the National Archives to photograph some MS from 1709 for me…

In the time I had to do this review I didn’t have any research questions sufficiently urgent and concise to resolve as a test case, but a series of searches over a period of about half an hour did turn up the following delights: the deposition of James Smith sent to the Duke of Newcastle on February 24th 1739 detailing the identification of one John Palmer, then languishing in York Castle, as none other than the highwayman Richard Turpin; Colley Cibber’s barely tactful reminder to the same Duke that he had been given to understand that he might expect some recognition for his ‘endeavours’ in producing The Nonjuror in March 1718, a reward that might have been ‘very undesignedly forgot in the hurry of greater business’ (aren’t they all?); and a 1718 letter from Defoe to Charles Delafaye saying he has secured Nathaniel Mist’s promise to ‘give no more offense’ to the government, part of a correspondence controversially re-read in Furbank and Owens’ Political Biography of Daniel Defoe (2014). State Papers Online is a very rich resource, and for those people fortunate enough to work or study at subscribing institutions, might prove not only to be a useful research tool, but a valuable resource for teaching undergraduates in History, English, and related subjects.

Part One of Gale-Cengage’s State Papers Online was first made available to subscribing institutions in June 2013.