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Digitization of the missing late c19th volumes

Although there are many digitized collections of statutes available online, and indeed many digitizations of the same publication, I have not found a number of volumes from the last two decades of the nineteenth century.

Happily, I have now been able to digitize these volumes myself, courtesy of the Institute of Historical Research, who very kindly allowed me to photograph their copies.

I copied them using an iphone and a selfie stick designed by Sussex Unversity Humanities Lab. Althugh SHL are developing a whole workflow for DIY scanning and OCRing documents through a modern smartphone, I simply took pictures, and later ran them through Abbyy Finereader, as I have been doing with the digital volumes downloaded from Google Books and Internet Archive.

The whole procedure took a full work day, which I think quite quick given the size and number of the volumes; once I got into the rhythm, the apparatus held firm, I averaged about one volume an hour, photographing two pages at a time.

The text of these volumes can be found on github; some automated correcting has been carried out, but it is still all pretty raw, especially the tables. No doubt there will be pages I have inadvertently photographed twice, photographed poorly, or accidentally omitted, but by and large I think the quality is as good as can be expected. As with all the other volumes I have OCRd, the text is public domain.

Once again, my thanks to the IHR for access to their books and a desk at which to copy them, and to Sussex Humanities Lab for the selfie sticks. Without such help, ‘unofficial’, grassroots, lone scholar projects such as this one would not be able to develop their potential.

Bibliographies of Collections of British Statutes

I have now finished compiling the bibliographies of the several collections of British legislation I have used for this project. Each entry, due to the magic of Zotero, should have a link to the digitized version of the book, and each bibliography a link to the OCRd text I am currently correcting, hosted on Github.

These bibliographies are not complete, both in that there are other collections I have not made lists for, and that those I have do not list all the volumes. I have concentrated on books freely available online, and that I have used to generate the OCRd texts I am correcting. Given time, I may well expand this, but for the moment it provides at least one volume covering the period from Magna Carta until 1878. After that date, far fewer volumes are freely available, and so for all intents and purposes, the project stops there. But note that legislation for the twentieth and twenty first centuries is available via Matthew Williams marvelous datasets.

Not every law is to be found in full in these volumes. Some are abbreviated, giving the preamble, perhaps a few clauses, and a summary. Some are omitted entirely. Very few private, personal and local acts are given. And very annoyingly, volume 43 part 2 of Pickering’s Statutes at Large is the sole missing part of that long and useful series.

All this notwithstanding, I think these bibliographies will be of great utility to anyone wanting to track down historic laws.

Go to the Index Page.

Updates, January and February 2018

Over the past two months I have taken a look at the volumes of statutes published from 1820 on, that is, with a modern typeface and without the long s that OCR software interprets in a multitude of ways.

Overall, the standard of text generated from the digitized PDFs is good to very good. Part of this may simply be due to the books not being as old, and therefore printed better, on better paper and being less worn and torn, than older volumes. But the typeface is certainly more amenable to being OCR’d, and the raw text is generally quite readable. The major problem is the recognition of the page layout, which with the statutes means that the side annotations get integrated into the body of the text. Certainly, the speed with which I have corrected some of the lists of legislation is far greater than for the pre-1820 texts.

Consequently, I’m considering concentrating on these volumes, although the eighteenth century is where most of my interests lie. But apart from sorting the tables, this is a decision I shall put off.

Also this month:

The usual run of automatic corrections; find improved text on Github.

Added tables of statutes for 1703, 1713, 1790, and 1866 to 1878. Again, find them on Github.

New acts: the famous 1918 Representation of the People act, in honour of its centenary; the notorious Buggery Act of Henry VIII, the 1706 Escape from Prisons act and the Repeal of the South Sea Bubble Act.

Added a bibliography of volumes of statutes in the series ‘A Collection of Public general Statutes’, with links to the relevent Google Books page, for 1837 to 1869;

And finally, a blog post on ways of checking and correcting OCR’d text.

There will be a pause until after Easter, whilst work and PhD take priority. This is very much a one-person side project, without any funding, and as such has to take second (and third) place to other demands.

Automatic correction of OCR

A milestone: I have begun automatically correcting the OCR errors in the 46 volumes of Danby Pickering’s ‘Statutes At Large’, and have uploaded the improved text to Github.

Given the quantity of text I’m dealing with – the Pickering series alone amounts to over fifteen million words – correcting each volume ‘by hand’ is obviously impractical. Bulk ‘find and replace’ is an improvement, but still not fast enough to be practical.

Such repetitive tasks are grist to the digital mill. So, using this list of common OCR errors, augmented with others I’ve found, and a one line bash script, automatic improvement of the texts has commenced.

The results are obviously an improvement. Nevertheless, the texts still aren’t great. There are still many spelling errors. As I used spaces as separators, words with punctuation attached are uncorrected. The many problems arising from layout are still to be faced.

But this is an important step forward.

Introducing The Statutes Project

The aim of the Statutes project is quite simple: to put the majority of historic English legislation online in accessible, useful formats, readable by humans and machines alike, with accompanying metadata, without any financial, technical or legal obstacles to use or adaption.

The simplicity of this statement masks the many difficulties: finding the laws, digitizing them, turning page images into clean, correct text, and so on. And doing so  without having an entire life devoured by spell checking and hand correction.

The many volumes of statutes compiled through the last three centuries, coupled with mass digitization projects such as those run by Google Books and the Internet Archive, along with optical character recognition and text correction tools, does at least allow for the hope that useable – but not perfect – texts can be produced with a minimum of effort.

The focus will be on the late seventeenth, eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the ‘long eighteenth century’ that is central to my own historical studies. Expect a concentration on matters relating to debt and debtors; that is the subject of my PhD.

This blog is more a notebook than a full archive of legislation, although that is the long-term hope. It will cover the technical side more than the theoretical, although that won’t be absent. When there’s a sufficient corpus, quantatively and qualatively, there will be some preliminary attempts at analysis, little games aiming to investigate the possibilities.

Future posts will discuss the project in more detail, covering the source volumes, the software, textual analysis, dissemination, and undoubtably the many trials and tribulations produced by a simple idea rashly executed.