Report from Day 1 – or, the Laundry as a hazardous occupation
by Helen Glew
I’m a historian of women’s employment and was eager to work with the Medical Officer of Health reports for London to see what they could tell me about women’s employment – and specifically about married women’s employment, which is my new research focus. The MOH reports are digitised, available online and downloadable in PDF and text file formats via the Wellcome’s London’s Pulse website. They are currently searchable, but only via area, date or a single keyword within a report.
I arrived at the Wellcome for #wellcomedataweek yesterday, eager to learn but also aware of how much I didn’t know about digital humanities processes, coding and even the language to use to discuss programming and coding. I’m working with Jacopo and Amanda, who have expertise in data development and programming and data visualisation, and with Deborah, who is working on a different data visualisation project with the Medical Officer of Health reports. So between us we have various different areas of expertise and are each contributing different things to the process.
In the afternoon we developed a list of search terms which related to gender (‘women’, ‘woman’, ‘lady’ etc), to work (‘job’, ‘employment’ etc) and also words which embodied both gender and specific professions (‘governess’, ‘maid’ etc). We decided to test out the search tool Jacopo had built by running a search which found the words ‘woman’ and ‘laundry’ within fifty words of one another across all of the reports in the MOH collection. This came back with 52 hits which Amanda, Deborah and I then went through to look for false positives and to assess how effective that method of searching was.
What was apparent to me as a historian was the fact that even though all the results weren’t useful (false positives, slightly off-topic – ‘laundry’ is a noun, a verb, a job location and part of a job title, after all), many of them were, and there were several themes which emerged even from these results which could be starting off points for research projects. For example, several of the records pointed to diseases contracted by laundry workers in the course of their work (Romford, 1908), and in some cases there was also discussion of steps taken to ensure that disease was not passed on via laundry workers or their premises (Strand (Westminster) 1894). The tool we created brought out these stories from the reports. By extension, anyone approaching these reports without a research question, or without a definite idea beyond a vague theme or set of issues to explore, would find using the search tool Jacopo and my team built useful.
In the course of our work yesterday, then, we essentially built a tool which allowed more complex searching of the reports than the standard function currently offers. After reviewing the day’s work and finding that the methodology provided fruitful results, we have now created a more defined research question to explore with the data. However, I was reminded yesterday of the usefulness of having search tools such as this which can throw up a range of results and might suggest directions for research or help to generate research questions.