Paige Morgan: A Wealth of Choices: Situating Economic Information in Digital Scholarship

MEDEA Spring Meeting, Wheaton College, Norton, Mass.
Friday, April 8, 2016 [return to program overview]

Paige Morgan
University of Miami

Visible Prices (VP) is an in-process project to develop an archive of prices for goods, services, and experiences, collected from literary & historical sources, currently focusing on eighteenth & nineteenth-century England, with the potential to cover larger chronological and geographical ranges. For example, in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, Jane’s salary as governess is £30 per annum. VP makes price back into a visible part of the reading experience by allowing users to discover what £30 meant in purchasing power, or to see how the salary that Bronte chose compared with those being offered in nonfictional sources. VP allows researchers to see prices from a different perspective than mathematical inflation calculators, to better understand how prices were used as information, and to learn how the evolving use of information shaped economic and cultural development. It captures individual prices against a panoramic backdrop, allowing users to glimpse economic information in broader contexts. Thus, it helps to open the study of money and commerce to disciplines outside of economics. VP is a response to the influx of historical data from printed sources onto the web. Aggregating that wealth of data presents disciplinary challenges – how to be both rigorous and permissive in creating a resource that might be used by humanities and social science researchers; and technical challenges – how to effectively and accurately gather big data, and choose an encoding system for a highly variant corpus of texts.

In this talk, I will focus on the work of creating data and metadata for entries in Visible Prices. Because price information appears in such a wide variety of texts (from printed advertisements to municipal documents to personal correspondence), any single price will be accompanied by different densities of information. One price may include details about the precise geographical location where it was offered, the quantity being sold, and where goods being sold originated, while another price may simply be recorded as “Almonds, 6 shillings.” My goal with Visible Prices is to stay focused on the prices — and by doing so, make them a vehicle for discovery. However, the decisions I make when structuring information for the database are significant because they connect price information with other fields, for example gender and class studies, or studies around a particular industry (i.e. textiles, agriculture, etc.). These decisions impact the durability of the project — too much metadata makes for a fragile and unwieldy database — and also, how accessible it is to outside researchers — too little metadata results in a database where the answers to research questions are always just out of reach. This leads to a key question: what is the most important information to include when digitizing prices? As I answer this question in regards to Visible Prices, I will also address how we might identify essential information for other digital humanities database projects built around specialized subjects.



Image Credit: (Public Domain)

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