Katrina Navickas-University of Hertfordshire

“…trying to move historians away from a simplistic ‘spatial turn’ and emphasis on symbolic representations in space, to deeper thinking about the cultural, customary and emotional meanings of place and how these affected people’s engagements with their environments in protest.”

For the latest in my series exploring urban history today, I was lucky enough to catch up with Katrina Navickas; a Reader in History at the University of Hertfordshire. Katrina’s work brings an exciting new spatial dimension to the study of urban and regional protest movements in eighteenth and nineteenth Century Lancashire.

What is your background?

I’m originally from Rochdale in Lancashire. I read Modern History at St John’s College, Oxford, and I taught at Oxford, Bath Spa and Edinburgh universities before joining the University of Hertfordshire in 2009.

What led you to choose your subject matter?

I was taught about the history of the Peterloo Massacre of 1819 and the Luddites of 1812 at school, and their legacy stayed with me. I really appreciate the Pennine landscape of Lancashire and Yorkshire too, so combining this with my interest in the history of popular democratic movements and protest was obvious.

Is there anyone (historian or otherwise) that particularly inspires your approach to your topic?

The geographer Doreen Massey. Last year I went to the colloquium at the Royal Geographic Society in memory of Massey, and the number of her friends and former students who testified to her original thinking about space and place was testimony to her influence on all sorts of scholars.

What do you hope that readers take away from your work?

Hopefully an appreciation that protesting for democratic and human rights is important, and that there is a long history of these movements, often rooted in their localities and places that we can still see today. I’m trying to move historians away from a simplistic ‘spatial turn’ and emphasis on symbolic representations in space, to deeper thinking about the cultural, customary and emotional meanings of place and how these affected people’s engagements with their environments in protest.

How has your work evolved over the course of your project?

“…my collaboration with the British Library Labs team, Political Meetings Mapper, enabled me to teach myself how to use Python to text-mine historic newspapers and plot thousands of sites of political meetings in the 1840s.”

I’m turning into a geographer! I’m thinking and reading a lot more about the cultural geographies of space and place, and how to apply various theories and models to historical evidence. I’m also using digital resources and open software more regularly not just to visualise the places that I research, but also as analytical tools to enable me to deal with much larger data. For example, my collaboration with the British Library Labs team, Political Meetings Mapper, enabled me to teach myself how to use Python to text-mine historic newspapers and plot thousands of sites of political meetings in the 1840s. I would not have been able to do this on that scale before. I’m still developing my skills in digital humanities and seeing what new insights I can gain from them.

How have tools like GIS shaped the way that you use sources in researching your work?

“…I can analyse large numbers of political meetings, procession and march routes, and other types of geographical data.”

Related to the previous question, they’ve enabled me to examine much larger bodies of sources on a scale I was unable to do before. I first used GIS during the last year of my DPhil studies, when I went to the Bodleian Map Library and asked for help in drawing maps for my thesis. It was a lot more simplistic then, so I was simply doing a digital version of a map I could draw on paper. Now my use of GIS is a lot more sophisticated: I can analyse large numbers of political meetings, procession and march routes, and other types of geographical data. I can layer lots of different mapped data on top of each other to find any correlations or relations between them, such as population density, cholera outbreaks, ethnic and religious communities’ concentration in particular areas, etc.

I am also collaborating with Dr Sam Griffiths and his colleagues at the Space Syntax Lab of the Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL, on a project using space syntax methods on the historical data. Space Syntax is a way of modelling the level of connectedness or integration of urban street plans, and the software, Depthmap, enables some great visualisations of how ‘busy’ or ‘isolated’ particular locations were. We’re hoping to apply the methods to historical street plans and my data of protest sites to come to new ways of describing their locations.

Are there any new questions that this enables you to address?

“I’m most excited about 3D modelling the street plans in particular, as this will give a more detailed impression of how the street spaces were experienced and navigated by crowds and residents.”

Yes, I’m looking for new ways of understanding the locations of protest and political meetings and how and why they changed over time. I’m most excited about 3D modelling the street plans in particular, as this will give a more detailed impression of how the street spaces were experienced and navigated by crowds and residents. Modelling isovists, or lines of sight, will also enable me to understand something about how both protesters and the authorities saw each other, both physically and perhaps more metaphorically.

Do you get a sense that there was a cohesive “northern” or “north western” identity in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries or were identities far more locally rooted?

“…the Peterloo Massacre of 1819, which was seen across the industrial parts of the North as an attack by the authorities and the government against all working-class people rather than just a singular event in Manchester.”

There was certainly a northern identity in this period. Industrialisation, though regional, fostered a sense of a distinctive identity against ‘the South’, and though custom, tradition, and landscape meant that local identities and links were still strong, particular events served to bring the North together – in particular, the Peterloo Massacre of 1819, which was seen across the industrial parts of the North as an attack by the authorities and the government against all working-class people rather than just a singular event in Manchester. The massive protests against the implementation of the New Poor Law from 1837 onwards were also clear evidence of a distinctive northern defiance against perceived centralisation of power from London – indeed, there was little overt or violent resistance south of the Trent.

Do you get any impression that the protesters you study saw their actions as forming part of established local traditions?

Yes definitely. The processions to St Peter’s Fields, Manchester, in 1816-19, culminating with the Peterloo Massacre, drew directly from local customs, notably the Rushbearing festivals of the towns and villages surrounding Manchester and also the processions of Friendly societies and Sunday schools. You can read the recollections of the Middleton leader, Samuel Bamford, for his defence of the tactic of political processions as an integral part of working-class culture. The Chartists also organised their ‘camp meetings’ on the moors, which had hymns, sermons and other features borrowed from Methodist culture.

Pennine Way, Edale from Kinder Scout, Peak District, Derbyshire (8120126842)

“Kinder Scout (Peak District, southern Pennines)” By Andrew Bone from Weymouth, England [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

You can read more about Katrina’s work on her University of Hertfordshire Faculty page, the “Protest History” blog and academia.edu profile. She is also on Twitter.

More urban historian profiles can be read here.

Ex Libris Stuart Hall

Housman’s Radical Bookshop

I was in London on Saturday for The Shadow Chancellor’s State of the Economy Conference.

A very worthy event and one that was well worth going to. However, there was somewhere else in London that I was if anything even keener to go to.

In a gesture at once highly commendable and deeply poignant, Catherine Hall recently donated much of Stuart Hall’s personal library to Housman’s Radical Bookshop in King’s Cross. Clinging on in a long gentrified part of central London’s, once scuzzy and alternative fringe, Housman’s is well worth a visit in of itself. Acting as a social and community space for the far-left as well as a bookshop its ramshackle (and highly affordable) array of stock could be happily perused for hours. My personal favourite is the gloriously archaic racks of revolutionary periodicals, which see dozens of densely written journals of theoretically Marxist economics, jostle with the kind of thin Trotskyite tabloid that dimly harks back to agitprop, before doubtless putting aside their sectarian differences to turn on the single sheet A4 anarchist newsletters.

Aware that the Stuart Hall collection had been on display for the best part of a fortnight and was being avidly bought up by other critical and cultural theory aficionados. I went down early to tried and get in before the conference kicked off at 11:00, only to find that Housman’s opens at the oh so civilised hour of 10:00.

Books on Display

Luckily for me, as the Conference-held at Imperial College-characteristically significantly overran; it also adheres to Marx’s dictum that evenings are “for criticising” staying open until 18:30.

I finished my journey on the Piccadilly Line just before 18:00 and hurried over to the Caledonian Road, dashing down to the basement rooms, where I’d heard that the Hall collection was on display. In keeping with the spirit of the bequest, that the books be returned to readers to inspire new thoughts; Housman’s had decided upon two price brackets for the books £1.00 for old text books, journals and other reference type works and £3.00 for newer, more popular in style, or else more significant books.

Deeply intrigued by the chance to see what had been on the bookcase of arguably Britain’s most significant post-second world war theorist, as well as admittedly, the rather morbid-and arguably “pre-modern”-desire to snag a relic, I hurriedly flicked through the titles on display. I Paused when I came across something that seemed especially noteworthy or significant. Hall’s copy of Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism jumped out at me, as did several reference works on communications theory and the mass media. Significant journals also caught my eye the New Review, New Left Review, tattered and faded early issues of History Workshop Journal were stacked alongside institutional and sociological pamphlets.

Ex Libris Stuart Hall

As an archeologist of knowledge my approach was arguably more Time Team than “raising the Mary Rose” in terms of technique and finesse, however, I managed to glean a few interesting things from what I saw of Stuart Hall’s library.

Like so many of us, probably through shear absent mindedness, Stuart Hall was better at borrowing books that returning them! A strikingly large number of the books that I flicked through had institutional nameplates in them, usually the distinctive imprint of the University of Birmingham’s library services (like the copies of David Morley’s work on the Nationwide audience [see below], which will come in handy with my research), although some-later books and papers-had come from the Open University. They were obviously borrowed, in an era long before computerised library systems, and simply lost track of.

Nationwide

Nationwide Audience BFI Monograph Series, Josh Allen’s picture

UoB Library Plate

Nationwide Audience BFI Monograph Series, Josh Allen’s picture

It wasn’t just institutional books that Stuart Hall had the occasional habit of acquiring through extended loan. In my quick look through I came across several books bearing the names of Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies students whose work I am familiar with (and possibly several students whose names I didn’t recognise). At least one book was inscribed with Chas Critcher’s name, whilst several appeared to have once belonged to John Clarke, including a 1971 edition of Edwin M. Schur’s Labelling Deviant Behaviour: The Sociological Implications (which you can see below).

Labeling Deviant Behaviour

Nationwide Audience BFI Monograph Series, Josh Allen’s picture

The long running generosity, both intellectual and material, of one of my family members has given me pause for thought of late. And meant that I’ve recently been reflecting on the significance of books owners and their interactions with texts (stay tuned for more on this very soon).

Libraries: Networks not Appendages

Arguably this is what historians, even more than other humanities scholars, especially in the popular imagining of them; are supposed to do. However, I’ve always been a little bit sceptical. It has always seemed to my mind akin to the ridiculous liberal veneration of the “artist” and their “unique sensibility”, a negation of the collective structures of support and significance that enable scholars to go about doing what they do.

That said these old tropes are always hard to escape from and it would be the height of arrogance to insist that they have no purchase upon you. Just look at me tearing over to King’s Cross, in search of a book signed Stuart Hall, like an archetypal medieval yokel on pilgrimage, or an 18th Century forbear questing for a handkerchief dipped in the blood of an executed man. Full disclosure I did manage to find one

Football on TV frontpage

Football on Television Front Cover, Josh Allen’s picture

 

Football on TV Monograph

Football on Television inside cover, Josh Allen’s picture

I also first hand, in a way that previously I’d grasped in theory, but not practice, what our reading matter and the way that we interact with it and the reading matter of others can illuminate. Stuart Hall’s jumbled library comprising books that he purchased or was given, enhanced and supplemented through using the libraries of institutions that he was associated with and drawing upon the collections of friends and students, taken collectively, paints a picture of an intellectual who far from being an island or a lone intelligence, was plugged into a network of colleagues and co-conspirators, both flesh and blood and in the form of texts, that were absolutely essential to his practice.

This is what makes the Housman’s sale the perfect memorial to a life that was spent interacting with others, shaping them, their politics, their practice; and in turn being shaped by them. Far from being, as in the backdrop to thousands of academic, critical and literary portrait photos, a marker of status, or “the master’s tools”. Our libraries and their contents are markers of group and collective identity which showcase and enable collaboration and collective self-fashioning.      

“Global Urban History”, Freie Universität Berlin, a discussion with Michael Goebel

“…we began to start thinking about ways to combine our interest in the history of long-distance connections, European colonialism overseas, and urban history.”

For the latest in my series on urban historians at work today, I was very lucky to be able to catch up with Michael Goebel, of Freie Universität Berlin; the  who edits and writes for the Global Urban History blog.

What is your background?

I grew up in Munich, Germany, and went to a secondary school right next to the city’s central station. So, although Munich is not huge, I come from a pretty urban environment and have never been much of a country person. But I’m not an urban historian by training. I did my PhD in history at University College London, with a thesis on the intellectual history of nationalism in postcolonial Argentina, so modern Latin America was my broader region of specialization. There were two distinct paths of how this has stirred my interest in urban history. First, whoever studies nationalism in Argentina cannot do without considering two factors: the importance of the country’s capital city (economically, culturally, politically, but also for the national imagination) and the history of European immigration, for which Buenos Aires again has always been the chief point of entry. Second, modern intellectual historians are almost always urban historians in one way or another, though usually without knowing or admitting it. And my interest in the intellectual history of Latin America eventually took me to study early twentieth-century Paris as a sort of cultural capital of Latin America. 

These two paths flowed together in my book Anti-Imperial Metropolis, which came out last year. The book eventually concentrated much more on immigrants to Paris from French colonies such as Algeria than on Latin Americans, but it brings together the social history of migration with an intellectual history of the roots of nationalism in Africa and Asia. These concerns also led me to look in more detail at the Parisian cityscape, the everyday social fabric of non-Europeans there, and their settlement patterns. In the course of this research I have grown more interested in the history of ethnic segregation in cities in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, in particular in world regions outside the North Atlantic, for which there has been much less research so far. So in hindsight there were a few unforeseeable twists that took me where I am now.

What led you to decide to set up Global Urban History?

“…we noticed that urban history… has perhaps been shaped more profoundly by European and North American categories and continues to focus… on North Atlantic examples than other quarters of historical writing.”

Again, this comes out of a confluence of several factors. My first idea stemmed from this interest in the global history of ethnic segregation on which I had also taught a course in our MA in Global History here at the Freie Universität Berlin. Given the changes that digitisation has wrought on our discipline in recent years a topic such as ethnic segregation in cities seemed especially apt for the blog format, which is much more flexible, visual, and digital than our traditional ways of presenting our research. It’s also a topic of great concern for the public in Germany, Britain, the USA, and other countries at the moment. But it’s too narrow a concern for a blog with a hopefully wider readership. So I teamed up with a few great colleagues in urban history such as Joseph Ben Prestel and Antonio Carbone, who I was lucky enough to find in my immediate surroundings here in Berlin. With them involved the blog quickly expanded topically.

Since we all work in the area of global history, we began to start thinking about ways to combine our interest in the history of long-distance connections, European colonialism overseas, and urban history. At the same time, we noticed that urban history as an established field has perhaps been shaped more profoundly by European and North American categories and continues to focus more frequently on North Atlantic examples than other quarters of historical writing. This realization mutated into a sort of embryonic mission statement encouraging our readers to think more explicitly about how global history and urban history have related to one another in the past and should communicate in the future.

What do you hope that readers get from the blog?

“…we hope that our readers get both, entertaining and interesting posts that inform about recent scholarship, but also a broader theoretical and methodological discussion.”

Ours is a pretty academic, i.e. not so journalistic or personal, blog. We first took other blogs, such as the Imperial & Global Forum based at the University of Exeter and the one of the Journal of the History of Ideas, as models to emulate. Accordingly, I suspect that our readership consists largely of academics, in particular historians, mostly based in Germany, the UK, and the United States. Yet some successful posts, such as one on colonial Mexico City, also attracted readers beyond academics in these countries. It’s not easy to strike a balance here between general accessibility, interest, and scholarly specialization.

In accordance with our initial ideas we hoped to attract a great deal of sophisticated theoretical and programmatic reasoning about what we saw as the missing link between urban and global history, presented in accessible language and adorned with fancy pictures. Then the nitty-gritty of everyday management kicked in. If you have a blog with no or very few followers, yet hope to get brilliant and famous people on a terribly busy schedule writing for you, there is a mismatch in what you are asking and what you can offer. So in the first place you have to position your blog as a platform for the dissemination of the research of your contributors. Then, if you call yourself global, you want to cover different world regions once in a while, but you also want both male and female authors, senior academics and PhD students. If you take into account all of these factors, you run the risk of becoming what from the outside looks like a random cabinet of curiosities about aspects of the history of particular cities spread over the globe; a little bit like The Guardian’s series on the “Story of Cities,” which of course generates much more traffic than our little site.

At its best, this sensitizes our readers to the huge global variations in the urban experience. And we do hope that our readers get this from our blog. But this doesn’t amount to generating a programmatic discussion about where and how global and urban history should intersect. So we decided to flank this format of presenting contributors’ empirical research with a few other formats, such as book reviews and, soon to come, a conversation between leading urban historians about their relationship with global history. In the medium term, we hope that our readers get both, entertaining and interesting posts that inform about recent scholarship, but also a broader theoretical and methodological discussion.

What would you say are the key scholarly benefits of taking a global approach to studying urban history?

“the North Atlantic was furthest ahead in terms of urbanization… in the decades before and after 1900… the period when history as an academic discipline emerged. This coincidence in my view shapes urban history to this day in that the field has a heavy focus on the North Atlantic.”

This question can be approached from the angle of urban history and from the angle of global history. Beginning with the first, one reason of why urban history is important is that an ever growing proportion of the world population lives in cities. Historically, people saw Europe and North America as the most urbanized regions of the world, where the great cities were located. Think of London and New York. In truth the North Atlantic was furthest ahead in terms of urbanization mainly in the decades before and after 1900. Yet this was also the period when history as an academic discipline emerged. This coincidence in my view shapes urban history to this day in that the field has a heavy focus on the North Atlantic.

Fast forward a century and most of today’s megacities are located in the Global South, a trend that will no doubt continue. This realization should really push urban historians to rethink how useful their conceptual tools are for studying the histories of, say, Manila or Lagos, which are different from that of Paris. I don’t think this discussion is as prominent in urban history as it should be. The same is true if you turn the tables: Many good urban historians of course, have always been aware that London and Liverpool would be unthinkable without the British Empire, but I don’t think this realization has had the effect of explicit and systematic reasoning about the role of the global in urban history that it should have.

Now if you approach the question from the opposite side, I also believe that global history could benefit from a closer look at cities. As Frederick Cooper, a historian of Africa, stresses, the history of global connections never proceeded evenly through geographic space, but was “lumpy.” That means some places on earth have much denser long-distance connections than others—port cities being the obvious case, to which a project at the University of Portsmouth is devoted. Global historians have been good at drawing attention to connections, but in doing so they are tempted to “overuse the network metaphor,” as the Princeton historian David Bell has complained. Grounding their empirical work in specific places such as cities can work as an antidote to this problem. It helps to make their work more tangible and testable. Looking in detail at the local nodal points of long-distance connections of the past may actually also tell us something new about the nature of historic globalization.

Finally, global history has a bit of a bias against social history in my opinion. This has to do with the biography of global history, which was midwifed by a generation of historians who reacted against the generation of social historians of the 1960s and their characteristic belief in large sets of serial data and “modernization. To an extent, urban history is a child of this social history of the 1960s, in which urbanization was considered a key ingredient of “modernization.” I think the fact that urban history and global history developed out of synch has generated a certain mutual mistrust that we should work to overcome.

“I also believe that global history could benefit from a closer look at cities.”

What would you say are the current key trends in the study of global urban history?

Global history per se has been the fastest expanding subfield of history during the last two decades, I think. Whereas fourteen years ago, when I began my PhD, I was under pressure to justify my decision to study Argentina as a German in the UK, today the onus is on those studying their own country’s past to uphold what they are doing—to a silly extent at times, I believe, when I see quite how apologetic today’s historians are if they don’t have “global” or “transnational” in their working titles. But for better or worse, urban historians have not remained unaffected by this trend, even if this is one of the more Eurocentric (or North Atlantic-centered) part of historical writing.

From what I can see, these broader trends have so far taken mostly the form of an expansion of research on cities in what today is called the Global South. I think of the work of Tim Harper, Su Lin Lewis, Carole Woodall, Emer O’Dwyer, and many others I can’t mention here. These are also the kind of people we admire and seek to approach for our blog.

Tellingly, however, in my impression most such historians do not present themselves as “urban historians in the first place. Instead they first recur to other labels to describe their work, geographic ones in particular, such as global history, Southeast Asian history, colonial history, or whatever their specialization may be precisely. There are exceptions to this rule, to be sure. Leicester University’s Centre for Urban History now produces more and more research on the history of cities in the Global South, while avowedly maintaining the label “urban history.” Carl Nightingale’s book on the global history of urban segregation would be another example. So there are exciting developments if you look for them, but on the whole I would argue that they are still too exceptional.

Is there any advice that you have for historians looking to work collaboratively across countries?

To have time at their hands and never underestimate the importance of language. For our blog—and many other projects we are involved in—it is nowadays commonplace to work with people in other countries. In my particular case, my academic upbringing was mostly outside of Germany anyway, having done a PhD about Argentina in the U.K. before going to Italy and spending a year in the US. But it’s all too easy to underestimate the real challenges in cross-national cooperation and language has everything to do with this. In choosing to produce an English-language blog in Germany, we also chose to lose potential German readers outside of academia. We will never attract many readers in Latin America. If I look at our followers on Twitter, the overwhelming majority are based in Britain and the US.

“…it’s all too easy to underestimate the real challenges in cross-national cooperation and language has everything to do with this.”

Conversely, it is difficult to find contributors outside of Anglophone academia. History is a literary discipline and a blog is the kind of format where you want to upload something that also sounds nice, so the level of English of potential contributors is something we constantly discuss among the editors, especially bearing in mind our own time constraints in proofreading. In history, national—or linguistically specific—markets also continue to shape the conceptual concerns and interests that scholars bring along, making it much harder to convey our approach and goals outside the core areas of our readership. On the other hand, if all your contributors and readers are in Germany, the UK, and the USA we really shouldn’t call this “global.” So we really try hard to keep an open mind for influences from beyond the English-speaking world, which is something global history should heed more generally given its tendency towards increasing monolingualism.

Is there any advice that you have for academics looking to create a blog like Global Urban History?

In my impression there are lots of people with great ideas, but the main danger for creating a new blog is that it becomes a flash in the pan. We were all enthusiastic in the beginning—and still are—but the everyday maintenance of the whole structure is arduous. On top of that we all have teaching and admin duties and we pursue our actual research, which means going to archives, reading other historians, and writing journal articles and books. So if you want to create a blog that lasts for a year or so and is meant to be read by a few more people than your closest friends, ask yourself how many hours per week you are able and willing to invest in the coming twelve months.

Horacio Coppola - Buenos Aires 1936 - Corrientes desde el edificio COMEGA nocturna.jpg

Horacio CoppolaCÓPPOLA, H., PREBISCH, A. y ANZOÁTEGUI, I.: Buenos Aires 1936: visión fotográfica por Horacio Coppola, Buenos Aires, Municipalidad de la Ciudad de Buenos Aires, 1936 (editado en ocasión del cuarto centenario de la fundación de la Ciudad de Buenos Aires, 1536-1936)

You can find out more about Michael Goebel, of Global Urban History; and his work from his page on the Freie Universität Berlin website. He is on Twitter as are his co-editors Joseph Ben Prestel and Antonio Carbone . If you’d like to read more urban history profiles, please follow the link here. 

Donna Taylor-“Notes from 19th Century Birmingham”

For the latest in my series about urban historians working today, I spoke to Donna Taylor, a University of Birmingham PhD student who’s work explores new angles on Birmingham’s 19th Century local administration. She blogs at Notes from 19th Century Birmingham.

What is  your background?

I’m really just a council-house nan who does a bit of history. I came to academia rather late in life, having taken the scenic route through education. I left school in 1982 with a handful of low grade CSEs, a few words of German (I can still remember how to ask the time) and mad typing skills that have been more useful than could ever have been foretold in the pre-digital age. I dropped out, grew a beautiful pink mohican and set off to ban the bomb before settling down to a family life. This was hard in the Thatcher era and there were many years of unemployment and part-time cleaning jobs. In my late 30s I decided I wanted to do ‘something else’.  It started with night school, then an Access to HE course at Leicester College. The staff there were amazing and played a major role in transforming so many lives. I’m very passionate about FE and worry about cuts and other changes impacting accessibility to it. It’s becoming ever more difficult for people like me to get into HE.

My family, but particularly my children and our mom, have been fabulous and just rolled along with all the changes. I’ve been very lucky.

What led you to choose your subject matter?

By accident. Although I was born in and have spent much of my life in Birmingham, there was never originally an intention to ‘do’ Birmingham history. This changed when I came across a mention of the Bull Ring riots in a book by Roger Ward. I’d never heard of them before and quickly became absorbed in finding out more. They were the subject of both my undergrad dissertation and MRes. thesis. Birmingham in the first half of the nineteenth century was incredibly modern and also wonderfully fierce. It is way more interesting than the currently on-trend Chamberlain period. It’s a history that makes me feel proud of where I come from.

Is there anyone (historian or otherwise) that particularly inspires your approach to your topic?

Our grandad taught me to question everything. Carl Chinn, my undergraduate mentor (and now PhD supervisor), has taught me always to ‘follow the evidence’. These are the two core guiding principles. I’m fascinated by dialogues that took place in the early nineteenth-century public sphere, particularly at that time of great social and political change in the 1830s. James Epstein’s Radical Expression and Craig Calhoun’s Roots of Radicalism have been influential on my PhD writing. But if I had to choose one influential historian it would be Eric Hobsbawm. When I’m in a bit of writing slump turning to any one of his essays is usually enough to remind me that this business of bothering dead people has some purpose.
There have also been blogs that inspired me to have a go myself. These include Prison Voices which was established by second year students at Liverpool John Moores. And of course the wonderful Municipal Dreams, a quality to which I can only aspire.

What do you hope readers take away from your work?

That history is something everyone can  and should engage with in order to understand where we are now.  We’ve inherited an impressive history, be proud of it.

How has your work evolved over the course of your subject?

Originally the topic of my thesis was going to centre on things that were done -buildings that were built; legislation that was legislated, that sort of thing. Now the focus is on how these things entered the collective social imagination, which had to happen for a project or idea to manifest and to be accepted. This is the really interesting stuff that I like to talk about.

What drove the changes in municipal culture that occurred in Birmingham during this period?

A multiplicity of moral and pragmatic reasons could be argued and they would all probably be right. Desire for rational government, improved justice, a shift away from county dependency, greater transparency, civic pride, public opinion, changing demography, economic growth &c.  It is also useful to identify who drove the changes and how those conversations entered the public sphere which began that momentum. Then it is possible to see these small groups of politically ambitious men consistently at the forefront of demands for change. This happened first in the late 18th century when a body of ‘civic minded’ men took charge of improving the town – which they did very well by the way. They began the material transformation of Birmingham that Joseph Chamberlain was only able to build upon. Early in the 19th century another group of men came to the fore with more radical ideas. Many of these formed the first town council and were among Birmingham’s earliest MPs, including Thomas Attwood, Joshua Scholefield and George Muntz.

Has your blogging and other public engagement work changed your thoughts about the period and people you study?

My blog material is slightly different to my thesis research, in that I stretch the blog across the whole 19th century and focus on the more mundane, everyday interactions taking place in Birmingham during that period. It was originally intended as a sort of repository for all the bits of research that wouldn’t fit into my thesis. I can’t think of an instance in which my thinking has been changed, but I have become aware that there is more interest in Birmingham’s history than I originally imagined there would be.

Does your experience of blogging and other public engagement activities suggest to you any profitable ways in which historians can go about working with people outside the academy?

Absolutely and perhaps especially at a local level. Interest in Birmingham has grown steadily over the past few years, thanks to the tireless work of historians like Carl Chinn and the late Chris Upton. The Centre for West Midlands History, based at the University of Birmingham, has also brought local history into the public eye with a recent series of glossy magazines and books. As a result of those efforts, organisations such as the Birmingham Conservation Trust and Birmingham Museums’ Trust have successfully obtained significant pots of funding to pursue local heritage projects. The Birmingham History galleries at BM&AG attracted an £8.9 million investment and drew on the knowledge of academic historians (including myself) as well as members of the public. Projects like that offer a pooling of knowledge, from all sorts of sources, that wouldn’t be available from simply leafing through a lot of dusty books. The Coffin Works project is another, award-winning, example. I’m not sure there will ever be any public historian millionaires, but public engagement projects brings great knowledge profit to the academy.

Is there anything that Birmingham’s leaders today could learn from their mid-19th century predecessors?

If Birmingham’s leaders could spend time reading through the minute books of their predecessors, right across the 19th century, they would see a history of great civic ambition and investment in the local community. Over a relatively short period of time Birmingham was transformed from a small, dirty town with a few puddled streets to what  American journalist Julian Ralph described as ‘the best governed city in the world.’ Although I’m never shy about challenging the current council, they do a pretty good job of drawing investment to the city, enabling that momentum of growth that has been in place for over two hundred years now.  But please, stop closing our libraries and demolishing our heritage!

For more information on Donna and her work check out her Academia.edu profile. She is on Twitter and her blog can be found here. Notes from 19th Century Birmingham can be followed separately. Other profiles in the urban historians series can be found read here.