Friday, 2 March 2012

How to search the Northern Star for Chartist ancestors

Having had a little time to play around with the new online version of the Northern Star, I’m delighted to report that most of my early fears were either unfounded or are already being addressed.
The Northern Star was the most important Chartist newspaper of the period, and remains one of the most important sources for the study of Chartism. So getting a freely accessible and reliable version is a great step forward for family historians.
You might want to have a quick look at the Chartist Ancestors page on How to read the Northern Star before you start searching the paper for ancestors.
Search and navigation
Some of the difficulties I had at first attempt suggest that navigating your way through to the content you want is not a particularly intuitive process and could be improved.
It is really important to grasp that, as well as the usual divide between browsing and searching your way to the article you want, there are two almost completely separate search navigation tools on the NCSE site.
On balance, if you are looking for a named individual (and probably for most other searches), I would use this search and not this one. Here’s why.
Facsimiles navigation
The first set of navigation tools, to be found at the top left of the screen or here, under the facsimiles heading, has just a single search box and the option to refine results to include just articles, pictures or advertisements.
Importantly, this search tool allows you to use “double quotes” to search for a phrase. As a result:
  • A search on Isaac Armitage will bring back all articles in which both words appear – 90 of them; and
  • A search on “Isaac Armitage” brings back just those articles in which the phrase appears – six of them.
Although some alt text on the search box suggests it is possible to use other modifiers (such as AND, OR and NOT), in practice I couldn’t see any comprehensible differences in the search results, which is a shame but hardly a major problem.
What is ideal is that, when you press “search the edition” and your results come back, they are accompanied by a snippet showing the section of the page where the word or phrase appears. And when you follow the link to the page, the word or phrase is highlighted.
There is also a link from this page to an advanced search page with further options.
Keywords navigation
The second set of navigation tools, to be found at the top right of the screen or here is a supposedly more sophisticated tool. But in my attempts to use the search, I found it less useful in finding what I wanted.
This second search, headed “keywords”, works using boolean logic (that is, using AND, OR and NOT as ways of modifying the search), but avoids the need for users to understand how to use these terms by forcing them to enter each term within a separate box.
This is fine (though a bit unnecessary, I would have thought, especially since Google, to name but one, seems to manage without such a restriction).
But rather more of a problem is the fact that it does not seem possible to use “double quotes” to search for a phrase. A search on either Isaac Armitage and “Isaac Armitage” produces 62 results. Try it on Google if you want to see the difference.
I am also unsure why the search here produces 62 results when I would have expected to see either the six “whole phrase” results or all 90 Isaac AND Armitage results found in the first search.
Apparently the correct way to search on both names is to enter Isaac into the first “persons” box and Armitage into the second. Although this is clearly intended as way of helping those without much experience of web searches, I can’t say that it succeeds.
From search results to article
Rather frustratingly, having got back your list of search results using the keywords search, there is then no easy way to see what each item is likely to lead to.
Each of the 62 items returned from a search on Isaac Armitage, for example, includes the name of the newspaper, the date, volume and issue number, the page number, and even the page size and original price.
But no headline, snippet of text or other hint at what lies beyond.
And when you do click through to the item, page or issue in question, the search term is not highlighted on the page. Since the default search result is an image rather than text, it is not possible to carry out an in-page search (using Ctrl F on your keyboard) either.
One other I problem I have is that, unless you keep your Internet Explorer or Firefox browser window set to a very narrow measure, the ordered sequence of search results breaks down as the page attempts to fit in items side by side rather than one above the other.
This is a fairly straightforward web design glitch and should be easy enough to fix.
PDF download – found it!When I first used the site, I thought there was no PDF download facility. I was wrong. Once you have the required page from the Northern Star on screen, click on the “Actions” pull-down menu at the top right of the screen.
This is pretty much essential if you are having to plough through lengthy Northern Star articles and either don’t want to stay online to do it or would like to transfer the page to another computer.
Next steps for the NCSE
This service is still in beta test version, and I see that better integration between the two searches is on the “to do” list.
Corrections and improvements are promised every four to six weeks, with a final version going live later on this year.
Personally, I remain in awe of the NCSE project’s achievements and salute a magnificent new tool for those interested in Chartism and the Chartists.

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