Tracing the past: A new searchable historical database

AddressingHistory, a new website launching today, is asking history enthusiasts to explore their ancestors and local historical connections by finding and placing historical Scottish Post Office Directory listings on the map.

Funded by JISC, the AddressingHistory website combines the listings from the Directories, historical forerunners of Yellow Pages, with maps from the same years. The site, which is free to use, allows users to search for historical people, places and professions and presents results both on a map and as an editable listing that links to the full digitised Directory page.

Richard Rodger, Professor of Economic and Social History at the University of Edinburgh, said: 'The Directories are particularly useful not just for academics, for people who are professional historians like myself, but also for local historians, school projects, really for anybody who is interested in the way in which a city worked, how it functioned. We can relate that to published work, to literature, to other themes of historical analysis, to understand how change takes place to our city.'

AddressingHistory, developed by the JISC-funded data centre EDINA at the University of Edinburgh in partnership with the National Library of Scotland, launches with three Edinburgh Post Office Directories from 1784-5, 1865 and 1905-6. They cover the period from the end of the Scottish Enlightenment to the running of the city's first electric trams although, as Stuart Macdonald of the project team notes: 'The online tool has been designed to be scalable to accommodate the wider range of Post Office Directories for the whole of Scotland.'

In addition to being a unique and noteworthy collection of street, commercial, trades, law, court, parliamentary and postal information relating to the city, the Edinburgh Directories also provide a wealth of detailed information regarding residential names, occupations and addresses.

AddressingHistory harnesses the power of 'the crowd' by enabling users to add to, or suggest corrections to, the Directory information It is the addition of the geo-reference that allows the instant creation of new maps to visualise the Directory listings - for example, the historic distribution of shipwrights in Edinburgh can be plotted on a base map at the touch of a button, and the map itself can be used to look at the changing distributions of people and professions over time). Similarly, personalised maps illustrating family histories, maps tracking changes in local communities, and maps linking to other digitised materials such as census records, historical addresses and geo-referenced images, can all be explored through the online tool.

Chris Fleet, Senior Map Curator at the National Library of Scotland, describes the role of mapping in the project:

'Geo-referencing the content of the Post Office Directories, and creating dynamic maps of people or professions at the touch of a button, opens up a whole new graphical way of visualising the Directory content. By linking the results to a map of the same time period, the distributions can also be understood and appreciated much more readily. The AddressingHistory tool illustrates this new and powerful way of interrogating the Directories cartographically and geographically, and allows an important, but often neglected genre of urban mapping to be given a new relevance today.'

Alastair Dunning of JISC, which has funded the development of the site, said: 'JISC is delighted to see the launch of the Addressing History website. The resource's ability to bring a new richness to the geography of Edinburgh's past, thus helping family historians and university lecturers and researchers, shows how the Internet can bring different groups together to create new forms of knowledge.'

Press release issued jointly by NLS, EDINA, Edinburgh University and JISC.

17 November 2010