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5 Questions With: Chris Scott Part 1

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  • 5 Questions With: Chris Scott Part 1

    Many thanks to Chris Scott for going to bat here.
    Muchas gracias amigo.
    1.Please provide some background as to how you became involved in newspaper research, when it all began, what sort of material were you initially interested in, how you developed your own particular approach to research and what early sources did you rely on.
    2. What was the first find that gave you a level or degree of satisfaction that you would try to match from that point on ?
    3. What are the advantages that researchers in 2010 have, newcomers to the field and perhaps newcomers to newspaper research, that those in the 1990's didn't have ? Would these advantages be attributable to more and more newspaper becoming digitized...or perhaps something else that you would care to share ?
    4. How many computers have you had to go take out in your back yard and shoot during your career due to them crashing or from age ?
    5. Do you feel newspaper archivists and researchers/Ripperologists are a different breed of cat than theory-based Ripperologists ? If so, give one or two "differences", if you would be so kind.
    6. What is the most significant find in the last three years off the top of your head ? If you need more time, then in the last 5 years.

    1) Although I have been reading about (and later studying in a more or less methodical way) the Whitechapel murders case since approximately 1967, the areas on which I most concentrate now, those of press articles and census and related records, came about much later and pretty much by accident. The sine qua non of newspaper and related research in my case was, undoubtedly, the advent of the Internet and the increasing availability of source material in digital form online. I often think that the current generation of researchers, who have grown up with the Internet as a given, don't quite realise just how slow and cumbersome research was even as recently as the 1970s and 1980s. I well remember conducting BMD (Birth, Marriage and Death) research at the old Somerset House when a student in the late 60s and 70s. All records were paper based and to obtain even a single record could take two weeks. Research was creakingly slow, often reaching dead ends, and very expensive.
    What initially drew me into newspaper research was the realisation at that time (early to mid 90s) that here was a previously largely untapped resource which threw up much interesting and valuable material.
    My own approach was (and still is) a practical and, some would say, idiosyncratic one. In my research I have two luxuries:
    1) I am not a paid researcher and so, by definition, I do not rely on the work I do for my living and so can research what and when I want
    2) Because I have never championed a particular suspect I do not feel shackled to follow or ignore any particular line of inquiry. I am just as happy following a story about Tumblety or Druitt or and other party involved in the story.
    As to early sources, most if not all of my research is now web based. The one early source I did delve into the early days was the archive of local east Kent papers in the library in Ramsgate some years back. Not too long after I had done this exercise, there was a devastating fire that gutted the library and destroyed the local museum and all its archives.
    2) The first find that gave me a real buzz in terms of knowing it was both long lost and reasonably significant, was the details of the death of Roslyn D'Onston in 1916. It has been asserted that extensive searches had been made and that D'Onston/Stephenson had simply disappeared and has possibly gone to the US or France. The real answer, as is usually the case, was much simpler and much more mundane with him dying in the local workhouse infirmary.
    3) Although the digitisation and Internet access of many papers and other records, as I touched on in (1) have had a great effect on modern researchers, it is in my opinion a definite mistake to believe that the Internet or your PC do all of the work for you. A researcher still needs
    Persistence to the point of stubbornness
    A degree of lateral thinking
    More than a little luck.
    The main reason for this lies in the fact that the only realistic way to find material of interest on line is for that material to be text searchable. But the sheer volume of print now available digitally means that very little of that, if any, is searchable by means of manually transcribed text. Print search engines are compiled from OCR (optical character recognition) software and this has two main drawbacks:
    1) OCR software is still far from perfect and
    2) The condition of some of the source documents is far from ideal for scanning
    So the researcher has to use a little imagination and some seemingly crazy search terms.
    A different but analogous problem may exist with census and related records. In the case of these records the searchable index IS manually assembled by very hard working volunteers but the source material is often hand written and not printed matter with all the attendant problems that this entails.
    4) I always treat my PCs kindly.... but the air is often blue from my language! I am fortunate in that I live alone, am now retired and am a "night owl" and often work well into the early hours of the morning. So I can take my time!
    But I would say for any web based researcher - have a VERY rigorous back up regime - the hard disk failure you think is never going to happen could lose years of work.

    5) With regard to newspaper and/or theory based researchers, I think that is largely an artificial divide in that some theory based writers/researchers rely heavily on press material. I think that if one is a press or record based researcher, that buy no means necessarily means one will be more impartial or less drawn to a theory based approach.
    I can only speak for myself. I hold to no suspect theory, I have absolutely no idea who the Whitechapel murderer was, and, far from frustrating, I find that very liberating.
    6) Most significant find.... I really think, and this is not false modesty, that this is for others to say. I can only mention the one I personally found most interesting or intriguing and that would probably be the strange story from 1898 of the cleric who had been told who the killer was by a religious colleague but the sanctity of the confessional prevented him naming the man...
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