Choosing names in research

I’m finally writing up the book from my archival project and I have to decide how I am going to deal with names in the archive papers. At an early stage of my project I decided that I would anonymise the people in the archive cases. This comes from my own social science training which is based on an assumption that we should anonymise any personal data derived from research. Writers in other disciplines do not always do this. Historians usually use real names, although not always. There seems to be a cut-off around the twentieth century when social historians sometimes start using pseudonyms. Legal scholars usually use real names because they are usually dealing with legal cases already in the public domain, where people’s names are part of the case name. Some social scientists and oral historians also argue for an ethical position of using real names. But I find this difficult. The information in the archive files is personal and not very far in the past. It is unlikely that any of the people in these files is still alive today and that is reflected in the status of the files in the archives. The files are ‘open’ – available to anyone to look at but I don’t believe that this gives me permission to use their real names. All of them may have living relatives and people who knew them who would be concerned about their personal details being made public. Some, of course, might be delighted to find an archive with their grandmother or great grandfather named in it, which would enable them to pursue their family history but I don’t think it is my role to expose people in this way. On top of this, around half of the case papers that I am using are already anonymised as they have been published in collections of anonymised legal cases. I don’t know the people’s names at all. Or at least not all of them. For some of these anonymised cases, I’ve also identified an archive file, which gives me the real names of the people in the anonymised published cases. For a very small number of the cases I am looking at, there is a higher level court case or a newspaper report which carries the name of the protaganists. These are fully in the public domain and traditions of legal writing require that I use the full names for these.
But I have made my decision to anonymise all the other cases and intend to stick with it. The question now is what to do when I discuss the people I’m writing about. Until now, in any published papers or conference presentations, I have referred to people by the case number of their legal case only and have not attempted to bring them to life by giving them names. Now that I am writing the book I feel that it would make for easier reading if the people had names. So how to go about choosing them.

Choosing names the old-fashioned way

When I’ve carried out interview based research in the past I used surnames from a local telephone directory. I knew that this created problems: surnames convey ethnicity, geography and religious associations. All of my interviewees had been white and Scottish or English so I could be fairly confident that names I had chosen would be associated with that identity. First names are even more clearly marked for gender, ethnicity, religion and social class and they are associated with different generations, according to popularity in naming patterns. So I found first names using information from the National Records of Scotland assigning age appropriate first names. I also tried to avoid names of celebrities, fictional characters or well known real people (although this was somewhat dependent on my rather useless knowledge of celebrities). I was happy with the result and my renamed interviewees became real characters, who I felt, began to become alive in my writing.

Wirecaester Barlow or James Bond

So how to go about this process with my archive material? Something else has come along in the way of technical support since I carried out previous research. I’m currently using scrivener software to draft my book and it has a ‘name generator’ built in. This allows writers to select from a very wide range of apparently ethnically and gender appropriate names. I’ve been searching for those of English, Scottish, Welsh or Irish origins, given the backgrounds of most of the people in my data. This produces some unusual names: Wirecaester Barlow, Sped Hell, Oxnaleah Flax? I don’t know how scrivener generates these names but they seem a little unlikely for England in the early 20th century and there don’t seem to be any date filters on the name generator unless you’re looking for Ancient Egyptian, Anglo Saxon or Shakespearean names. So I’m experimenting with names from the British 1881 census, available electronically, which produces the more likely sounding: Alfred Jones, Thomas Hudson and Annie Norton. Though my most recent search also produced James Bond, so I’ll still have to watch out for the celebrities and well known fictional characters.

Share Button

Using libraries

We’ve just celebrated national libraries day. I’m all in favour of that. Libraries are great places and many libraries, up and down the country, used creative ways to remind us of that at the weekend. But sometimes it’s easy to say that libraries are great without actually using them. It’s so much easier to get information online and download digitised versions of documents. Libraries can also help us with that by helping us to find things and by subscribing to electronic resources and then making them available to us all. Now and again we should go back into the buildings and remind us what they can do in a more old fashioned way.

One way that they can help is to provide space to write. When you are writing, you are constantly distracted by emails, texts, social media, even just thoughts ‘I need to reread that article’, ‘have I got a copy of that book?’, ‘which conference paper did I mention that in?’ ‘Who was it that told me about that?’ ‘I’m sure I had an example of that in one my documents’ or even ‘Must write a blog piece about this’. For just now I’m trying to avoid that (apart from the write a blog piece bit) by working in the National Library of Scotland. This library provides a quiet, largely distraction free, space, to just get on and work. The atmosphere helps. Surrounded by other people working away, apparently more industriously, it is difficult to avoid getting on with the task at hand.

Libraries also have books! Today I’ve been returning to some old appeal cases relating to sickness benefit in the 1920s. Some of the cases I’m working on are available electronically, digitised by Parliamentary Papers Online.(digital access available through many  libraries). Others are only available in the National Archives, but there is one little collection that was published in a book in 1923, which has not been digitised and I have to come to the library to look at them. I first looked at these a couple of years ago and took detailed notes but there were some things that I realised I’d missed so today I’m reading them again. It’s been a while since I’ve gone back to the originals but looking at them again reminds me what is so fascinating about them.

When I first looked at these cases I was interested mainly in how the appeal panels defined the idea of ‘incapacity for work’. That is still my main interest and the one that most of the writing from this project will focus on. However I am also interested in the appeal hearings themselves: who was there? What evidence did they think was important? What was the role of lawyers and other representatives? How did claimants find out about their rights? This is at the heart of my writing just now. I’ve made quite detailed notes on most of my cases but it wasn’t at the front of my mind when I last looked at this little collection from 1923. So today’s task was to ask those questions as I read them. I’ve found a few more lawyers, clearly attempting to influence the course of the proceedings but I’ve also found cases where there were no representatives. In these cases we sometimes see comments about the claimants’ lack of education and knowledge and the adjudicators trying to compensate for that. Occasionally the claimants appear to be just a little bit too knowledgeable and that might work against them. Today’s work has given me another glimpse into the past world of appeal hearings and some more examples to help us understand who was there and why and what difference that made.

But the library’s closing and the battery on my laptop is failing – I’ll have to come back another day.

Share Button