London's Pulse: search tools for researchers

Lalita Kaplish on a digitisation project that opened up an invaluable public health and social history resource.

The Medical Officer of Health (MOH) reports are a familiar sight to staff in the Wellcome Library.  They are frequently requested by users researching public health and social history in England and Wales. Published annually by local authorities from around the mid-nineteenth century until the 1970s, the reports provide regular 'snapshots' of health and social and working conditions at a local level.

Although an invaluable resource, researching the reports can be a laborious task. Their content is variable, particularly in the early reports when each medical officer pursued his own interests. Many earlier reports have neither indexes nor contents pages. Later, as the reports were standardised, they contained increasing amounts of tabulated data and statistics. It was not unusual to see a researcher in the Library with a trolley load of 10-20 volumes, going through each report to accumulate useful information.

All this made the MOH reports an ideal candidate for our digitisation programme. Not only would digitisation protect the heavily used originals, and improve accessibility by making them widely available online, but their unique content gave us the opportunity to develop bespoke search tools to meet the complex and varied needs of researchers.

We set up a project to digitise all the MOH reports for the London area; any that were missing from our own collections we borrowed from the London Metropolitan Archives so that the final set of 5800 digitised reports were as near a complete set of all the existing reports for London from 1848-1972.

All the reports were both photographed and OCR converted to enable full-text searching and download in several formats. In addition we wanted to help researchers make maximum use of the large quantities of data in the reports, so 275 000 data tables were extracted as files and made available in text, XML and CSV formats to download.

The end result of the project was a microsite called London’s Pulse: Medical Officer of Health reports 1848-1972, launched in October 2013. For users unfamiliar with the MOH reports the site provides an interactive timeline of their development and three introductory articles about different aspects of their history.

The site contains a search interface that allows users to search across the reports by any combination of keyword, location and date, as well as the ability to browse by London borough or date range. Each search result is displayed in a bespoke viewer, developed by the Wellcome Library, which gives users the choice of browsing the particular report or carrying out a further search within the report. Users also have the option to download specific page images or a PDF of the whole report.

Developing this range of search tools and functions raised some unique challenges, not least of which was integrating the search with our Library catalogue, where all the content metadata sits. To find out more, take a look at the London’s Pulse website – we’d love to have your feedback, or come to my talk at ILI this year to hear more about the project. 

Lalita Kaplish is Assistant Web Editor at the Wellcome Library.  She will be speaking in Session C106 - Innovative Content - at Internet Librarian International.

Photo courtesy of Anthony Kelly via Flickr.