How technology has transformed historical research (Merran Williams)

Image courtesy of Merran Williams
When I read a book like Robert Hughes’ The Fatal Shore, I’m in awe of the huge effort that has gone into the research.

Hughes and his assistants trawled through thousands of dusty books, faded newspapers, and fragile letters to reconstruct Australia’s convict history.

I’ve looked through my share of hardcopy books and documents and come to realise that, unless they have been well-indexed, it can be like trying to find a needle in a haystack to uncover specific information.

I’m fortunate that my research into the past has coincided with the mass digitisation of records. In fact, it would have been almost impossible to uncover the story I’m working on without the ability to perform a keyword search.

Appropriately in the internet age, my first encounter with the convict escape I’m now researching was on Wikipedia.

I saw an entry in a list of Cornish Australians that said a convict named William Philp had escaped on a government schooner called the Badger.

This caught my attention, and a quick search of history books and websites failed to bring up any mention of it.

Image courtesy of Merran Williams
I entered the words “Philp” and “Badger” into Trove, the National Library’s online database of Australian newspapers, and discovered the original newspaper reports of the escape and the names of the 10 other convicts involved.

I also found a report in a Sydney newspaper from the following year, telling of a sighting of the convicts in Macao.

The British Library’s online newspapers (subscription-only) and the Old Bailey’s online records (free) yielded stories on the original criminal trials of the convicts in England. Tasmania’s convict records have been a particularly good resource.

Unlike NSW’s convict records, which are behind a paywall on genealogy websites, Tasmanian records are freely available and include beautiful, high resolution scans of the original documents. From these, I have physical descriptions of each convict, their conduct records and family details.

Genealogy sites are constantly updating their databases, so I check back regularly. Most libraries have free access to at least one, and I sometimes join or for short periods to look through new records. has a good selection of international online newspapers, as well as convict and migration records. They’ve also digitised the medical reports for most convict ships, which were previously only available on microfilm. is a free genealogical site that contains millions of birth, death and marriage records.,, Google Books and Project Gutenberg have made millions of books available to read and download online. If I find a reference to a 19th century book, no matter how obscure, I can almost always find a scanned copy on one of these sites. It's a treasure trove that was unimaginable just a few years ago!

Being able to keyword search these books has given me information about convicts that is not available in government records and newspapers, and previously would have been impossible to find without reading hundreds of books from cover to cover.

While online records are wonderful for their ease of access and searching, there is still nothing like handling the original document. Most non-digitised government records I need are on microfilm, but occasionally a letter or record is only available in its original state. Then there’s the pleasure of holding a piece of history in my hands, marvelling that it has survived almost 200 years.

This was not a foregone conclusion for many of Australia’s convict records as there have been attempts over the years to destroy them to hide the shame of our convict past. Now these records are online and safe for posterity.

Digitising history has made it possible to browse millions of records with the click of a mouse. As more and more records go online, it’s exciting to think of how many lost stories are just waiting to be discovered.
Image courtesy of Merran Williams

Merran Williams is a PhD candidate at La Trobe University’s School of Humanities and Social Sciences. She's based at the Melbourne campus. 

Merran's writing a creative thesis in the form of a novel about the true story of a convict escape from Hobart in 1833.

Her background is in journalism and filmmaking and she hopes to adapt the book into a television or film project when it’s finished. 

She tweets at @mantis07, and has just started a blog at