Each consultation follows a more or less standard format: details of the patient’s name, age, and perhaps address; the question asked; because the records are astrological interrogations, the time of the question; a chart of the stellar positions at that time; and the astrologer’s judgment. The only order to the records is the chronological sequence. The questions and judgments contain information derived from what the patients or querents said about events in their lives or bodily sensations as well as what the astrologers judged from the positions of the stars and other signs.

The Casebooks Project is creating a digital edition that allows readers to make sense of any given case and the corpus as a whole. We transcribe the standard material at the beginning of each entry (the ‘question’), and code the variety of material contained in each case. Our major classes of information are question topics, temporal and geographical locations, and person details. All person details are linked, establishing multiple appearances of an individual and his or her relationships to families, households and others in the corpus. We are capturing the records as they were written, as well as the encounters that produced them. The result is the creation of a new archive out of an old archive. We retain the significance of the paper format in which the astrologers wrote, while providing readers with digital tools to navigate and understand the manuscripts and the dynamics that led to their production.

The project has five main outputs. 1) The dataset [github], which is most easily accessed through the website [link]. 2) The website has a custom-built interface for searching and visualising the data, 3) a viewer for high-resolution images of the manuscripts running of the Cambridge Digital Library platform, and 4) explanatory material about the casebooks, the project, the history of astrology and medicine, and other supporting information—totalling in excess of 100K words. 5) The project is built around an engagement framework. An extensive programme of public engagement, detailed on our news and events page [link] informs how we shape and present our data and explain the casebooks.

How was the Casebooks Project made?

The project would not have been possible without collaboration between the Bodleian Library, the University of Cambridge and, most recently, the Cambridge University Library. The vast majority of the work has been funded by grants from the Wellcome Trust. The work has been carried out by an astonishing group of researchers. The rationale and design for the project were mine, but the researchers have been integral to the shape it has taken. Its history of development and funding tells a story about the fortunes of digital humanities in the UK during the first two decades of the twenty-first century.

As a graduate student, I used an excel spreadsheet to study a sample of Forman’s casebooks. In 2005 I applied for an AHRC Resource Enhancement grant. The application relied on outsourcing digital work to Lemur Computing. The application received an A rating, but was not funded, in part because serious questions were raised about the cost of digitising the manuscripts, and I declined an invitation to apply in the final round of the scheme the following year as I had other priorities. In 2007 I secured a pilot award from the Wellcome Trust to develop the project. As I developed an application for a Programme Award, I was advised by Mike Hawkins, Technical Director on the Newton Project, then based at Imperial College, and we decided to follow their model and to employ a dedicated technical expert—a decision eased by the fact that Mike was available to join the Casebooks Project team. As we developed the project, we worked with the Bodleian Libraries to establish whether they could deliver digital images of the manuscripts, how much this would cost, and where they would be hosted. We agreed that the Bodleian would become a partner in the project, but we were also counselled that because the cost of filming the archive was so expensive, that we should not include it in the funding bid. Instead we would work with digital versions of the microfilms of around a third of the manuscripts. We were awarded a three-year Wellcome Programme Grant, and we began work in 2010 with Mike Hawkins as .5 Technical Director and Robert Ralley and John Young as full-time editors. All of the team members had PhDs in history of science and medicine and relevant technical expertise.

The richness of the records and the possibilities of digital tools meant that work progressed more slowly, though with greater results, than we had anticipated. Realising that we needed more time, in we applied for a Wellcome Investigator Award. This application was under ambitious and over cautious. It proposed continuing with the same team for a further seven years and producing a monograph. It was invited for interview, but rejected by the funding committee on the grounds that, as a digital, source-based project, it was not a good fit for the scheme. We were awarded a year of funding to continue our work and prepare an application for Wellcome’s open-field Strategic Awards.

This is when the project was transformed from an editing project to a digital humanities project. When developing the application, I was encouraged to increase the size of the team, speed up the work and make a virtue of the digital nature of the project. I thus structured the application around an engagement framework, and added two Assistant Editors and a Research Associate. Again, I worried that including the cost of digitising the full run of manuscripts would jeopardise the success of the application, so I promised to work towards securing these funds if the grant succeeded. The application was invited for interview and, although the application requested £700K (with £40K committed from Cambridge), it was awarded £1 million. The additional funds were intended to pay for digital images of the full run of volumes and to pay for more technical and administrative support.

These three years have been filled with adventure. In addition to the engagement activities built into the project, we secured a Provision for Public Engagement from Wellcome for an additional £138.5K to run a series events with work with artists as the centrepiece. We secured the future of the project by brokering its move to the Cambridge Digital Library. This was supported by funds from Cambridge’s Institutional Strategic Support Initiative and the Isaac Newton Trust. Crucially, the Bodleian Libraries agreed that the images of the casebooks could be hosted on the Cambridge Digital Library. With the end of the project in sight but not quite achieved, the Wellcome Trust awarded us a final costed extension of £243K. The project is on schedule for completion in 2018.

Lauren Kassell, Professor of History of Science and Medicine, University of Cambridge