Digital issues
Steamindex home page
Updated 3 November 2013

In the August 2012 Issue of Backtrack Kevin was permitted by a generous Editor to express his thoughts on digital publication and some of its consequences — most of them good, but with reservations about Wikipedia. Since publishing this he has enjoyed meeting a former collegue, Andrew Tinker from the rubber industry, who seems far too young to have been retired for three years. But Andrew has not been idle he has been arranging the digitization of most of the significant literature produced on the science and technology of natural rubber produced at the Tun Abdul Razak Laboratory and its predecesors since 1938 with a view to making it freely available on the research centre's website in time to celebrate its 75th birthday in 2013. Naturally, this is of extreme interest to old Kevin as in one case, Natural Rubber, Science and Technology (edidted by A.D. Roberts) he produced an index to the work (which was of significance as its was produced with the aid of semi-automatic indexing from the digital copy): furthermore, the index was acceptable to human indexers as it received commendation from the Society of Indexers.

Perhaps Going Digital was too bullish in terms of the expanding availability of digital literature. Two recent examples may illustrate this. We belong to book and poetry reading groups out on the North Slope, an hour from a not very good "regional refernce library" and we are reliant on Internet resources for anything needed quickly. We are currently (October 2012) reading the excellent and voluminous biography of Charles Dickens by Claire Tomalin (nothing technically wrong about her description of the Staplehurst disaster!) and I had hoped that a digital copy might be available, but no such electronic gem exists. Goodbye thoughts of reading in bed or on a train. A Kindle is unlikely to be bought at least for the time being. The poetry circle had opted for U.A. Fanthorpe: many of the members have copies of her collected works, but we were reliant upon our limited library of anthologies and the Internet which had little to offer. Fortunately an anthology by Daniel Abse contained several poems which no one else had decided to read. Finally, more and more literature is being held in electronic sciptoria only available to members, or available to others at prices which are absurdly high (or at least to pensioners who are forced to sit in the cold whilst the rapacious shareholders gamble their profits in the Caribbean). It must be remembered that the vast amount of scientific and technical literature was produced for the dissemination of information and not for profit.

The digital revolution is also creating new problems as Amazon and Google have supplanted traditional bibliographical sources and e-books become vaguely available: examples of these are the books by Donald Binns on Kitson Meyer articulated locomotives (hardcopy seen briefly at NRM) and Philip Hosken's works on Trevithick (one seen as hardcopy at NRM). If these are to be given due consideration in steamindex then access must be provided by the auithor/publishers.


A guest editorial this month and KEVIN P. JONES of takes the platform to discuss future trends in railway publishing and research.

The presence of laptops on trains has been joined by a much quieter and far less intrusive device – the reading tablet, typically the Kindle. At present this specific device has been limited to black and white text, but a colour version is promised in the near future. Kindles are promoted by the Amazon organization rather like sugar in supermarkets. From the Amazon standpoint the main interest is purveying literature in digital format often at a substantial discount compared with the printed version as distribution costs are almost eliminated.
There is one well-known railway publisher which has neither an e-mail address nor a website, although it is served by a bunch of electronic acolytes who direct potential customers to a postal address near a giant power station. Without wishing to ruffle too many feathers, this organisation may continue as now. But how will the other specialist publishers, some of which have extensive backlists, respond?
A local excellent bookshop owner arranges talks for customers from visiting authors. A recent one was made by his brother, a very senior man in the Penguin/Random House organisation. He himself is a Kindle user and finds the ability to carry many books on one lightweight device a huge advantage and was very bullish about the prospects for the new medium. Already some well-known railway authors, like Christian Wolmar, have literature available in this format and it is inevitable that such availability will grow. The concept of going out-of-print will cease to exist. Some general free-from-copyright material is available to encourage uptake.
It all sounds very appealing, but examination of the Amazon Kindle website showed that pathetically few railway books exist in this form. There are the already mentioned Wolmar titles, a few very expensive treatises on railway engineering (the one on noise and vibration isolation looks especially interesting, but is quite unaffordable at £83) and little else. There is no Nock, no Hamilton Ellis and no Ahrons. These may be regarded as being equivalent to the free novels by Jane Austen and Charles Dickens in Kindle format, but are not yet available even for purchase. Thus it seems that the readers of railway literature may be in for a long wait for their digital literature. On the other hand, a vast amount of reference material is available online, some free from charge for most public library users. This includes the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Who was Who, older issues of The Times newspaper and many regional newspapers. The proceedings of many engineering and other serious institutions, such as the Newcomen Society, are available for downloading at a cost which broadly equates with the reproduction charge for a photographic image. In many cases members of the institutions have free access and in most cases it is possible to verify citations free from charge.
Another aspect of the digital revolution is more worrying and immediate. There was an apparently excellent article in the November Backtrack on the Preston to Longridge branch and the Whittingham Hospital Railway which branched off it. This prompted memories of a 'recent' book on the latter: in the course of searching for it on the Internet an excellent 'page' in Wikipedia was discovered which gives far more information. For instance, this included the Works Numbers of the original Andrew Barclay locomotives used on the line. Whether readers of Backtrack would appreciate such detail is open to question, but it is there if they do. Ultimately, the recent book turned out to be a review of one published in a journal sitting on the shelf behind.
Wikipedia is an amazing source of information, but as virtually anybody can modify its records it has to be treated with considerable caution and for this reason did not opt into the Wiki system. Nevertheless, future writers (on almost anything) bear an extra burden to ensure that they consult Wikipedia, but verify any information abstracted from it. Thus, to an increasing extent, the greater availability of digital text is going to modify not only reading methods but may also alter authorship and its associated skills, such as bibliography and indexing.
As this is an editorial it is worth noting that printing errors made over a century ago can still cause havoc. In the Locomotive Magazine for 1904 there was a review of Forty years of an engineer's life by Albert [sic] E. Garwood who appears to have led an interesting life, but the book could not be traced in the British Library's online catalogue. Further online surfing showed that it was Alfred Edward Garwood who merited a freely available obituary online provided by the Institution of Civil Engineers. He had worked in Russia (with Ross Winans on the Nicolai Railway – according to later sources Winans declined to work on this railway and sent his sons) and for the Egyptian Government Railways as Locomotive Superintendent from 1877 to 1882. The moral for all involved in information transfer would seem to be to verify again and again.

August editorial - Going Digital. A.J. Mullay 
In discussing the future of railway publishing, "the concept of  'going out of print' will cease to exist", says Kevin P. Jones in his August Backtrack editorial. He is right to emphasise that modern technology presents authors and bookbuyers with new dilemmas as publishers can now reprint 'back list' books indefinitely in previously uneconomic numbers of copies. This is known as POD (print on Demand) and is fine and dandy for the author if he or she writes fiction. If, on the other hand, you write books on railway history (or any other kind of non-fiction), this is not so good. It has become cheaper for a publisher to simply reprint from an existing master copy rather than ask an author to bring text up to date in a new edition.
I can give an example from my own recent experience. I wanted to produce a second edition of a rail title that first appeared in 1994. The publishers, a well- respected firm dealing in transport subjects, agreed to consider this, then changed their minds and airily announced that they would hold the title for POD status. I immediately asked for 'rights reversion', as I was contractually entitled to do – in other words, I could take the book title to other publishers after a period of nine months if no new edition was promised. The company now broke off all contact, no letters answered, no emails replied to (and, I stress, this is a major book producer in the subject). So I took the matter to my union, the Society of Authors, who handbagged the publisher into submission. I am now free to take the book elsewhere and produce a proper second edition, with all the latest information available. But wait a minute – why not use new technology to produce an ebook? This is easy to do, using Amazon for marketing, although Mr. Jones is right to stress that buyers are entitled to see contact details, probably via a website. So, while new technology can harm writers of non-fiction, it can also liberate them through allowing them to be their own boss.
And as for the success of Wikipedia, this author is related to a fellow writer who was unaware that he was immortalised in that so-called information resource as 'a well-known author and plagiarist'. He managed to have this slur removed, only to find that he is now credited with an older brother, named, for no obvious reason, Douglas. This would be amusing except that he had an elder brother who died in infancy (although not named Douglas). Modern 'encyclopaedia' entries – a great way to insult people you don't like!

August editorial – Going Digital. Michael R. Bailey. (Past-President), The Newcomen Society
Kevin Jones raises some interesting issues in his guest editorial about the 'digital revolution'. There are further benefits that could be added that are advantageously changing our research lives and habits. Quite a number of books from the early railway era are now being digitised and made available free on line. This is a most helpful service that saves historians so much time and cost, otherwise spent finding and travelling to specialist libraries. It is likely that future citations will need to add that digital copies can be seen online.
I agree with Mr. Jones that there is now a vast amount of reference material available on line offering so many new avenues of research. The British Library's newspaper archive is one such recent example. Although archival material in National and County archives has to be researched at first hand, the availability of detailed catalogues on line is so very helpful in pursuing particular lines of research. The extraordinarily helpful Transport Archives Register (, which has been painstakingly assembled by the Railway & Canal Historical Society, may be used alongside the national Access to Archives (A2A) online catalogues for local collections around England and Wales, and the SCAN listings for Scotland. These sites have transformed research habits in recent years.
Mr. Jones kindly referred to the Newcomen Society, whose international interest in the history of engineering and technology has been pursued for nearly a century. Copies of the Society's Transactions are indeed available online to anyone and free of charge to members (www.Newcomen. com and follow the links). For readers not familiar with the railway technology papers that have been published over the years, coverage has been extensive. Topics have ranged from those dealing with the earliest locomotives, to detailed examination of particular designs of nineteenth and twentieth century steam, diesel, turbine and other locomotive power forms. Civil and electrical engineering topics have also been well covered.
In addition, since 1998, the Society has been involved, with the Institute of Railway Studies and Transport History, the Railway & Canal Historical Society and Beamish Museum, in promoting the very successful 'International Early Railway Conference' series. The fifth such event in Caernarfon ( and follow the links) took place in June this year and the Proceedings, as 'Early Railways 5', are due to be published next year. Building on the success of this series, a first 'International Early Main Line Railways Conference' is to be held in 2014, probably in Manchester which will examine the engineering, business and economic history of world railway development between 1830 and 1870. A 'Call for Papers' will be issued later this year.
Mr. Jones's reference to Wikipedia is also timely and hopefully most researchers are alert to the need for verification of all that is posted on this site. Of course the same could be said not only about printing errors of yesteryear, but unreferenced books and articles. Repeated errors abound where authors have cribbed from unreferenced published material. The Newcomen Society has always maintained its status as a 'learned' society by requiring authors to cite their sources, to help explain their interpretation of events, whilst challenging or developing the views of previous authors of similarly referenced papers. All papers are subject to peer review to minimise the risk of inadequate or erroneous coverage of any topic. Thus are standards safe-guarded.