Using TheyWorkForYou as a history resource

More Money, More Fun, from the National ArchivesFifty years ago, in 1964, the causal link between smoking and lung cancer was confirmed by the Surgeon General in the US.

That year saw many debates in Parliament on topics that have since become very familiar: the question of whether the tax on cigarettes should be raised; whether cigarettes should be advertised on television, whether smoking should be allowed in public places, and whether warnings should be printed on packets.

Rich and fascinating stuff for any social historian – and it’s all on

Hansard is an archive

Hansard, the official record of Parliament, is a huge historic archive, and whatever your sphere of interest, it is bound to have been debated at some point.

Browsing through past debates is a fascinating way of learning what the nation was feeling: worries, celebrations, causes for sorrow – all are recorded here.

How to use TheyWorkForYou to browse historic debates

TheyWorkForYou contains masses of historic information: House of Commons debates back to 1935, for example, and details of MPs going back to around 1806. You can see exactly what the site covers here.

There are various ways to search or browse the content. Start with the search box on the homepage – it looks like this:

Search box on TheyWorkForYou

You can do a simple search right from this page, or choose ‘more options’ below the search box to refine your search.

We’ll look at those advanced options later, but let’s see what happens when you input a simple search term like ‘smoking’.

search results on TheyWorkForYou

Here (above) are my search results, with my keyword helpfully highlighted.

By default, search results are presented in reverse chronological order, with the most recent results first. If you are particularly interested in historical mentions, you may wish to see the older mentions first.

That’s easy – just click on the word ‘oldest’ after ‘sorted by date':

Sort TheyWorkForYou search results by date

You’ll notice a few other options here:

  • Sort by relevance orders your results with the most relevant ones first, as discerned by our search engine. This will give you those speeches with the most mentions of your keyword ahead of those where it is only mentioned once or twice.
  • Show use by person displays a list of people who have mentioned your keyword, with the most frequent users at the top. This can be fascinating for games such as “who has apologised the most?” or “who has mentioned kittens most often?”
keyword by person on TheyWorkForYou

Click through any of the names, and you’ll see all the speeches where that person mentioned your keyword.

Advanced search

That’s a good start – but what if there are too many search results, and you need some way to refine them? You’ll notice from my screenshots above that there are (at the time of writing) over 10,000 mentions of smoking.

That’s where Advanced Search comes in. You can access it from a few places:

  • The ‘more options’ link right next to the search box on search results pages (see image below)
more options for search on TheyWorkForYou search results pages
  • The ‘more options’ link below the search box on the homepage (see image below)
Advanced search options on TheyWorkForYou TheyWorkForYou advanced search page

Whichever way you arrive at it, the Advanced Search page helps you really get to the content you’re interested in.

The pink box on the right gives you some tips for effective searching.

For example, just as with Google, you can search for exact phrases by putting your search term within quotation marks. Otherwise, your results will contain every speech where all your words are mentioned, even if they’re not together. For phrases like “high street”, this could make a real difference.

Even if you are only searching for a single word, you can put it in quotation marks to restrict the use of ‘stemming’ – so, for example, a search for the word house will also return results containing houses, housing and housed, unless you put it in quotation marks.

You can exclude words too: this can be useful for minimising the number of irrelevant results. So, for example, you might want to find information about the town of Barking, but find that many of your results are debates about dogs. Simply enter the search term “barking” -dogs. The minus sign excludes the word from your search.

In the main body of the page, you’ll also see options to restrict your search to within certain dates, or a specific speaker, or a department, section (eg Scottish Parliament or Northern Ireland Assembly) and even political party.

Get stuck in

The best way to see what you can find is to dig in and give it a go. If your search doesn’t work for you the first time, you can always refine it until it does.

Let us know if you find anything interesting!

Image: National Archives (No Known Restrictions)