The Archive Below the Stairs

by Allie Newman

Recently, I have been spending a great deal of time in the Special Collections reading room on the 12th floor of the library, pouring over rare books and manuscripts that have had their bindings repaired or replaced, which is the subject of my dissertation. Luckily for me, the bindery of Douglas Cockerell and Son, who did a great deal of this conservation from the 1950s through to the end of the 1970s, made a habit of leaving a note in the rear of the books they had worked on in order to identify the actions they had taken. Even luckier for me, their entire archive, lasting from the late 1890s until 1987, is housed in the British Library. This archive not only contains correspondence between the bindery and their clients, but includes price and supply lists, articles, and personal correspondence discussing historical binding structures and how elements of these structures can be applied in modern rebindings. But one thing was missing: the University of Glasgow’s side of the story.

Libraries, especially those of ancient universities such as Glasgow and Edinburgh, have historically had a habit of either not keeping the greatest records, or disposing of records that would potentially be useful to modern researchers. Luckily, steps are being taken to improve this problem, but the records I was interested in were created during a dangerous time for any record keeping system: a relocation. The University’s library moved to its current home in 1968, in the process shedding a great deal of old documents that were no longer deemed useful. Robert MacLean, assistant special collections librarian, confirmed that documents relating to rare book conservation were most likely among those lost to the bins and paper shredders.

But one day, flipping through an early printed book in the reading room, an older gentleman approached me, pleased to see that I was working with a book that he had helped catalogue into the Glasgow Incunabula Project. Over the course of our conversation, I learned that not only had he been the assistant keeper of rare books during the period I was interested in, he had actually corresponded directly with the Cockerell bindery! He, too, initially thought that all those records were long gone, but after pondering the topic for a moment, he added, “Well, there are those filing cabinets under the stairs…”

And, joy of joys, there were those filing cabinets under the stairs, producing two slim files of correspondence with Cockerell and another binder. Robert, who fetched them for me, noted that these files actually weren’t recorded anywhere, and without the knowledge of the retired keeper, it is possible that they may have never come to light. He is now in the process of going through that mysterious filing cabinet under the stairs, taking note of what other useful documents might be hiding in it.

While the enquiry that led to the re-discovery of the filing cabinet may seem specific, even esoteric, it is a great example of archivists and record keepers being unable to predict the needs of future users with 100% accuracy. Without keeping records of records, the passage of time, shifting of spaces, and changes in staffing may cause items to disappear, even if they’re simply hiding under a stairwell.


Analogue Strikes Back

On 15 February 2016 a BBC news article announced that the UK is to continue printing and storing its laws on vellum. Hoorah shouted the man whose livelihood was secured. Boo cried the digital preservationists whose jobs depend on us creating more digital material. No goats were available for comment.


Historically, supporters of analogue have been dismissed out of hand as a bunch of traditionalist, stuck in the mud Luddites; it has become somewhat of a cliché amongst the digitisers to ridicule people like Nicholson Baker for having the audacity to suggest that a nation’s cultural history shouldn’t be destroyed en masse. Yet this dismissive attitude is increasingly less valid. People clearly comfortable with using digital technology were declaring their support for Parliaments’ decision on the comment sections of online news agencies and forums and indeed here I am, a vellum-advocate, writing about it on a blog as part of a digital curation university module. It seems as if it’s the digital preservationists, not the analogue supporters, are the ones who are out-of-touch. So what’s going on?


The oft-repeated phrase in the digital preservation world is “the message not the medium”. What is important and what needs preserving it is claimed is the content of the data, not the physical medium on which that data is inscribed. But is this really true? The work of cultural historians has increasingly alerted us to the fact that the medium can be as important, and in many cases more important, than the content because the medium chosen has symbolic and representational significance. To take one example, Eric Ketelaar has written that the content of the Domesday Book commissioned by William the Conqueror was actually fairly useless in administrative terms. Yet the existence of the Book as a physical object symbolised and conveyed William’s near mythical royal power.


Moreover physical objects resonate with the public and elicit a wealth of emotional and intellectual responses in a way that digital copies don’t. It seems highly unlikely for example that the thousands who flocked to see the British Library’s Magna Carta exhibition in 2015, at which two of the four original documents were on view, would have been impressed if they had simply been shown the contents of those documents on computer screens. Would Americans revere the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution to the same extent if it was merely something you downloaded from the Library of Congress website? These may seem trite observations but they reflect the indescribable but undoubtedly powerful intangible benefits that can be gleaned from experiencing archival objects in the flesh. In the case of UK laws being printed on vellum I think all those declaring their support recognised that we risk losing the essential historical associations the use of such a medium elicits. For the public, the medium clearly does matter.


So why do digital preservationists seem so blind to the role of the medium in shaping how content is understood and experienced? A cynic may suggest that this reflects their tacit acknowledgement of the limitations of digitisation; an attitude of “we can’t reflect the symbolism of the physical medium so we’ll say it isn’t important”. Yet if we allow ourselves to accept this viewpoint we risk losing the rich, deeper understanding that comes from viewing and handling content in original, physical forms. Ultimately the choice we will all have to make is whether we want to continue enjoying the profound human experiences that come from interacting with the physicality of our world or whether we want to opt for the insipid sterility of the digital realm.

Choosing tools

Having great fun #natlibscot today continuing to use to choose some characterization tools to test. Focused mostly on choosing tools recommended for the ingest phase of the lifecycle. Hoping to compare these tools using some test data over the next few weeks to see which ones are easiest to use, most comprehensive and deliver results in a user friendly way. No single tool does everything apparently. Finding that balance between meeting requirements such as file format identification; metadata extraction; dependency analysis and quality assurance without slowing down the processing of large quantities of data will be an interesting challenge.

Alex Duthie – Govanhill Baths Blog 10/2/2016

Hey Everyone!

The Govanhill Baths website appears to be down at the moment (!), but I have a blog prepared, so I’ll share it with you first then post it on the G.B Blog later :).

Here it is:

This week I’d like to introduce some of the challenges that we face in trying to run and preserve the archive here at Govanhill.

Govanhill Baths Exterior

Though the building is spectacular architecturally, an Edwardian municipal bathhouse is far from a conventional archive space. Our archival collections are stored in the former ‘Ladies Hot Baths’, on the upper floor of the building, with our ‘Office’ being kept in a cubicle!

As renovations are an ongoing process, this part of the building is currently without heating , so it can get pretty chilly. Moreover, the roof is somewhat insecure and so conditions are at times damp. The fluctuation in temperature and moisture is a particular concern, as stability of climate is key when attempting to secure the long term preservation of paper records.

What’s more, due to broken windows I’ve even had the pleasure of being visited by local pigeons whilst sorting through materials!
Despite these challenges I believe that the archive at Govanhill is a great example of how community projects can flourish in even the most tricky of circumstances. We have decent storage in the form of two large shelving units and protect the items through the use of watertight plastic boxes. The shelves are then covered by a tarpaulin to protect them from the worst of Glasgow’s weather. We also have a number of ‘standard archival boxes’, which meet international regulations. Within each of our boxes are ‘Silica gel’ pouches, which combat moisture.


These materials were procured by our chief archivist Paula Larkin, with the help from a grant provided by the ‘Heritage Lottery Fund’. It was this endowment – gifted as part of the Bath’s centenary celebrations in 2014 – that allowed for the archive to be established. Though not a large sum, this money has provided a decent and stable facility for the keeping an archival collection.

The heritage money also allowed Paula to buy a laptop and scanner, which will hopefully in the future allow us to digitize our collections so that more people can have access to them!

It goes to show that with ingenuity and a few modest resources local groups can store precious items. At Govanhill we’re able to secure items to a professional standard and keep them close to the people who care about them most.

Another One Bytes the Dust

On our first foray into the world of digital curation on Wednesday we very quickly discovered that dropping, altering, and generally messing around with bytes tends to corrupt file formats, and absolutely dropping those bytes tends to corrupt file formats absolutely. Using a programme called ‘Shoot the File’ we mercilessly subjected PDFs, word documents, JPEGs, TIFFs, and a HTML document to such an onslaught that many of the documents were rendered useless or even inaccessible. Whilst minor alterations prompted the loss of information such as diagrams a major corruption reduced the previously clear, distinct images to works of abstract expressionism. Sadly I was unable to open the ‘clean’ versions of the sound recordings but I have it on good authority that corrupting the sound of a cow’s mooing is particularly satisfying!

Onto our second task and for this we entered the world of binary coding. Like Indiana Jones in ‘The Last Crusade’ we were confronted with three challenges of increasing complexity (although fortunately not of lethal cunning). Armed with a UTF-8 Converter and Base 64 String Decoder we were able to convert the three strings of code expressed in binary, hexidecimal, and Base 64 formats respectively into the following questions:

  1. On March 11, 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson mandated that all computers purchased by the United States federal government do something.  What was it?
  1. The vigesimal system was memorably employed by a U.S. President when dedicating a cemetery.  Which President, and what decimal value did he express in vigesimal notation? Hint: in old Norse, a notch on a stick used to tally values in vigesimal notation was called a “skor”.
  1. What are the sixty-four characters used to encode Base 64?

To which we answered with the assistance of Google and Wikipedia that Lyndon Johnson mandated that all computers purchased by the federal government support the ASCII character encoding system, that Abraham Lincoln was partial to waxing lyrical in the vigesimal in his Gettysburg Address (Four score and seven years ago….), and that the sixty-four characters used in Base 64 are as highlighted in the following link.

I’ve also attached this link to a song by New Zealand’s fourth most popular folk parody duo as it’s the only song I can think of that has a binary solo.


WYAS On-Line

I had the pleasure of recently undertaking a two-week cataloguing placement at the West Yorkshire Archive Service at Wakefield. Aside from the wealth of amazing material housed on-site, especially in the Registry of Deeds, the repository has a strong online presence with a number of social media outlets (see below). These reflect recent projects, such as the cataloguing of the Nostell Priory papers, outreach events and activities including family history sessions and ‘Explore Your Archive’ programmes, as well as general information showing the staff, buildings, and activities undertaken on behalf of the public. They even have a YouTube clip showing how to catalogue – I should probably have had a look at it before I went there!

The National Archives of Malta

The front of the National Archives.

I figured placement was quite a good topic for a blog post and considering no ones blog has been very active recently I thought I’d make a post.

My placement is taking place in The National Archives of Malta, which are located in Rabat. The archive is located in a beautiful historical building that used to be the Santo Spirito, one of the oldest world-wide hospitals, with its functioning as a hospital dating back to at least 1372. There is even a little window that was in place so that people who did not want to keep their baby could anonymously put it in the little window and the hospital would take care of it.

Stored Collections
Stored Collections

I have been asked to continue cataloguing a collection of state school records from each locality in Malta, each from varying time periods. So far I haven’t really found anything interesting, just lot’s on entries in a log book of the reasons why people were absent from class – this mainly being listed as ‘mild illness’. I am hoping that something more interesting pops up at some point. The majority of my documents have been in English which has been a relief, but every now and then a page appears in either Maltese or Italian and I have to get someone to translate it for me. I’ve picked up a few words in the process!

Collections bound together with string
Collections bound together with string

I’ve been quite lucky in the fact that my working hours are from 09:00 to 14:00 (as most places shut here for the afternoon), however it has left me with limited time especially considering I flew out and fly home on placement days, but hopefully this wont ruin my chances of getting lots of cataloguing done! I am also being taken on a visit to the University of Malta where I have been asked to present on why students should come to the UK and my experience of university and working in archives. I am terrible at presentations, but there are only 8 people on the course so I am hoping it will go okay.

I am cataloguing into ATOM as the archive is small and cannot afford to buy software such as CALM, and I am following ISAD(G) standards, although this is only something that the archive have begun to do recently. They used to use a different system, but I am unsure of what it was called as it was not something that we had been taught or had been mentioned in class.

Paper covers stuck to original document with sellotape

Paper covers stuck to original documents with sellotape

I find the archives here quite different to those in the UK for a variety of reasons. They store things differently to begin with, some items are in alphabetical order and they have some paper catalogues that no-one seems to know how to use except from the person who created it. The level of preservation is interesting, as many of the documents I have been dealing with have had ‘paper covers’ created for them, but these have been put together with sellotape which is obviously not a fantastic material to use in an archive. There is only one archivist here, despite being the National Archives, and only one other person who has any profession training in the field. Other staff members have ‘learnt on the job’ to some extent, but do not hold any information management/archive qualifications. However, I am really glad I came as the experience has been fantastic. I even got taken to a prestigious international book and publishing event (which included an awards ceremony) which was attended by the French Ambassador among lots of important Maltese people!

How is everyone else getting along? I hope it’s all going well!

Objects as Evidence – Handcrafted Polish Jewellery Box

I noticed that a few other pe12171747_10207986422682781_1021626714_oople (on other blogs) had taken the opportunity to post their items on a blog, so being a little copy cat I thought I’d follow suit, even if just to boost our post numbers!

I had to think a lot about what to show as most of my ‘special’ things are at home at my parents house. But I did manage to pick one thing that really meant something to me. My item was a jewellery box that my boyfriend brought back to Poland when he visited last summer. I was unable to go and as he knows how much I love travelling myself and collecting little mementos from trips he bought me this handcrafted jewellery box. For my birthday last year he also made me a few pieces of jewellery (one of his girl friends is a jewellery maker!)  and he had wrote a little note to say that I now had somewhere to keep them.

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I love the jewellery box and it means a lot to me as my boyfriend thought about getting me a gift he knew I would love rather than just bringing back something irrelevant to me or something with no meaning.12171320_10207986423842810_1093040364_o