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 http://www.digipres.org/ 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.