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.

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