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.

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!

STA records ‘The Wood Demon’


The first record that caught my eye was ‘The Wood Demon’ press cuttings from The Scotsman. This was a play performed at the Edinburgh fringe festival for three weeks and starred, amongst others, Ian McKellan in 1973.

There are a few written articles relating to the play, what the performance was, how they felt the cast acted, etc and there was also a photo of three of the cast members with Edinburgh castle as a back drop and in the middle there was a cartoon depiction of two of the main characters in costume.

The majority of the records were written at the time, that is, during the three week stint in 1973. It was a record of what the performance entailed, the story, actors and the characters in the play. There was also a short paragraph or two about the writer and his feelings about the play. It is also a record of the parts played by some well known actors and how their performances were viewed then (although the performance by McKellan is viewed in two different lights in the different press cuttings! It’s a comedy so there are bound to be differing views!)

They go on to talk about the production and how much they thought it had cost and conceded that it was only a three week stint at the festival so could hardly be expected to be a big production, have great scenes, props, etc…..a little bit low budget!! We can see from the cartoon how some of the cast members were dressed for the performance and gives us an indication of the time and country that the play is set in.

The audience would have been festival goers and those interested in theatre in Scotland. It would have been a popular production given that it had at least three fairly well known cast members in it but it was being ‘plugged’ in the Scotsman perhaps in anticipation that it could interest others to see the play.

A Song of Fire and Water

Upon informing family, friends and colleagues of my decision to embark upon a career in archives I received a variety of questions both pertinent (what does an archivist do?) and disparaging (are you sure you own enough cardigans?). An enquiry which I did not receive, and one which I had not considered much myself, was what does an archivist do when disaster strikes? I suppose in my naivety I had been taken in by the illusion of archival permanence; archive centres, like the collections they hold, seem stable, secure, eternal. Such a delusion is only strengthened when one is confronted either by the grand Victorian edifices or imposing modern repositories in which so many of our nation’s records are housed. My own disaster-free experience working at a volunteer-run community archive in Otley, West Yorkshire merely reinforced my misconceptions.

However, in little over a week the Scottish Council on Archives is meeting in Edinburgh for the conference ‘Fire in the Archives: Experiences Shared, Lessons Learned’. Whilst one speaker is to discuss the conflagration at the Glasgow School of Art another explores the aftermath of the fire at the National Library of Wales at Aberystwyth. It is this latter example, of which I was largely ignorant, that caught my eye. In the early afternoon of 26 April 2013 two workmen making repairs to the roof of Building 2 using a blowtorch accidentally ignited the wood and bitumen impregnated fibreboard underneath the roof’s external cladding. Despite staff efforts to douse the fire the dryness of the materials accelerated the spread of the blaze which ultimately required eight fire engine crews and four hours to contain. By then a thirty metre long section of the roof had been destroyed. Although destructive to the fabric of the building, the chief damage to the collections ironically came from the use of water to extinguish the fire, which leaked through the top six floors. Amongst the material completely destroyed by water damage were three boxes of nineteenth-century records relating to the Tabernacle Baptist Church in Carmarthen as well as papers associated with the Wales Green Party, Welsh football, and the Acen Company archives.

Yet it could have been so much worse. The National Library of Wales contains six million books, one million photographs, 30,000 manuscripts as well as a plethora of ephemera including maps, works of art, and films, many of which contribute to the collective memory and heritage of Wales; the Library is home to material such as the Welsh Literature Archive and the National Screen and Sound Archive of Wales. One positive was that the top floor most affected was not a storage area but an office space where staff processed new acquisitions and inspected existing collections. Moreover, as the Library’s press releases emphasised, the staff had been well trained and successfully carried out the Library Emergency Plan by prioritising and removing the most valuable items once allowed back into the building and by covering the shelves and furniture in plastic sheeting to minimise water damage. Through pre-arranged agreements the worst affected items were sent to the Library’s in-house conservation unit whilst 140 crates of damaged material were sent to the document restoration specialists Harwell’s of Oxford to be freeze-dried. Furthermore the element which made this fire so potentially disastrous, the Library’s extensive holdings of national importance, also ensured that the Library received influential assistance. From its privileged position as a copyright library holding the largest collection of books in Wales it was assured of political and financial support; the Welsh Culture Minister at the time, John Griffiths, inspected the damage for himself and announced that the Welsh Government was working closely with the Library and promised grants to help overcome the £5 million cost of repairs.

I suppose the message to take from this is that whilst disasters can and do strike archive centres of any size or stature, the damage can be minimised by having a high level of financial and political clout and a workforce who are well drilled in emergency contingency plans, regardless of whether or not they wear cardigans.

The need for better funding for archives!

Back at the beginning of this year a story popped up on sky news as I was eating my porridge one morning and it really shocked me! A huge fire at the Institute of Scientific Information on Social Sciences in Moscow!

Whilst doing the IMP course I had been reading up on the cost vs benefits of digitisation and had just completed a module where we looked at disaster planning so I was immediately interested and I just felt for the archivist in charge. The fire was likened to a ‘cultural Chernobyl’. Some 15% of the archives collection was thought to be lost, not just from fire but also from the water used to extinguish the flames. The roof caved in putting the rest of the archives at risk.

It made me think how I would feel if I were the archivist in charge. How would I respond? The loss would have such an effect on the country, the community, researchers and future users. Can you imagine such a disaster befalling the National Archives here in the UK? What treasures would be lost to the nation? What’s in our archives is often bound up with how we see ourselves as a nation. The loss would have no price. All of these thoughts raced through my mind at the time, along with ‘did they digitise these vital records?’ The answer seems to be sadly no. One poster from the web site below states that he had visited the archives on many occasions and it was a disaster waiting to happen, funding was a big problem and what little money there was sadly was not used to digitise these rare and unique documents.


As I said before, I thought about how I would respond, but how did the archive actually respond? Well, it’s seems like that is a second disaster. The Russian government has done very little to help. The archivists set up a Facebook page and volunteers (mostly un-trained) came in to help with the clean up. Fortunately they have managed to save about one million documents. But it has raised ‘ grave questions about the commitment of today’s Russian government to the funding of its archives and libraries’, indeed ‘ordinary people have stepped into the vacuum.’ Young people do not want to work in the profession as wages are so low, most employees are above pension age.

See :

There were also concerns for the card catalogue. Gelb Albert, a scholar specialising in Soviet-era history stated that “no matter how little damage is done to an archive or library itself, if the catalogue is destroyed, the institution is paralysed for years”. Luckily it survived the flames which he describes as ‘a miracle’.

But it should never have come to this. Proper safety measures should have been in place and rare documents should have been digitised. The primary problem seems to be funding and it is one which many archives face and unfortunately this one paid the ultimate price.

Los Angeles Central Library Fire of 1986

Happily, any personal experience I’ve had with records or archives or libraries has—thus far— been free and clear of disaster. So I did some research and found an instance of catastrophe at a library on my native West Coast of the United States.

On April 29, 1986, the Los Angeles Central Library, the third-largest public library in the U.S., caught fire on the fifth floor. (It was later determined to be arson—one librarian who worked there at the time theorized that the arsonist set the fire in order to impress people by putting it out. I’m not totally sure where this idea comes from, but it’s equal parts amusing and horrifying.) The library had a massive collection– only 20% of it was available to the public. There were endless shelves stacked all the way to the top with extremely flammable books, periodicals, maps, papers, the list goes on.

And so the fire quickly spread– and, because of the “dense design” of the building, became hotter and hotter, temperatures eventually going over 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. The surfaces were so hot that when water was doused into the building, it would boil. Again, the design of the building, tall and thick, meant there wasn’t proper ventilation to put out the fire, so firefighters had to use jackhammers to break through the concrete and create airflow. It took more than 350 firefighters and nearly eight hours to eventually put out the fire.

20% of the library’s materials were destroyed—400,000 volumes. 700,000 volumes were damaged by the water from the hoses, and all the remaining books suffered smoke damage. Completely lost were “the largest and oldest collection of patents in the American West and one of America’s largest collections of cook books.”

Putting the library and its collections back together was quite a task. Volunteers came in for two weeks to gather waterlogged books that were to be sent to Texas for freeze drying. They renovated and rebuilt the library, but, as librarian Glen Creason said, “The old idea of Central as a research library like the great New York Public Library sort of crumbled away… It is still very much a great library, just not as great as it could have been.”

Photos from the Los Angeles Public Library Collection

Information gathered from the following articles: