Monday, 31 May 2010

From Poznań to Dundee

During the week of 24-28 May Archive, Records Management and Museum Services was host to Monika Przystalska, an assistant archivist at Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań, Poland. Monika had obtained an Erasmus grant that enabled her to travel to the United Kingdom and work in a repository for a week. It had been her wish to improve her archival skills and to experience working in a UK archive, especially a university one. She was aware of us because of our contact with Adam Mickiewicz University through the International Council on Archives Section on University and Research Institution Archives and felt that working with us for a week would be a valuable experience.

During her time here she was given a variety of tasks that enabled her to get as broad a taste as possible of professional archive work. She worked on a number of collections, rearranging them and sorting out discrepancies, and also creating paper and electronic finding aids. Finally she was given an accession to work on that involved writing a handlist and arranging the collection at series and item level.

In addition Monika did some scanning, cleaning, and document retrieval, including collecting items from an offsite storage warehouse in the north of Dundee. Although most of her time was spent in Archive Services Monika was also introduced to the work of Records Management Services, the University Museum, and the Centre for Archive and Information Studies. The University’s Book and Paper Conservation Studio also provided her with an insight into its work as did the Glamis Castle Project Archivist.

By the end of the week Archive Services had benefitted from her competent and excellent work while Monika herself had found the experience ‘very, very interesting’ and had learned a lot – and all this while meeting ‘lots of nice people’!

Friday, 21 May 2010

CAIS E-Records Seminar

Dr Chris Prom presenting the findings from his Practical E-Records research project as the final paper of a very successful and thought-provoking day at the CAIS e-records seminar.

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Oral History Training Day

Archival repositories are full of words and the vast majority of these words are written or printed but the spoken word came before the written word. The earliest communities handed down their memories by passing on stories to succeeding generations. However the development of the written word proved to be revolutionary in terms of how humans recorded history and also preserved memory. For the past few centuries history has tended to be recorded on paper. Oral History, however, seeks to return to the spoken word as a means of exploring the past.

On Thursday 13 May Dr Graham Smith of the Oral History Society and lecturer at Royal Holloway University of London visited Archive Services to hold a training day on oral history for our staff. It turned out to be an extremely informative and challenging event that explored important aspects of oral history – both practical and theoretical.

The practical aspects ranged from technical matters such as the best types of recording devices, digital file formats for storing the interviews, and the ideal sample rate, to less technical items such as the location and duration of the interview and even the best way to sit while interviewing. We also looked at the best questioning methods for helping to make the subject feel at ease quite quickly.

We were able to practise interviewing each other and quickly discovered how difficult it can be at times to share personal information or feelings and how vital it is to be prepared with the right types of questions! We listened to a number of examples from the BBC sound archive of interviews that quickly went very wrong with disastrous – and usually amusing – results.

Issues discussed touched on the question of whether the majority of historians are more comfortable with using written sources as evidence. Did this reflect, for example, an assumption by historians and archivists that written evidence is more reliable than someone’s memories? However is the aim of oral history not only to establish the concrete facts but also to cast light on a person’s subjectivity? Is it to show how perceptions – even where erroneous - can shape his or her behaviour? Oral history can thus sometimes reveal why people behaved in a certain way.

Another key feature of oral history is that it can give a voice to the type of ordinary person who is not normally recorded in our archival collections. For example almost all the lives captured in the letters, diaries or commonplace books are those of the privileged and educated. Oral testimonies of so-called ordinary people can therefore provide us with window of how life really was for the vast majority of people.

We also looked at the issue of transcribing the interviews. This is a very time consuming process, however it does make finding specific information in an interview much easier, especially if the transcription is in digital format. A word-processed transcription, for example, can be searched for any keyword that relates to a particular area of interest. On the other hand with a recording it may be necessary to listen to the recorded interview in its entirety. However there is then a danger that researchers begin to see the transcription rather than the recorded interview as the primary document. Another feature of transcriptions is that they can lose a lot of non-verbal information that might be integral to the understanding of what has been said – for example a tone of irony in someone’s voice can change the entire meaning of a statement.

Ethical challenges can also occur, the most obvious of these being when the interviewee says something that might have repercussions for a third party. This can be the revelation of sensitive personal information or else it might be comments – perhaps relating to class or gender or ethnicity - that others might find offensive. There can also be ethical issues relating to the way a person is interviewed. Were the questions leading? Was the interviewer putting some pressure on the interviewee to get them to reveal more than they wanted? Ultimately the interviewer’s questions are to facilitate and guide and to allow the interviewee to tell their story in their own words.

Oral testimonies are important items of historical information that complement the written record. Although oral history has its roots in antiquity it is only in recent decades that it has grown to become a recognised branch of historical research. People write and people speak – and while two different pictures can emerge from these areas the value is in the creation of a contextual history based on both.

All in all it was a thoroughly enjoyable and inspiring training session that increased our awareness and understanding of the field and also made us more determined to ensure that we as archivists play our part in ensuring that oral testimony is increasingly regarded as an important primary source.

Thursday, 6 May 2010

Chris Prom interviewed by the ICA Flying Reporters

At the recent 8th European Conference on Digital Archiving in Geneva, Chris Prom, who gave a paper at the conference was interviewed by the International Council on Archive's Flying Reporters. The video of the interview has been made available on YouTube:

General Election Special 3: Michael Peto and Politicians

As promised in our post last week describing the material Archive Services holds on British politicians, the final post in this series looks at photographs of politicians contained in the Michael Peto photographic collection. Many people will be aware of the Hungarian-born Michael Peto’s superb photographs of stars of music, film, theatre and ballet such as Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, Margot Fontaine and the Beatles. However, this represents just a small sample of Peto’s diverse work which gave him a reputation as one of the best photographers of the 1950s and 1960s. It is unsurprising that Peto, who worked for The Observer on a freelance basis, photographed most of the major figures of British politics in this era, including eight individuals who served as Prime Minister - Winston Churchill, Clement Attlee, Anthony Eden, Harold MacMillan, Alec Douglas Home, Harold Wilson, Ted Heath and Jim Callaghan. Peto also captured images of other senior figures including Chancellor Reginald Maudling, Foreign Secretary Patrick Gordon Walker, Lady Megan Lloyd George, Tony Benn, Deputy Labour Leader George Brown, Chancellor and Home Secretary Roy Jenkins, future Lord Chancellor Quentin Hogg and Barbara Castle. Photographs of all these people are in the University archive collections.

Peto’s photographs often capture these figures in a relaxed or informal state. His photographs of Harold Wilson are typical of this, as can be seen from this example. This picture shows Wilson smoking his trademark pipe, which he was rarely pictured without (indeed in he was voted pipe smoker of the year in 1965 and pipe smoker of the decade in 1976). Similarly, some of Peto’s photographs of the then Shadow Chancellor Ted Heath, taken in March 1965, show him seated at the piano, which is appropriate for a man who had strong musical interests and who, as prime minister, would install a grand piano in 10 Downing Street.

Some of Peto’s photographs were taken in more formal and historic settings such as his photograph of Harold MacMillan leaving the Four Powers Summit in Paris in 1960. Another photograph shows Alec Douglas Home, in conversation with Earl Mountbatten of Burma, the last Viceroy of India. Both men seem relaxed, although Douglas Home seems distracted by the camera.

Peto photographed Winston Churchill on more than one occasion and also took a number of photographs of his funeral in 1965. These are particularly interesting because, as well as showing the pomp and ceremony associated with a state funeral, they also show the reactions of ordinary people to the death of Britain’s wartime premier. Another interesting series of photographs show Churchill campaigning in the 1955 General Election, including this image of him addressing an election rally. Churchill had stood down as prime minister a few months earlier, but campaigned both to retain his Woodford seat and in support of his successor as prime minister, and long time heir-apparent, Anthony Eden. Although by this time he was over eighty, Churchill still seemed to be an energetic campaigner, and he would remain in parliament for almost another ten years.

Michael Peto died on Chistmas Day, 1970, at the age of 62, and his family donated his work to the University of Dundee short after his death. The University of Dundee Archive Services is now the custodian of the entire photographic work of Michael Peto, a collection that comprises more than 130,000 prints and negatives. As well as UK politicians several figures from the international stage like Nelson Mandela, Golda Meir and Nikita Khrushchev were photographed by Peto. We will return to this subject in a future post.

Dr Kenneth Baxter

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Where are you?

Having told you who we are, we thought you might like to know where we are, especially if you've never had the chance to visit Dundee or the University. Archive Services, Records Management Services and the Centre for Archive and Information Studies are based in the University's Tower Building, whilst Museum Services operate from Hawkhill House and exhibit the museum collections in a variety of locations around the University's Main Campus and in the Tayside Medical History and D'Arcy Thompson Zoology Museums. The public opening times for the Archive Services Reading Room are avaialble here. To arrange access to museum collections not currently on display please contact the Museum Curator.

There are some directions to help you find the Archive Services Reading Room here and you can find directions to the locations used by Museum Services here.

We would like to know where you're from too. Leave us a comment or drop us a line at