Friday 29 October 2010

Preservation Survey

Since July 2010, the Archives have been undertaking a Preservation Assessment Survey to get a better understanding of the current state of the condition of the archives which will highlight preservation needs and priorities. This survey is funded by the Scottish Council on Archives and the British Library. Prior to starting the survey, Jennifer attended two training sessions at the National Archives of Scotland where she heard about other repositories’ experiences of using the survey and was able to see how to carry it out in practice.

The survey requires us to look at a random sample of approximately 400 items from the collections. For each item a questionnaire has to be completed which is split into two sections. The first looks at areas such as access, use, where and how it is housed, while the second section assesses any physical damage to the item. This information is then input into a database which is later analysed by the Preservation Advisory Centre and the results are presented in a report. This will flag up any areas where attention needs to be focused.

So far, we have surveyed 138 items so we still have a way to go! However it is encouraging to see that the majority of those assessed are in good condition with not much damage. Under the criteria of the survey a large percentage of the records has been classed as being part of the national documentary heritage and of having particular value and importance to the University of Dundee.

Tuesday 26 October 2010

CAIS student visits

Twice a year CAIS organises visits to archives and repositories for its students, usually in autumn and spring. Last week was the autumn visit and 16 of us, including archivists, records managers and family historians, were lucky enough to visit two very interesting archives in Edinburgh.

In the morning we were shown around Thomas Thomson House in Sighthill, Edinburgh. TTH is the main storage building for the National Archives of Scotland and also houses some of the key NAS services. We were greeted by Rob Mildren who gave us an overview of the NAS and in particular the balance between onsite and online user services. One of the highlights of the visit was a tour of the conservation studio where we were able to experience at first hand the range of conservation activities that we taking place. We were also given an overview of the NAS's digitisation programme and met some of the FamilySearch staff who are undertaking most of the scanning of documents. Finally we viewed some of the BS 5454 compliant stores which made some of the archivists rather jealous.

The afternoon visit was to the Centre for Research Collections at the University of Edinburgh. Both the University Archivist and Deputy Archivist, Arnott Wilson and Grant Buttars, were kind enough to show us around. The visit was extremely interesting as the Centre is housed on two newly rebuilt floors in the Library building. There are a number of public areas, with enviable views over Edinburgh, where people can consult material. The conservation studio and digitisation area were very interesting, albeit on a smaller scale than at NAS. Changing best practice in classification and storage was clearly demonstrated in the store rooms with the juxtaposition of old library classified volumes and more recently boxed material. The archive is gradually working towards consistency in housing of all its collections.  One of the highlights of the visit was a chance to see some of the treasures of the Archive ranging from the first matriculation register to a death mask of Goethe.

Overall it was a very worthwhile day and enjoyed by all who attended. Thanks to both of the archives for making this possible. We're now planning the visit next Spring which is likely to be to London.

Monday 18 October 2010

Tracing the development of Red Scotland

This month a number of history students who are taking the Red Scotland / Radical Scotland c 1880-1932 module have been regularly visiting the archives to consult our records. Archive Services has been closely involved with this module since it first ran in 2002 and students undertaking it are required to make extensive use of archival materials. Red Scotland examines the growth of the socialist left and developments in working-class politics in Scotland from the 1880s to the 1930s. Among the themes and events the students study are the wave of strikes between 1910 and 1914, the impact of the Great War and Russian Revolution on Scottish politics, and the rise and fall of the Independent Labour Party (ILP) as an electoral force in Scotland. 

Dundee and the Tayside area was an important part of ‘Red Scotland’. Dundee elected Alex Wilkie as one of Scotland’s first two Labour MPs in 1906 and was the base of several well known figures on the left of Scottish politics including Edwin Scrymgeour, Bob Stewart and E. D Morel. Others such as William Gallacher and Tom Johnston were involved in election campaigns in the city. Dundee also had some significant industrial disputes including the 1911 Carters’ Strike and the 1912 Jute Strike. Archive services hold a great many collections that contain important manuscripts and books relating to the history of the labour movement in Scotland in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These include:

  • Minutes of Dundee Town Council (MS 5). These give some idea of Dundee Council’s response to industrial unrest in the city.
  • Dundee Power Loom Tenters Society Minute Book 1916-1923 (MS 65)
  • Cox Brothers, Jute Spinners and Manufactures, Dundee (MS 66/II). Contains the records of one of Scotland’s largest textile works which was badly affected by the jute workers strikes of 1911 and 1912. The Cox Family Papers (MS 6) also contains records relating to these industrial disputes.
  • Association of Jute Spinners and Manufacturers (MS 84). This employers’ organisation was set up during the First World War and quickly represented members in negotiating with employees and trade unions over wages and disputes.
  • Joseph Lee’s Papers (MS 88). This collection includes Lee’s accounts of his time as a prisoner of war during the Great War and his copies of Tocsin, a Labour monthly published in 1909 which Lee edited. Tocsin was praised by Keir Hardie and Philip Snowden and the collection contains letters that they sent to Lee commenting on the publication. Also in this collection are copies of other publications that Lee was involved with which also offer some comment on the political situation of the time.
Pages from Lee's Tocsin
  • D J MacDonald Ltd, Engineers, Dundee (MS 93) (includes D. J MacDonald’s papers from the 1922 general election in Dundee, which famously saw the socialist and prohibitionist Edwin Scrymgeour and Labour’s E D Morel defeat Winston Churchill). 
  • The Kinnear Collection (MS 103), includes the early Communist Party activist Mary Brooksbank’s handwritten poetry as well as other materials relating to her life. 
  • Elizabeth McGill Clark Collection (MS 149). Contains a number of important books relating to the Labour movement in Scotland at this time including a signed copy of Bob Stewart’s memoir Breaking the Fetters, histories of the ILP, and Tom Johnston’s A History of the Working Classes in Scotland.
  • The Records of Dundee Conservative and Unionist Association (MS 270) provide a commentary on the political developments in Scotland at this time from the Unionist Party’s perspective.
  • The Joan Auld Memorial Collection (JAMC). A large collection of books relating to Labour History which was compiled in memory of the late Joan Auld, the University’s first archivist. This collection includes works by many figures prominent in the labour movement including Ramsay Macdonald, William Gallacher, George Bernard Shaw, David Kirkwood, G D H Cole and Beatrice and Sydney Webb.
Some of the books in the Joan Auld collection
  • The Kinnear Local Book Collection (KLoc). This collection include copies of the Dundee Yearbook which give a good account of developments in the labour movement in the city before the First World War. The collection also contains a complete run of The Dundee Free Press a left-wing newspaper set up following the general strike in competition with the publications of D C Thomson, and which devoted much of its attention to the activities of the labour movement in Dundee.

Dr Kenneth Baxter

Wednesday 13 October 2010

ICA / SUV Conference

Prague, 29 September – 3 October 2010

The Section on University and Research Institution Archives (SUV) is part of the International Council on Archives. This year’s SUV conference was Hosted by Charles University, Prague and the theme was: 'Archival Tradition and Practice: Are Archivists Historians?' Delegates attending the conference came from many different nations, and we were given insights into the differing situations to be found in archive repositories across the world.

In the first session Petr Svobodny of Charles University, Prague, spoke of how the connection between the Archives and the Institute of the History of Charles University affects the role of archivists at the University. The archivists do more than routine work, using their historical training to interpret the collections and develop research.

Bill Maher, University of Illinois, then spoke on whether impartiality on the part of the archivist is a myth – the ideal is that archivists should be completely objective, but in practice this is often difficult. According to Bill the ICA’s Code of Ethics for Archivists infers that the archivist should cover the middle ground and maintain a balanced and impartial position. Norman Reid of the University of St Andrews cautioned against the archivist cataloguing or describing a collection in a particular way which might influence future research – archivists in the past have sometimes highlighted items that may be of interest, but which might have no relevance to the historians’ area of research. Over cataloguing can hinder archival serendipity.

Another perspective was provided by Matĕj Spurný who is writing a university history and is a historian rather than an archivist at Charles University. The role of historians, he argued, is to construct the past in the archive rather than mere detection. Using the example of security service files from the Communist era being opened up he pointed out that providing access to files does not in itself enable an understanding of history. This is why, in his point of view, archivists should manage their collections from a historian’s perspective and actively engage in the process of the deconstruction and reconstruction of history.

After lunch the three delegates from the University of the West Indies, Sharon Alexander Gooding, Cherri Ann Beckles and Stanley Griffin gave an overview of the development of archives in the West Indies. In 1965 the first West Indian archives conference took place in Jamaica, which highlighted how dispersed the collections across the Caribbean are – an effect of having several colonial powers dominating the region in earlier times. Indeed, many documents relating to the history of the region are held in the old imperial capitals, such as London, impacting on access to the collections and their usability. More trained archivists in the region are also required. The point was made that archivists are not filing clerks, that they should reflect the cultural reality of present day societies.

The last speaker of the day was Andrzej Klubiński from the Archive of the Polish Academy of Science who told us about the Polish standard of archival description, which was developed by Kazimierz Konarski. Andrzej compared the scheme devised by Konarski to ISAD(G) and highlighted the many similarities between the two systems. The Konarski system has been so successful that it is still the main standard used in Polish archives, rather than ISAD(G).

The conference dinner took place on Thursday evening in Strahov Monastery, founded for the Premonstratensian order. The delegates were given a tour of the Theological Hall which houses an amazing baroque library of some 18,000 volumes. The meal itself was in the Monastic Brewery.

The second day our colleagues from Dundee, Caroline Brown and Pat Whatley, discussed the role of the archivist in ‘creating’ history – especially in the area of appraisal. Caroline presented a fictional case study to show us the many issues involved in deciding which institutional records to select, from the relevance of the material to the parent organisation to basic aspects such as storage space. A major factor, for example, is the pressure from the institution for the archivist to support the University’s current business practices. This inevitably affects the decision about which material should be accessioned. Pat examined appraisal issues in relation to outreach. She explained how the use of Beatles photographs from the Michael Peto Photographic Collection promoted the collection and how this promoted the University as a whole but also how the selection of particular images might influence perceptions of the collection. Importantly, this also raised the profile of the Archives within the institution; with active collaboration between the Principal’s Office and the External Relations department.

After a tour of the museum of Charles University and the SUV’s AGM, Garron Wells of the University of Toronto spoke on the role of early historical societies in Canada in developing historical research and preserving and making available the documentary heritage of the country, part of which involved the establishment of research centres. Shelley Sweeney told us about a video produced for the University of Manitoba’s YouTube channel that used photographs of séances and paranormal activity from their Hamilton Family Photograph Collection. This had proved successful in introducing archival material to a wider audience and increasing interest in the collection. It also raised the question of how the video relates to the collection as a whole, and if use of such a method of promotion alters the way a collection is perceived and approached by researchers.

The video can be seen at:

Marek Ďurčanský of Charles University Archives and Jens Blecher of Leipzig University Archives examined how archives can be used to promote, highlight and mark university anniversaries by looking at two relatively recent case studies from Leipzig and Prague. The turbulent history of Prague has led to many important anniversaries, and this has enabled the Archives to focus on events in preparation for compiling histories of the institutions.

The last session of the day was a demonstration of Manuscriptorium, part of the Enrich project and which is a European digital library of written cultural heritage. This is available through a website:

In the evening there was a reception at Villa Lanna which is owned by the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic. We were treated to a buffet meal with accompanying music from a contemporary trio - L'Arrache-Coeur - who played European folk music with a modern approach. They used an accordion, clarinets and a modern, electric hurdy-gurdy!

On Saturday Martin Franc of the Archive of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic spoke on the exploitation of personal papers for biographies and histories. The appraisal of papers of scientists is affected by various factors. For example, the post-War political unrest in Prague affected which personal papers survived. Scientists tend to favour material relating to their research work, whereas archivists want a broader picture reflected in the documents acquired. He was followed by Gráinne Loughran of the University of Ulster who discussed issues involved in archiving the arts. This included recording performance based art and the problems surrounding this – such as, for example, the archivists themselves affecting the performance. With regards to the arts the dynamic of the relationship between the archivist and the artist moves the former away from Derrida’s belief in the archivist’s power.

The conference ended with a lively and thought provoking debate about whether or not archivists should have a historical background – which related to the theme of the conference. It was interesting to see that delegates were clearly divided in this issue and argued strongly for their point of view. For some the requirement that archivists should be historians can prevent a broader perspective of an archival collection during the process of appraisal and description. For others only archivists with historical training can bring proper tools to the job that will aid future historical researchers.

On Sunday there was an excursion to the Cistercian Monastery at Plasy in Western Bohemia. This mediaeval monastery and early modern castle that belonged to the Metternich family contains the Architectural Heritage Centre of the National Technical Museum in Prague. The visit included a climb up the old clock tower to see the original clock mechanism – still in use – that dates from 1686.

We would like to take this opportunity to thank our Czech hosts for the conference organisation and for their wonderful hospitality. Děkujeme vám!

Michael Bolik and Jennifer Johnstone