Monday, 23 December 2013

Digitising Larkin - part 1

A significant portion of my job at the Hull History Centre relates to digitisation – that is, the production of high-resolution digital images of archival materials. We do this broadly for two closely related reasons; preservation and accessThe creation of a digital facsimile means that a fragile item, otherwise unsuitable for handling by the public, is still available for consultation. This in turn also facilitates greater access in the form of outreach, the creation of research materials and public displays. 

Whilst I have undertaken numerous digitisation tasks, the largest and perhaps most significant relates to the workbooks of Philip Larkin, poet and University of Hull Librarian from 1955 to 1985. The workbooks (Ref U DPL/1/2-8) contain the drafts of poetry written by Larkin between March 1950 and July 1982, offering an extraordinary insight into the working practices of one of the best-regarded writers of the 20th century. 

The History Centre houses seven of these workbooks. The earliest, covering October 1944 to March 1950, was donated by Larkin to the British Library as part of a SCONUL initiative to keep the working papers of British authors in this country at a time when many manuscripts were being purchased by affluent American universities. So acute was the issue that Larkin suggested that the conference in which he addressed SCONUL was akin to ‘a conference of barn door closers’. 

One of the Larkin workbooks under the (cold) lights 

The project to digitise the Larkin workbooks has been carried out with extensive consultation of the image specifications recommended by the British Library.
We are fortunate at the History Centre to have a bespoke 100 megapixel camera scanner built by Solar Imaging (see above), running Silverfast Ai Studio software, as well as working in a purpose-built building which lends itself well to photography (level flooring, little in the way of vibrations).

With this is mind, I was afforded the opportunity to attend a digitisation training day held at their Preservation Advisory Centre on November 13th 2013 and I will post my reflections on this event in the new year.

Riki Stansfield
Archives Assistant

Thursday, 19 December 2013

Geography isn’t my strong suit, but…..

One of the most interesting and rewarding aspects of our work within the University Archives team at Hull History Centre is preparing and giving workshops for undergraduates and postgraduates about archives relevant to their subject.  These have two main objectives:  to give students a good grounding in the broad range of skills and knowledge needed to undertake research using archives; and to introduce them to the kinds of documents that they might be using in their research. 

For those students who haven’t used archives before it is difficult for them to envisage how they can enhance their research, how they add to the knowledge that students gain through reading books or journals. But as soon as they encounter documents for the first time, whether official minutes and accounts or personal letters, they are immediately interested and engaged.

We have been holding workshops for students in History and English for several years, but this semester, for the first time we were asked to provide a workshop for Geography students.  The students were studying a module called Geography and Empire, which looks at “the complex relations between geographical knowledge and European imperialism and colonialism, c.1830-1945” and “the extent to which geography was a political resource that played a series of crucial roles in cultural, social, political and economic affairs in the period”.

I knew that we would have some relevant material within several of our collections. Within landed family and estate archives there are papers of individuals such as Sir Charles Chichester, involved in colonial administration and military campaigns; and there are files relating to colonialism and foreign policy within papers of politicians such as Sir Patrick Wall and pressure groups such as the Union of Democratic Control. 

It was a challenge for me to focus on material that had particular relevance for the study of geography rather than history, but I it was fascinating to look at familiar archive collections from a different point of view.  

I found a wonderful range of material and a few documents in particular that gave a powerful illustration of the complex relationship between geography and history.  Highlights include an illuminated invitation to a Maori reception in Rotorua, New Zealand from Lord Wenlock's world tour as lord-in-waiting to the Duke and Duchess of York in 1901; and a catalogue from Isaac Walton's, tropical outfitters of Ludgate Hill, 1930.

One of several maps in the collection relating to the Sykes-Picot agreement (Ref U DDSY2/4/78/3)
The most striking records came from the papers of Sir Mark Sykes, who travelled in the Middle East in the years before the First World War and negotiated the Sykes-Picot agreement in 1916 and featured in a recent episode of the BBC's Making of the Modern Arab World .   There is a letter from the office of Thomas Cook and Son in Jerusalem to Mark Sykes, regarding travel arrangements for a trip 1902, including costs for numerous donkeys and their handlers. 
There are maps of Turkish lands in Syria, and Western Persia  - some showing  railways, roads, military dispositions, oil and submarine bases; and some with shading or lines drawn across to show different proposals for the division of territory in the secret agreement between Britain and France for the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire.   Maps, like pictures, can be worth a thousand words.

Judy Burg
University Archivist

Friday, 13 December 2013

Linking the collection and the researcher

George De Boer (Ref U DDB/3/1) taught 
at the University between 1947-1985 
I find it hard not to get involved with the collections I catalogue. I want to grab people and tell them all about what I’ve ‘found’. I realise this can be annoying colleagues in the Cataloguing room so I try to control myself! I’ve worked with multiple collections and not met one yet that hasn't had something special about it. Sometimes it may take a little searching out and may not be what you thought it would be, but it’s there and that’s why we preserve it.

There was no need to look very hard in a recent collection, George de Boer. A Hull-born lecturer in geomorphology at University of Hull, he also wrote numerous papers and books and was Chairman of Spurn Management Committee. It’s proved a challenge creating a structure that not only makes it accessible to researchers, but also reflects the importance of the collection. It’s been possible to see how well liked and respected he was and I’ve had to take a step back and not allow my personal opinions influence how I tackle the material. 

I’m now working on another collection (which will remain nameless!) that has provoked the opposite reaction. I started off liking them, but the more I learn the less sympathetic I feel and it concerns me that this will influence the type of descriptions I provide, possibly misrepresenting a collection because of my own feelings. This is a problem commonly faced by archivists.

Young grey seal, Donna Nook reserve
(Ref U DDB/2/1/3)
It’s difficult to tread the path between being informative without being sensationalist. How do we promote the material in our care to as many people as possible without restricting our audience by the choices we make? We need to encourage users to think outside of the expected, search out those gems of information hidden in surprising corners of collections. This could be as simple as being aware of the language we use, ensuring we don’t exclude, bamboozle or mislead. Lydia’s previous blog about caged seals came to mind when cataloguing George de Boer’s slides. I think mine is cuter!

As archivists we are the link between the collection and the researcher. We have to tell people what we hold and signpost how it could be utilised. At Hull History Centre we have produced source guides, especially for newly catalogued material, to give a flavour of the wider uses of a collection (see the George de Boer source guide).

As a project archivist I am aware that I will be moving on to the next job and no-one may ever have the same understanding of the collection that I do, so feel it’s important to capture that in the entries I write. I’ll admit I’m more a throw everything in kind of cataloguer in an attempt to appeal to as many researchers as possible and spark the same excitement I feel when I make my ‘discoveries’. 

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Cataloguing grant award - Francis Johnson archive

The University Archives, based at the Hull History Centre, have just secured an award of £32,729 from the National Cataloguing Grants Programme administered by The National Archives. (The award was one of 15 see the list of successful projects)

The archives of the architects Francis Johnson and Partners, contains material relating to over 2000 projects dating from 1954 to 1996. The bulk of this material remains in their original paper files wrapped in an unrelated building plan (see right).
Just some of the files awaiting to be catalogued,
re-packed and boxed ready for public access

Francis Johnson, (1911-1995) was born in Bridlington and studied at the Leeds School of Architecture. After working for a firm in Hull for a few years he began his own practice in 1937, based in Bridlington where he worked for nearly 60 years and where the firm is still based. 

The archive reflects the range of commissions that Francis Johnson & Partners have undertaken including private houses, especially country houses, both new or restoration projects, including;

Hardwick Hall (for the National Trust); Maister House, Hull; the Orangery at Sledmere House; Burton Agnes Hall; Houghton Hall; Everingham Hall; Sunderlandwick Hall and Merchant Taylors Hall, York
New churches in East Yorkshire and Scarborough
Material relating to restoration of churches, church inspections and the conversion of churches into private dwellings
Other buildings including St Chad’s College (Durham), railway cottages, public houses, an office block in Driffield, dog kennels, a swimming pool and a cricket pavilion
Individual pieces of furniture for British embassies in Washington, Tokyo and Oslo and a pair of wooden candlesticks designed for HM Queen
Spread of files relating to Burton Agnes Hall (Ref U DFJ/18)
The files include correspondence relating to the design, planning and approval processes; listed building consent; invoices, accounts, bills of quantities, tenders and receipts; there are discussions relating to the use of materials and sketches, drawings and plans of architectural details, eg wrought iron-work, fireplaces, bookcases, chairs, pew-ends and front-doors.

Simon Wilson, Senior Archivist said ...”The funding will allow us to employ an archivist to undertake the cataloguing but we also hope to recruit a small team of volunteers to assist with the project. We would also capture geographic co-ordinates for each property as part of the catalogue entry to allow us to create a map-based access point into the collection.”

The Sea Full Stop.

The work Books to Sea, on display at Hull History Centre is part of a larger exhibition that spans across various venues in Hull. The exhibition shows the works made during my residency at the Maritime Historical Studies Centre (MHSC, based at Blaydes House) part of the University of Hull. The residency has been funded by a grant by the Leverhulme Trust.  

During my time in Hull I had access to the collections and archives of the MHSC, the Maritime Museum and the HHC. These collections and the very few visible remnants scattered across the city (what is left of the old docks, yards and factories) were my main window into the industry of over 200 years ago. I focused mainly, but not exclusively, on books concerned with the whaling period of the city, approximately 1776 to 1867.

Ocean Passages for the world
Narratives abound. They range from the prosaic and anecdotal descriptions of the voyage and the vicissitudes of the hunt, to more philosophical reflections about life at sea. I feel as if the boundaries between fact and fiction, truth and legend are intricately entwined. I purposely tried not to get too entangled on individual stories. Not because I wanted to remain detached but perhaps I worried that it would be too seductive a path and it would stop me from trying to explore the bigger picture. I was more interested in a sort of ‘texture’ of it all: the texture of the sea and of whaling as viewed from a distance. Distance can act as an inverted lens that turns something really large into a manageable miniature, easier to explore. In this case, time was the distancing agent. And each logbook or journal became a miniature model of the whole period.

I love old books, especially the ones that show their age, the decaying grandeur of their leather covers and gold embossing. I like the contradiction between the assertiveness of their information, they exhale an air of inherent truth and the fact that in many cases that information is obsolete, incorrect or incomplete. One of my favourite books is Ocean Passages for the World. – the full stop is actually embossed on the cover. The book contains a list and description of all ocean routes between different parts of the globe. This particular edition is from 1923 and it is at the MHSC library. That particular full stop says to me “this is it, these are all the ocean passages there will ever be”, like reassuring an ultimate authority and timelessness.

I have spent long periods of time in the library perusing through all these books, about whales, whaling and the ocean. Seduced by the elaborate covers I started taking pencil rubbings of the embossed titles and designs, an art technique also known as frottage. I thought of the book as a ship in which to sail through the whaling past. Perhaps too obvious a metaphor, I know, but from the cosiness of a library is the only way we can ever board those extinct whaler ships. The described seas are but a mental place of the past, the whalers and their prey mere ghosts. But that is the funny thing, the sea in these books is all the more powerful because it is a reflection of the sea still out there, as inhospitable, unfixable and unknowable today as it was then, despite our inexhaustible attempts to fix it or map it, despite any full stops insinuating the opposite. The same impossibility of ultimate knowing applies to our understanding of whales. Physical up-close encounters with living whales are certainly scarce. For most of us on shore, whales will remain endlessly fascinating but forever out of grasp.

Some of the panels on display in the History Centre arcade
Progressively, my attention was drawn away from the figurative embossed designs on the books and towards the textured covers. They suddenly reminded me of the sea glimpsed from a plane window: a static sea, opaque, solid and impenetrable as mountains. The sea from the pages somehow had filtered out to the outer skin of the book. In some respects however, this literary sea is in constant flux, as much as the physical sea is. Because despite having been set in print, the text is exposed to our interpretation today, and those interpretations change it and make it flow. I see the surface of sea as a metaphor of history, a fluid and unstable layer separating two great substances (water and air in the case of the sea, past and present in that of history). Past and present are intangible concepts held in a delicate balance, which is constantly being rewritten.

The rubbings of the covers appear to me as topographies of these sea-skins, book-ships. Sometimes the rubbings revealed features I had not noticed before on the books, their scars emerged. Hull Whaling Relics is a small booklet from the collection at the HHC. In its pencil rubbing the signs of ageing, institutional stamps and cataloguing tags are the only features of an otherwise uniform surface. This particular work can act perhaps as a poignant reflection of the position of whaling heritage within Hull cultural landscape, obscured and hidden in archives and libraries as oppose to visible and celebrated alongside the fishing heritage.

The works at the HHC show scaled-up prints of the pencil rubbings. I wanted to experiment with changing the scale, to accentuate the surface details and evoke even more an idea of the book as a physical place (another book is brilliantly titled The Physical Geography of the Sea, and its Meteorology). They are an invitation to the viewers to get up-close and after exploring the surface, perhaps venture into the whaling section of the library and allow themselves to get entangled in those captivating narratives from not so long ago. 

More info about the residency is at