Taith Hanes Menywod: Canol Dinesig Caerdydd

Rydym yn falch o ddatgan bod taith newydd ar gael, sy’n rhoi golwg ar hanes menywod Canol Dinesig Caerdydd.

Mae Parc Cathays yn gartref i brif Gampws y Brifysgol, yn ogystal â Neuadd y Ddinas, adeiladau’r Llywodraeth a’r Amgueddfa – ardal sy’n gysylltiedig â dynion pwerus hanes y brifddinas.

Map Hanes Menywod gan Frank Duffy, rhan o’r daith y gellid ei lawrlwytho am ddim

Ond edrychwch yn ofalus, a mi welwch bod hanes menywod ym mhobman, yn ffabrig ein gofodau dinesig.

Os ydych chi’n gweithio, astudio neu’n ymweld â Pharc Cathays: lawrlwythwch y daith am ddim, a mynd am dro hamddenol, heb risiau, o amgylch y Canol Dinesig.

Datblygwyd y daith ar y cyd ag Archif Menywod Cymru, sydd wedi creu dwsin o deithiau hanes menywod – o Fangor i’r Barri, gallwch lawrlwytho teithiau am ddim i archwilio hanes menywod ar draws Cymru.

Am fwy o wybodaeth am fersiwn dywysiedig o’r daith hon, dilynwch ni ar twitter am fwy o wybodaeth.

Women’s History Tour: Cardiff Civic Centre

We’re excited to announce that a new self-guided tour is available, giving a glimpse into women’s history in Cardiff’s Civic Centre.

Home to the main University Campus, as well as Government buildings, City Hall and institutions such as National Museum Cardiff, it is an area known for its dazzling white buildings and its association with the ‘great and the good’ of the city’s past – mostly men on plinths with big moustaches.

Women’s History Map by Frank Duffy, part of the downloadable tour

However, look closely, and you’ll see that women’s history is everywhere, woven into the fabric of our public spaces. From activists to scientists, musicians to militant suffragettes – this tour brings together a snapshot of women’s history in Cardiff.

Whether you work, study, or visit at Cathays Park: download the tour for free, and take a leisurely, step-free route around the Civic Centre.

This tour was developed in partnership with Women’s Archive Wales, who have produced twelve women’s history tours – from Bangor to Barry, you can download a tour for free to explore women’s history across Wales.

For information about future guided versions of this tour, please follow us on twitter for more updates.

Diwrnod Menywod mewn STEM: Maria Dawson, graddedig gyntaf Prifysgol Cymru

Y botanydd Maria Dawson oedd y person cyntaf i dderbyn gradd gan Brifysgol Cymru, ym 1896.

Dawson oedd y cyntaf, ar y cyd ag un arall, i dderbyn teitl Doethur y Gwyddorau gan Brifysgol Cymru, a derbyniodd ysgoloriaeth wyddonol i barhau ei hastudiaethau ym maes gwrtaith ac amaeth.

Llun o Maria Dawson, y person cyntaf i raddio o Brifysgol Cymru
Miss Dawson yn derbyn ei Doethuriaeth, o gylchgrawn Coleg Prifysgol Caerdydd, Rhagfyr 1900

Gwobrwyo Graddau Cyntaf Cymru

Ym 1892, ymunodd Dawson a Choleg Prifysgol De Cymru a Sir Fynwy (y sefydliad a ddaeth cyn Prifysgol Caerdydd) i astudio mathemateg, cemeg, sŵoleg a botaneg.

Ar yr adeg honno, doedd dim hawl gan y Coleg i roi graddau, felly byddai’r myfyrwyr yn sefyll arholiadau Prifysgol Llundain fel rheol.

Ym 1893, sefydlwyd Prifysgol Cymru, fyddai’n newid byd addysg Cymru am byth, gyda Cholegau Prifysgol Aberystwyth, Bangor a Chaerdydd yn aelodau. Golygai hyn y gallai Maria Dawson gael gradd gan sefydliad Cymreig.

Perfformiad Academaidd

Roedd Dawson yn fyfyrwraig ddawnus: mi enillodd wobr arddangosfa (ysgoloriaeth) am safon ei harholiad mynediad, a dalodd am ei ffïoedd i gyd – ac enillodd un arall ar ddiwedd y flwyddyn.

Roedd ganddi ddawn wyddonol, gan ennill gwobrau yn ei phedwar pwnc yn ystod ei hail flwyddyn.

Labordy Cemeg ym 1899 yn dangos dynion a merched yn derbyn addysg
Labordy Cemeg yng Nghaerdydd ym 1899 yn dangos dynion a merched yn derbyn addysg

Ymchwil Arloesol

Wedi iddi raddio gyda B.Sc., enillodd wobr o £150 gan Gomisiwn Brenhinol Arddangosfa 1851.

Yn Labordai Botanegol Caergrawnt, fe aeth ati i ymchwilio effeithiau nitrogen ar blanhigion, oedd yn arfer newydd iawn ar y pryd.

Yn ei phapur ‘”Nitragin and the nodules of leguminous plants” ei damcaniaeth oedd na ddylai ychwanegu nitrogen yn ormodol i bridd, ond bod ei ddefnydd mewn pridd gwael yn gallu cynyddu cynaeafau.

Merched Parchus Neuadd Aberdar

Efallai na fyddai Dawson wedi dod i Gaerdydd oni bai am y neuadd breswyl arbennig ar gyfer menywod, Neuadd Aberdâr.

Darlun artist o Neuadd Aberdar fel yr edrychai ym 1895

Roedd ei theulu yn byw yn Llundain – rhy bell iddi ddychwelyd adre bob dydd – a roedd yn annerbyniol yn ôl moesau’r oes i fyfyrwraig ddi-briod fyw ar ei phen ei hun.

Sefydlwyd Neuadd Aberdâr ym 1885, un o’r neuaddau preswyl cyntaf yn y DU i fenywod.

Seremoni Raddio gyntaf Prifysgol Cymru

Clawr wedi ei ddarlunio a llaw, rhifyn cyntaf yr 'University College Magazine', Rhagfyr 1885
Cylchgrawn cyntaf Coleg y Brifysgol, Rhagfyr 1885

Ar yr 22ain o Hydref 1897, ymgasglodd myfyrwyr Prifysgol Cymru yn Neuadd y Parc, neuadd gyngerdd fawr, ar gyfer seremoni raddio gyntaf y sefydliad.

Dyma oedd gan gylchgrawn Coleg Prifysgol De Cymru a Sir Fynwy, cyhoeddiad gan fyfyrwyr, i’w ddweud am yr achlysur arbennig hwn:

“The first to be presented was Miss Maria Dawson, for the degree of B.Sc., and her appearance was the signal for a great outburst of enthusiasm among the audience. The Deputy-Chancellor… gave her the diploma…, and with a… bow… she retired amid deafening cheers.”

Rydym ni’n dathlu Maria heddiw, a’n falch o’n hanes hir o gefnogi ymchwil menywod yn y gwyddorau – cewch weld rhagor o straeon o fenywod sy’n arloesi heddiw fan hyn: Diwrnod Menywod Mewn STEM.

Gallwch ddarllen gwaith Maria Dawson am Nitrogen fan hyn: Maria Dawson, ‘“Nitragin” and the nodules of leguminous plants’, Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, Vol. 64, 167-168 (1899) http://doi.org/10.1098/rspl.1898.0086

Women in STEM Day: Meet Maria Dawson, the first graduate of the University of Wales

The University of Wales awarded its first degree, a Bachelor of Science, to botanist Maria Dawson in 1896.

Dawson also jointly holds the title of the first Doctor of Science of the University of Wales, and was granted a prestigious scientific scholarship which funded her pioneering research into agricultural fertilisers.

Photograph of the first graduate of the University of Wales, Maria Dawson
Miss Maria Dawson receiving her D.Sc., published in the University College Magazine in Dec 1900

Degree-awarding powers in Wales

In October 1892, Dawson was admitted to the University College of South Wales and Monmouthshire (the predecessor to Cardiff University) to study mathematics, chemistry, zoology and botany.

At that time, the College did not have degree-awarding powers, and students were prepared for University of London examinations.

However in 1893, whilst Dawson was a student, the history of Welsh education was altered irrevocably with the establishment of the University of Wales.

The university colleges in Cardiff, Bangor and Aberystwyth were its constituent institutions.

Academic Excellence

Dawson was a high achiever from the outset: she won an exhibition (a bursary) at the College’s entrance examinations, which covered her matriculation and lecture fees, and another at the end of her first year.

She excelled in her scientific studies, winning prizes for her performance in all four of her subjects following her second year.

Chemistry Laboratory, c.1899, showing women students
Chemistry Laboratory, c.1899, showing women students

From Botany modules to researching root nodules

After graduating with her B.Sc., Dawson was awarded a £150 research scholarship by Her Majesty’s Commission for the Exhibition of 1851.

Her pioneering research, undertaken at the Cambridge Botanical Laboratories, investigated how the addition of nitrogen and nitrates to soil, a new practice at that time, affected crop yields.

In her research paper, ‘”Nitragin” and the nodules of leguminous plants’ published by Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, she concludes:

Adding nitrogen “to soils rich in nitrates” is inadvisable. Adding “a supply of it to soil poor in nitrates results in an increased yield”, however the best results are obtained when “nitrates [are] added to the soil”.

All the single ladies: let’s put you up… in Aberdare Hall

Artist’s impression of Aberdare Hall in the 1890s

Dawson may not have enrolled at the University of South Wales and Monmouthshire at all if it were not for the dedicated all-female hall of residence the College offered.

Her family lived in London, too far to return home each day, and it was not considered respectable for a young, unmarried woman to live in lodgings unchaperoned.

Aberdare Hall, set up in 1885, was one of the first higher education residences for women in the UK.

Doff thy caps: the first degree ceremony of the University of Wales

Cover of the hand-written manuscript of the University College Magazine, Dec 1885
Cover of the hand-written manuscript of the University College Magazine, Dec 1885

The first degree ceremony of the University of Wales took place in Cardiff at Park Hall, a large concert hall, on 22 October 1897.

The magazine of the University College of South Wales and Monmouthshire, a student publication, reported on this auspicious occasion:

“The first to be presented was Miss Maria Dawson, for the degree of B.Sc., and her appearance was the signal for a great outburst of enthusiasm among the audience. The Deputy-Chancellor… gave her the diploma…, and with a… bow, she retired amid deafening cheers.”

Today we celebrate Maria Dawson. We’re proud of our long history of supporting women’s research in STEM – you can find more stories of women innovating today here: Women in STEM at Cardiff University.

You can read more of Maria Dawson’s research here: Maria Dawson, ‘“Nitragin” and the nodules of leguminous plants’, Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, Vol. 64, 167-168 (1899). Available at http://doi.org/10.1098/rspl.1898.0086

Darn unigryw o hanes Du Cymru ar gael i’w lawrlwytho am y tro cyntaf o Brifysgol Caerdydd

 

Cyhoeddodd William Hall, caethwas a ddihangodd o America, hanes ei fywyd o Gaerdydd ym 1862.

Mae darn hynod o brin o hanes Du Cymru wedi’i gyhoeddi ar lein am y tro cyntaf.

llaw yn dal pamffled 'Slavery in the United States of America, a Personal Narrative' gan William Hall

Cyhoeddodd William Hall hanes ei fywyd o Stryd Bute ym 1862

Ym 1862, cyhoeddodd William Hall ei “Naratif Bersonol”, sy’n olrhain hanes brawychus ei enedigaeth mewn caethiwed, a’i daith hirfaith o Dennessee i Gaerdydd. Ynddo, mae Hall yn disgrifio cael ei werthu i berchnogion planhigfeydd, yn manylu sut y ceisiodd ddianc caethwasiaeth ar amryw o achlysuron, a’n trafod ei brofiadau yn cwrdd â chaethweision eraill.

Mae’r ddogfen dan ofal Casgliadau Arbennig ac Archifau Prifysgol Caerdydd, a credir mai dyma un o ddau gopi sydd wedi goroesi yn fyd-eang.

Ysbrydoli’r Genhedlaeth Nesaf o Ymchwilwyr

Mae’n bamffled bychan, bregus – ac o heddiw ‘mlaen, mae ar gael ar lein i unrhyw un ei ddarllen a’i lawrlwytho.

Medd Tracey Stanley, Llyfrgellydd Prifysgol Caerdydd: “Mae’r ddogfen unigryw yma’n rhan mor bwysig o hanes Du Caerdydd, a Chymru, a ro’n ni eisiau ei gwneud ar gael i bawb.”

“’Dyn ni’n dal i ddarganfod mwy am fywyd William Hall – rydym ni’n gobeithio y bydd cyhoeddi’r ddogfen ar lein yn ysbrydoli cenhedlaeth newydd o ymchwilwyr, fydd yn parhau i archwilio hanes pobl Ddu yng Nghymru.”

Rhannu Gweithiau Prin gan Awduron Du

Fe noddwyd y ddogfen yn wreiddiol gan fynychwyr capel Wesleaidd yng Nghaerdydd, sy’n taro goleuni ar y gefnogaeth oedd i’r mudiad Diddymu Caethwasiaeth yn y ddinas ar y pryd.

Oherwydd natur fregus y ddogfen, fe fyddai’n cael ei darllen fel rheol dan amodau arbenigol yng Nghasgliadau Arbennig ac Archifau’r Brifysgol. Mae’r cyfnod clo wedi peri sialens i ymchwilwyr sy’n defnyddio llyfrau prin – a mae technoleg ddigidol wedi golygu y gall peth o’r gwaith hwn barhau.

“Mae ein staff wedi bod yn gweithio’n galed i gefnogi myfyrwyr ac ymchwilwyr yn ystod y cyfnod anodd hwn. Yma yng Nghasgliadau Arbennig ac Archifau, mae hyn wedi golygu rhoi rhai dogfennau unigryw ar lein, a allai fod yn rhy brin neu fregus i’w hymchwilio yn y cnawd ar hyn o bryd.” meddai Alan Vaughan Hughes, Pennaeth Casgliadau Arbennig ac Archifau Prifysgol Caerdydd.

“Mae gweithiau hanesyddol gan awduron Du – fel gwaith William Hall – yn haeddu cynulleidfa ehangach, a ‘dyn ni’n falch o allu rhannu’r gwaith hwn gyda phawb trwy’r Internet Archive. Rydym ni hefyd yn ddiolchgar iawn i’r Athro William Jones a Dr David Wyatt am eu gwaith yn ymchwilio a chodi ymwybyddiaeth o’r ddogfen werthfawr hon.”

Gallwch ddarganfod mwy am hanes William Hall, a’r mudiad Diddymu yng Nghaerdydd yn Canu Caeth, a olygwyd gan Daniel G Williams.

Copi llawn o Naratif Bersonol William Hall i’w lawrlwytho:

https://archive.org/details/williamhall

A unique piece of Wales’ Black history from Cardiff goes online: William Hall’s Slavery Narrative

William Hall, an escaped slave and resident of Cardiff, published his life story from Bute Street in 1862

An extremely rare piece of Wales’ Black history has been published online for the first time.

hand holding a pamphlet named 'Slavery in the United States of America, a Personal Narrative'

William Hall’s ‘Personal Narrative’ – one of two known copies in the world. The other is believed to be in Chicago.

Published on the city’s Bute Street in 1862, William Hall’s “Personal Narrative” is a shocking and graphic account of his birth into slavery in Tennessee, and his arduous journey to Cardiff. Hall describes being sold to various plantation owners, detailing multiple attempts to escape his captors, as well as his encounters with other escaped slaves.

Now held in Cardiff University’s Special Collections and Archives, it is believed to be one of two surviving copies in the world.

Inspiring the next generation of researchers

It is a small, fragile and unassuming pamphlet – and from today, it will be available online for anyone to read and download.

Says Tracey Stanley, Cardiff University Librarian:

“This unique document is such an important part of the Black history of Cardiff, and Wales, and we wanted to make it available to everyone.”

“We’re still discovering more about William Hall and his life thanks to ongoing research. By publishing this work online, we hope to inspire a new generation of researchers who will go on to explore Black history in Wales.”

Sharing rare works by Black authors with a wider audience

The document was originally funded by people attending Cardiff’s Wesleyan chapels, and sheds light on historic support for the anti-slavery movement in the city.

Due to its rare and fragile nature, the pamphlet would normally be handled under specialist conditions at Cardiff University’s Special Collections and Archives. The lockdown period has made accessing rare books a particular challenge for researchers – and digital technology is providing a way for this work to continue.

“Our staff have been working hard to support students and researchers during this difficult lockdown period. Here at Special Collections and Archives, that includes bringing some unique texts online, that may be rare or too fragile to handle.” says Alan Vaughan Hughes, Head of Special Collections and Archives at Cardiff University.

“Historic works by Black authors – such as William Hall’s work – deserve a wider audience, and we’re proud to be able to share this with the public today through the Internet Archive. We’re also grateful to Professor William Jones and Dr David Wyatt for shedding light on this significant document through their research.”

Discover more about William Hall, and Cardiff’s pro- and anti- abolition movements in Canu Caeth, edited by Daniel G. Williams.

Download William Hall’s ‘Personal Narrative’ in full:

https://archive.org/details/williamhall

Guest post: Book inscriptions and family history research

Following on from the success of the recent Family History Show at UWE Exhibition and Conference Centre, Dr Lauren O’Hagan shares some of her top tips for using book inscriptions as an entry point into family history research.


Most of us have dusty, old books tucked away in our attics, cupboards or garages that once belonged to our parents, grandparents or distant relatives. These books are an unexpected and useful resource for carrying out genealogical research. Inscriptions provide us with the names and addresses of unknown ancestors, or they can also offer personal information not found elsewhere about their daily lives and hobbies.

Here’s a guide on how you can use book inscriptions in your family history research:

1. Family Bibles
Considered the ‘life blood’ of Christian families, Bibles were once used to record births, deaths, marriages, and significant life events, such as a child’s illness or a son going off to war. Civil registration was not introduced until 1837 (in England and Wales) and was made compulsory in 1874: Bibles are therefore a useful way to trace your family roots without having to trawl through parish records.

2. Birthday Books and Daily Scripture Books
Popularised in the mid-nineteenth century, these gift books contained printed content and blank spaces to record birthdays. Many owners also used them to document deaths, marriages, funerals, christenings, new jobs, moving house and world events. They are an important way to explore a family member’s social networks.

3. Autograph Books and Confession Books
These books shed light on ancestors’ wit, humour and irony because they required owners, and their family and friends, to answer pre-written questions on their personality, tastes and interests, such as: What is your idea of happiness? What are your favourite qualities in a man/woman? Who is your favourite author?

4. Ownership Inscriptions
This is the most basic form of inscription, consisting of the owner’s name, and may also be accompanied by their address and date of inscription. This information can be essential when starting out on the journey into your family history. Sketches, poems, newspaper clippings, comments and even curses to protect books from theft can also appear alongside an ownership inscription, all of which can help make your ancestor come to life as a person.

5. Gift Inscriptions
Books inscribed as presents from one person to another can show links and relationships between people that may be harder to discern from more official records.

6. Author Inscriptions
These inscriptions are often written by the author to the recipient at a book signing or event, and can give an insight into your ancestors’ reading tastes and interests.

7. Prize Inscriptions and Prize Stickers
Awarding books as prizes for attendance and good behaviour was common across schools, Sunday schools and clubs in Victorian and Edwardian Britain. Books containing prize stickers are a real treasure trove because they contain comprehensive details of the awardee, their address and the specific institution that they attended. This can supply information on their religious denomination, and help focus local archive searches of school and Sunday school records.

8. Bookplates
Bookplates are small, decorative labels used to denote book ownership. Traditionally, bookplates were used only by the upper classes who commissioned artists to custom-design ciphers, rebuses or armorials with heraldic symbols relating to their lineage. These symbols can be identified fairly easily using resources such as the College of Arms database. By the early twentieth century, most bookplates were pictorial and showcased images that reflected anything from an owner’s favourite sport or literary character to their religious or political beliefs. These bookplates offer a whimsical way of discovering the person behind your ancestor’s name.

9. Marginalia
These marks or comments made in the margins of books can give us a sense of our ancestors’ thought process and how they engaged with their books.

10. Booksellers’ and Binders’ Labels
Many books from the Victorian and Edwardian eras feature booksellers’ or binders’ labels, which tell us the specific location that a book was purchased or bound. These labels can often be cross-referenced with the ownership inscription to aid initial census searches.

Hopefully, these handy tips will encourage you to search your house for old books and get starting on your family history research! Enjoy!

No learning-lockdown here!

Our doors may be closed, but whether from our attics, bedrooms, or desks-under-the-stairs, we are still here to support your learning, creativity, and well-being during these unprecedented times.

No rest for the wicked, nor the self-isolated: we’ve been busy preparing a guide to free, digital primary sources from heritage organisations all over the world over on our website. But as well as the big hitters, there are a whole host of blogs and online research projects for those of you who can’t currently acquire all the sources you may need for your studies (or are just plain curious or bored).

Here’s a list of just a few that may help bridge that gap:

The Recipes Project: Food, Magic, Art, Science, and Medicine

 

Feeling peckish? I for one have a more severe case of the munchies now that I’m consigned to binge-reading and Netflixing for the foreseeable future, and this site is an excellent way to satiate it without heading out for non-essential M&Ms. As the website states, it’s an international collaborative research project where scholars interested in the history of recipes explore the weird and wonderful ways that recipes – for magical charms, cosmetics, food, and remedies – offer a unique window into the past. It’s full of interesting posts, sources, and more importantly for those growling stomachs – recipes, so most definitely worth a look, especially, and there’s no judgement here – we’re all getting by as best we can – this medieval Russian hangover cure. Check out their Additional Resources too.

Dr Alun Withey

What this fabulous and funky historian of early modern medicine and social history does not know about the strange, superb, and hairy aspects of early medical practices and facial grooming, quite frankly, is not worth shaving for. Packed with fascinating posts spanning a huge array of themes that encompass our medical and social past, from ‘polite’ hands, roasted mice, pigeon cures to bloodletting and beard sculpting, you could lose yourself for hours in Dr Withey’s blog. There’s even an abusive parrot in there. Well, I guess we’ll all be ‘talking to the cowing birds’ before long.

Medieval Manuscripts blog

When in doubt, check out the British Library’s website – this blog on their medieval and earlier manuscripts is well worth a look. As well as publicising their digitisation projects and other activities, this blog contains a wealth of interesting posts on the people, collections, and details relating to their unique manuscript collection. From digitised Middle English manuscripts to Greek papyri, this will satisfy all your manuscript needs. In addition, its generous visual content and links to other related materials could give you the illusion that you are actually sitting in the British Library, manuscript rather than TV remote to hand. Medieval Manuscripts is the perfect way to illuminate and chill!

15cBOOKTRADE

This completed project on the history of the book trade during the fifteenth century by Oxford University considers the thousands of surviving books from the invention of modern printing by Gutenberg in c. 1450, to 1500 as material and unique documentary evidence of one of the most important developments in our cultural history. With the aid of a rare, unpublished ledger of a Venetian bookseller in the 1480s, which records the sale and prices of some of 25,000 printed books, the project addresses five fundamental questions relating to the introduction of printing in the West: Distribution, use, and reading practices; The books’ contemporary market value; The transmission and dissemination of the texts; The circulation and use of illustrations; and Visualisation – a database that helps us to visualise the circulation of the books and the texts they contain, over space and time. How amazing is that? Everything you need to know, and see, about the very start of the printing and book trade, without having to leave your house! Bonus points during these current times, and an absolute hat-trick for anyone interested in the history of literacy, printing, and the book trade in the second half of the fifteenth century.

Curious Travellers

For all of us in need of a bit of virtual travelling, we can explore Snowdon and any other eighteenth-century Welsh tourist hot spot without worrying about social distancing, by simply visiting this website. This four-year AHRC-funded research project, launched in September 2014 and jointly run by the University of Wales Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies (CAWCS) and the University of Glasgow, looks at Romantic-period accounts of journeys into Wales and Scotland. The writings of the Welsh naturalist and antiquarian Thomas Pennant (1726-1798) provide the main focus, and a range of other materials will help satisfy any Welsh (and Scottish) wanderlust we may be harbouring during our home-stays.

There are some nifty, freely-available research tools, including a database of Pennant’s extensive and scattered correspondence, and a searchable online corpus of some 60 (previously unpublished!) Welsh and Scottish Tours. led by Dr Mary-Ann Constantine of the Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies  (CAWCS) and Professor Nigel Leask of the University of Glasgow, Curious Travellers goes well beyond your traditional Rough Guide.

On History

This blog provides access to all the news, articles and research from the Institute of Historical Research (IHR). Check out their reviews of the latest historical publications via the Reviews in History series; see all their open access initiatives and links to other blogs and resources such as the Royal Historical Society’s Historical Transactions Blog, and New Historical Perspectives – the latest book series for early career scholars; or read extracts from the Camden Society publications, some volumes of which are available through British History Online. BHO is a digital collection of over 1,280 volumes of primary and secondary sources on the history of Britain and Ireland primarily focusing on the years 1300-1800. All transcribed content on the site has now been made freely available online until 31 July 2020! There is plenty of online content, news, and historical features to keep you going for months.

History Past and Present

The University of Nottingham has a series of lively and informative blogs written by students, staff and academics on a wide range of subjects across multiple disciplines. The Arts and Humanities section posts on a range of topics including popular culture, cultures, language and area studies, and even Bringing Vikings back to the East Midlands – hopefully they respect social distancing and anti-bac-wipe their axes on a regular basis! The History Past and Present blog offers a wide range of instructive and motivating posts on academic articles, publications, key historical events, themes and topics.

So plenty to keep studious, curious, and jaded minds going throughout the current lockdown. Consider this your virtual-learning comfort blanket – and don’t forget to check out our new guide to digitised primary sources.

Until we see you again: stay indoors, stay safe, and read a blog – over and out!

The Family History Show, South West

A report from research associate, Dr Lauren O’Hagan, who ran a stall on ‘Book Inscriptions and Family History Research’ with civic engagement officer, Sara Huws, at the Family History Show at UWE Exhibition & Conference Centre, Bristol on 8 February.


People were already queuing in their hordes when I arrived at the UWE Exhibition and Conference Centre early on Saturday morning. Some with notepads and pens, some with cameras, some with flasks and packed lunches, some even with camping chairs. “I just can’t wait to see him in the flesh,” one woman exclaimed as I made my way to the entrance. No, we weren’t at a concert awaiting the arrival of Ed Sheeran or Drake; we were at the Family History Show, the biggest genealogical event in the South West of England, where dozens of avid amateur researchers had braved the rain to talk to experts in genealogy.

The Family History Show is the brainchild of Discover Your Ancestors magazine who first launched the show in York in 2011. Since then, its popularity has been growing steadily and, now, shows are run annually in York, London and Bristol, attracting hundreds of visitors from all across Britain. Judging from the crowd outside, today’s event in Bristol looked like it was going to be a big one!

As I entered the exhibition hall, I was met with four long rows of stalls featuring everything from dating old photographs and exploring historic maps to tracing ancestors in British India and discussing ethical dilemmas in genealogy. There were also opportunities to attend lectures on DNA testing, house dating and historic clothing, as well as to purchase postcards, books, folders and other genealogical paraphernalia.

A quick initial stroll around the hall made it clear that England was very well represented (with stallholders from the local Bristol area, as well as Devon, Cornwall, Oxfordshire, Worcestershire and beyond), but we were the only stall representing Wales. This meant that not only did we have the task of promoting book inscriptions and family history research, but also the added pressure of flying the flag for Wales and all other heritage industries in the country!

We quickly set up our stall (a good central location!), adorning it with a selection of prize books, laminated inscriptions and pamphlets, as well as freebie tote bags and pencil crayons. If we couldn’t lure visitors with books, at least we could lure them with giveaways! But as it turned out, we didn’t need to worry about that.

At 10:00 on the dot, a loudspeaker announcement declared the opening of the show. And so the floodgates were opened and dozens of men and women piled in.

From the outset, our stall seemed to attract a lot of attention, setting the pace for the day ahead. For the next six hours, Sara and I barely had a moment to rest!

Visitors seemed genuinely fascinated to hear about my novel way of approaching family history research and were keen to take away a copy of the two-page pamphlet I had produced with ‘top tips’ for using book inscriptions to explore ancestry.

As people browsed through the selection of inscriptions on the table, they seemed temporarily transported back to their childhood and opened up, sharing their own family memories and stories. It was genuinely touching to hear personal perspectives on inscriptions and what they meant to individuals. Many of these stories concerned family Bibles and prayer books and how they were passed down from generation to generation until the present day. Most admitted that they had never read the books, but they would never get rid of them because they were such a tangible link to their ancestors. Some, on the other hand, confessed that they had binned the books but steamed off the prize labels to keep because to do otherwise would be “to erase history.”

My favourite stories of the day include the simple tale of how one woman’s great-grandmother saved up to buy a copy of The English House for her great-grandfather, a builder, as well as the moving story of how one pocket prayer book survived World War One with bullet holes through its cover. I was also fascinated to hear the number of stories about inscriptions as first-hand evidence of national events. One lady recalled how her great-aunt had witnessed the transportation of Queen Victoria’s coffin from Osborne House to mainland Britain and documented the event in an inscription. In it, she had described how the sun shone off the jewels on top of the coffin, something that “you would never get from official records.” As she told me, marks like these made you realise that “Queen Victoria was nobody special; she was just one of us.” These examples really show how inscriptions and books can offer personalised versions and, thus, new perspectives on national events.

One of the most positive things for me was the way in which my research seemed to stimulate people’s own interest and curiosity in book inscriptions. Many stated that they couldn’t wait to go back home and start rummaging around to find what old books they had. Several people even noted down my email address so that they could send me their own examples to add to my dataset. It was also encouraging to hear people say that I had changed their way of thinking and that they would now look at their books in a new light. One man informed me that my research had “a lovely way of humanising ancestors” and “bringing the past to life.”

Being the only Welsh presence at the Family History Show, we also received a surprising number of visitors who were interested in investigating their Welsh ancestry. Sara dealt expertly (in both English and Welsh) with a barrage of different questions about all aspects of Welsh identity, from religion and language to sports and jobs, and even skillfully handled a tricky debate on nationalism. She even convinced a few people to start learning Welsh. Result!

Feedback from visitors showed that most people were unaware that Cardiff University Special Collections and Archives existed, let alone that it was open to the general public and not just students and academics. After informing visitors of the types of records held there, many expressed an interest in visiting. We were also able to send a fair few people Glamorgan Archives’ way (you can thank us later, guys!). Many visitors also had no previous knowledge of Archives Hub, an excellent website for searching across archive collections held in the UK, so we were able to promote the resource too.

A key factor that seemed to unite all stalls across the event was the connection between the past and present and the idea that we are really no different to our ancestors. This theme came up time and time again, whether in the examples of postcards showing Edwardians ‘foodstagramming’ their meals at a table, confession books where friends and families took part in ‘clean copy challenges’ or bookplates which people used as ‘status updates’ and ‘selfies’. Just like now, people laughed, cried, worried and cared about similar things to us. Tangible objects like book inscriptions or photographs remind us of this and bring us back in touch with the human side of our ancestors, making them more than just a name on a census record.

The day just flew by and before we knew it, it was 4:00 and time to wrap up the show. Naturally, the show ended in the only way that a Family History Show could end: with a Tannoy announcement that somebody had left a copy of the 1933 electoral register on the Somerset & Dorset Family History Society stall. You wouldn’t get that anywhere else!

So, all in all, we had a brilliant day out and thoroughly enjoyed talking to different people, hearing fascinating stories and promoting the value of book inscriptions for family history research. I even received two public speaking invites and generated interest in my forthcoming exhibition and book (stay tuned for both!). And as a scholar of Edwardian book inscriptions, I was delighted to pick up a free copy of the latest edition of Discover Your Ancestors featuring who else but King Edward VII himself standing regally on the front cover looking over his subjects.

My first experience of a family history show but definitely not my last!

DCDC19: Navigating the digital shift – practices and possibilities

A report from archivist Alison Harvey, who attended Discovering Collections, Discovering Communities (#DCDC19), a collaborative conference series hosted by The National Archives, Research Libraries UK, and Jisc, 12-14 November at Birmingham Conference and Events Centre.


Introducing the Library of Birmingham 


Exterior view of the Library of Birmingham

Library of Birmingham

This year’s DCDC19 featured the option to attend one of three pre-conference workshops based at different cultural institutions around the city. I have to admit to selecting the one hosted in the Library of Birmingham, based solely on wanting time to explore this impressive building during my stay. It was under construction the last time I’d been in the city, and while I’d seen photos of its modern and stylish design, nothing prepared me for the sheer scale. Inside, the ground floor was vast, bright and airy, stretching away in every direction. 

I looked up as I ascended the escalator, eager to see what was coming next, and had a sudden sense of vertigo as I caught a glimpse of the ceiling – nine floors and 200 feet above. I passed through floors dedicated to language learning, small business start ups, and quiet study. Each floor was shielded from the escalators by an inner wall lined with dimly-lit runs of old journals on black bookshelves, decked with twinkling fairy lights. 

Bookshelves lining the Library of Birmingham

Bookshelves lining the Library of Birmingham

The higher I climbed, the feel of the space shifted, from airy and modern, to more intimate, magical, and full of possibility. I recognised the same sense of excitement that I’d felt about libraries as a child – a place where I would be left unaccompanied for hours, with the freedom to pick any book I wanted, and travel to imaginary worlds. The final escalator dropped me at the entrance to the archives department. I hesitated, but to my surprise, nobody stopped me for ID or asked me to deposit my bag. The front area is full of general reference works, catalogues, maps, and microfilm, which anyone can use without security checks or restrictions about food and drink, and this phased approach to access made the whole department feel more welcoming. 

From here, I took a lift even higher to reach a roof garden that wraps around the building, and offers views of the city stretching for miles. Another trip in the lift took me all the way to the top floor, and the Shakespeare Memorial Library.

Shakespeare Memorial Library

Shakespeare Memorial Library

This had been carefully dismantled from its former home, and lovingly restored by architects in a specially-designed gold rotunda, topping the library building. The collection itself has outgrown its former accommodation, and the books now held in the oak cabinets are there mainly for decorative purposes alongside interpretation panels. The bulk of the collection is held in environmentally controlled storage back on the archives floor. Nevertheless, the room was busy with international tourists, even on a wet Tuesday morning in November. The Library hosts wine receptions and even has a licence for weddings. By now I was definitely ready to find out more – fortunately it was the subject of that afternoon’s workshop.


Workshop: Speaking of Shakespeare – and the Modern City, Tom Epps, Cultural Partnerships Manager, Library of Birmingham and Ewan Fernie, Director of the ‘Everything to Everybody’ Project, University of Birmingham 


Everything to Everybody homepage

The University of Birmingham and Birmingham City Council are using a £32,700 Heritage Lottery Fund development grant to prepare a £1 million bid to revive the city’s Shakespeare Memorial Library over the next four years. The oldest and largest Shakespeare collection in any public library, it holds content in 93 different languages: 40,000 volumes, plus production photographs, music scores, production posters, performance programmes and playbills. It holds the only First Folio in the world to be purchased by a public library to support working class education. I found all this astonishing, as I’d never heard of the collection. I soon found out why.

The Library was internationally recognised as the definitive resource for Shakespeare studies until the 1960s, but collection use declined through the 1970s and 80s as council funding shifted to activities considered less ‘elitist’. By 2015, the library had no remaining special collections staff, and only 7 collection items were used all year. All this had remarkable parallels with the fate of the rare book collection formerly held by Cardiff Public Library – very nearly dispersed at auction after decades of neglect, until it was saved for the city by Cardiff University and Welsh Government in 2010. Tom and Ewan explained that the extremely valuable collection was only protected from sale during its decline due to its designated status – an Arts Council scheme which does not extend beyond England.

A lack of staff in recent decades meant that the catalogue, part-typed and part-handwritten, has never made it online. Visitors have to make an appointment to see the catalogue volumes, then another appointment to see collection items. The project team mentioned their concern that the highly specialist bibliographic jargon used in the catalogues is impenetrable to all but academics, and are looking at ways of improving the accessibility of this information. 

Everything to Everybody workshop

Everything to Everybody workshop

The ‘Everything to Everybody’ Project seeks to revive awareness of this cultural resource, and ensure its accessibility and relevance to everyone in 21st century Birmingham and beyond. The workshop discussed the opportunities and challenges of bringing community voices to online catalogues and other digital documents, and all participants were invited to share their priorities, experience, and recommended practice.

The project team have employed the Collections Trust’s Revisiting Archive Collections methodology, which is aimed at helping cultural organisations understand the significance and meaning of their collections in a contemporary context, by encouraging community engagement and interpretation. They are keen to see the library become a living collection – consumed and remixed for any purpose imaginable – and to have these reinterpretations folded back into the collection for its future enrichment.

How to reach communities effectively? Partnerships. The project team appreciated that the city is already packed with cultural heritage organisations, schools, and charities with far better connections to and understanding of the communities they serve than the team could hope to access by working alone. The project team sought to connect with these groups, then further connect with wider communities. They marketed structured offers of engagement with the collection at speed dating-style events. Organisations could consider and select from a range of onsite and offsite options, with different levels of co-design and support from the library. 

Shakespeare Memorial Library

Shakespeare Memorial Library

Onsite options include: tours and education workshops; family days; community curated exhibitions; and volunteering opportunities (assisting with archive research, conservation, digitisation, social media, public engagement, and education). Offsite, the library is offering support for: teachers wishing to develop Shakespeare-themed events or visual arts activities within schools; venues seeking to host the First Folio as it tours around Birmingham; neighbourhood Shakespeare productions; and the opportunity to showcase work, exhibitions and performances at an international festival in 2022, when Birmingham will host the Commonwealth Games.

In terms of digital content, the team wants ‘to give it away and get something else back’ – to offer their images for re-use and re-mixing by anyone, for any purpose. Delegates highlighted a number of examples of good practice, such as the British Library’s Off the Map scheme. This challenges full time UK students in higher or further education to make videogames, digital explorable environments, or interactive fiction based on digitised British Library collection items. Girls Who Code was identified as a group that may be interested in transforming raw catalogue data into new forms. The Museum of London’s Fire of London website was named as an example of an innovative online exhibition, which features educational games and support for Minecraft. It was also suggested that the library could ensure complete support for digital scrapbooking and interoperable image sharing by ensuring adherence to the International Image Interoperability Framework.

The project team will hear if their HLF bid has been successful in the next few weeks. Follow them on Twitter to keep up with the latest developments!


Keynote: Navigating the digital shift through the lens of arts and culture, Tonya Nelson, Arts Council England


Tonya Nelson, Arts Council England

Tonya Nelson, Arts Council England

Tonya’s keynote began by stating three major digital challenges facing society, each illustrated with examples of digital art and culture works aimed at addressing them:

  • Making sense of the vast quantities of information now available to us: Anna Ridler’s Mosaic Virus, which draws on the history of the 17th century tulip boom to make sense of bitcoin; Refik Anadol’s Black Sea data sculpture; and Lumen prize winner Resurrecting the Sublime, a video installation aimed at capturing the sense of smell. 
  • Transforming information into power (using archives to change society): Cleveland Museum of Art’s open access policy, which encourages artists and developers to remix; the British Library’s Imaginary Cities, an exhibition which remixed images and data from the library’s digital collection of historic urban maps into fictional cityscapes; and Justice Syndicate, an immersive theatre and courtroom simulation in which the audience play the part of a murder trial jury confronted with a wealth of conflicting information, and challenges how this can be navigated without bias.
  • Supporting new forms of authorship and ensuring its capture for future generations: Tonya mentioned the need for conversations around ethics and intellectual property in relation to machine learning. Choreographer Wayne McGregor trained a machine to learn from an archive of his own dance videos in order to generate new work in his style using AI – to what extent can he claim intellectual or artistic ownership over this output? How can archives manage this kind of training data, and ensure that it is transparent and free of bias?

Tonya’s key message was that the time for heritage institutions to be passive providers of information is over: libraries, archives and museums must become laboratories for the processing of information, ensuring that it remains meaningful to each generation. They must drive change, become platform innovators: developing online tools to facilitate the manipulation of existing information to create new works. 

Culture is Digital reportTo meet this new challenge, she acknowledged a need to build skills capacity in the sector. As an output of the 2018 government report Culture is Digital, a Digital Maturity Index is being launched to encourage heritage organisations to adopt a focused strategy that is relevant to their needs. There is no need for every institution to attempt everything – it is for each to decide where they are now, and where they would like to be. To support this, Arts Council England have employed Tech Champions, digital specialists based outside the sector, who can offer advice and training in their areas of expertise: data analytics, websites, digital marketing, social media, search engine optimisation, and e-commerce. Tonya spoke frankly about the need to review current Arts Council funding models, which can make it difficult for organisations who are already struggling to deliver a core service, to take innovative risks and embrace change.


Panel: Developing Digital Platforms


Eating the elephant: tackling the Express & Star photograph archive one bite at a time, Scott Knight, Business Development Manager, University of Wolverhampton and Heidi McIntosh, Senior Archivist, Wolverhampton City Archives

Scott and Heidi spoke about the partnership of the Express & Star newspaper, the University of Wolverhampton, and Wolverhampton City Archives to digitise, catalogue, preserve and make publicly available their archive of photographs of 20th century daily life in the West Midlands.

The Express & Star is currently the largest regional newspaper in the UK, and their photo archive is very much a working collection. It remains held on site in the newspaper offices and is accessed by employees several times a day. I was interested to hear how Heidi managed the logistical challenge this presents – removing small sections in batches for cataloguing, digitisation, upload to the newspaper’s website, then transferring the originals for archival storage.

Express & Star photo archive homepage

Express & Star photo archive

Funded by a Heritage Lottery Fund grant, they spoke of the value of their HLF mentor, who helped define expectations of what the project could realistically deliver. Principally, to understand the complexities and true costs of mass digitisation, and managing risk around copyright. The archive totals 1 million images, but it became apparent that once the costs of equipment, image storage and hosting was factored in, their HLF grant only stretched to digitising 3,000 images. A team of volunteers has helped to sort 65,000 further photos into categories to aid retrieval, and while this work continues, further funding is being sought to continue digitisation activity, as well as support for digital preservation, which was not costed into the initial project.

Many of their initial assumptions were challenged, such as the expectation that they could generate match-funding by selling images. There proved to be no viable market for this, and they abandoned this approach in favour of sharing content freely on social media. This generated publicity rather than income, which they now appreciate to be of greater long term value for their institutions.

 

The GDD Network: towards a Global Dataset of Digitised texts, Paul Gooding, Lecturer in Information Studies, University of Glasgow

Paul spoke about the growing need for a central resource to address uncoordinated digital activity in the UK. Many research libraries are undertaking mass digitisation programmes, but there exists no single discovery platform for discovering either single texts for reading, or large corpora for digital scholarship. 

The AHRC-funded GDD Network (British Library, National Library of Wales, and National Library of Scotland) addresses the feasibility of creating a global dataset of digitised texts through collaborative outputs. These include a prototype dataset of digitised texts, and expert workshops to inform a study of the impact of a global dataset. 

The key needs identified were to avoid duplication of effort, provide a single point of access, and ensure that data is both trusted (with traceable provenance) and interoperable. A holdings analysis by Hathi Trust aimed to data match digitised texts across catalogues, but met with limited success due to the inconsistent use of OCLC and ISBN numbers. Machine learning was subsequently attempted, by training a Support Vector Machine classifier – with the conclusion that cross-institutional duplicate detection is ‘very difficult’.

 

Manchester Digital Collections, John Hodgson, Head of Special Collections, University of Manchester Library and Ian Gifford, Digital Library Applications Development Manager, University of Manchester Library

John and Ian spoke about their collaboration with Cambridge University Library to deliver a new Digital Image Viewer to showcase the University’s digital collections.

Manchester Digital Collections homepage

Manchester Digital Collections

The presentation ended with a demonstration of the viewer, but focused mainly on the challenges of working collaboratively with an institution that operates within a very different context, and the lessons learnt by both parties:

  • Governance: Manchester University Library has limited autonomy: decision-making is collaborative, largely driven by researcher demand, and tends towards risk aversion. Good communication with Cambridge was essential to avoid misinterpretations and false assumptions based on cultural differences, with partners meeting face-to-face as much as possible. Establishing a project board helped to coordinate stakeholders and encourage their input. Interestingly, Manchester’s collaborative approach has caused Cambridge to rethink their dependence on key individuals for decision-making.
  • Technology: Cambridge have a dedicated digital team, with bespoke development activity matching the personal interests of its members. Conversely, Manchester have struggled to get their IT team involved with digital projects, due to their many other commitments, and library staff have had to upskill to fill the gap. However, a very positive and collegial dynamic has developed between the new library digital team and the IT team.
  • Content: Cambridge’s dedicated team develops its digital content systematically through funded projects, while Manchester had large quantities of legacy content digitised in a variety of formats, with inconsistent quality standards and metadata. Ingest was impossible to automate in this context, and staff were not sufficiently skilled to upload content manually. A project role was created, solely to manage and organise the preparation and upload of legacy content. Manchester are reviewing their current processes and rethinking workflows around image capture and cataloguing, in an attempt to match the more orderly creation of data achieved by Cambridge. They are consolidating and standardising practices, formats and tools for the preparation of content, and staff are being trained in the Text-Encoding Initiative to ensure future proofing.

Moving forward, Manchester has decided to continue to prioritise improvements and integrations that support researcher requirements, like online exhibitions, collaborative development via Open Source, and partnerships with other institutions.


Keynote: Liz Jolly, Chief Librarian, British Library


Liz spoke about the various initiatives that the British Library is supporting to get its content out beyond London:


Panel: The digital workforce: navigating the skills shift


The everyday (digital) archivistJo Pugh, Digital Development Manager, The National Archives

Jo reported on a large scale digital survey of the sector carried out with Jisc, and discussed The National Archives’ digital capacity building strategy, Plugged In, Powered Up, formulated in response. This includes:

  • the development of new ‘Novice to Ninja’ digital preservation guidance, and intensive courses for archive staff in collaboration with the Digital Preservation Coalition. 
  • A new network, Digital Archives Learning Exchange, which will meet at locations around the UK.
  • ‘Archives School’, a free taught digital preservation programme delivered at Kew.
  • Supporting the British Library and Birkbeck, University of London, to develop a postgraduate certificate in Computing for Cultural Heritage.
  • Applications for new Digital Engagement Grants are opening in January.
  • Future work includes a peer mentoring scheme for archivists looking to engage in more extensive digital work, a leadership programme for senior managers, and an engagement toolkit for digital storytelling and audience development.

 

Keepers of manuscripts to content managers: navigating and developing the shift in archival skillsRachel MacGregor, Digital Preservation Officer, University of Warwick

Rachel spoke about the perceived barriers to developing digital skills – a lack of time, resource, IT support, confidence and subject knowledge. However, since spending time working in research data management, she has noticed many similarities between archives and data – perhaps the gap is not as large as we think? She highlighted the SCONUL report on Mapping the future of academic libraries, which discusses the development of AI and machine learning, datafied scholarship, and the increasing pressure on libraries to provide support for these areas of research.

 

Archives West Midlands: New skills for old? The shift from analogue to digitalJoanna Terry, Head of Staffordshire Archives & Heritage and AWM Trustee and Mary McKenzie, Shropshire Archives Team Leader and AWM Trustee.

Joanna and Mary discussed the work of their regional network, Archives West Midlands (AWM) launched in 2016 as a Charitable Incorporated Organisation (CIO). AWM has been successful in delivering two grant funded projects focused on digital preservation. The first project established ‘digital preservation readiness’ across member services in the West Midlands. Their goal is that everyone does something towards digital preservation, with an aim to reaching NDSA (National Digital Stewardship Alliance) Level 1. The second project built on this to establish model policies and guidance to enable members to navigate the skills shift from analogue to digital. 


Workshop: Digital scholarship and the modern research library: Judy Burg, Head of Collections, Durham University; Siobhán Convery, Assistant Director, Collections Strategy, University of Glasgow; Anna Grigson, Head of Content and Discovery, LSE; Lorna Hughes, Professor of Digital Humanities, University of Glasgow.


The workshop discussed what collections-led research might look like in the digital future, and what this means for collections.

We discussed the impact of AI, machine learning, disruptive tech like VR, robotics, data mining and normalisation. We asked, how can archivists and librarians enable their collections to thrive in the digital future? Do we have the skills as professionals to meet that challenge? If not, how do we get ready? Who might we need to partner with? What research processes and structures do we need to be a part of, and what impact might this have on our spaces, digital and physical?

Our discussions led to several conclusions:

  • we need to identify and learn from sector leaders and best practice.
  • we need to accept that outside influence is needed to develop skills; there is little point in us only talking to each other.
  • we as individuals don’t need to possess all the skills – just know where to find people who have them.
  • we should open the sector and pull people in: not everyone who works in an archive needs to be an archivist.
  • collaborative working was offered as a solution to how HEIs can afford to pay a developer when they are able to earn so much more in the private sector. If HEIs work together, they can share the costs to buy in this expertise, rather than each institution paying for the same knowledge individually.
  • what is being taught on archive courses is not fit for purpose, and has created a situation where increasingly self-taught ‘digital archivists’ find they have more in common with systems developers than with other archivists. 

Keynote: A reckoning in the Archives: America’s scrapbook, Lae’l Hughes-Watkins, University Archivist, University of Maryland


I don’t think I would be alone in stating that Lae’l’s keynote was the highlight of the conference. She spoke eloquently and passionately about black American archival silences, asking us to imagine being a member of a family that routinely removes you from photos, despite making every effort to prove yourself. She spoke movingly of how this persistent cultural erasure, this inability, from early childhood, to find characters like herself in books, or experiences she could relate to, left her asking ‘am I alive, am I really here, am I a ghost?’ 

Lae’l Hughes-Watkins, University of Maryland

Lae’l Hughes-Watkins, University of Maryland

Later in her education, she would scour archives in the hope of finding these stories, but was all too often defeated in these efforts. She decided that she wanted to stop searching in the scrapbook of American history, and start creating it, by becoming an archivist herself. Her stories of working with donors with an intense mistrust of heritage institutions were fascinating – her efforts to call every week or so to exchange the latest family gossip, to join them at church, and even check that their driveway was clear when it snowed – in a keen attempt to try and rebuild these damaged relationships. 

Following a discussion of the difficulties, both practical and ethical, of capturing social media activism, Lae’l ended her keynote with a call to arms. She urged archivists to abandon neutrality in favour of social justice. Our work is not neutral – a collection development policy is not neutral. It decides what is important now and in the future. She asked us to consider, which of us has the arrogance to decide this easily?


Workshop: Transcription in the age of machines


As a not-very-secret geek, I was over the moon to have the opportunity to play with Transkribus, a free platform for handwritten text recognition (HTR). It has the potential to automate text recognition for any collection containing large amounts of manuscripts written by the same person, such as correspondence or diaries. I had heard about the software being used to support the Transcribe Bentham project, and was keen to learn more. 

Users can upload up to 500MB of images at one time, more via FTP. A range of file formats are accepted, including pdf, tif, jpg and png. There are no restrictions on image quality, but 300 dpi images are recommended for best results. The software analyses each image, and segments it into lines. Then it’s over to the user to transcribe each line exactly as it appears – every spelling error, hyphen, abbreviation and symbol. The user is telling the machine what letter or symbol is being represented by each mark on the page. It is completely language independent, because the machine is reading shapes, not words.

Transkribus software

Transkribus software

Once around 50 pages, or 10,000 words have been transcribed, the fun really starts. Users can take this data, known as ‘ground truth’ – images and their matching transcriptions – and use it to create a machine learning model which can automatically transcribe documents written in the same hand. The output can be edited and corrected, then fed back into the model to improve its accuracy even further. The final transcripts can be tagged, exported and searched. The software is available for download, and a lite version is available in browser.


Conclusions

DCDC19 left delegates in no doubt that there is a digital shift, and that we must act now – as individual practitioners, leaders, and institutions – to ensure that we are not left on the wrong side of it. The key message of the conference was the importance of partnerships. Upskilling and continuing professional development is one approach that we should all take, but at the same time, we need to work smarter, using resources already available to us. Skills of communication, negotiation, and collaboration are ones we already possess – half the battle in addressing the digital skill gap is identifying the right people to talk to, and understanding how to talk to them respectfully and effectively.

There are tools and partnerships we could use to help us on this journey, critically those provided by conference organisers Jisc and RLUK, but also at the regional and city-wide level. Taking a more strategic approach – asking ‘where are we now, and where do we want to be’ – and making the answers honest and realistic, is preferable to panicking and putting our heads in the sand. As individuals, and as institutions, we do not need to be all things to all people. By working together, by being open, by sharing our content, as well as our skills and resources, we are all in a stronger position to navigate the digital shift.