Ligatus Summer School 2017

I have been fascinated by books as physical objects ever since I was a student in the MLIS programme at UCLA, where I somehow got a job making archival boxes and doing simple book repairs in the Library Conservation Center. It was in the conservation lab that I encountered my first 400-year-old book, and it is largely because of that experience that I decided to specialise in rare books librarianship. For several years, I have wanted to enrol in Professor Nicholas Pickwoad‘s course on European Bookbindings, 1450-1830, which he offers every year through various different programmes including Rare Book School at the University of Virginia and London Rare Books School. Earlier this month, I finally had the opportunity to enrol in his course through Ligatus Summer School, and it was every bit as exciting (and exhausting) as I’d hoped.

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The library at Norwich Cathedral.

This year’s summer school was hosted by the Norwich Cathedral Library, and consisted of lectures in the mornings, followed by hands-on sessions looking at examples of different binding structures in the afternoons. Two of the afternoons were spent in the cathedral library itself, and during the rest of the week we visited the libraries of Blickling Estate, Holkham Estate, and Felbrigg Hall. It was a real treat to be able to go behind the scenes of these historic properties and examine portions of their book collections in detail.

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Sir Richard Ellys (1682-1742) moved his library from London to Blickling Hall in Norwich in the 1740s.

The first day of the course included the usual round of introductions: who we are, where we come from, and why we’re on the course. Out of twelve students on the course, I was surprised to learn that I was one of just two librarians; all of the other students were book and paper conservators. While I enjoyed the chance to meet people from different backgrounds, I was somewhat disappointed that my own profession was not better represented. Because rare book stacks are not generally open for browsing, the library catalogue (or sometimes a particularly knowledgeable librarian) is the only avenue for researchers to find items that are relevant to their research. Unless cataloguers are able to describe bindings and other types of material evidence with the same level of accuracy and detail that we devote to bibliography, we are failing to provide researchers with an important means of accessing our collections. As it becomes possible for anyone with an internet connection to view a digitised version of the British Library or Bayerische Staatsbibliothek‘s copy of a particular text or edition, it is the unique characteristics (like bindings) of individual copies of books that will attract researchers into special collections reading rooms.

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Damaged books can reveal structural details that would not otherwise be visible.

Until quite recently, most of the literature on the history of bookbinding has focussed almost exclusively on decorative features such as tooling, exotic leathers, and colourful onlays rather than on the underlying structures. In other words, bindings are analysed as works of art rather than archaeological artifacts. Professor Pickwoad, on the other hand, emphasises the importance of identifying and cataloguing binding structures as evidence of when and where a book was bound, by whom, and for what purpose.

We looked at quite a lot of very beautiful books, but in many ways it was the ugly, battered ones that were the most interesting. It was the books whose endpapers were peeling and whose leather covers were torn that allowed us to see what materials the binder had chosen for the sewing supports and spine linings, and where he (or she) had cut corners to save time and money.

The purpose of a binding is to hold a book’s pages together and protect them against wear. During the Middle Ages, books were tremendously expensive luxury items, and binders took great pains to ensure that such a significant investment was well protected. With the advent of the printing press, books were produced in much larger numbers and at a fraction of the cost, and binders found numerous inventive ways to keep up with the demand for large numbers of reasonably-priced books, usually at the expense of structural integrity.

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These books look similar from the outside, but each one’s structure is slightly different.

Over the course of the week, we looked at each of the steps in binding a book, from assembling the endleaves, to sewing the bookblock, rounding and backing, sewing the endbands, attaching the boards, trimming the edges, covering the book, and finally finishing. With each step, we looked at how the techniques and materials used varied across regions, time periods, and price points. It was fascinating to see how books that looked almost identical on the surface revealed a multitude of different structures underneath, which could be traced to different times and places.

Prior to the industrial age, it was not uncommon for books to be sold without bindings or in cheap, temporary bindings, and for customers to have them rebound according to their taste and budget. Because bindings were often selected by the purchaser rather than the bookseller, they can tell us whether the reader was wealthy or poor, ostentatious or subdued, local or foreign. Over a book’s lifetime, it may be rebound because the old binding was worn or damaged, or because the owner wanted to dress it up a little. Some wealthy book collectors had their entire libraries rebound and decorated in a uniform style. By looking at a book’s underlying structure as well as its decorations, it is sometimes possible to find elements of earlier bindings which can tell us when and where the book was being read, and by whom.

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Nicholas Pickwoad shows the class an Early Modern book that remains an unbound pile of hastily folded sheets.

Professor Pickwoad gives his students an enormous amount of information to absorb (for example, the leather preferred by Oxford bookbinders was often especially dark in colour, and they often tooled patterns of cross-hatching on their board edges near the spine; French binders often attached their boards by lacing the sewing slips through three holes instead of two; German binders often put especially sharp creases on the fore-edge extensions of their parchment bindings), but after a week of looking at dozens of examples, it was all beginning to sink in. As a rare materials cataloguer, I have always tried to include at least a brief description of each book’s binding–if nothing else, knowing what a book looks like makes it easier for library staff to find it on the shelf. Now, this course has given me the knowledge and vocabulary to describe not only what a book looks like, but how it was made. More importantly though, it has given me a new appreciation for the importance of bindings as artifacts that can help us to understand the movement of goods, people, and ideas throughout history. My hope is that by including better descriptions of bindings in the library’s catalogue, I can help to open up new avenues of research rooted in the archaeology of the book.

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One of my classmates takes advantage of a tea break to record details of some of the books at Holkham Estate.

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Guest post: Conserving Edward Thomas’ herbarium

The following post comes from Pamela Murray, an MSc Conservation Practice Student at Cardiff University and conservation volunteer at Glamorgan Archives. She has been working on the Edward Thomas Conservation project as a student conservator thanks to the generous support of the National Manuscript Conservation Trust


Leaves and flowers are generally removed from archives or books collection, as this organic material encourages pests, stains paper and can be poisonous, but when they have been pressed between pages for over a century, a different approach must be considered. Herbarium collections can add value and depth to an archive, and can offer a new angle for research. Earlier this year, a herbarium collection of about 20 different plants was found within the Special Collections’ Edward Thomas archive. These pressed flowers and leaves were found in three different notebooks dated between 1895-1896, which had been selected to be conserved thanks to generous funding by the NMCT. Nature, and specifically the Welsh countryside, is known to be a major inspiration for Edward Thomas’ works.

Edward Thomas’ poem Thaw, 1916.

Part of the conservation activity funded by the NMCT grant included hinging the pressed plants with Japanese tissue to micro-chamber board, and encapsulating it, which would give support to the plant and protect it from exterior factors – mainly humidity and pests.  Part of any conservator’s job is to do huge amounts of research. I was very curious about herbariums, and came across many research papers warning of previous treatments that could be hazardous.

Previous treatments

It was common practice, as recently as the 1980s, to treat herbariums with mercury chloride as a disinfectant against pests. It would be applied in one of two ways – soaked, or brushed on with ethanol. Mercury chloride, although once used against syphilis, is extremely poisonous. It can reduce into metallic mercury, which is liquid at room temperature and can vaporise. Mercury vapour can build up to harmful levels when samples of treated plants are kept in boxes or between pages, and the vapour is highly poisonous if inhaled. The World Health Organisation has classified mercury as “extremely hazardous Class 1A”. The emission of mercury vapour from herbariums can be an occupational health hazard for collection workers and researchers.

How do  you know if the collection has been previously treated with mercury chloride?

There are a few ways to test for the presence of mercury chloride. Working in collaboration between Glamorgan Archives, Special Collections and Archives, and Cardiff University Conservation Department, we decided to use the Conservation department’s portable XRF. An XRF is an X-ray Fluorescent Spectrometer that determines what elements are present. It is a non-invasive technique, which is appropriate for rare collections and heritage objects.

A flower sample resting on the pXRF.

To explain briefly, the X-ray beam affects the atom, which releases a burst of energy that is characteristic of a specific element. This produces a graph which can be analysed. Under the guidance of PhD candidate Chris Wilkins, we tested all the samples. Luckily none of the samples came up with a positive reading for mercury chloride. We also looked for arsenic and lead, other common historical biocides that are classified as hazardous. All of the readings indicated that mercury, arsenic and lead were absent.

Graph of trace elements from pXRF.

Benefits of testing

Knowing that the herbarium has been tested ensures a safe working environment for archive workers and researchers. It also informs the storage plan for the herbarium. If samples were contaminated, then a form of ventilation would be required to ensure vapour ratios are within UK health and safety regulations. Testing the samples has improved the collection’s accessibility for readers and researchers, and allows further information to be uncovered. Sampling DNA, or categorising the plants would give us a fuller image of Edward Thomas’ landscape in the late 1800s.

Samples that have been hinged with Japanese tissue on MicroChamber board, before encapsulation.

The herbarium has been encapsulated, and remains between the pages of Edward Thomas notebooks. If you are interested in Edward Thomas’ notes, poetry or the plants that took his interest, they can all be found and explored safely in Special Collections and Archives.

CILIP Rare Books and Special Collections conference, day 3

The third and final day of the CILIP Rare Books and Special Collections group conference looked at Sale and Disposal: the unfortunate reality that libraries and collectors must sometimes part with their treasured collections, and how to make the best of an unpleasant situation.

Anastasia Tennant, a policy advisor for Collections and Cultural Property with Arts Council England, started the day with a presentation on Export controls on, and tax incentives available for the acquisition of, manuscripts, archives, and books. Since the 1910s, the United Kingdom has allowed the heirs of wealthy estates to offset a portion of their inheritance taxes by transferring cultural assets of significant value into public ownership. This tax exemption was originally intended for buildings and paintings, but from the 1950s onward, it could also be applied to literary archives, books, and manuscripts. In the 1960s, the regulations were revised to allow cultural assets to be allocated to regional museums, leading to a gradual increase in the proportion of archives that have been donated in recent years. More recently, the Cultural Gifts Scheme has allowed significant donations to offset other types of taxes as well. Because many libraries, archives, and museums rely heavily on donations to build their collections, tax incentives like these can encourage potential donors to give to local institutions instead of selling items of cultural value to raise capital to pay taxes.

By alleviating the financial burden of passing on valuable works of art, the exemption has prevented the loss of significant pieces of cultural heritage to overseas buyers. Since WWII, the United Kingdom has also had export controls designed to prevent capital from leaving the country. These procedures state that the directors of national institutions have the right to refuse an export license for works of art over a certain monetary value. In cases where an export license is refused, the owner must be presented with an offer to buy the item at a fair market price. If no institution is able to raise the funds to make an offer, it is possible that the item may still end up being sold overseas, but the hope is that a larger percentage of significant cultural artifacts will remain within the UK’s borders.

The second presentation by Alixe Bovey of the Courtauld Institute was a harrowing tale of the Law Society’s decision in 2012 to sell off the Mendham Collection. The Mendham Collection was formed in the early 19th century by Joseph Mendham, a clergyman who spent the later years of his life as a prolific controversialist and polemicist. In response to the Catholic Emancipation acts of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, he used his personal fortune to assemble a library (which he annotated heavily) of manuscripts, incunabula, and printed books in support of his anti-Catholic  arguments. Ironically, in the process he built up a library that was particularly rich in both Protestant and Catholic history and theology.

In 1869, Sophia Mendham gave the bulk of her father-in-law’s collection to the Law Society, expressing a wish that the books be kept together as the “Mendham Collection”. A century later, the collection was placed on deposit with Canterbury Cathedral library where it was much used by students and faculty across two local universities. In the 1990s, the British Library awarded a grant to have the collection catalogued on the condition that no material would be dispersed at a later date. Although it was Canterbury Cathedral who assented to the terms of the grant, the Law Society seemed very proud of the achievement, and a print catalogue of the collection was published in 1994.

In April 2012, however, the library became aware that the Law Society planned to withdraw certain items with the longer-term goal of selling them. After unsuccessful attempts to communicate directly with the Law Society to prevent the sale, a campaign was launched and a task force assembled to preserve the collection. They gathered letters of support, set up an online petition, attracted media coverage, sought legal advice, and even offered to buy the collection from the Law Society, but in June 2013, the collection was split into 142 different lots and sold at auction by Sotheby’s. Another sale of 338 lots took place at Bloomsbury’s the following year.

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Alixe Bovey points to a timeline of the Law Society’s decision to break up and sell the Mendham Collection.

Bovey speculated that the Law Society’s eagerness to sell may have been motivated by a significant downturn in the society’s finances in 2011. The society’s Annual Report for that year show a net deficit of £65.7m, compared with a £56.9m surplus the previous year. In the end, the actual revenue generated by the sale was approximately £1.6m.

Although still pained by the breaking up of the collection despite the best efforts of the library and its supporters, Bovey reflected on the bibliophile community’s willingness to come together in support of the collection, and the effectiveness of social media and other forms of publicity in preventing other bibliographic disasters like the proposed sale of Shakespeare folios from the Senate House Library in London. She also stressed the importance of cataloguing, noting that the 1994 print catalogue is now the sole surviving monument of the collection as a whole.

The final speaker of the conference was Margaret Lane Ford, speaking both as a representative of Christie’s auction house and as a member of the Bibliographical Society to offer a bookseller’s perspective on the dispersal of library collections. The Bibliographical Society recognises that weeding and disposal are necessary and appropriate parts of a responsible collection management policy, but that the decision to dispose of a collection should be made in an open and transparent manner, following careful thought and consultation.

To that end, the Bibliographical Society has a Libraries at Risk policy and subcommittee to help libraries who are faced with the prospect of selling a collection. The subcommittee can offer advice on whether it is possible or desirable to save the collection, raise the profile of the collection at risk, campaign to save the collection, or, failing that, help to find a new home for it.

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Margaret Lane Ford presents some practical advice on dispersal from the book trade.

Collections may be sold in various ways, each with its own advantages and disadvantages. En bloc sales keep collections intact, but often make it difficult to find a buyer. Individual items may be offered for private sale, which can be discreet and move quickly, but can be perceived as secretive or underhanded, resulting in damage to the institution’s reputation. Collections may be sold at auction where there is the potential for items to sell above the estimated price, but also the risk that they will sell for less.

Booksellers can offer advice on how to achieve the best possible outcome from the sale and on handling publicity, an area in which few librarians have experience or expertise. Following the painful history of the Mendham Collection, Ford was eager to remind  conference delegates that booksellers are the mechanism, not the catalyst for dispersal, and that they only become involved after the decision to sell has already been made. If a collection must be sold, library staff should not be afraid to make use of the knowledge and experience of members of the antiquarian book trade.

Following Ford’s presentation, there were a few announcements, a round of thanks to the speakers and the conference organisers, and then all that remained was to say goodbye to my colleagues and make the journey back home to Cardiff. Although this year’s conference presentations were filled with as many cautionary tales as success stories, I came away with lots of ideas for how to improve preservation and security for the collections in my care.

CILIP Rare Books and Special Collections conference, day 2

Picking up from last week’s post, here’s what happened on day 2 of the CILIP RBSCG Annual Study Conference.

The theme for day 2 of the conference was Theft and Vandalism. The first presentation of the day by Barbara McCormack, Special Collections Librarian at Maynooth University, described the process of relocating the Otway-Maurice Collection from its original home in St Canice’s cathedral in Kilkenny to Maynooth University library in Dublin.

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St Canice’s Cathedral, where the Otway-Maurice collection was housed prior to 2011.

The collection was founded in 1683 with a bequest from Bishop Thomas Otway, and significantly expanded in the 18th century with another bequest from Bishop Edward Maurice. The collection consists of more than 3000 volumes, including 4 incunabula and 300 pre-1600 titles. Since its inception, the collection had been housed in the 14th century cathedral in Kilkenny, on open shelves in a room which was frequently used for parish events. An initial assessment of the collection revealed that the relative humidity in the room reached as high as 75%, encouraging mould growth and an infestation of silverfish.

In 2001, the Representative Body of the Church of Ireland approached Maynooth University in Dublin about taking over custodianship of the collection due to growing concerns over the physical deterioration and security risks to the collection. In exchange for a long-term loan of the books, Maynooth university agreed to pay for the transportation, conservation, cataloguing, and general custodianship of the books, while the cathedral would retain legal ownership.

Before the books could be moved, they were fully inventoried, frozen (to kill the silverfish), cleaned, and in some cases, repaired. The collection was then catalogued to a basic level, with more detailed cataloguing taking place as resources become available. The collection’s new storage area is maintained at 17 degrees and 45% relative humidity, and there are security systems in place. Although this was a very expensive process, the university felt that it was a worthwhile investment in order to gain ready access to the collection for its students and faculty. Since moving to its new home, the collection has been heavily used for teaching, research, and exhibitions.

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Dr Anke Timmerman speaks about how booksellers and libraries can work together to prevent theft.

The second presentation by Anke Timmerman, Library Liaison from the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association (ABA). Dr Timmermann’s addressed the issue of theft more directly by describing the the ways that antiquarian booksellers can work with libraries to prevent or respond to theft and vandalism.

Researching provenance (or ownership history) is an important part of the antiquarian book trade. The ability to trace a particular copy of a book to a particular owner has the potential to greatly enhance its value, but it can also reveal that an item may not have been obtained legally. For this reason, the ABA has created guidelines which are designed to make theft (especially from libraries) and the sale of stolen books more difficult.

According to these guidelines, ABA members are expected to do due diligence in researching the provenance of high-value items, confirming that the seller acquired the item legally, and that it was imported or exported legally. If material is suspected to have been stolen, booksellers must conduct research into the book’s provenance, contact the book’s legitimate owner, and cooperate fully with law enforcement to return the stolen material and apprehend those responsible.

Conversely, libraries are expected to do their part to protect their collections against theft and vandalism by establishing and following procedures which minimise opportunities for theft by staff and users, ensuring that rare materials are used under supervision, cataloguing and recording unique identifying features, applying unique and indelible marks of ownership to collections materials, and indelibly cancelling those markings if an item is deaccessioned. Libraries are expected to keep a record of all disposals, and to retain sufficient information to enable subsequent identification of their particular copy of the book.

In the event that a book is stolen, it is important to report the theft as soon as possible. Historically, cultural institutions have been reluctant to admit when items have been stolen for fear that it would damage their reputations and drive away prospective donors, but many cultural heritage professionals now recognise that remaining silent about theft only makes it easier to sell the stolen property. The International League of Antiquarian Booksellers (ILAB) maintains a register of stolen books, and the Art Loss Register includes books, manuscripts, and fragments thereof valued at £300 or more.

The third speaker, Adrian Edwards, Head of Printed Heritage Collections at the British Library, picked up where Dr. Timmerman’s presentation left off, describing some of the security measures in place at the British Library and describing how three particular book thieves were caught and convicted. Conference delegates were asked not to share the details of these investigations on social media, but all three examples held chilling similiarities. In every case, the thief was a frequent visitor to the library, well known to library staff and trusted by them. None of the thieves had any prior criminal convictions, and yet all of them did irreparable damage to unique historical artifacts.

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A few of the British Library’s procedures to detect loss, damage, and theft.

As a government body, the British Library views investigating and prosecuting theft as part of its obligation to use public funds responsibly. They always prosecute where the evidence allows, and they always pursue staff disciplinary action where applicable. Collection security appears in their Strategic Risk Register, and there are a number of policies in place both to minimise the risk of theft or loss by members of the public and their own staff.

Although some of the British Library’s security measures are beyond the reach of smaller institutions due to insufficient equipment or staffing, there are certain principles that can be applied by libraries of any size: taking a pro-active approach to security by performing regular collection audits, tracking the movement of items, and identifying high-risk items enables libraries to identify and investigate missing items quickly. Consistent and uniform application of security procedures for staff and readers alike reduces the opportunities for theft, and clear ownership markings ensure that stolen items can be easily identified and returned to their rightful owners.

The final speaker of the day, Giles Mandelbrote, Librarian and Archivist at Lambeth Palace Library, told the story of a major theft of around 1400 early printed items in 1974, nearly all of which were returned in 2011. The story involved an unusual stipulation in the thief’s will, some particularly inspired detective work involving an old, long-since superseded print catalogue of the library’s collection, and the discovery of a locked trapdoor into a hidden loft. The story is welldocumented elsewhere, but the take-away lessons for conference delegates focused on the importance of retaining print catalogues as historical snapshots of the collection, and the need to work with the media to ensure that coverage focused on the restoration of the books rather than poor security and the subsequent cover-up of the loss.

One point which particularly struck me was the fact that the actions of one opportunistic thief were able to change our perception of the historical record. The thief had targeted items which he believed to have the highest resale value. Given the interests of book collectors today, these were primarily on secular topics. In removing those items, the thief drastically changed the overall character of the collection by obscuring the personal interests of the previous archbishops who had bequeathed their personal collections to the library. The idea that a single opportunistic thief could have such a significant impact on our understanding of the past was a sobering thought.

Following a break for lunch, conference delegates split into groups for visits to three different libraries around Brighton. I visited the Keep, a facility shared by the East Sussex Record Office, the Royal Pavilion & Museums Local History Collections, and the University of Sussex Special Collections. Built between 2011 and 2013, this facility is divided into a Repository Block which provides more than six miles of shelving in purpose-built, climate-controlled storage. The Repository Block occupies three floors, and each floor’s temperature and humidity is adjusted to the optimal conditions for the type of materials stored there.

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The conservation lab at the Keep, with UV-filtered windows overlooking an area of green roof.

The People Block is organised so that all of the public areas are on the ground floor and wheelchair accessible. These areas include a small exhibition space, reading rooms with computer terminal access, microform readers, and a selection of print reference books, meeting rooms, a group research area, an oral history room with recording facilities, and three multifunction rooms which can be used for school classes, student groups, workshops, receptions, and other events. The upper floor of the People Block houses the staff offices, conservation lab, digitisation studio, and additional space for volunteers, students, and community groups to assist with the Keep’s preservation work. As the icing on the cake, the entire facility is designed to be as sustainable as possible, with green roofs, rainwater catchments, low-energy light fittings, thick walls, super-insulation, and passive solar design for thermal efficiency, and a biomass plant in a nearby (but not adjoining) building to reduce fire risk.

At the end of our tour, we were treated to a display of materials from the different collections housed at the Keep, including the Mass Observation Archive and the personal papers of Lord Richard Attenborough, Rudyard Kipling, and Leonard Woolf.

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The Royal Pavilion, built for George IV as a seaside pleasure palace.

After our site visits, the last outing for the day was a tour and drinks reception at the Royal Pavilion, built as a seaside getaway for King George IV. A delightfully odd mashup of English, Indian, and Chinese architectural styles, the exterior of the building is covered with spires and onion domes reminiscent of the Taj Mahal, and the interior was designed in imitation of a Chinese palace. Of course, none of the architects, interior decorators, or tradesmen who worked on the pavilion had ever actually been to India or China, so the rooms are filled with oddities like murals of flowering bamboo with vine-like curving stalks, or decorative columns topped by ornately carved dragons with the wings and head of a Welsh dragon, and the curling, serpent-like body of a Chinese dragon.

After the reception, it was back to the University of Sussex for dinner and a bit more socialising before the third and final day of the conference.

CILIP Rare Books and Special Collections conference, day 1

Last week, I attended the CILIP (Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals) RBSCG (Rare Books and Special Collections Group) Annual Study Conference hosted by the University of Sussex. The theme of this year’s conference was “Collections at Risk,” with each day of the conference focusing on Preservation and Conservation, Theft and Vandalism, or Sale and Disposal. I enjoy conferences in general since they give me the opportunity to meet and exchange ideas with colleagues from across the country, but this year’s conference was especially practical. There was so much useful information, in fact, that I’ve had to divide my conference notes between three blog posts. For this post, I’m going to focus on day 1: Preservation and Conservation.

The first speaker was Elizabeth Oxborrow-Cowan, Consultant Archivist on the UNESCO Memory of the World programme. Her presentation, entitled Using the UNESCO brand to protect collections, gave a brief overview of UNESCO’s Memory of the World programme, which seeks to facilitate preservation, access, and awareness of documentary heritage. This programme centres around the belief that documentary heritage is key to our national (or international) identity; that documentary heritage belongs to all, and should therefore be accessible to all. A key element of the programme is the Register for items or collections of outstanding national or international significance.

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Elizabeth Oxborrow-Cowan offers some tips on getting managers and donors to engage with preservation strategy.

She spoke briefly about the application procedure and criteria for selection, and in more detail about the benefits of having collection items recognised on the UNESCO Register. Acceptance onto the register does not carry any monetary reward, but it does offer an external validation of the significance of an institution’s collections. Thanks to UNESCO’s name recognition with the general public (including managers, accountants, donors, and other non-librarians), it can lend support to funding applications and bring added footfall to exhibitions and events.

Even for those institutions whose collections might not meet the criteria for “outstanding significance,” the Memory of the World project also issues recommendations and guidelines for preserving documentary heritage. Building these guidelines into project plans can also strengthen funding applications.

The second and fourth speakers, Stacey Anderson, Media Archivist at Plymouth City Council, and Will Prentice, Head of Technical Services for Sound & Vision at the British Library, both discussed ongoing projects to preserve and digitise audiovisual media in their collections, and to encourage other institutions and private individuals to do the same. Stacey Anderson described the unique challenges of preserving audiovisual media: not only do the materials themselves deteriorate rapidly, the technology (analogue or digital) to play them rapidly becomes obsolete and therefore difficult to find and maintain. Each different format has slightly different storage requirements in terms of optimal temperature and relative humidity, so it is important for curators to understand and identify each of the formats in their collections.

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Ten regional hubs will provide training on digitisation and preservation.

Will Prentice described the British Library’s Save Our Sounds project, which originated from a survey of cultural heritage professionals which revealed that while roughly 50% of us have audiovisual media in our collections, more than 70% of us responded that we had no formal training on audiovisual materials, and did not feel confident in our capacity to care for audio collections. To remedy this situation, the Save Our Sounds project aims to set up ten regional hubs which will offer training to cultural heritage professionals and the general public on digitisation and preservation. Each of these hubs will contribute digital copies of 5,000 sound recordings for posting on the British Library’s website. By making these recordings freely available to the public, the project hopes to demonstrate both the value and the fragility of sound archives.

The third speaker of the day was Emma Dodson, the Divisional Manager at Harwell Document Restoration Services. Rather than listen passively to her presentatioin, conference delegates were asked to imagine that a water leak (the most common type of disaster in UK libraries) had been found in their department, and to discuss the order in which they would perform a set of tasks including isolating the electrical supply, consulting the library’s disaster plan, evacuating reading room areas, setting up a salvage area for drying books, and removing or otherwise protecting books in areas adjacent to the leak. We were given tools for calculating the volume of damage materials we could salvage on our own, and for deciding when to call in professional help. We all hoped that we would never need to make use of this knowledge, but exercises like this one are designed to reduce the amount of time that it takes us to go from panicked flailing to useful, directed action.

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Environmental monitoring and control is vital to preserving documents.

The final speaker was Sarah Bashir, Preservation Manager at Lambeth Palace Library. Sarah’s presentation, aptly titled Preventive Conservation: what to do when you have no money, gave an excellent overview of the chief causes of damage to library collections (temperature, relative humidity, light, pests, dust and pollutants, and poor handling), with suggestions for easy, low-cost ways of monitoring conditions and mitigating threats.

By the end of the day, I was filled with new ideas for extending the useful lifespan of our collections. After a pleasant dinner catching up with colleagues whom I hadn’t seen since last year’s conference, I was ready to get some sleep and do it all again tomorrow.

Guest Post: Paul E E Barbier and the wider Cardiff Community

This guest post comes from Pip Bartlett, undergraduate in French and Italian in the School of Modern Languages at Cardiff University. Pip is currently working on a CUROP project to catalogue the Barbier family archive.

Paul E E Barbier was a respected member of staff at the University of South Wales and Monmouthshire (now Cardiff University), as well as being a recognised name within the wider community in Cardiff. After moving there in 1883 with his family, he made a concerted effort to become involved with local cultural societies and in particular was interested in the conservation of the Welsh language. The archive testifies to his sustained commitment to Welsh throughout his time in the Welsh capital.

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Photograph of Paul E E Barbier, courtesy of Delphine Isaaman.

He also sought to foster the relationship between Britain and France. According to an article from the Revue Mensuelle Galloise (March 1909), no one ‘laboured more arduously, in his own sphere, than Professor Barbier to bring about a better understanding between England and France’. In 1906, he co-founded the Société Franco-Britannique de Cardiff alongside Max Wideman and W.E Thomas, two other Francophiles residing in Cardiff. The society looked to ‘strengthen the bonds of friendship between the two countries’ and continues to have an extensive programme of lectures (in French) and social events. I have met John Martin, the society’s current treasurer, who has provided me with a history of the society (which of course mentions Paul Barbier) and a programme of upcoming events. The society’s website can be found here: http://www.francais-a-cardiff.org.uk/index.html

I have also found evidence in the archive that Paul E E Barbier was a member of the Société Nationale des Professeurs de Français en Grande-Bretagne (SNPF). Founded in 1881, the society still exists to promote French culture, as well as the teaching of the French language. Through his public lectures and contributions to the press gathered in the archive, Barbier also promoted the Entente Cordiale, a series of agreements signed in 1904 which settled a number of controversial matters and sought to bring an end to antagonisms between Great Britain and France. In an obituary from the South Wales Echo dated 26th September 1921, I learnt that the secretary of King Edward VII sent Paul Barbier a letter of thanks in the name of the King for his public spirit. I’ve searched the archive for this letter, unfortunately without success so far, but it would be great to see it!

As well as speaking and writing perfect English along with his native French, Professor Barbier had a keen interest in the Welsh language. From 1897 he was on the committee for the National Eisteddfodd, the annual festival held in a different Welsh town or city each year. As mentioned in my last blog post, I have found the Welsh Newspapers Online website very useful in obtaining information about Paul E E Barbier. One article for The Western Mail (7th July 1899) entitled ‘Mons. P Barbier on the Eisteddfodd’ explains that he contributed to a series of short newspaper articles about the National Eisteddfodd. In the same article, Paul Barbier asserts that ‘the Welsh nation owes its spirit of culture to the Eisteddfodd’.

Paul Barbier Eisteddfodd (002)

Western Mail, 7th July 1899.

I understand that during the late 1800s very little attention was paid to the Welsh language in Cardiff, nonetheless it seems that Paul E E Barbier devoted his time and attention to the study of the language. Throughout the archive I have found evidence of Welsh being used. It is apparent in exercise books and letters from Paul E E Barbier. When the University of South Wales and Monmouthshire first opened, there was no option to study Welsh. However, Paul E E Barbier’s son, Paul E A Barbier, studied for a MA in French and Welsh – this suggests that Paul E E Barbier might have had something to do with the pioneering of Welsh studies. Evidence from newspaper articles explain that Barbier delivered lectures about Welsh language and culture.  An article from The South Wales Echo (2nd February 1899) gives an account of his lecture ‘My Impressions of Wales and Welshmen’. According to the article, there ‘was a full attendance’ and the lecture ‘was full of humour and literary charm’.  The article also cites a wonderful quote from the lecture, in which Paul E E Barbier says ‘if French were the language of men, German of soldiers, Spanish of God’s Saints, Italian of women and English of men, surely Welsh was that of angels!’.

 

Guest post: From rookie researcher to amateur archivist: my year in Special Collections

This guest post is from recent English Literature graduate Anna Sharrard. Anna took part in modules closely aligned with Special Collections throughout her final degree year, and is now volunteering with us over the summer, creating our first Edward Thomas online resource.


My first introduction to working in Cardiff University’s Special Collections and Archives was in the autumn term of my third year studying English Literature.  I studied Dr Julia Thomas’s module, The Illustrated Book, which hosted all of its seminars in Special Collections. Over the course of the module, we were given access to numerous examples of illustrated novels, journals, and newspapers from the archive’s extensive collection, aiding our understanding of the history of the illustrated book from the late eighteenth century to the present. My personal highlights included studying Special Collections’ copy of the Moxon Tennyson (surely every Pre-Raphaelite lover’s dream), handling the unconventional and intriguing artist’s books, and carving our own designs into lino blocks to attempt relief printing for ourselves! (Safe to say, I don’t think we would have made the cut to be professional engravers any time soon…)

Practising linocut with the Illustrated Book class.

Practising linocut with the Illustrated Book class.

I was excited by the prospect of returning to the archive in the spring term while studying Dr Carrie Smith’s module, Poetry in the Making: Modern Literary Manuscripts. In order to give us practical experience of working with literary manuscripts, several weeks of the module were conducted in Special Collections, engaging with the material held in the Edward Thomas (1878-1917) archive. Part of the assessment required us to create a group video presentation exploring an item of interest from the archive. Here’s a clip from one of the student films:

Despite the words ‘group presentation’ usually striking fear into the hearts of most students, the filmed assessment was what had initially attracted me to the module. To have a practical element to an undergraduate English Literature module is unusual, and it stood out as a unique opportunity, allowing students to develop and showcase a different set of skills to future employers.

Edward Thomas (1878-1917)

Edward Thomas (1878-1917)

Special Collections’ Edward Thomas archive is expansive, holding the world’s largest collection of his letters, diaries, notebooks, poems, photographs, and personal belongings. Alison Harvey, archivist at Special Collections, selected a wide array of material from the archive for us to explore, and in our groups we assessed which items would form the focal point of our presentations. Being tasked with working with archival material was certainly a new experience, and it proved very interesting but also challenging. Almost all the texts I had encountered during my three years studying English Literature had been published documents, written in standardised print with titles, page numbers, and footnotes. It was therefore challenging studying the manuscript form of Edward Thomas’ poems, diary entries, and correspondence, because the layout of the text on the page did not always follow a chronological pattern. Amendments and notes could have been added at different stages of the document’s history, and we felt like detectives trying to figure out the chronology of the documents. At the beginning we also struggled with some of the seemingly indecipherable handwriting, but both Carrie and Alison were extremely patient with us, and with practice, it became easier to interpret the handwriting and read the material.

Telegram to Helen, notifying her of Edward's death in combat.

Telegram to Helen, notifying her of Edward’s death in combat.

I think the rest of the group would agree how surprisingly evocative they found the experience, especially handling the telegram sent to Helen Thomas relating the news of her husband’s death, and reading the condolence letters sent to her by Edward’s comrades and friends. I think these documents produced a strong emotional reaction among the group, because holding correspondence of such a personal nature felt intrusive to some extent. It was possible to imagine the moment Helen received the telegram, and the devastation this would have caused her and their three children.

The practical experience of working hands-on with the archive material and filming for the presentation made an invigorating change from the usual essay assessments, and the module was an excellent introduction to working in an archive. It also sparked a personal interest in Edward Thomas, drawing in all the elements of his life as a literary critic, a novelist, a poet, a soldier, and also as a husband and a father. I was able to delve further into his life and works by attending the Edward Thomas Centenary Conference that was held at Cardiff University in April 2017, hearing leading researchers of Edward Thomas speak, and meeting fellow fans of his work. On one of the days of the conference, I participated in a student panel hosted by Dr Carrie Smith, answering questions from the attendees about our experience of using the archive, handling the material, and producing a video presentation as an assessment, which was understandably identified as an unusual feature of an undergraduate module.

Edward Thomas 100 exhibition

Edward Thomas 100 exhibition

Special Collections also launched its Edward Thomas 100 exhibition to coincide with the Centenary Conference, and it was fantastic to see the collection showcased to the public in such a visually appealing and accessible way. Much respect to Alison for engineering such a wonderful display whilst also fending off frequent queries about the Edward Thomas archive from our course group as deadlines loomed! The exhibition is on display in Special Collections until October, for any of those who are inspired to come and have a gander.

After being involved in the conference, I approached Alison to see if I could be of any assistance in volunteering my time to Special Collections over the summer. She proposed a project to digitise sections of the Edward Thomas archive. The plan was to focus on the photographs, poems, and letters held in the collection, which were used so heavily as an educational resource every Spring by Dr Carrie Smith’s Poetry in the Making group. Since July, I have been tasked with digitising, editing, uploading and organising images on a freely available online resource (Flickr), where they can be viewed and navigated through easily. The resource allows images to be downloaded for re-use at a variety of resolutions.

The new Edward Thomas online resource

The new Edward Thomas online resource

Once uploaded to Flickr, I attach the full metadata to each image to assist with citations, add tags (so that images can be found by users searching keywords) and a location pin (if applicable). Finally, I group related images into albums for ease of navigation.

I began by tackling the extensive collection of photographs, beginning with those solely of Edward Thomas, and then moving onto the wider family, including ones taken years after Edward’s death. It was necessary for me wear gloves to handle the photographs, (completing the stereotypical image of an archivist in style I might add), as the oils from the skin can easily damage the surface of the prints.

Edward's children (r-l): Bronwen, Myfanwy and Merfyn.

Edward’s children (r-l): Bronwen, Myfanwy and Merfyn.

It has been pleasing to see the Flickr account fill up with photographs of Edward, his wife Helen, and children Merfyn, Bronwen, and Myfanwy. The images really help to flesh out their lives outside of Edward’s publications and literary career. You get a sense of character through photographs that it can be difficult to find from a sheet of paper, no matter how personal someone’s handwriting can feel. It was also enjoyable to see the progression of Edward and Helen’s three children growing up as the number of photos on the resource accumulated.

Early drafts of Edward Thomas' poems

Early drafts of Edward Thomas’ poems

I encountered one of the more challenging aspects of working with archival material when I moved onto digitising Edward’s poems. The manuscript poems held at Special Collections date between 1914-1917, and the pages are noticeably thinner and more delicate than other material in the archive. This is because paper quality severely declined during wartime, and its high acid content makes surviving material extremely friable. The availability of digital surrogates will help conserve these vulnerable originals.

To get a representative sample of the hundreds of letters stored in the archive, I focused my attention next on Edward’s letters from poet Robert Frost and those sent to writer Gordon Bottomley. The letters which I chose to upload from Gordon Bottomley date from 1902-1905, and reveal evidence of Edward’s continuing struggle with depression. Though mostly containing discussion of literature and Edward’s review-writing, there is often a pervasive tone of despair to Edward’s letters. The letters sent to Edward written by Robert Frost date from 1915-16, and are saturated with the outbreak of the war, revealing insecurities arising from the pressure of enlisting and needing to prove one’s worth. On pages 3-4 of a letter from 6 Nov 1916, Frost writes:

Letter from Robert Frost.

Letter from Robert Frost.

“You rather shut me up by enlisting. Talk is almost too cheap when all your friends are facing bullets. I don’t believe I ought to enlist (since I am American) […] When all the world is facing danger, it’s a shame not to be facing danger for any reason, old age, sickness, or any other. Words won’t make the shame less. There’s no use trying to make out that the shame we suffer makes up for the more heroic things we don’t suffer.”

Edward’s own desire to prove his worth is evident in a letter he wrote to his daughter Myfanwy. Dated 29 Dec 1916, whilst Edward was situated in Lydd, Kent, he confesses:

Letter from Edward to his daughter, Myfanwy, aged 6.

Letter from Edward to his daughter, Myfanwy, aged 6.

“I should not be surprised if we were in France at the end of this month. I do hope peace won’t come just yet. I should not know what to do, especially if it came before I had fully been a soldier. I wonder if you want peace, and if you can remember when there was no war.”

Another extensive sequence of Edward Thomas’s correspondences held in Special Collections is between Edward and Helen Thomas (nee Noble). These letters run from 1897 (before their marriage), until Edward’s death in 1917. Of the hundreds of letters, I selected the last letters Edward wrote to Helen, and worked my way backwards. I thought this would provide a useful contrast to the early Bottomley letters, also identifying that the descriptions of Edward’s experiences in the army, and his subsequent posting to France, would be of great interest to researchers of Edward’s life.

The letters Edward writes to Helen during the years he is studying at Lincoln College, Oxford (1898-1900), whilst Helen is at their family home in Kent, are interesting because they disclose the domestic side to Edward’s life. These letters may consist of comparatively mundane subject matter to researchers, as they consist of everyday conversations, mainly including practical matters and financial arrangements between the couple. However, much of the early correspondence resonated with me. One particular letter (25 May 1900, pp. 5-7) contains Edward’s dejection over getting a bad mark in a university module and worrying about disappointing his parents.

Letter from Edward to Helen, while a student at Oxford.

Letter from Edward to Helen, while a student at Oxford.

“I have been wickedly idle this last year (except in the vacation), and father will be angry when he sees the class list in July: for I shall get a 3rd at most.”

Every student at some point has gone through the angst of being convinced they were going to fail a module. It’s reassuring that this was also the case for the last century’s students too.

Another letter from a month later, (8 Jun 1900), consists of Edward expressing his misery at being apart from Helen, but her not being able to visit him because of financial constraints and having nowhere for her to stay. Despite these letters being over 100 years old, it is remarkable just how relevant they still are to students, and to my own experience of being in a long-distance relationship. In our age of instant communication, we can forget how much further distances just within the UK would have felt when you had to wait on a letter to bring news of your loved ones: “I have no time for a letter but I can’t help expecting to hear good news from you. The absence of it is distracting. My health is getting bad and my eyes almost // failed me today. I don’t see how you can come down. You can’t afford it and I don’t know where you could stay.”

In creating this resource, I have become privy to so many more aspects of Edward Thomas’s life that I didn’t have time to appreciate during the seminar hours of Poetry in the Making. My hope is that this resource will allow future students on the module to spend time going through the collection at their own leisure, unrestrained by the archive’s opening hours or the limited number of seminars held in the archive. Having the images freely available to use on Flickr will reduce the number of times the documents will be handled each time a group needs to take a photograph, helping to conserve the originals. This will free up time during the seminars for the groups to discuss the content and argument of their presentations, and also guarantee high quality photographs for every group. For those rushing things last-minute, (as there inevitably will be), they will be able to check a reference number or a date quickly online, rather than having to pull out and go through all the boxes of material in search of one photograph or a letter they forgot to write down the catalogue number for!

Beyond the University, now that a large chunk of the Edward Thomas archive has been digitised, researchers all over the world are able see images of the documents described by the archive catalogue, and can easily browse through the majority of the collection held here in Cardiff. This will be a major help to many, I hope, and aid them in their research.

I’ve enjoyed my time in Special Collections very much over the final year of my degree here at Cardiff University, and I want to say a big thank you to the entire team at Special Collections for making me feel so welcome during this project. It’s been a pleasure to aid future users of the archive, and if you’re unfamiliar with Special Collections, I hope you will go for a visit after reading this!

Guest post: Paul E. E. Barbier and Cardiff University

This guest post comes from Pip Bartlett, undergraduate in French and Italian in the School of Modern Languages at Cardiff University. Pip is currently working on a CUROP project to catalogue the Barbier family archive.


I have been very keen to discover more about Paul E E Barbier, one of the first Professors of French here at Cardiff University. However, because he seemed to do and achieve so much throughout his lifetime, I thought it best to split my posts up; one about his work with Cardiff University, and the other regarding his involvement within the wider Cardiff community.

At first, I found it quite difficult to pinpoint specific details relating to Paul E E Barbier, as much of the archive, particularly those pertaining to the later years, seems dominated by material about his son, Paul E A Barbier (very confusing, I know). Although I am focusing on cataloguing letters, I found the wider archive useful when trying to piece together information about the elder Paul. This includes newspaper cuttings and various other documents which mention his name. The previous owner of the archive has compiled two booklets, one about Paul’s father Georges Barbier and the other about his wife, Euphémie Bornet. Although neither are specifically about Paul E E Barbier, they do contain some interesting information and help to give a contextual background. I have also found useful sources via Welsh Newspapers Online. Simply typing ‘Paul Barbier’ into the search bar reveals hundreds of results. Although some are irrelevant, a number of articles relate to Paul E E Barbier, some of which I have quoted in this post.

Paul and Euphémie

Paul and Euphémie

Paul E E Barbier was born in 1846 in the Doubs Valley region of France, close to the Swiss border. His father, Georges Barbier, was a pastor of the protestant church. In 1862, the family moved to London where Georges became the pastor of the French Protestant Church in Soho Square. Whilst in London, the family took in young Swiss women, training to be governesses – this is how Paul met his future wife, the Swiss-born Euphémie Bornet. I am unsure how old they were when they met, but I did learn from the booklets that they were together for ten years before finally marrying in 1872. After their marriage, Paul became a French master at Felsted Grammar School in Essex and later moved to the famous Manchester Grammar School where he remained for 10 years. Euphémie also worked at a school in the area called Aubonne House School for Ladies. In some of the earlier sections of the archive, I have discovered many letters from Euphémie writing from Aubonne House to her parents and siblings. The couple had eight children who were raised speaking both French and English, evidence of which can be seen throughout their letters and correspondences in the archive.

In 1883, Paul was appointed Lecturer of French at the newly opened University College of South Wales and Monmouthshire in Cardiff (now Cardiff University). The whole family moved to Cardiff and Paul set to work developing his department, later being promoted to Professor of French Language and Literature (I am unsure of the exact date). After moving around Cardiff (evident from changes to address in letters), Paul and Euphémie eventually settled at 21 Corbett Road, where they remained until Paul’s death in 1921.

From what I have learnt from material in the archive, Paul Barbier was a valued and well-respected member of the university by both staff and pupils. One article I found from the Revue Mensuelle Galloise ‘Cymru’, March 1909 describes Professor Barbier as ‘a wonderful personality, uniting in himself gravity and humour to an extraordinary degree […] He can keep his classes laughing throughout his lectures if he thinks fit to do so; and can again, when he pleases, bring them to verge of weeping’. An obituary from French publication ‘Chronique de Londres’ (1st October 1921) says, ‘Barbier était d’une nature enthousiaste et d’une extrême générosité de coeur; aussi jouissait-il d’une popularité peu commune, et ce sont des milliers d’étudiants qui apprendront sa mort avec une réelle tristesse’ (translation: ‘Barbier was a man of enthusiastic nature and extreme generosity; he had an unusual popularity and thousands of students will be met with real sadness after learning of his death’).

Not only did Paul Barbier teach, but he also examined. The same obituary states that Paul Barbier was examiner in chief for every university in Wales, as well as the universities of London, Dublin, Oxford and Cambridge. An article from the Evening Express (5 January 1906) entitled ‘Honour for Professor Paul Barbier’ regards his appointment as examiner in French for the University of Cambridge as ‘a great distinction’.

Despite living in Cardiff for most of his life, Paul E E Barbier retained his French roots and seemed to be in contact with many different people in France. He and his wife regularly made visits to Paris with his students, evidence of which can be found in letters to their children back home written during these trips. In March 1905, it was announced that the University of France would be awarding Paul Barbier with the highest academic distinction, that is, the diploma of Officer of Public Instruction (le diplôme de l’Officier d’instruction publique). An article in the Evening Express dated 14 March 1905 illustrates the award ceremony held at the University of South Wales and Monmouthshire. It describes Professor Barbier being given the award with ‘the accompaniment of enthusiastic cheers from the large company of students’.

Whilst researching Paul E E Barbier, I came across a couple of small anecdotes which I found amusing and wanted to share. The first is about a ‘scandal’ at the University in 1910. According to a letter from the ‘University of Wales’, questions for a French exam were leaked prior to the examination. I found a ‘poison pen’ letter addressed to Professor Barbier (dated 23 June 1910) in which the author, who remains anonymous, is ‘extremely disgraced’ by the rumour that Professor Barbier has been involved in the ‘scandal’. The author describes Paul Barbier as ‘a man so very lacking in dignity, common sense and those virtues so essential in a university professor’, before going on to say, ‘in your early days you could have clowned exceedingly well… the cap and bells and the fool’s bauble would have befitted you admirably, were it not that the traditional fool was essentially a sapient individual, which you are not.’

Anonymous 'poison pen' letter to Barbier, 1910

Anonymous ‘poison pen’ letter to Barbier, 1910

It would seem that regardless of how popular and valued someone is, they are always going to have enemies! I also found a letter from Paul E E Barbier to one of his children (the exact one is unknown) dated 26th September 1895. In French, he tells the recipient to be more careful with their grammar having read a letter to their mother in which there were many mistakes with the subjunctive mood!

It is evident that Paul E E Barbier was an esteemed member of University staff, valued by both his colleagues and students. He was a known name not only in Wales, but throughout the whole of the United Kingdom, with his efforts also being recognised and awarded by institutions in France. It has been fascinating to research more about his work with the University, and I hope that my next blog post will share more light on his involvement within the wider Cardiff community.

Guest post: John Taylor the Water Poet: animating the archive

This guest post comes from Dr Johann Gregory, Teacher of English Literature and Research Associate at Cardiff University.


The rare books in Cardiff University’s Special Collections and Archives have held an important place in the development of my research. As I launch a new pilot project on an early modern travel writer, I’d like to share that story.

As a PhD student I took part in training workshops on handling rare books and curating exhibitions. In 2011, I was given the opportunity to work alongside Special Collections staff to curate a small exhibition on an aspect of my PhD research. I chose the topic, Healthy Reading, 1590-1690. Focusing on this aspect helped me to contextualise the early printing and language of Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, the focus of my wider PhD research. I later presented on the exhibition and the play during a conference in Paris on ‘Shakespeare et les arts de la table’. My subsequent book chapter on the subject featured images from the Special Collections. I’m very grateful to the Special Collections’ staff, as their support was crucial for this work.

During my research, I became interested in the work of John Taylor (1578-1653), self-titled ‘the Water Poet’. He was a larger-than-life figure who worked as a Thames waterman for much of his life. However, he also published a great deal and his work – ranging from political pamphlets to travel writing to nonsense verse – often includes interesting prefaces, paratexts and titles.

All the vvorkes of Iohn Taylor the water-poet : Beeing sixty and three in number (1630)

All the vvorkes of Iohn Taylor the water-poet : Beeing sixty and three in number (1630)

I was excited to find that we held his Works (1630) in Special Collections, and was able to include it in my Healthy Reading exhibition, opening the book on the first page of ‘Laugh and be Fat’: this was Taylor’s response to the work of a fellow traveller, Thomas Coryate, who has been discussed in a previous blog post.

It’s always seems to me that Taylor deserves to reach a modern readership, and one broader than scholars in specialist libraries. This year I have developed a new project that seeks to shed light on Taylor’s journey around Wales in the summer of 1652.Map of John Taylor's 1652 journey around WalesI have created a new online modern-spelling edition of Taylor’s journey around Wales, and this has been published on a dedicated John Taylor website alongside other resources, such as a Google map of the route. I have also produced a schools’ pack on Taylor’s account of Mid Wales. Pupils at Penglais School (Aberystwyth) have used this to consider Taylor’s account of their hometown and have produced visualisations of his journey that will feed into the project. I now plan to tweet his journey in real time. He set off, with his horse called Dun, from London on 13 July, travelling up through the Midlands to North Wales and then along the coast down to Tenby and across South Wales via Cardiff, arriving back to London in early September. During the trip he turned 74.

This pilot project is something of an experiment, bringing Taylor to new readers. The aim is that it will also provide proof of concept for future projects on John Taylor and travel writing.

For more information about the project, visit the website.

Follow @DrJ_Gregory for Twitter updates.

The Collingwood Collection: an introduction to the family and the project

It’s been two months now since I joined Special Collections and Archives as the project archivist for the Collingwood Collection. During this time I have been completely immersed in the family’s correspondence and, as a result, feel like I know the family almost as well as my own! The project is generously funded by the National Cataloguing Grants scheme provided by The National Archives. My job is to create a catalogue with detailed descriptions of all the correspondence in the collection in order to make it accessible to researchers and to public scrutiny, interaction and celebration. (With this in mind, we will be running some events to showcase the collection over the coming year.)

The Collingwood Family: a potted history

The Collingwood Collection is the family archive of an extraordinary family. The Collingwoods have been described as ‘probably the most intellectually and artistically gifted family in the Lake District in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.’ The collection in Cardiff centres around W. G. Collingwood and his descendants. W. G. Collingwood (1854-1932) was an artist, author, professor of fine arts, Norse scholar, and John Ruskin’s friend and secretary. In 1883 he married Edith Mary (Dorrie) Isaac (1857-1928). Often confined to a footnote along the lines of ‘also an artist’, she was, in fact quite remarkable. While she was alive her art was commercially successful – much more so, it seems, than her husband as she was reportedly the main breadwinner in the marriage and exhibited widely both in the Lake District and in London. She was a noted miniaturist and while this is obvious from her artwork in the collection, it is also evident from the many sketches included in her letters to family and friends, such as these two sketches of her daughter Barbara.

They had four children. Their eldest, Dora (1886-1964), was another successful artist and married the notable medical doctor Ernest Altounyan. After the First World War, she moved with her husband to Syria where Ernest’s father ran a pioneering hospital in Aleppo. Ernest worked as a medical doctor in the hospital and they were both heavily involved with helping refugees in Aleppo, particularly in response to the Armenian Genocide (1915-23).  Arthur Ransome, a close friend of the family, based the Walker children in Swallows and Amazons (1930) on Dora and Ernest’s children.

Barbara (1887-1961), the Collingwood’s second child, was a sculptor. Her husband, Oscar Gnosspelius was a civil engineer who specialised in mining and railway construction in South Africa before the war and later prospected on the Coniston Fells with W. G. Collingwood. He was also a pioneering aviation expert and built hydroplanes on Lake Windermere. Their daughter, Janet (1926-2010), was an architect and historian. She was the former owner of the collection before it was deposited at Cardiff University.

The Collingwood’s third child, Robin (1889-1943) is better known as R. G. Collingwood and was an influential philosopher and historian. He was among the leading names in British Idealism and an expert in the archaeology of Roman Britain. The Collingwood and British Idealism Centre is based at Cardiff University and aims to ‘promot[e] and encourag[e] research into the life and philosophy of R. G. Collingwood’.

Their fourth child, Ursula (1891-1964), was both an artist and a trained mid-wife. She worked as a midwife in London’s East End from around 1912 to 1925 before returning to teach art at Blackwell School and later becoming a farmer.

I’ll be writing further blog posts introducing you to some of these fascinating family members over the next few months.

The beginnings of cataloguing

During the first few weeks, I concentrated on the boxes set aside as being of particular research interest. These included correspondence between members of the family and notable people such as John Ruskin, Arthur Ransome, E. M. Forster, and even a letter from Beatrix Potter, and many more gems besides.

One letter particularly which stood out to me at the time was a letter from E. M. Forster to Barbara Collingwood. Writing in 1916, he describes the effect he believes the First World War was having on him artistically and personally. Much is known of Forster’s pacifism but I have been unable to find an insight as personal the one revealed in this letter.

In this letter, Forster writes to his friend:

I don’t know… — as this war drags on to its dreary and arithmetical conclusion if to any conclusion at all, the passion in me for all that old High-life and High-art business of which I used to be rather ashamed, seems to increase and express itself less fearlessly.

Reading and cataloguing the personal correspondence of the Collingwood family is a real privilege and feeling like I am really getting to know them. It is almost like a novel unfolding with stories not yet told. I felt this particularly when I was reading the letters Edith (Dorrie) wrote to her future husband, W. G. Collingwood, when they were courting. It is not often that one gets such a personal insight into the private lives of others, especially not those from 120 years ago. A few letters have been reproduced hear but I look forward to telling the story of their courtship in a later blog post.

There is estimated to be around 4000 letters in total in the collection. I have now created item level descriptions of around 30% these. It’s been exciting uncovering stories about these fascinating people, and I’m looking forward to sharing some of these with you over the coming months.