Category Archives: Alison Harvey

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.

Guest post: Illustrating King Arthur

This guest post is from Dr Juliette Wood, School of Welsh. In it, she provides some fascinating background to an item she recently donated to Special Collections and Archives: Mary Alice Hadfield’s King Arthur and the Round Table, with illustrations by Donald Seton Cammell, Dent and Co. 1955.


Illustrated re-tellings of Thomas Malory’s Morte D’Arthur aimed at young readers, but also marketed to a wider reading public, have been popular since the modern revival of the Arthurian legend. Alice Mary Hadfield, born in Cirencester in 1908, educated at Oxford and in the United States, was a long-time friend and correspondent of Charles Williams. An editor, writer, and librarian at Amen House, the London Offices of Oxford University Press, she wrote a biography of the poet, and with her second husband, the historian Charles Hadfield, founded the Charles Williams Society in 1976. Among her many publications is a popular re-telling of Malory published in 1953 by Dent and Co as part of their Classic Series. The book has been republished several times, and the copy now in Special Collections and Archives dates to 1955.

Hadfield’s re-telling has some unusual features. Her sources, according to the publisher’s front matter, include Eugene Vinaver’s edition of Malory, the Jones and Jones translation of the Mabinogion, Sebastian Evans The High History of the Holy Grail, and quotations taken from Tennyson’s Idylls of the King. However, she injects some interesting additions to this very respectable list of sources. Incidents from Tennyson, such as finding the baby Arthur on the seashore, are integrated into Malory’s story, but the most striking addition is an entire chapter on the legend of Taliesin (spelled here Taliessin) whom she refers to as Arthur’s chief bard. None of her listed sources contain this material.

It is based on Welsh texts edited by Iolo Morganwg, and appears in Charlotte Guest’s influential nineteenth-century edition, although it was never part of the medieval Mabinogion. The adventures of Taliesin are central to Charles Williams’ poetic world, and the source of the mistranslated, but evocative, title of one of his Arthurian poems, The Region of the Summer Stars (1944). A better reading of this phrase based on a wider selection of manuscripts would be ‘Priffard kyffredin wyf J i Elffin/ am bro gynneuin yw gwlad shieruwbin’ (‘Elphin’s customary chief bard am I / My original country is the land of the Cherubim.’)

The vividly striking illustrations are by the Scottish-born artist, Donald Seton Cammell. Cammell grew up in a very Bohemian environment. His father was apparently acquainted with Aleister Crowley, and the artist’s somewhat chaotic life led to an early death in 1996. Cammell was also a filmmaker, and one of his films, Demon Seed (1977), based on a Dean Koontz novel, is a science fiction reworking of Merlin’s demonic paternity. In the film, a supercomputer eludes its creator’s attempts to shut it down and plots to provide itself with a human incarnation, which it does by trapping and ultimately impregnating the scientist’s wife.

Hadfield’s book opens with ‘The Coming of Merlin’. This includes the introduction of Christianity, its threatened loss through the coming of the Saxons, and the hubris of Vortiger’s tower. Merlin’s character conforms more closely to the image in Malory and Tennyson – but not quite. Christianity is established early in Hadfield’s depiction of Britain, and Merlin’s actions are seen in this light. The failure of Camelot is ultimately the failure of a romantic harmonious Christian world of which Charles Williams was a keen advocate. This rupturing of the social, personal and ecological interrelationships through which society and the natural world function gives this re-telling a somewhat darker quality than many of the versions of Arthurian tradition presented to readers at this time.

Guest post: Exploring women’s libraries and book ownership, 1660-1820

This guest post comes from Natalie Saturnia and Molly Patrick, undergraduates in English Literature, who took part in a research placement this summer as part of the Cardiff Undergraduate Research Opportunities Programme (CUROP). Natalie and Molly worked as research assistants on Dr Melanie Bigold’s project, ‘Her books: Women’s Libraries and Book Ownership, 1660-1820’. Dr Bigold’s project aims to create the first comprehensive database collection of women’s libraries in the long eighteenth century.


Travel and the Eighteenth-Century Woman

Natalie Saturnia

My post, funded by the Cardiff Undergraduate Research Opportunities Programme (CUROP), was focused on finding and organising the preliminary research databases. My daily work included transcribing and cataloguing the booklists identified by Dr Bigold, and trying to identify specific editions of texts using databases such as the English Short Title Catalogue.

Thomas Maurice, The History of Hindostan (1795)

Frontispiece of Thomas Maurice, The History of Hindostan (1795)

While spending time with booklists of influential eighteenth-century women such as Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Elizabeth Vesey, and Elizabeth Greenly, I noticed a prominent lack of fiction texts across their catalogues. Before embarking on my research placement, I had assumed that most of the texts literary women owned would include fiction and the classics. While their lists still included a number of novels, particularly in Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s collection, their catalogues also contained a considerable quantity of travel texts. Because this was a surprise to me, it piqued my interest and I chose to do further independent research to figure out the reasoning for their travel collections.

Detail from Thomas Maurice, The History of Hindostan (1795).

Detail from Thomas Maurice, The History of Hindostan (1795).

My initial reaction when I saw the quantity of travel books was that it showed a desire in these women for knowledge beyond their own domestic borders. Alison Blunt writes that,

work on British women travellers has focused on their ability to transgress the confines of “home” in social as well as spatial terms. The travels and writings of individual women suggest that they were empowered to travel and transgress in the context of imperialism while away from the feminized domesticity of living at home.[1]

While this specific quote only refers to female travellers who documented their own journeys, perhaps the same can be assumed for women who read and owned travel writing. In the case of Lady Mary Montagu, she did travel, yet she also collected travel books. This, along with her own documentation of travel in her Turkish Embassy Letters, proves that she valued the experience and knowledge gained while traveling and felt she was enriched because of it. One of her travel books Le Gentil Nouveaux Voyage au Tour du Monde (1731) translates to the ‘the nice new trip around the world’. This text possibly reflects a desire in Montagu to learn and study parts of the world she had not travelled to, which again demonstrates the value she placed on travel.

In contrast to the other women I researched, Elizabeth Greenly’s book list contained a large collection of Welsh travel books, such as Wales illustrated: in a series of views by Henry Gastineau and Wanderings and excursions in North Wales by Thomas Roscoe.[2] Born in Herefordshire, Greenly later lived in Wales and maintained a lifelong interest in all things Welsh. Before she became less active later in life due to a stroke and rheumatoid arthritis, she used to ride her horse between Herefordshire, Monmouthshire, Glamorganshire, and Breconshire. Her collection of Welsh travel books exemplifies an early sense of Celtic pride which is further evidenced by her ‘ardent support of Welsh causes of the day, including Iolo Morganwg (Edward Williams 1747-1826).’[3] Greenly’s detailed knowledge of the Welsh border counties clearly enhanced her desire for literature on the surrounding area. It may also have been the case that, as a local gentlewoman, she was actively supporting Wales-related books through her purchases.

Henry G. Gastineau, Wales illustrated, in a series of views (1829?-1830)

Henry G. Gastineau, Wales illustrated, in a series of views (1829?-1830)

Ultimately, I believe that these women, whether or not they were privileged enough to travel themselves, valued the insight that travel books provided. Travel books about places foreign to them allowed them a glimpse into parts of the world they were unable to experience first-hand. As for travel books of familiar places, it often represented and reinforced a sense of identity. Indeed, as an expat myself, I am acutely aware of how integral geographical location is in relation to identity. More importantly, I think travel, whether across short or long distances, instilled in these women as sense of pride in their own intrepid spirit. Their library collections speak to that spirit of travel, adventure, and self-creation.

While ‘Her books: Women’s Libraries and Book Ownership, 1660-1820’ is still a work in progress, the new perspectives I gained and conversations I started during my month of research on these women’s catalogues has ignited my own research ambitions. Most importantly, though, the process has highlighted the many new insights that a comprehensive catalogue of female book owners during the long eighteenth century will provide.

[1] Alison Blunt, ‘The Flight from Lucknow: British women travelling and writing home, 1857-8’, Writes of Passage ed. James Duncan and Derek Gregory (London: Routledge, 1999), p. 94.

[2] Henry G. Gastineau, Wales illustrated: in a series of views, comprising the picturesque scenery, towns, castles, seats of the nobility & gentry, antiquities, &c (1829?-1830) and Thomas Roscoe, Wanderings and Excursions in North Wales (1836).

[3] Dominic Winter, Printed Books & Maps (2016), p. 83.

 

Divinity Books in Women’s Libraries: Teaching Femininity

Molly Patrick

Sarah Jones' inscription in The Christian Life [1695], by John Scott.

Sarah Jones’ inscription in The Christian Life [1695], by John Scott.

The eighteenth century was an important period in the history of women’s literary participation. The growth of personal libraries coincided with this increased engagement and book collections reflect, as Mark Towsey argues, the intellectual and cultural aspirations and values of their owners.[4]  Elizabeth (Smithson) Seymour Percy, the first duchess of Northumberland, Mrs. Katherine Bridgeman and Elizabeth Vesey all had extensive personal libraries which featured many advice-giving divinity books. By examining what these texts teach women, it is possible to see how femininity in the eighteenth century was constructed and justified using the authority of God.

Elizabeth Seymour’s library catalogue includes a sub-section dedicated to Divinity texts, many of which function as pedagogy.  Featured in Seymour’s collection is The Whole Duty of Man by Richard Allestree (first published in 1658). In the chapter entitled ‘Wives Duty’, women are given advice on how to conduct themselves in marriage. They are told that God will ‘condemn the peevish stubbornness of many Wives who resist the lawful commands of their Husbands, only because they are impatient of this duty of subjection, which God himself requires of them.’ This shows that religious, devotional works were often used to establish women’s subordinate position, using God as an authority to these teachings. The book also gives specific instructions regarding how the wife should act if asked to do something ‘very inconvenient and imprudent’ by her husband: she should ‘mildly […] persuade him to retract that command’, not using ‘sharp language’ and she should never steadfastly ‘refuse to obey’. Clearly restricting the wife to a passive, subordinate role, this passage confirms the unequal power dynamics of seventeenth-century marriage. In addition, The Whole Duty of Man blames women for men’s sinful behaviour: ‘how many men are there,’ Allestree asks, ‘that to avoid the noise of a forward wife, have fallen to company-keeping, and by that to drunkenness, poverty and a multitude of mischiefs’. Here, a stereotype about the nagging wife are held against women in general.

Richard Allestree's The Ladies Calling (1673)

Richard Allestree’s The Ladies Calling (1673). The copy in Special Collections belonged to an seventeenth-century woman, Elizabeth Scudamore.

Richard Allestree’s sequel, The Ladies Calling (1673) and The Causes and Decay of Christian Piety (1667) also appear in the divinity section of Seymour’s personal library collection. The Ladies Calling questions the origin of gender inequality, but nonetheless reproduces a similar message advocating a subordinated, passive femininity. Allestree avers that ‘in respects of their intellects [women] are below men’; however, ‘Divinity owns no distinction of genders’ as ‘in the sublimist part of humanity, they are their equals.’ The Causes and Decay of Christian Piety, on the other hand, inscribes the argument that religiously devoted women pose a threat to established gendered roles. Allestree contends that ‘when women neglect that which St. Paul assigns them as their proper business, the guiding of the house, their Zeal is at once the product and excuse of their idleness’. Indeed, Allestree implies that women only seek religious vocations in order to avoid their natural place in the domestic sphere. In this sense, divinity texts from the eighteenth century not only advise women to be passive and subordinate, but also caution them against turning to a religious life.

Katherine Bridgeman’s collection evidences a similar interest in divinity texts. In her edition of The Rules and Exercises of Holy Living (1651), Jeremy Taylor advises that women should ‘adorn themselves in modest apparel with Shamefacedness and Sobriety, not with broidered hair, or gold, or pearl, or costly array’. This narrative of passive femininity permeates a multitude of divinity texts in Bridgeman’s collection, such as in Robert Nelson’s The practice of True Devotion (1721). Nelson defines women’s ideal religious expression as ‘their chastity’ and ‘modesty’, which are both passive acts signifying a withholding as opposed to active expression. Both Bridgeman and Seymour’s collections feature divinity books which promote a repressed, subordinate version of femininity and it could be argued that their libraries reflect a wider view of women and their place in eighteenth-century contemporary society.

The content of the books featured in Elizabeth Vesey’s library, however, offer an alternative view of women, femininity and their place within religion. One such work that exemplifies this difference is Robert Barclay’s Apology for the True Christian Divinity: being a Vindication of the people called Quakers (first published in 1678). The text openly disputes women’s subjugation within religion and the established church. Barclay contests the idea, apparently deriving from ‘the church’, that ‘women ought to learn […] and live in silence, not usurping authority over man’. Barclay notes that, in St. Paul’s Epistle to the Corinthians, the apostle writes rules concerning ‘how Women should behave themselves in their publick preaching and praying’. This, he argues, is evidence that early religious figures did not refute women’s right to actively express their religion. Deborah Heller points out that Elizabeth Vesey was accumulating her library at the same time as significant changes were happening in literary, social and cultural environments. Around the mid seventeenth-century, ‘owing to the proliferation of novels and conduct literature, there was a rapid transformation, and a powerful new identification of women with subjectivity’.[5] The presence of Robert Barclay’s book in Vesey’s library seems to confirm women’s alignment with greater religious subjectivity.

In conclusion, the personal library collections of Elizabeth Seymour and Katherine Bridgeman include a multitude of pedagogical divinity books. These texts encourage women to be passive, subordinate to men and to avoid public religious activity. Elizabeth Vesey’s book collection, however, seems to inject a different narrative. Taking Robert Barclay’s Apology for the True Christian Divinity as an example, it is possible to see how Vesey’s collection, unlike the books found in Seymour’s and Bridgeman’s libraries, focus on women’s religious and personal empowerment. Vesey’s collection demonstrates a possibility of different cultural and social aspirations, an alternative way of thinking about women’s role in contemporary society.

[4] Deborah Heller, ‘Subjectivity Unbound: Elizabeth Vesey as the Sylph in Bluestocking Correspondence’, Huntington Library Quarterly, 65.1 (2002) pp. 215-234. P. 218.

[5] Mark Towsey, ‘‘I can’t resist sending you the book’: Private Libraries, Elite Women, and Shared Reading Practices in Georgian Britain’, Library and Information History, 29.3 (2013), 210-222 (p. 210).

Exhibition: Collingwood Archive

This exhibition explores the lives of the Collingwood family: four generations of influential artists and writers based in the Lake District. Their passions included art and art history, photography, archaeology, architecture, aviation, Icelandic studies, and philosophy.

Launched on the first day of our Collingwood conference, the exhibition celebrates the archive and the year-long project to catalogue it. Thanks to funds received from the National Cataloguing Grant (UK National Archives) and the National Manuscript Conservation Trust to open up the archive through cataloguing and conservation, the exhibition will be the first time many of the magnificent items from the Collingwood Archive will be available for public viewing.

The exhibition will run until the Autumn – highlights are available online.

Guest post: In search of a scientist – and a suffragist?

This guest post comes from Sue James, a History teacher at Sutton High School, Greater London, who has been researching the life and career of one of their former students, Alice Embleton. As well as attending Sutton High, Alice was one of the first women to study sciences at the University College of South Wales and Monmouthshire. As part of our celebrations for International Women’s Day 2018, we’d like to share her story.


ALICE LAURA EMBLETON c. 1876-1960

I came across Alice Embleton’s name quite by accident. It was on one of the honours boards here at Sutton High School, but this particular one had been covered over by a stage curtain. With the curtain pinned back on an inset day, Alice’s name was clear to see, and next to it was written: 1900 winner of the 1851 Exhibition Science Research Scholarship. Spurred on by the support of our Biology Department, and knowing that Alice may make an inspirational story for current students in an upcoming school science assembly, I started my research.

Honours board at Sutton High School

Our school magazines, which date from 1895, have been digitised so it was quite easy to make a start, and her name appeared a number of times in the early editions. Alice was cited as being at Aberystwyth University, but the archivist there told me that this was a mistake, and that she was at Cardiff instead.  I was not too surprised at the error, as the school register records that Alice had left Sutton High early, at the age of 15, due to ‘pecuniary reasons’. It is a measure of the academic prowess that Alice showed that the school followed her progress, even if they did not always get the details right.

The archivist at Cardiff University was also enthusiastic about Alice. She quickly found out that Alice was one of the first cohort of women studying for a science degree; there were 5 women and 16 men on her course between the years 1895 and 1899. Alice won scholarships which paid for the course, and graduated with a Baccalaureus in Scientia, first class.

Alice Embleton’s entry in Sutton High School’s admissions register.

This degree was just the start of Alice’s academic success. The archivist at Aberystwyth had affirmed that Alice was an interesting subject and she also pointed me in the direction of Welsh Newspapers Online. There were several references to Alice, and it became apparent that she had won a number of awards and scholarships in the scientific world. There were also references to her achievements being considered ‘firsts for a woman’, which made it very exciting. I knew I was on to a scientist of note, perhaps even a trailblazer.

Awarded in 1900, The Great Exhibition Science Research Scholarship granted Alice £150 a year for two years, unusually extended to three. She used the money to work at the Balfour laboratory at Newnham College, Cambridge, followed by a further period of study at the Sorbonne. She was the first foreigner and the first woman to study under Professor Marchal. In 1904, Alice won the Mackinnon studentship of the Royal Society for research into Biological Sciences, which was described as a ‘unique distinction for a woman’. There is also a reference to Alice being sub-editor of the Zoological Record, and working at the South Kensington Museum, before furthering her research in Scandinavia.

Alice’s focus, and the reason for all the awards, was her research into pesticides to help increase crop production. Welsh Newspapers Online pointed to Alice having a link to the prestigious Linnean Society in Burlington House in London.

The Cambrian News and Merionethshire Standard, 26 June 1903, p. 5.

She was among the first women to be admitted to the society and, in 1911, became its first female speaker. Her paper was entitled: ‘Anatomy and Development of a Hymeropterous Parasite of a Scaly Insect (Lecanium Hemisphoericum)’. The archivist at the Linnean Society was very helpful and sent me copies of Alice’s correspondence with the Society, a link that lasted from 1905 until 1917, when she resigned.

At this point I had enough information for an assembly in honour of Alice, but there then appeared a twist in the story. The 1911 census showed that Alice was a visitor at the home of Alderman Charles Wray and his daughter Cecilia, in Fairfield House, Barnsley. Alice gave her occupation as working in cancer research, while Cecilia had described herself as ‘getting votes for women’. This had been crossed out, presumably by the enumerator, and replaced with ‘no occupation, private means’. The evidence seemed to indicate that Cecilia was a suffragist and provided the possibility that Alice was too. The L.S.E. Women’s Library has a photograph of a group of women entitled ‘Campaigners for Women’s Suffrage in Barnsley, January 20th1910’. An ‘A.J. Embleton’ is in the line-up with C. Wray. Although J is recorded  as a middle initial, rather than the L that appears in school records, it is reasonable to deduce that this is our Alice, especially as her connection with Cecilia was strong. The two appeared again in the 1939 census, and the Barnsley Chronicle of July 31st 1909 recorded a meeting of the Barnsley Women’s Suffrage Society, in which secretary Cecilia Wray presided over the passing of a resolution moved by ‘Miss Embleton’. Additionally, the L.S.E. has some correspondence between Celia Wray and Alick Embleton and Vera (Jack) Holme, the chauffeur of Emmeline Pankhurst, which strengthens the case for Alice being a suffragist.

Miss AJ Embleton, Miss O Royston, Miss C Wray, Miss M Fielden and Miss E Ford, photographed outside the offices of the Barnsley Chronicle, 20 January 1910.

How amazing that a hidden name on an honours board could lead to a tale of scientific excellence and a timely connection with women’s suffrage. Alice could have been a forgotten student, but instead she has become an inspiration and a personification of at least part of our school’s motto: ‘Fortiter, Fideliter, Feliciter’ (bravely, faithfully, happily). She did feature in the science assembly, and there is now a proposal to rename the school biology prize, ‘The Alice Embleton Biology Prize’.

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.

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.

Guest post: The Barbier family and World War One

This guest post comes from Pip Bartlett, undergraduate in French and Italian in the School of Modern Languages at Cardiff University.


In this blog post, I will be sharing some of my discoveries about the Barbier family and their involvement in the First World War. As mentioned in my previous post, the Barbier archive contains several boxes of letters, organised into date order. Five of the grey boxes (1914, 1915, 1916, 1917 and 1918) contain correspondence between the family during the war years. So far, I have catalogued boxes 1914, 1915 and 1918, which have revealed information about the family’s activities, feelings and experiences at the time. I also used two of the booklets created by the previous owner (‘Barbier Voices from the Great War’ Parts 1 & 2) to support any findings I made; they contain very detailed information about each family member’s war experience, as well as including photographs and extracts from diaries.

Edmond, Isabelle, and Paul BarbierAccording to ‘Barbier Voices from the Great War Part 1’, prior to the outbreak of war all four of the Barbier brothers had well-established careers; Paul E A. Barbier had been Professor of French at the University of Leeds since 1903, Edmond was the assistant examiner in oral and written French to the Central Welsh Board, Georges was the manager of coal firm ‘Messrs Instone’ and Jules, a civil engineer in North America. Because of their French Nationality, the brothers had completed military service with the French Army well before the war (Paul completed his in 1889), making them no strangers to a military environment. According to the booklet, in August 1914 all four men, along with their brother-in-law Raoul Vaillant de Guélis (married to their sister Marie) were called up by the French state and sent to France.

Due to their French-English bilingualism, both Paul and Edmond were mobilised as interpreters for the British Expeditionary Forces. I am unsure if they were seconded from the French army – something I would like to ask the previous owner about in our interview.

Jules and Georges BarbierJules and Georges remained ‘poilus’ (ordinary field soldiers for the French army). Much of the archive from the war years is dedicated to correspondence from Paul E. A. Barbier (or Paul Barbier Fils, as in son, as he is known) to his wife Cécile. From what I have grasped after reading his letters, it seems Paul Barbier Fils had a reasonably ‘comfortable’ wartime experience; that is to say, he regularly talks of eating well and playing bridge with his brother Edmond. In numerous letters, he says he is in ‘good health and spirits’ and regularly returns to the UK on leave, which he documents. According to the letters in the archive, Paul Barbier Fils also remained in close contact with his colleagues at the University of Leeds. For example, there are letters from the Vice Chancellor of the university who asks for Paul’s opinion on various university matters. There is even a letter to Paul dated 29th June 1915 from the Vice Chancellor who says he has been in contact with the French Embassy in London attempting to release Paul from the army, unfortunately without success.

I also found letters to Cécile Barbier from wives of other University staff whose husbands were at the front. Cécile served on a committee in Leeds which regularly sent parcels and gifts to University employees in France. Despite his relatively positive account of his wartime experiences in France, some of Paul’s letters to his wife are less cheerful and according to ‘Barbier Voices from the Great War Part 2’, in May 1917 he writes ‘I start writing poetry again […] when I am overcome by sadness’, and in June ‘my intellectual life is a waste land. I long to talk to beings less deadly dull than those around me’. A year later in March 1918 he even says, ‘I am an exile, I am atrociously bored’.  To fight these feelings of boredom, Paul evidently focused on his hobbies and interests. Ever the lexicographer (that is, a person who compiles dictionaries, an occupation that was linked to his academic preoccupations), Paul Barbier Fils became fascinated with the local dialect of the region in which he was stationed. He even compiled a dictionary of the dialect entitled ‘Lexique du Patois d’Erquinghem-Lys’, which was later published posthumously in 1980 by the Musée de Picardie in Amiens, France.

Georges BarbierGeorges Barbier, on the other hand, seemed to have had the most difficult war experience out of the family members who went to the Front. In 1916 he returned to London from the front due to illness to work for the Coal Board. In letters to his brothers and mother, he talks of suffering from night-blindness and having very little food, if any. His wife Nan died a few years later, leaving him a widower with two children. Fortunately, the three other brothers who remained in France survived, and in 1919 were demobilised from the army, returning to their peacetime lives in Cardiff. Their brother-in-law, Raoul Vaillant de Guélis was not so fortunate and died of pneumonia in 1916. His wife Marie never remarried and raised her two children along with those of her brother George after his death in 1921. One of her children, Jacques Vaillant de Guélis became a Special Operations Executive (SOE) agent, an undercover spy who carried out missions in France during the Second World War. I do not know much about his life yet, but I am excited to discover more over the upcoming weeks.

Isabelle BarbierFinally, while the brothers were at the Front, their younger sister, Isabelle Barbier, spent time in France as a nurse during WW1. Unlike her brothers, there is little correspondence from Isabelle during the war years throughout the archive, but ‘Barbier Voices from the Great War Part 1’ gives detailed accounts about her time as an assistant to Dame Maud McCarthy, Matron in Chief to the British Expeditionary Forces. On page 7 of the booklet, there is a lovely picture of Isabelle with her brothers Edmond and Paul, as well as a picture of her in uniform wearing the Royal Red Cross – presumably she was awarded this, but I am unsure when. It is something I would like to find more about when I speak to the previous owner of the archive. All in all, the archive offers insights into the wartime experiences of this remarkable family and it has been particularly fascinating to discover how Paul Barbier Fils continued his interests and worked remotely with the University of Leeds. I hope the former owner is able to answer some of the questions which I have raised, as I feel there are some interesting pointers for future research.