Thursday, 16 February 2017

Halfway there... Conservation cleaning of the Atkinson Brierley Archive

As the program of work to clean the Atkinson Brierley Architectural Archive reaches its milestone of 50% completion - that is a staggering 3167 plans cleaned - we thought that it would be worth looking back over the past five years, to consider the significant achievements and beneficial impact of the volunteer program.

St. Mary Bishophill Senior (1872), ATKB/6/85


The original project was funded by the Shepherds Trust in 2011. Its aim was to grant a conservator the opportunity to treat the fragmented tracing papers that make up the most vulnerable plans in the archive and to establish a volunteer group in 2012 to surface clean the remaining 6334 plans not undergoing conservation in the Studio. The interventive conservation work paused in 2015, but we have been lucky enough to retain the volunteer program and from April 2017 it will be entering its fifth year.

One of our volunteers cleaning a plan
As professionals in conservation and archives know, it can often take years of small incremental steps to achieve vast programs of work. When considering the cleaning of the Atkinson Brierley Archive with its 6334 architectural plans, this is especially true. It was, and still remains, a monumental task for any conservation department to face. It was therefore decided to set up a volunteer project that would not only benefit the archive but would also have a greater community benefit to achieve this task.

From 2012 the recruitment process began and the project has since welcomed volunteers from a diverse background, each with a different motivation for volunteering on the project. Some have chosen to volunteer for the social element of the group dynamic, or they want to give back to the archive and/or the community; others are keen to interact with the archive material in a unique way or wish to develop new skill and experience in the field of conservation.

The sessions are rarely dull, as each new plan can throw up new interesting avenues for investigation and conservation challenges. The buildings the plans pertain to and equally the method of conservation needed to care for the physical material often provide easy focal points for discussion. As many of our volunteers are interested in pursuing or have had careers or long term interest in archives, art history, architectural history, archaeology, conservation and heritage, it has lead to some interesting debates.

A partially cleaned plan of Wistow Church, ATKB/6/85
The architectural plans date from the 19th century through to the 1950s and consist of a number of different papers with media comprising of pencil, pen, watercolour and photographic chemicals. The condition of the archive is varied and many plans have previously been subjected to fluctuating environmental conditions, alongside poor handling and storage leading to different levels of damage and vulnerability. Over 98% of the plans appear to be covered in layers of dirt and atmospheric pollution from their time in storage. These pollutants can increase the speed of deterioration of the paper and in places obscure interpretation of the plans. Removing these deposits through conservation cleaning is a key requirement for the long-term preservation of the archive. Each plan is assessed before cleaning and in many cases, selective cleaning is applied due to fragile media such as pencil marks or degraded substrates.   

Details of woodcarvings from Sherburn church, ATKB/6/98
The volunteers time at the Borthwick comprises of building skills, knowledge and experience to deal with these challenges. Training is undertaken on the handling of architectural plans, technical skill in conservation cleaning and the condition checking of the paper and media. The volunteers also spend time focusing and discussing the ethics behind conservation cleaning, when we might clean and when we might abstain and how we, as conservation professionals, work to know the difference.

The Borthwick has been fortunate to have a wonderfully engaged, inquisitive and dedicated group of volunteers during the project. Over that time we have seen over 20 volunteers come and go and we now have a core team of 10 volunteers attending regular weekly sessions for up to two hours a week. They have made a very real and positive long-term impact on the archive and I have felt privileged to be able to work with such a devoted group of people and look forward to seeing the 50% completion develop into 100.

-- Tracy Wilcockson, Conservation Volunteering Co-ordinator

For further information please visit the Atkinson Brierley archive Project pages.

County Hall, Northallerton, ATKB/7/4A before cleaning

County Hall, Northallerton, ATKB/7/4A after cleaning

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Spotlight on the Retreat archive: A splendid time is guaranteed for all!

This is the second in a series of blog posts celebrating the Retreat archive and our digitisation project as it nears completion. The Retreat is one of the most important institutions in the care and treatment of mental health patients. Over the last two and half years, staff at the Borthwick have been working through the archive, preparing the documents for digitisation, carrying out conservation treatments where appropriate and photographing each item page by page.

This has been a huge task. Over 600,000 images have been created so far and the focus has been on handling each item with care and capturing a high quality image efficiently and effectively. Of course there have been many items that have caught our eye along the way. In this series of blog posts project staff pick out some of the interesting items that they have encountered.

Here David Pilcher, one of our digitisation assistants introduces The Kirks.

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It would be true to say that the Retreat archive contains a lot more than mental health records, correspondence and monthly accounts. Folders can be found that include artwork and poetry, landscaping and planting details in the gardens, various sporting activities, in fact a whole plethora of subjects.

One of the cornerstones of the Retreat's care of the mentally ill was to provide educating and stimulating entertainments which were enjoyed in a shared environment by patients and staff alike and, by the beginning of the twentieth century, most calendar months had a programme of entertainment events ranging from lectures, puppet theatre, magic lantern shows, musical evenings and variety acts. Over time the information and correspondence collected for reference by the Retreat on these mainly travelling acts grew to a considerable amount and in itself has become a valuable potential resource for anyone looking at the history of variety and light entertainment.

Due to considerations of space here it would be impossible to write about all the many acts that aspired to make a living by travelling the length and breadth of the country with their often amusing and eccentric shows so I have chosen one such act to try and put across a flavour of what was on offer during the first half of the twentieth century.

I present, for your delectation and enjoyment ………… The Kirks!  


The Kirks cropped version.jpg
Publicity photo of The Kirks circa. 1924-28 (Ref: RET/1/5/5/7/9)

The Kirks were a double act comprised of Mr. M Wingate Kirk and his wife, who was referred to by her stage name of Madame. Both of them hailed from Scotland. Mr. Kirk performed the majority of the show combining such skills as magic and conjuring, illusions and even some ventriloquism using a kilt clad dummy called, at various times, either “Brown” or “Scottie”.   He had devised several sketches for himself and the dummy, one curiously entitled “A Cigarette and a Kiss”, possibly not the best of combinations by anyone’s standards!       

Madame usually made her appearance after the interval when the couple attempted a routine called “ Transference of Thought” sometimes named “Two Minds with but a Single Thought”. She was seated and blindfolded while her husband moved around the stage with items given to him by members of the audience which then Madame immediately and correctly described without any word spoken by her partner! Coins were named and even dated, rings were identified by size and colour and she would continue to amaze despite some of the articles being wrapped before presentation. It was, as the publicity material announced, A Baffling Exhibition of Instantaneous Telepathy!

The Kirks did their show at the Retreat on Friday, 24th November 1922, and for a show lasting 90 minutes were paid four guineas.  (Ref: RET/1/5/5/7/4)  

It also has to be noted that earlier in that year the same show was performed for HRH Prince Henry and the repertoire included The Cake in the Hat and My Stick.

The Retreat records reveal that the duo were booked several times during the years that followed and were obviously very reliable in providing quality entertainment for all.

In 1928 M. Wingate Kirk notified the Retreat that he would be in the area around October and would the Retreat like his services once more? The reply from the Retreat is strangely obscure in part

“if you can assure us that your programme will be somewhat changed from what you gave us two years ago we are willing to book you”. (Ref: RET/1/5/5/7/9)


Kirk wrote back with that assurance and suggested he include The Living Marionettes (new for the 1928-29 season!) and also “all the latest novelties which are suitably adapted to Hospital Entertainments”. (Ref: RET/1/5/5/7/9)


The Kirks performed once more at the Retreat on Tuesday, 2nd October 1928 and as well as the aforementioned Living Marionettes the act included The Library Problem (?) and The Organ Pipes. The show was traditionally closed with a stirring rendition of God save the King.

The last recorded mention I have been able to trace of the Kirks is towards the end of 1946 when M. Wingate Kirk sent the Retreat his latest programme with an accompanying letter asking about possible dates. (Ref: RET/1/5/5/7/15)


The ventriloquist`s dummy now went under the name of Sandy and the tricks and sketches included The Plume Illusion and the bizarrely titled A Seaside Experience (Pulling a Lady through a Keyhole). Sadly there was no mention of his wife or Madame in either the publicity or the related correspondence so one does wonder if she had passed away by then and Mr. Kirk was bravely soldiering on with the act. Interestingly the headed notepaper used at that time just names M. Wingate Kirk. (Ref: RET/1/5/5/7/15)


To conclude this particular thread The Retreat in their reply thanked Mr. Kirk for his offer of entertainment but unfortunately was unable to secure him a fixture at the present time.
Obviously, as the years rolled on variety acts in general were on the demise mainly due to the rising popularity of the cinema and then later, television. The Retreat had already acquired a cine projector and were hiring major titles for the entertainment of their residents so to coin a phrase …“variety was (unfortunately) dead”.  

In some ways the Kirks were unique in the style of entertainment that they provided. The material was accessible to children and also suited to an adult audience while the content was deemed to be “safe” for the residents of mental hospitals, of which they included many in their nationwide tours.

Never vulgar or crude in their delivery but possibly with a jocular element of cheek they amused and amazed audiences over almost three decades and certainly had a shared passion in their wonderful gift to entertain.   

More information about the Wellcome Library funded project to digitise the Retreat archive can be found on the project pages of our website. Digital surrogates from the Retreat archive project are available via the Wellcome Library.

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

Spotlight on the Retreat archives: A Window on the 19th Century Pharmacist

This is the first in a series of blog posts celebrating the Retreat digitisation project as it nears completion. Over the last two and half years, staff at the Borthwick have been working through the Retreat archive, updating the catalogue, preparing the documents for digitisation, carrying out conservation treatments where appropriate and photographing each item page by page. This has been a huge task. Over 600,000 images have been created so far and the focus has been on handling each item with care and capturing a high quality image in the most time efficient and effective way we could. Of course there have been many items that have caught our eye along the way. In this series of blog posts project staff pick out some of the interesting items that they have encountered. First Jane Rowling, one of our digitisation assistants introduces the Papers Relating to Alfred Jones from 1880 (RET 6/19/1/85A). 
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 As a Victorian, where could you turn to find information on curing a nosebleed, making medicines for dogs, entertaining your children, restoring your hair, polishing soldiers’ buttons, concocting salad dressings, soothing a black eye, extracting teeth, and building a cheap aquarium? Your first port of call would probably have been your local pharmacist. One volume in the Archives of The Retreat offers a fascinating insight into the world of the Victorian pharmacist, and his customers. This volume, Medical and Domestic Formulae by a Pharmaceutical Chemist, is a notebook handwritten by a Retreat patient, Alfred Jones, and dedicated to the Medical Superintendent Dr Baker.

RET/6/19/1/85A


 Mr Jones clearly felt an affinity with Dr Baker, inscribing the first page of of his book with the words “Experientia Docet” - meaning ‘experience teaches’ - and:

‘Poets are born - not made And so are true Physicians.’ 

 These lines express a sense of a shared calling and a certain kind of equality between patient and doctor. The book also serves to show the pride a Pharmaceutical Chemist might take in his work and status in the late nineteenth century.



 Until 1842, chemists and druggists did not have to have a formal qualification. Anyone with sufficient funds could set up a shop and sell potentially lethal concoctions of drugs. Accidents with mis sold or wrongly made-up medicines gave the profession a bad name, leading to the formation of a group of pharmacists who wanted to protect their trade. Jacob Bell, the son of a Quaker pharmacist, quickly emerged as the spokesman for this group. Their greatest successes were the granting of the Royal Charter of Incorporation to the Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain in 1843, and the 1868 Pharmacy Act, which meant that anyone making up medicines had to have taken the Society’s examination, and had to be registered with the Society. For pharmacists like Alfred Jones, registration with the Society was a mark of status as a trusted individual within a local community, and as a privileged member of a wider medical community which would also include the Medical Superintendent of a Mental Hospital like The Retreat. Thus he writes that his book contains:

 ‘Tried and Reliable Remedies & Family Recipes Etc. in Chemistry Pharmacy & Domestic Medicine & Veterinary Practise by a Registered Chemist by Examinations (classical & technical) of the Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain’ 

 Alfred Jones’ notebook gives us an overview of the kinds of products people required from a pharmacist in the later nineteenth century, and how dangerous some of them might have been! A ‘Carmmative for Infants’ included a large dose of laudanum, while a ‘Mixture for Excited Brain’ (recommended for children as well as adults) contained bromide and chloral hydrate, a sedative. Just as unappealing is an ‘Indigestion Mixture’ containing dilute nitro hydrochloric acid - a substance which can be highly corrosive if not sufficiently diluted.



Another page recommends “Chloroform just short of anasthesia [sic] is best treatment of Hydrophobia” in cases of diseases such as rabies. This would be another risky procedure, but probably safer than the alternative, which was to perform a tracheotomy. The Victorian pharmacist walked a fine line indeed!

Some of the less harmful recipes in the book give us an insight into the realities of life beyond the pharmacist’s shop, for example:

 ‘The Herb called Solomon’s Seal is a reputed cure for Black Eye Geber saith: “It removeth any black or blew spots which occurreth to any woman on falling on her hastie husband’s fists.”



 In the nineteenth century, the local pharmacist would also provide cures and tonics for animals, reflecting a world in which working animals were a much greater part of the general public’s everyday lives than they are today. Alfred Jones offers recipes for a ‘Cleansing Drink for Newly Calved Cow,’ consisting of juniper berries, sulphur, aniseed, ginger, cumin seeds, Glaubers salt (sodium sulphate - used as a laxative in crystal form), and Epsom salts. He notes that, ‘some add 1/2 pt Linseed Oil. A different page gives ‘Alterative and Restorative Powder for Horses’ and ‘Cough Balls for Horses,’ reminding us of the ubiquity of the horse for transport at this time.





The recipes also show a lighter side of life, however. For example, this idea for a children’s entertainment:

‘Magic Designs on a White Sheet Stretch a sheet & draw a design such as the Prince Wales’s Feathers &c with a piece of Chalk & dust thereon lightly a penny packet of Aniline dye Red, Blue, or Any Colour. This is invisible at a distance but on spraying Methylated Spirit onto the sheet with a spray apparatus - it is instantly developed to the amusement of the youngsters.’



The pharmacist also held a wealth of knowledge about food and drink, for which ingredients could be supplied. Alfred Jones offered recipes for ‘Sea Side Sauce’, ‘American Cock Tail Bitters’, Doncaster Butter Scotch, Ginger Wine, ‘Currie Powder’ and Salad Dressing, as well as various jams and marmalades. In this book, some of these recipes sit rather incongruously beside much less appetising concoctions, for example ‘Currie Powder’ (nutmeg, turmeric, “cummin seed,” cayenne, coriander, black pepper, ginger and mustard) is followed by ‘Cement for Glass, China &c’ and ‘Insoluble Liquid Glue.”




This volume, handwritten by a Retreat patient, is just one of the thousands of documents in the hospital’s archive which can tell us about life outside the walls of the Retreat, as well as within. While there are some unusual additions (a poem entitled ‘Lines addressed to a Kitten’ tucked into a page describing furniture polish and cold cream, for example), this book is a fascinating insight into the world of the Victorian pharmacist, and just one of the documents in the Retreat’s archives which brings a lost world to life.

More information about the Wellcome Library funded project to digitise the Retreat archive can be found on the project pages of our website. Digital surrogates from the Retreat archive project are available via the Wellcome Library.

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

The Nature of the Job II: Structuring the archive of Yorkshire Wildlife Trust


In my last blog about my project cataloguing the archive of the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, I wrote about how I got started with the survey of this archive. In this instalment, I'll be writing about my experiences in developing a structure for the archive, why it's important and how it'll translate to our online catalogue, Borthcat

Trying my hand at some slip listing for the Skipwith Common files.
From the very beginning of the project, I was aware of how vital it was for the structure of the archive to be right. The organisation was (and still is) a complex one and I want the structure of the archive to convey a sense of the wider scheme of the Trust's business, allowing users to contextualise, through their interrelationship, the individual records they look for. Of course this applies to all archives, but particularly so in this project for a number of reasons. Firstly, the archive is still very a much a living repository of information - it is actively consulted by YWT staff as part of ongoing legal and campaign work and there are regular accruals of new material. This means that the records themselves are not necessarily going to be in our physical custody and in turn means that the intellectual control we have over these records needs to be robust. Secondly, aside from the additional deposits of archival material already received, the Trust continues to dynamically develop and so the structure needs to make allowances for future growth. Thirdly, (and perhaps a little intimidatingly for me!) at the time of writing, no other Wildlife Trust in the UK has deposited archival material in such quantities in a public repository so it is hoped that this project will provide a model for any future Trusts in arranging their archives.

The beginnings of a structure!
So while the latter makes Yorkshire Wildlife Trust unique in both the scope of its archival material and its public availability, it also means that there aren't any parallel organisations for me to reference in structuring this archive. So I was relying on a number of sources in developing the scheme - first and foremost my own research into the records themselves, then the excellent published history in Tim Sands' book 'Wildlife in Trust: A hundred years of nature conservation' and then on the living memory of the organisation in the shape of members and trustees, some of whom form part of the board monitoring and supporting this project.

Using survey notes to identify links between files.
Here, minutes copied and sent to Executive Committee
As an organisation, YWT has changed over its 70 year life, shifting from an amateur conservation body in 1946 to a professional campaigning organisation. Alongside this have come numerous administrative changes, all impacting on how records were accumulated by the organisation. Luckily, these changes have been well documented (for the most part) and so I was able to get a good understanding of the provenance of the archive. These records of change were a useful point of reference for me in developing my structure, as were the numerous references to now obsolete filing systems - often filed by the initials of the person generating the correspondence, with date and document references, and then by an increasingly complex system of alphanumeric codes. I used these to give me an understanding of how committees, departments and individuals interacted with one another, as well as documenting the links between the centralised functions of the Trust and the vital operational work carried out all over Yorkshire by volunteer committees.

I started working on the structure of the archive at the same time as surveying the records. I've worked iteratively, and initially worked on the overarching structure of the archive. I'm now on the fourth (and hopefully final!) version which incorporates 7 subfonds covering the foundation of the Trust, its governance, administration, liaison work, conservation records and campaigns. The seventh subfonds, and the one I'll focus on here, is the one covering the sites associated with the Trust. The majority of the material in the archive relates to the sites that the Trust has owned, managed and advised on and each site has anywhere between 1 and 70 files including environmental records, management records and research into each site.
I decided to move away from slip listing and started to use a piece of
mind mapping software. Above: working copy of Skipwith Common version 3!

I started the process using the files of Skipwith Common, which is no longer a Trust reserve, but which was one of the first sites whose records I surveyed. My first, uncertain, attempt at a structure split the files into three subsubsubfonds (!) but I felt that this structure was too generic to really reflect with accuracy the unique and complex nature of the ecology and management of each site. This became increasingly apparent as I tried to apply this structure to more sites. I decided to go back to the drawing board and began to work on a different structure, which even as I started it, felt much better in tune with the nature of the records. A good lesson in going with your gut feeling, even as a new professional!

This overall structure will well reflect the types of records that are present in the archive as well as the symbiotic relationship between the ecology of each site and its stewardship. Further, although loosely based on the same framework, the records of each site will have their own individual structures according to the records that are deposited. 

Sneak peek at how the records for Askham Bog will look on our online catalogue

But how will it look online? This structure looks lovely and clear on paper (at least to me!) but will appear very differently through our online catalogue. Above you can see a sneak peek of the entry for Askham Bog as it currently stands, although before it's published there will be more information added and probably a different iteration of AtoM too! I'll be adding the descriptions of each file very soon and I'll be blogging about that process in the next instalment of this series. For now, I'll continue to add files to my skeletal framework and to refine the structure, adding new levels as more information comes to light. It's really exciting to see it finally taking shape and emerging from my sea of drafts!


Lydia Dean
Project Archivist

You can follow updates on this project via Twitter, Facebook and this blog. Please do get in touch with any questions or comments and I'll be happy to help! 

Friday, 11 November 2016

Remembering Private Thomas John Morgan


Well I far from home but you are not out of my mind.  I hope to be home by Christmas, if not before then.

These words were written by 18 year old Private Thomas John Morgan to his 7 year old brother Llewellyn in May 1916.  Two months later, Thomas would be dead, one of 4,000 Welsh soldiers killed in Mametz Wood during the Battle of the Somme.  The handful of letters he wrote home to his family in Llanfairfechan in North Wales survive as part of the Alfred Peacock Archive here at the Borthwick Institute, along with many other letters, postcards, diaries and photographs that tell of the terrible human cost of the First World War.

Thomas was born in early 1898, the eldest son of a Merionethshire quarry man and his wife.  By 1911 the family had settled in the small Welsh town of Llanfairfechan, just along the coast from Bangor.  Thomas was one of four surviving children, he had two younger sisters, Gladys and Margaret Ann, and his youngest brother Hugh Llewellyn, known as Llewellyn.  

We know from Thomas’ surviving army service record that he worked as a baker before he enlisted.  We also know that he lied about his age in order to join up.  In this he was far from unique. It has been estimated that some quarter of a million British soldiers in the First World War were underage.  Before the Military Service Act of 1916, recruits were supposed to be aged between 18 and 38, but they could not be sent abroad until they were 19.  Thomas enlisted in November 1915 at the age of 17, giving his age as 19 years and 14 days so he would be immediately eligible to be posted overseas.  He also barely met the height threshold of 5 feet 3 inches, coming in at only half an inch taller.

The ruse worked and Thomas was accepted into the 16th Battalion of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers and posted to France in March 1916, at the age of 18.  His letters home from France provide glimpses of his personality.  Despite his claims that he is ‘not a letter writer at all’ he promises to write and send field postcards at ‘every opertunity [sic] I get’ and requests paper and envelopes from home and letters as often as they can send them.  ‘You should see the smile on the lads’ faces when they get a parcel,’ he writes in May 1916, ‘It is the only thing to look forward to here.’

Looking forward to leave and parcels from home in this letter from May 1916.

The occasional odd phrasing and misspellings in the letters are a reminder that English was unlikely to have been Thomas’ first language, but that Welsh speaking soldiers were expected to use it regardless so that their letters could be more easily censored.

His letters are full of local concerns.  He mentions local men he has seen at the Front, telling his mother he has seen ‘Lloyd’s brother’ in the camp at Boulogne, and has spoken with ‘Tom Parry’ and asks to be remembered to everyone at Llanfairfechan ‘who I know.’  In May 1916 he writes to thank his mother for sending her ‘bara brith’ (a Welsh tea loaf) which was ‘very good indeed’ and asks if his father knows anyone Manod Road as he had met a soldier from there by the name of Alun Jones.  He also worries about his mother receiving enough of his army pay, ‘I know you cannot spare the money and I think I can do without it here.’

Born and raised in a still largely rural area of Wales, he is critical of the more wasteful practices he sees.  In June he complains of skirmishing exercises taking place ‘in the middle of corn and potato fields which are to be seen for miles.  Now it is all spoiled, it is a great shame I think.  If the war happened to be there I wouldn’t say nothing but only for training it's a great shame we all think.’  




The most touching letter of all is the one to his little brother Llewellyn, enclosed with a letter to his mother in May.  ‘I received your kind little letter quite safe,’ Thomas writes. ‘Thanks very much for the song you sent me I am very glad of it.  I am sending you a handichief [sic] and one for Gladys & one for Margaret Ann. You can pick for yourself which you like best,’ adding ‘I must say that you are getting on well at school to be able to write letters like you are.’

He ends one of his final letters home with the hope that he might soon get leave, finishing ‘Well good bye now and God bless you all & please don’t worry.’  

The Battle of Mametz Wood began on the 7th July and Thomas was reported missing on the 11th, later confirmed as killed in action.  By some administrative error, his mother Margaret received notice only that he had been ‘discharged to duty’ and wrote to his regiment on the 21st July seeking further information, ‘Could you please let me know where he is, as I am so anxious to hear from him & trust you make enquiries for me, as it is a long time since I had a field post card, trusting it will not be troubling you too much.’

The letter informing Thomas' mother that he has been killed in action.

The terrible news was sent on the 28th and Margaret spent the next four years desperately searching for further news of the circumstances of her son’s death and his burial place, to no avail.  An army chaplain, replying to one of her letters in September 1916, wrote that ‘the probability is that he was buried where he fell with many of his comrades from the Battalion.  We did not have the opportunity of burying the brave fellows who fell in Mametz Wood, as immediately after the battle we moved elsewhere.’

Thomas’ resting place was never found and today he is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme in France and at home in Llanfairfechan on the war memorial on Aber Road.  His letters, and those of his mother, are a testament to just one of the many individual and family tragedies that make up the First World War.  

On Armistice Day we remember them.

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

Testing the online catalogue: results of user testing

Back in the Spring of this year, we carried out two phases of user testing on our online catalogue, Borthcat.   The key results of the first phase of testing are described over on our Digital Archivist, Jen Mitcham's, blog, as well as some of the actions we were able to take prior to the public launch of Borthcat in April 2016. While the basic phase of testing allowed us to make some really practical and in some cases speedy changes to the catalogue interface, the second phase of testing really gave us insight into individual user interactions with the catalogue  to examine how users search for and retrieve information from our holdings. Whilst results of similar testing have been carried out with Access to Memory (AtoM: our web-based, open-source archival description software) in one or two other institutions in North America, at the time of testing the Borthwick was the first UK AtoM user to carry out such detailed work. The findings of both the first and second phase of testing formed the backbone of my Masters dissertation in Archives and Records Management and, as I'm graduating from the University of Dundee next week (!), it seemed like the perfect time to give you a report into the results from the more detailed tests we carried out.
The Borthcat homepage


Why did we do it?
Across the archives sector, online access to information is now pretty much routine and users often expect digital versions of finding aids and, ideally, digitised version of the documents that they can search and examine. In developing our own online interface, Borthcat, we wanted to make sure that not only was information available to users but (more crucially, in my opinion) that users were able to successfully find that information using the tools we had provided. Looking at our own user base from the statistics we capture, between March and April 2016 - just prior to the launch of Borthcat - there were over double the amount of remote enquiries (1614) to physical visits (731) to the searchroom. In the same period there were over 13,300 unique hits our online digital document repositories: Find My Past, the Cause Papers and the Archbishops' Registers. We wanted to make our catalogue as informative and accessible as possible, not least because a large proportion of both our current and future users are researchers who may never be able to physically visit us at all.


How did we do it?
Jen's blog explores the results of the first phase of testing that we carried out - recruiting our users through a mixture of social media channels and onsite advertising in the searchroom and asking them to complete a brief online questionnaire.

The second stage of testing asked participants to work through a series of set exercises using Borthcat while being observed. During these sessions, participants' screens were recorded using Screencastify to capture their mouse movements and the number of clicks they made.

We wanted to capture some qualitative data on user interactions to enrich the statistical information we'd obtained in the first round of testing. We used the Archival Metrics Toolkit (a fantastic resource!) to help design the exercises and tried to ameliorate the effects of such a controlled environment. Of course, we couldn't hope to fully replicate a researcher's independent enquiry but the results we obtained were interesting and gave us an insight into our users that we hadn't had before.


What did we find out?
Here are just a few of the main findings from the testing.

Limited use of hierarchical menu
Users heavily relied on using the free text search bar at the top of the Borthcat homepage to identify records. Only one participant in the second phase of testing used the hierarchical information available on the left-hand side of the screen, and another used free text searching as their sole retrieval technique throughout the test period. This could be for a mixture of reasons. The majority of our entries in Borthcat are at collection level, and so there are fewer hierarchical descriptions available currently (although the test exercises focused on those archives with full catalogues). Further, and as reflected in the basic phase of testing, many users have become familiar with a free-text search when using search engines like Google.

Overwhelming 'wall of text'
Users found the level of information available on each entry, and the amount of results returned for some searches, to be overwhelming in some cases. There was an overall idea, again in common with the basic testing, that users wanted Borthcat to be able to tailor information more specifically to their queries. I think that this is where the presence of an archivist or the staff in the searchroom who understand our holdings are the most valuable asset we can have; this situation would be more easily resolved for a researcher who was onsite and able to consult a staff member for advice. Where the researcher is remote and is searching for unfamiliar (or unknown!) material then it is vital that the catalogue presents information clear enough for them to make an informed choice.  Some users in the observed tests used keyboard techniques like CTRL+F to narrow down occurrences of specific terms within an archival description, although the majority didn't.

Typeahead search suggestions 
Understanding icons
A further usability issue to come out of the detailed testing was that the icons used in Borthcat's 'Typeahead' search - where potential results are generated as you type - are not defined in our customised iteration of AtoM. In an exercise designed to look at how users interacted with our subject-term listings, participants were asked to find out how many of our holdings contain diaries - a subject terms that has been linked across several separate archives. The majority of users did this by searching for the term ‘diaries’ in the free-text search box. When they did so they were confronted by several entries, all called 'Diaries', at item, file and sub-series level, all from separate archives, as well as a subject term entry for diaries in general. The archival entries are all marked with a 'description' icon and the subject entry is marked with an icon showing a label. For those of us working with Borthcat on a daily basis, it was simple to select the relevant entry and to continue our work but most participants in the study repeated the search several times in order to work through all the options before finding the entry they required. This allowed us to identify a way to improve the usability of Borthcat as well as giving us food for thought in how we construct the titles of our records. The linking of records through the use of different subject terms is one of the most interesting capabilities of AtoM - it allows connections to be made across archives in a way that would be very difficult to do using paper finding aids and can draw out unexpected links. Being able to see how users interact with this capability over the longer term will be very important in understanding how researchers can make the most of the information we hold.

A personal connection
It really came across during the testing that users value a personal connection to their research, either through searching for personal names or through bringing their own research contexts and knowledge to the way they search for information. Several users commented that they would really appreciate a feature that would allow them to collect all the records they found interesting in order to look at them again or to send them through to the searchroom for retrieval. This wasn't something I had expected, but is something that other archives do. A great example is the pinboard feature at the Marks and Spencer archive, Marks in Time.


Carrying out this exercise has been really helpful in understanding that what our users want from our records and what we think they want isn’t always the same thing. Involving our users directly in the development of Borthcat was also a fantastic opportunity to engage more with our audience on a project that will be of practical benefit. I must thank all of the participants who took part in each phase of testing; without their invaluable contribution of time in completing both the survey and the observed exercises, we would not have been able to gain the insights we have done into how our users retrieve information, and how they'd like to be able to retrieve information in the future. It is of vital importance for us and for other archive repositories to keep our users’ needs at the heart of their considerations when making archival information accessible online.


Lydia Dean
Archivist


The results of this user testing have been discussed in more detail in my MLitt dissertation ‘Access to Memory: Understanding how users of the Borthwick Institute search for online archival information’ through the University of Dundee. You can find out more about our work with AtoM through our blog and Jen's blog 'Digital Archiving at the Borthwick' .

Tuesday, 1 November 2016

Up and AtoM: The Borthwick Institute Goes To South Korea

In September I was fortunate enough to present a paper on the Borthwick’s new online catalogue at the International Council on Archives Congress 2016.  Held every four years, the ICA Congress is a unique opportunity for record keeping professionals from all over the world to meet and share ideas and achievements and discuss the challenges facing the profession.  It seems appropriate then that the theme of the 2016 Congress was Archives, Harmony and Friendship and the location chosen was Seoul in South Korea, a country with a history of codified archival practice that dates back to the advent of Joseon Dynasty in the fourteenth century.  

I arrived in South Korea on Monday afternoon, after some 11 hours of travel, and had the evening to get acquainted with the Gangnam-gu District in which I was staying.  Gangnam-gu is one of twenty-five districts in Seoul and home to half a million people (Seoul as a whole has a population of 10 million).  Fortunately it was only a short walk from my hotel to the venue of the Congress, the COEX Convention and Exhibition Centre, although I had plenty of opportunity to try the city’s extremely efficient subway system later in the week for some night time sightseeing.  


Out and about in Seoul.  From left to right: navigating the Yongsan shopping plaza; climbing the medieval city walls in Naksan Park; walking back through Gangnam-gu to my hotel.  
My experience of British conference centres had not prepared me for the scale of the COEX.  The 4 storey conference and exhibition centre sits on top of the COEX shopping mall, Korea’s largest underground mall boasting several hundred shops, two food courts, a multi screen cinema and an aquarium.  


The COEX Convention and Exhibition Centre in the Samseong-dong area of Gangnam-gu

The congress itself was spread across a single floor and included archival exhibitions by the National Archives of Korea and opportunities to try traditional Korean arts, crafts and costumes, as well as two exhibition halls showcasing the work of various recordkeeping organisations and vendors.  

A display by the National Archives of Korea in the COEX, showcasing some of their most important Royal documents.
An example of the Annals of the Joseon Dynasty.  The annals were kept from 1413 to 1865 and have been added to the UNESCO Memory of the World Register.
Each day opened with a keynote speech, followed by a variety of panels and workshops running alongside each other, sometimes up to eight at once.  Choosing which of the many presentations to attend was akin to going through the Christmas Radio Times with a highlighter, which is to say challenging!  Over the course of four days I attended presentations and workshops by colleagues from Australia, Fiji, Nepal, Brazil, Amsterdam, Switzerland, Norway, China, Japan, Saudi Arabia, the Philippines,  America, Canada, the UK and of course, South Korea.  

Staff from the National Archives of Japan lead a workshop demonstrating the
latest restoration techniques used for flood damaged records.
The subject matter varied enormously.  A keynote speech by John Hocking of the United Nations highlighted the crucial role played by archives on a global scale in testifying to atrocities and making it possible for victims to seek justice in the international courts.  Equally sobering however were the case studies presented by colleagues from Australia and British Columbia looking at the role played by archive projects in addressing historical discrimination against Aboriginal and First Nation communities and the need to work with indigenous peoples to develop more inclusive recordkeeping protocols for the future.

Shaun Rohrlach from the National Archives of Australia discusses the Forced Adoptions History Project.  You can read more about their work at their website.

Helen Walker reads a paper by Opeto Alefaio of the National Archives of Fiji highlighting the valuable work of the Pacific Island archives in setting up travelling Archives Roadshows to share records with local communities, often for the first time.  
Find out more at their Facebook page.
Other presentations focused on the opportunities offered by new and developing technology, whether in meeting the challenges posed by born-digital archives or using new technology to bring more traditional records to a global audience.  A keynote speech from Laurent Gaveau of the Google Cultural Institute demonstrated the ability of the Google cultural app to take users of virtual tours of museums and historic sites and to deliver high resolution images of art and documents.  Tim Harris showed us how such innovative technology enabled archivists to find new solutions to old problems, showcasing the collaborative work of the London Metropolitan Archives in using 3D photography to digitally ‘flatten’ the previously unreadable Great Parchment Book, a unique record from 17th century Ireland.  

The Great Parchment Book before conservation and digitisation work began.
Read more about the project here.
From developing new computer programmes and websites in conjunction with colleagues in computer science and the digital humanities to using the power of the world wide web to collaborate with colleagues across continents, the congress was an inspiring reminder that none of us are alone in our work and that the help and expertise of colleagues within and without the profession can enhance what we do and allow us to reach a wider audience than ever before.

I was certainly aware of this when presenting my own paper on Project Genesis at the Borthwick Institute as part of the Congress’ ‘New Professionals’ panel.  


The nerve-wracking wait for my panel to begin!

The creation of our first online catalogue has drawn on the knowledge of colleagues in computer science and in the digital library, on the experience and insight of fellow archivists - both new professionals and more established colleagues - and the many users of AtoM around the world who have contributed to the development of AtoM and offered advice through the user forum online.  I was pleased to be able to acknowledge this in my paper and to show how the launch of our catalogue, Borthcat, is already making a difference to how we share information about our holdings with our global userbase.  

My paper was an opportunity to share our new online catalogue, Borthcat, with colleagues from around the world.
My paper was well received and led to a number of very useful conversations with current (and potential) AtoM users that I have been able to follow up on over the past few weeks.

The end of the Congress was marked with a day of professional visits.  I chose to visit the Seoul Repository of the National Archives of Korea, followed by a traditional lunch and then a trip to the Korean Folk Village at Yongin.  

Sharing a very plentiful Korean lunch on my last day in the country.
The National Archives is one of three in the country, a reflection of the three archives that housed the records of the Joseon Dynasty for hundreds of years.  The Seoul Repository was completed in 2007 and is built in the shape of a traditional jewel case and surrounded by forest.  We were given a full tour by the very friendly staff, and I think more than a few of us were rather envious of the repository's impressive facilities!  

The strongroom containing the most rare and valuable records at the National Archives of Korea, Seoul Repository.
Visiting the Conservation Laboratory at the Seoul Repository.
We were even given a live demonstration of repository’s ‘water wall fire prevention system’ in case of forest fires.  When ambient temperature reaches 80 degrees, a series of nozzles around the roof of the building pumps out 1,105 tonnes of water over the course of 75 minutes, creating a wall of water (and, as we discovered, an awful lot of spray) as shown in the video below.

video


After a very plentiful Korean lunch, we spent an enjoyable afternoon at the Folk Village, exploring recreations of houses and workshops from different eras in Korea’s history and buying some souvenirs to bring home.  

Exploring traditional Korean houses at the Folk Village in Gyeonggi province outside Seoul.
I marked my last evening in Seoul with one final plate of Korean speciality Bibimbap and a trip to the COEX underground aquarium to try the promised ‘fantastic water journey’ which involved sharks, penguins, seals, and guinea pigs (but not all at once).

A familiar red phonebox and a posing penguin at the COEX Aquarium.
The Ocean Tunnel, COEX Aquarium.

Although I’d been nervous about travelling so far by myself and attending a conference where I knew no-one, I soon found I needn’t have worried.  Archivists and record keepers are a friendly and welcoming bunch and the Seoul subway is hands down the most user-friendly transport system I’ve ever been on.  I came back to York with lots of new ideas, a lot of photos, and a deep appreciation for the work archivists do and the important reasons we do it.  


The Thursday evening buffet dinner was an opportunity to chat about the week, try Korean food and enjoy some traditional song and dance performances.

To borrow from one of my favourite case studies of the Congress, looking at the excellent work of the Pacific Island archives, for those of us who work with archives every day it can sometimes be easy to forget what a source of wonder they can be.  My week in Seoul was the perfect reminder.


Heunginjimun, commonly known as Dongdaemun Gate.  One of the 8 gates in the medieval wall of Seoul (and one that took me quite a hike to get to!).


A 4 minute highlight reel of the Congress is available on youtube.