Friday, 19 August 2016

Cardigans, Cake...Career? My 8 weeks at the Borthwick Institute

I didn’t really know what to expect when I first started interning at the Borthwick; I had never visited the institute before, but as a history student I knew that spending eight weeks surrounded by old papers and documents, in one of the UK’s biggest and most well-respected archives, would be heaven.  My role for the past two months has been digitising the finding aids of several archives and putting them on the Borthcat website, making them more easily accessible so people know what archives the Borthwick has without having to call up and ask for a list.  I have also been contributing to Facebook and Twitter posts whenever I find something interesting, and I wrote a blog post about medicinal alcohol, a subject which I wanted to investigate after puzzling over a ‘wine and spirits book’ found in the York Medical Society catalogue.  I was given a lot of freedom to write about anything I thought was interesting, and I love the way that everyone working in accessions with me was encouraged to do personal research into what really interests them, as it leads to impassioned blogs and social media posts that are well-researched and great for drawing people in and inspiring them through our collection.  

Questionable medical advice in The Retreat Archive,

I have especially loved digitising the finding aid for the Miscellaneous Documents archive; the collection is so eclectic, and from such a diverse range of sources and time periods, that without being able to access the listing online people had no idea of the amazing and often surprising things hidden within the archive.  Items in MDs can range from an early 13th century charter, to a 1930s album of Nestle-produced stamps, and from beautiful 18th century family photographs to a euphemism-laden medical pamphlet for teenagers from the early 1900s entitled ‘The Dawn of Womanhood’ (side note: this is a very entertaining read).  

A letter from the poet W. B. Yeats in the MacCarthy Foulds Archive

The whole process of digitising the archive included linking accession records and writing authority records associated with the items, which involved a lot of research, and I also photographed many of them to use the most interesting on social media.  The social media I was particularly excited about, as I wanted to photograph the documents that would inspire people to take an interest in this seemingly random collection.  (There will be tweets about the MDs soon, by the way; look out for the hashtag #miscdocuments!). I feel like this is a significant mark I have been able to make on the Borthwick online catalogue, and it has been incredibly enjoyable being able to go through these items and research more about them.  I was, however, very worried about breaking something priceless and for the first few weeks found myself constantly asking ‘Are you sure I’m allowed to touch this?  Absolutely sure?! I might just leave it there…’

Commemorating the launch of the new National Health Service in this 1948 magazine from the
York County Hospital Archive

I have also learned so much about the process of archiving collections, various archival schools of thought and the importance of archives to academia as a whole.  My wonderful colleagues Sally and Lydia showed me how an archive goes from being deposited to being catalogued, the importance of organisation and thoroughness in all aspects of the archive, the correct way of handling documents and some very important research skills, as well as being encouraging and friendly throughout.  They’ve also given some very useful advice on how to work towards a career in archives.  The people who work at the Borthwick make it such a welcoming and exciting environment to work in; ask any Borthwickian what they have been doing that day, you are guaranteed to receive an interesting story about a document they found that morning, or a snippet of historical information they’ve been researching.  Some of the most interesting bits of history I’ve learned about during the internship have been completely unrelated to the documents I’ve been looking at, and have just been things stumbled upon whilst researching authority records or talking to others.  Did you know, for instance, that in late 16th century East Sussex puritans often baptised their children with strange, devoutly Christian names, such as in the case of ‘If-Christ-had-not-died-for-thee-thou-hadst-been-damned Barebone’ and our own Archbishop of York ‘Accepted Frewen’?  Or that in the 16th century it was assumed that if you were born through caesarean section you would have a lifelong fear of women?

One of the many hidden gems of the Miscellaneous Documents collection.

Interning here has made me want to rush out and remind all of my fellow history students at York about the amazing resource that we have, sitting in the library packed to the brim with incredible documents that you can look at for free.  I will definitely be using the archives for future history projects, or maybe just if I have a spare hour next time I’m in the library and I want to look at some old editions of the student newspaper.  I want to thank everyone at the Borthwick for making my internship so enjoyable and for teaching me so much, I’m going to miss working here and it has inspired me to consider a career in archives, as it seems like a job in which you can take immense personal pride in your achievements, is interesting and varied and you can always be intricately involved with the subject that you love, and surrounded by people who love it as much as you do.

Gaby Davies
University of York History undergraduate

Wednesday, 3 August 2016

Archives on Loan

This is a guest post by Catherine Dand, a Conservator at the Borthwick Institute.

Our Conservation department is pleased to report that we have a number of archives and special collections that will be going on loan this year. Loaning archival material, especially for the purpose of display, is an exciting way to increase access to the archives. It is an excellent opportunity to raise awareness of our collections, and to build up context and associations for our archives, giving them greater depth.

Our largest loan request this year was from Fairfax House in York. Fairfax House has asked to borrow 4 books and 1 pamphlet from the University of York Special Collections and 4 objects from the Retreat Archive at the Borthwick Institute, to be displayed in their exhibition In Pursuit of Pleasure: The Polite and Impolite World of Georgian Entertainment, which runs from Friday 29th July to Saturday 31st December 2016.

The conservator’s role in the loans process is to reduce the risks that the archives might face while away from home. This can take various forms.

Fig. 1 Sample page from UKRG Facilities Report
  • Initially we need to gather details about the loan that could impact on the safety of the archives. We want to ensure that security had been fully considered at all stages of the loan, including transport, storage, access and display. We would request information about the environment that the archives will be stored and/or displayed in, which would take into account aspects such as temperature and humidity, light levels and exposure, and fluctuations in these environmental factors. We would also want to know what materials the display cases, mounts or supports will be made from, to check that they are appropriate and there will not be anything that might damage the archival materials.

Often facilities reports will be filled in and returned to us, which provide most of the information outlined above (fig.1). Fairfax House sent us a facility report along with 2 supplementary reports – one on security and one on display cases – which addressed almost all of our questions very quickly. Any extra enquiries can then be easily answered.

  • If there are any concerns with the information that we have gathered, our first response is to look for solutions to problems and ways to work around any issues. If we can be helpful, we are keen to provide advice and support to the people and/or organisation that will be responsible for the archives while they are on loan.
There were no obstacles to the Fairfax House loan, but as they will be providing their own mounts and supports we were able to offer advice and suggestions on these aspects from our condition reports (see below). Previous loans to other organisations have included the additional loan of equipment such as display cases, book rests or weights, as well as environmental monitoring equipment such as data loggers to record temperature and humidity, blue wool samples to monitor light exposure or simple Oddy testing materials to check for off-gassing.

Fig.2 Photographic documentation
  • Each item requested for loan is condition assessed to confirm that it is in adequate condition for the purpose of the loan. We will undertake written and photographic documentation of each item, which should effectively communicate the structure and materials of the item and the condition of these different aspects (fig.2).
Accurately recording the condition of items before they leave the building is also the only way in which we can monitor any changes that may occur while they are away. The vast majority of loans are made to people who are careful with the archives, but there have been occasions where carelessness or lack of knowledge has led to damage. If we are aware of what has happened then we can prepare for it better next time.

Assessment also gives us the opportunity to highlight any specific advice or cautions with regard to individual items and the purpose of the loan. If a volume requested for exhibition is very large or has a restricted opening and extra thought will be needed regarding a book rest, this can be passed on. If the item has been requested for access but the materials are too unstable to be handled, we can discuss what the options are.

As Fairfax House had decided to provide their own book supports, our condition reports allowed us to make recommendations as to the maximum angle of safe opening for display on books that have a restricted opening or damaged joints. It also gave us the opportunity to highlight any particular damage or weaknesses – forewarned is forearmed!

Fig.3 Page requested for display is detached
  • Once we have assessed the items conservators can also undertake any treatments to ensure that the items are as stable as possible for the loan.
One of the volumes requested for the Fairfax House exhibition had several detached pages, one of which was the page selected for display (fig.3). The volume does not openly freely, and straps will be required to keep the book open at this page; therefore the loose, protruding pages could be at risk of damage from both handling and the straps. All detached pages were reattached to the volume.

This book also had a detached back board. It was decided that it was not necessary to reattach the board for the exhibition. As long at the board is carefully positioned on the book support, it will still be able to provide the necessary support for the textblock while the volume is on display. The damage has been noted, and this information will be stored on our Work Required database, to be addressed in the future.

Fig.4 Packaging objects for loan
  • Finally, conservators package loan items to ensure that they are transported safely. Usually this will include: individual packaging for each item; a box for easy transfer; padding within the box to stop the items moving around and to provide an environmental buffer for the items; and a plastic covering for the box in case it rains! 
Sometimes packaging for loans needs to be more extensive. Fairfax House has requested a number of un-accessioned objects from the Retreat archives, including various manacles and restraints. It was necessary to rethink their packaging, to ensure that the items were secure during transit. Layers of Plastazote were built up to create a mould for each item, and these slotted together in a box (fig.4). The mould for each item is still separate, and so items can be stored in individual boxes on their return to the archive.

The exhibition at Fairfax House opens on Friday 29th July, and we are excited to see the items on display. If you get a chance to attend, see if you can spot the items that have come from the Borthwick and the University Special Collections!

For more information on the Fairfax House exhibition In Pursuit of Pleasure: The Polite and Impolite World of Georgian Entertainment, please see our news page.