Archive for July, 2013

I’ve just been reading a really interesting article by Matthew Kirschenbaum about issues re preserving computer software for the future. I’m a former computer scientist, and now academic historian, and this is a subject dear to my heart. On a very personal level I’m painfully aware how much recent software no longer runs on modern computers, and that’s just from the last decade and a bit more. Extrapolating out to more decades and even longer raises the issues still further.

Anyway I would strongly recommend that others with an interest in these issues read the article. It’s remarkably wide ranging. For example there’s quite a detailed discussion of the pros and cons of emulators versus original hardware, including a rather nice analogy about 18th century reading habits. Also addressed is which software should be saved – see also the companion piece about this. There’s also the alarming revelation that the US Library of Congress didn’t generally preserve computer magazines before 1990, regarding them as too ephemeral – aarrgghh!

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Blog about 24 hours at the recent SHARP book history conference at Philadelphia. I’m particularly intrigued by the talks about maps within books and mapping events within books. Wish I’d got to those!

Ellen And Jim Have A Blog, Two

Geographies of the Book

Dear friends and readers,

During the all too short time (about a day’s length) I was able to be at the Sharp conference this year, held at the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia, I enjoyed myself and heard some engaging informative papers — and gave one myself. Although I was able to attend the conference only briefly (as my husband was still recovering from an operation), I would still like to remember and share the gist of what I heard and experienced (as I did two years ago) and what I wish I could have been there for.

I arrived on Saturday, July 20th, around 2:00 pm, in time to attend two panels and in the evening go to a scrumptious banquet (at which there were Philadelphia mummers) and walk around the campus.

No surprise when I decided on “studies in the long 18th…

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Fascinating blog post from Glasgow University Library about a project at St Andrews that’s tracing references to lost books, using documentary evidence, catalogues, inventories etc. There will also be a conference about this at St Andrews in June 2014. I intend to be there.

University of Glasgow Library Blog

I recall reading somewhere that books survive in greater numbers than just about any other human-made object (the exception being coins). And having passed the last couple of hours buried beneath an ever-increasing mound of hefty hardbacks searching (in vain) for the source of this claim, it certainly sounds plausible to me!  Yet despite the large number of bibliographic survivors (our Special Collections department alone holds in the region of 200,000 printed books, with the same again in manuscript items) many many more books have been lost over the years.

Stories of fire, flood and the depredations of war have engaged bibliophiles for centuries, exemplified by the lost Library of Alexandria, Maffei Pinelli’s great book collection (thrown overboard by pirates!) and the frankly Blackadder-esque tale of Thomas Carlyle’s servant accidentally using the first draft of The French Revolution to kindle the fire. Owen Gingerich, in his entertaining The book nobody…

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I’ve downloaded a lot of digitised out of copyright books in PDF form. The Internet Archive is a particularly good source for these. But some older books are not available there, but they are available in print on demand reprint. This includes a large number of British Library books, which were digitised in conjunction with Microsoft, and later made available as print on demand through Amazon’s CreateSpace service.

I’ve just been looking for an old history of Selkirkshire, a two-volume book by Thomas Craig-Brown which was originally published in 1886. I’d like to look at this again – I last peeked at it briefly in the 1980s – because I believe it has some interesting things to say about one of my most characterful ancestors. But neither university library nearby has a copy, and it hasn’t been digitised as part of the Internet Archive. But it is available as print on demand through the British Library / Amazon collaboration, which would allow me to read the text. I found a secondhand copy of the 1886 original, but at 500 pounds I won’t be buying it!

The problem is I can’t tell by looking at the Amazon listings for the print on demand books what I’d be buying. There are two listings for this title, both described as “The History of Selkirkshire; Or, Chronicles of Ettrick Forest”, “published” one month apart. I suspect they are volume 1 and volume 2 of the book (possibly the other way round), but the page counts don’t exactly match the printed original volumes clearly, and there is no indication of volume numbers on the Amazon listings. So I’m really not sure.

I’ve asked Amazon to check for me. They can surely look at the source files. Or pick up the print on demand copies lurking in warehouses and have a peek.

What I don’t want to do is guess and buy blind. At least this book was only published once, so I’m not worrying about which edition I’m getting. But the bibliographic details on the Amazon site for these print on demand books are extremely poor and uninformative. I’m not very impressed, wearing my book historian’s hat, plus wanting to make a canny purchase.

But hopefully Amazon Customer Services will be able to sort out the query for me.

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I’m building up a collection of old postcards of places that are important to me. I lived in St Andrews from 1990-1994, and holidayed there most summers throughout the 1980s. And after my husband and I graduated from St Andrews University, and married soon after, we were determined that we would stay living in the near area, which we’ve managed to do.

My three latest postcards cover a range of dates from the 1920s through to the 1970s, the latter not long before I started my childhood holidays there.

The earliest, dated 1928, shows The Pends at the end of South Street, near the Cathedral. This is a pretty postcard, coloured, and has a nice note on the back.

Postcard of The Pends, St Andrews

Back of postcard of The Pends, St Andrews

Note on postcard of The Pends, St Andrews

The next chronologically, dated 1965, shows University Hall, the hall of residence on Kennedy Gardens – then for female students only – which I stayed in during 1990-1991. It shows the older part of the building, the prettier bit, not the modern wing I stayed in. I like that the postcard writer was up in St Andrews for a graduation. I wonder if the graduate had stayed in University Hall.

Postcard of University Hall, St Andrews

Back of postcard of University Hall, St AndrewsNote on postcard of University Hall, St Andrews

The third postcard is from nearest to my time, 1977, and shows the view down to the harbour. Again there’s a note on the back, which I’ve scanned in here. If I have a choice between two otherwise identical postcards, one that’s been used and one that’s been unused, I’ll go for the used one every time, because the note is always a nice example of social history.

Postcard of the harbour, St Andrews

Note on postcard of the harbour, St Andrews

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I originally posted this on my general genealogy/ancestry stories blog, but I think it, and any more future personal postcard posts, would be better suited to my academic historian’s blog. So reblogging here.

Viv's Ancestry Blog

I lived in Cupar from 1995 to 2001. It was the first proper home I had with my husband. We lived in a flat in Cupar Mills, which is a converted old mill building on the Millgate, with massive thick stone walls. I looked into some of the past inhabitants of the building, in 19th century census returns, and valuation rolls, and got quite interested in the local history.

So I have a soft spot for Cupar, and keep an eye out for interesting postcards. And I’ve just bought three, all looking as though they date from the early 1900s.

The first, postmarked 1919, shows the River Eden, near the old Gaol, which later became a pub where we often ate high teas.

Next up is a view along the Bonnygate. This reminds me of the many times my husband and I would get ice cream on Sundays from Luvians…

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I recently gave a talk to a conference for archivists on my perceptions as a disabled user of archives. I have a progressive neurological disease, and sometimes use a wheelchair. More significantly I am very knocked out for a lot of the time, due to brain damage, unable any more to spend long periods working in an archival environment. This is despite me having used archives extensively since the mid 1980s, including a very intensive period a decade ago, when I worked half-time as a Research Assistant for a university project, and my job was just to go to archives and spend long periods there. My disease hadn’t progressed so far at that stage. Things have changed a lot for me since.

Many archives are in cramped locations. I was asked recently to give feedback on a consultation on a particular archive, and one of the points I made was that I hope it might at some point be relocated to a more accessible location. At the moment I struggle to get around there even when just using my stick. When using my wheelchair, which I need to do if I’m going to be there for any quasi-extended period, it’s very hard for me to get in there, and almost impossible to move around the small search room. And as I said at the conference this isn’t just an issue for wheelchair users. Many people have mobility issues, especially older people, and making an archive more accessible can benefit a large number of users, and not always just those you might expect.

Fortunately the archive’s staff are very helpful, and will help me as much as they can. But there are limits to what they can do. This is why I’m such a fan of digitisation on demand. This is very different from an archive initiating digitisation of a major record resource that they decide upon. Rather it’s where a specific user needs to access something – which may be many pages long – and it is digitally photographed or otherwise digitised, so they can work on it at home. I was very lucky during my part-time PhD that various archivists agreed to this. For example my husband photographed nearly 1000 pages of library borrowing records in the Scottish Borders archive at Hawick. And the archivist waived the copying fees (which often have to be paid, even when a visitor does the digitisation themselves) because the copies were needed for disability reasons. And likewise I borrowed many thousands of digital images of testaments and inventories from the National Archives of Scotland, and was able to work through them, looking for evidence of book ownership.

The other key thing for accessibility in my circumstances is good cataloguing of archival material. This is very variable across Scottish archives: some have virtually no catalogues available online, others poor ones, all the way through to better archives with more detailed catalogues. By putting catalogues online, and making them detailed enough, potential visitors or users of the archive can do extensive research from home. If they can then visit the archive themselves then they can make the most of their time there. If, like me, they have to ask for remote copies they are likewise in a good position to do that. Lots of other speakers at the conference also spoke of the importance of cataloguing. I think it’s under-recognised by archive managers, or at least some seem to view themselves as the gatekeepers of archives, and requests for information must be filtered through them. But good catalogues empower users, and give them the opportunity to do essential groundwork themselves. And I think they should be improved where possible.

I closed my talk to the archivists with a list of recommendations for archivists to improve accessibility. I will repeat these here, for the benefit of any reading:

  • Would ask archivists to consider how accessible their search rooms are, including the layout within the room itself. This is potentially of great benefit to physically disabled archive users, but a more accessible layout can benefit users in general as well, for example tables and chairs that are easier to move around, paper catalogues easier to access etc.
  • As a counterpoint to that ask you to be more aware of the potential need for people to research at a distance, and do not always assume lengthy on-the-spot research is practical or the default approach, and consider enabling other modes of provision for users
  • To that end make sure that online catalogues are as detailed as they can be, and improve them where necessary
  • As well as archivist initiated digitisation projects archivists should consider supporting digitisation on demand, including permitting digital photography of records, whether a per page copying fee is charged for such photography, or waived for disability users

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One thing I learned in my PhD is that it’s important to push yourself to try difficult things. It’s possible to get through an undergraduate degree by always playing it safe. Even a postgraduate Masters can be mostly completed in your comfort zone. But when you get to PhD level, it’s only by trying difficult things, and tackling them head on, that you get the best results.

I’ve been trying to apply that since completing my PhD in 2010. For example today I submitted a proposal for a colloquium on library history research to be held in London in early 2015. It would be much easier for me not to go. I have a severely disabling neurological disease, and travelling all the way there, even giving a talk locally, would be very difficult. But I know that I can contribute a lot to the meeting, and so I sent in a proposal. And if I managed to attend the meeting and present my paper I’d get a huge sense of personal achievement.

Likewise the other day I put in a proposal for a conference to be held at Inverness in a few months time. Ok Inverness is not as far away from me as London, but it would still be quite a trauchle (good Scots word – think ‘struggle’) for me to get there. But again I think I can contribute a lot to the conference, it would be nice to get the research from my Masters dissertation ‘out there’, and it may help to see it eventually in print form in an academic journal.

This is also why I’ve been pushing to get my research published in journal articles. Again this is a difficult thing for me to tackle. My progressive neurological disease causes significant cognitive problems, such as considerable difficulty reading, concentrating, general confusion and dementia-like memory problems. So preparing journal papers, and dealing with revise and resubmit for example isn’t easy. But I do it because it’s challenging and rewarding, and seeing my research in print is ever so satisfying. I currently have two papers accepted by journals and awaiting publication, another one being considered by an editor, and another one where I was offered revise and resubmit, and will be doing that. For the same reason I aim at ambitious journals. I have time, hopefully, and would rather wait and work to see my paper published somewhere really good, than go for an easier, safer, less satisfying result.

Of course doing all this requires confidence. But generally that’s something that grows during the PhD process, and culminates in the successful passing of a viva. And then as you get first one paper accepted and published, and then another (I’ve had five single author history journal papers accepted so far) the confidence grows even further. So it’s an ongoing process.

So try the hard things folks. Don’t play it safe. And see where it takes you. Even if, like me, you are outside conventional academia, and ploughing your own path.

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