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Posts Tagged ‘archives’

I’ve just discovered that the UK-wide National Register of Archives is to be shut down imminently. Instead researchers are directed towards The National Archives’ new Discovery catalogue, to search across the board.

I’ve rather mixed views about this, generally not very happy. The National Register of Archives (NRA) may not be that well known among historical researchers, but it provided a way of accessing records held in other locations, in particular in private hands. So family estate papers, business records and so on that hadn’t made their way into any of the UK main archives.

When I was doing my postgraduate Masters degree I used the NRA to find the records of the Earls of Haddington, which I needed to check for my research into 17th century court records – a court that was controlled back then by that family. Similarly during my PhD I used the NRA to uncover potentially useful records for my research into Scottish reading habits about 200 years ago.

In some ways the NRA is an artefact of a long time ago, a rather archaic system, reflecting a pre-World Wide Web time, when searches were always conducted offline, in paper catalogues. So on the one hand integrating it into Discovery is progress and makes sense. But I’m concerned that the new search system may not make it so easy to search just these scattered records, and a search could be swamped for example by results from the UK national archive in London. Also as a Scot I’m wondering how well the new catalogue will reflect Scottish-held records, both in main archives like the National Records of Scotland and elsewhere.

Note also that the NRA webpage at the moment is a little broken, inviting users to use the new Discovery catalogue instead, but using a link that is broken and produces a 404 “Not Found” HTTP error. Hopefully that will be fixed.

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Just before the old year ends and a new one begins I thought I’d do a recap on how things have gone for me in the last year, particularly academically.

My honorary research fellowship was renewed again. This is from History in the School of Humanities at the University of Dundee. After I finished my PhD in 2010 I asked if I could get an honorary fellowship, to help me continue to access vital resources like electronic journals, which are typically only available to current staff and students of universities subscribing to them. This is particularly important as more and more university libraries switch from subscribing to print copies to e-journals, which, generally, are restricted in who can use them. I’m a life member of one local university library, and have another one nearby, but neither opens up their e-journals to people who aren’t staff or students. So this was important to allow me to keep up to speed with current research and new developments. And the fellowship has been renewed every year since. It’s also nice that when I give a conference paper or publish a new academic journal paper it provides some kudos to the department which has supported me so well.

Over the year I’ve submitted more journal papers. I learned early in January that another paper had been accepted. It’s derived from part of my PhD thesis, with new additional material, and will be published in Library & Information History in 2014. Another prize-winning paper is due to be published at some point in the Journal of the Edinburgh Bibliographical Society. And I was asked to do my first academic book review, for the Journal of Scottish Historical Studies, and it was published in November 2013. Other papers are with editors, or at various stages of development. And I was pleased to see two of my past academic papers became freely available online, under open access rules.

I took part in four academic conferences this year. The first was a conference for archivists, where I gave a talk about my experiences as a disabled user of archives. This was held locally, in a hotel in Dundee, so was easy for me to get to, but I was very weak from the neurological disease that day, and it was something of a struggle. But I wanted to present this important view, and was glad to make it. I blogged about both my time there, and the topic I was talking about.

In the summer I attended one day of a conference about the Middle Ages in the Modern World. This was at St Andrews, my former university, actually very near to where I was once a science undergraduate and postgraduate student. This was much fun. Again my husband was with me on the day, to help me manage everything in my wheelchair, and I blogged about my time there.

The third conference was that of the Economic and Social History Society of Scotland. Their autumn conference, in September, was held in Inverness, and focused on the topic of Rural Scotland. I gave a talk about my postgraduate Masters dissertation research examining Melrose regality court records (local court records for Melrose and the surrounding area) in the late 17th century. I am currently looking to publish this as an academic paper, and got very good feedback and had a very rewarding time there.

The fourth conference was held in late October to celebrate the work of my PhD supervisor who died a month earlier. It had been planned long before he died, and was a conference of mixed emotions, but ultimately positive.

I also had another flying visit to the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August. Not academic at all, but a wonderful celebration of books and reading, and I was very glad to be able to go again.

In November I took part in Academic Writing Month again. My goals were more modest this time: resubmit a revised journal paper (done), and submit a paper to the SHARP (Society for the History of Authorship, Reading and Publishing) 2014 conference in Antwerp (also done). Whether my paper for SHARP is accepted or not I will be there. I’m also planning on going in 2014 to a book history conference at St Andrews in the summer, and will be flying down to London to attend the Worldcon World sci-fi/fantasy/etc. convention at the Docklands.

Another major interest of mine is genealogy. I run a Cavers one-name study, researching all families with this surname, particularly before 1900. Developments on this in 2013 included me starting a new Y-DNA study to use DNA to look for connections between different Cavers lines. I also gave a talk about my Cavers one-name study at a Guild of One-Name Studies regional meeting at Perth. A version of this is online, with PowerPoint slides and my audio delivery.

I also run two one-place studies, where I research two parishes in the past. Both of these have a particular focus, for practical reasons, before 1820. The two parishes are Coldingham in Berwickshire, and Melrose in Roxburghshire, both Scottish Borders parishes with family connections for me. I continue to transcribe and develop online resources for these studies, and in 2013 this included adding a person index of about 9000 names for Melrose court participants between 1657 and 1676. Likewise for Coldingham I put online a list of 19th century prisoners from the parish.

I’m a roleplayer, and play Call of Cthulhu online at Play@YSDC. This works well for my neurological disease, meaning I can play as and when I’m able to. It also means I get to play with people around the world. In 2013 I started a new game in our ongoing campaign of Doctor Who / Call of Cthulhu crossover games. And I also started a game set on the Bass Rock, hopefully the first of many games (if our characters survive!) set in Scotland. Sadly I also dropped out of a game for the very first time – it was proving too unreliable in terms of keeping going, with long periods of inactivity by the keeper which I couldn’t keep up with – but I hope that won’t happen again for a long time.

Continuing the roleplaying theme I’ve been writing more of a series of crossover history/roleplaying articles, which I plan to compile into a book, probably in digital format. This is slow-going, but I hope to make more progress in 2014. Likewise I have been continuing to develop my very long-standing interactive fiction (text adventure) work in progress – a whodunnit set in Hermitage Castle in the Scottish Borders, about 500 years ago. Again another thing to work on in 2014.

My neurological disease continues to be a problem, but is being a bit better behaved at the moment, and may have gone into remission or need less daily chemotherapy and steroids to control it. I’m still left with the legacy of brain damage from the past, and wide-ranging disability that this causes. But I hope for a bit of a break from too toxic a cocktail of daily drugs. And maybe I will be able to get more done in 2014 than I have for a number of years. It may be just a temporary respite, but I want to make the most of it.

Anyway I’m looking forward to 2014 in an optimistic manner. Hopefully it will be as productive and rewarding as 2013 was.

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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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Before I discovered the joys of book history and researching historic reading habits, which I studied for a PhD, I did a part-time taught postgraduate Masters (an MPhil) in Cultural and Urban Histories 1650-1850. This was taught at Dundee University, mainly by Professor Charles McKean, ably supported by other members of staff, and was superb. The closing part of the Masters saw students do a dissertation on a topic of their choice. And I chose to study the local court records of Melrose in Roxburghshire between 1657 and 1706. These had been transcribed and published, and so were easy to work with. I built up a very large database of cases, pursuers and defenders. There were thousands of cases heard at the Melrose court in the period, and huge numbers of the (small) local population involved with the court. It was a very unusual type of local court, dating from the pre-Reformation Abbey control of the area, and provided low-cost convenient access to legal solutions to problems.

The Melrose court went through a lot of upheaval in the 1680s, after the Earl of Haddington who controlled it refused to agree to the Test Act, a measure by King Charles II to try to reassert royal authority, which was resisted by many peers in Scotland. As a result the control of this court passed to the Earl of Roxburgh, who appointed as his bailie-depute, in other words the sitting judge, local man George Pringle of Blindlee. Pringle would become one of the starring characters of my dissertation, as I showed how he changed the purpose of the Melrose court to now be primarily to root out conventicles, secret meetings for worship by people opposed to the imposed Episcopalian religion. And significantly Pringle also used the court to line his own pockets, as he fined the local population heavily, and seems to have taken deliberate steps to – wrongly – keep the money for himself.

So it was a delight to discover a contemporary poem written about Blindlee’s appointment to the Melrose post. It’s held in the National Records of Scotland, and as the catalogue says it’s called ‘A strange truth, a recommendation of Blindlie by the laird of Meldrum to the earl of Roxburgh, to be his depute in Melroseland’. The poem is undated, but looking through it looks to be pretty authentic to events of the changeover of 1682 as I know them already, and presumably was written by someone who knew the facts well.

I’ve started to transcribe the poem. It’s lengthy, not great poetry, almost McGonagall-like in places. But the rhyming helps as I battle to read the faint handwriting. I’m hoping to publish it in the form of a journal paper in future. I already have a paper with reviewers based on my Melrose court research in general, and hope to get that published in a good journal.

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I attended the Democratising or privileging: the future of access to archives conference yesterday. It was run by the University of Dundee’s Centre for Archive and Information Studies, and was held at the Apex Hotel beside the River Tay in Dundee. The conference ran over two days, the Thursday and Friday, but I could only attend one, due to my severely disabling neurological disease. And since I was speaking on the Friday that was the day. Even then I had to miss the opening talk, which was apparently a doozy, so I would still be strong enough to speak come the time of my talk at 1pm.

My husband accompanied me as my helper / wheelchair pusher, and we arrived about 10.10am, and parked in a disabled space in the hotel car park, near to the entrance. Once inside we registered, and had a coffee outside in the bar area, before wheeling in at the first coffee break at 10.30am. I was able to meet quite a lot of people I know through Twitter, and when the conference resumed at 10.50am we were able to get a good seat near the exit. My husband, a research fellow in computer science / space technology research, had his laptop with him, and happily worked on various things on there while I enjoyed the conference.

The next panel, from 10.50-12.20, saw three speakers talk, variously on privacy concerns, copyright and digitisation, and the archives situation in South Africa. I was particularly intrigued by the last talk, and the state of archives in a nation of political and social upheaval.

Then my panel was 12.20-1.30. All of the speakers sat at the front table, with Caroline Brown from the university archives who was chairing it. The first speaker was French Canadian, talking about the horrific archives experience in Canada at the moment, as the government slashes budgets and sacks archivists. I thought the next speaker, also Canadian, would be talking about a Canadian topic, but she talked about her PhD research in Edinburgh, using the NAS and Edinburgh City Archives. For the latter she praised the knowledge of the archivist and stressed how important it is to talk to archivists. But I just found it terrifying how that archive doesn’t have proper catalogues, and that only one archivist knows their collection inside out. What if something happens to him? And he must retire sometime.

Whereas every other speaker walked over to stand at the podium, I stayed seating on the front table, and used a portable microphone. I was quite weak, and struggling at times, but I got through, and inside my 20 minute slot. I managed to cover almost everything in my plan, and remembered to advance the PowerPoint slides. I think people particularly appreciated my list of recommendations for archivists to help them support disabled users better: I was told afterwards that some people were scribbling frantically at that point. And I had quite a few questions from the audience afterwards, who were really engaged with my talk. One was about archives and how they can support blind users, which isn’t something I specifically addressed in my talk, but had thought about, because of a blind student friend I have in America, who wants to trace his family history and wonders how he will access archives. So I was able to field that question.

After that it was lunch. Many people came up to me on the way to lunch, or there, or at coffee later, to thank me for my talk. They included archivists from Hawick, St Andrews (who sat by Martin and me over lunch), Aberdeen, Perth, and London. And also the former Keeper of the Records for Scotland (also Registrar General), who greatly appreciated my praise for the wheelchair lift they installed at General Register House. The archivist from Hawick, who now works at Edinburgh University, likewise appreciated my praise for the help their archive had given me during my PhD. I was also able to chat to Robin Urquhart from the NRS who helped me in various ways to get access to digital records, both in the past and now.

There were two main panels in the afternoon. I particularly enjoyed the presentation of Dr Karl Heinz from Austria, talking about international archival cooperation and specifically the Monasterium.net project to digitise medieval charters. I asked him afterwards, using the portable microphone to talk, about who could make changes to the meta data in their database, and how it was curated – via submission for moderation, by an expert.

Another inspiring talk was that of Amanda Hill, a Brit now living in Canada, talking of how her archive, Deseronto Archives in Ontario, has experimented in outreach through means such as Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, blogs and so on. All on a shoe-string budget, but highly effective. Should be a big lesson to better funded and larger archives.

After a quick coffee break, it was time for the closing panel, where final thoughts on the conference were presented. Then Caroline wrapped up with final closing thoughts, and we were done.

I was very weak by the end of the day, but pleased I had been able to stay for the entire afternoon session. Overall I’m very glad I was able to attend the conference. It was an eye-opening experience for users of how the archivist’s side of things work, as well, I hope for archivists of user issues, such as those of family historians, academic historians, and, in my case, disabled users. It was also nice to see such a strong Canadian contingent of archivists at the conference, particularly in a time of massive upheaval for archives in their country. They got a big cheer / clap at the end. It was also great to meet various Twitter friends, and to meet so many archivists who had helped me with my research and access needs in the past.

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Another to-do catch up here.

I’ve put my chapmen research project on hold for now, because I’ve been too knocked out lately to move it forward. In particular I’ve not been able to move the necessary reading forward, and there’s an awful lot of that I need to work through effectively. There is also the issue of what I can include in any resulting paper, given the costly open access implications. I haven’t quite worked out what to do with that yet. But other things are looming more quickly, and must take priority.

I’ve sketched out my talk for the archives conference next month. I only have to speak for 10-15 minutes, in quite a packed panel, so will need to be concise and to the point. But I think I should have just the right amount of material for that. I’ll be practising to check on the timing issues nearer the time. Again I used my iPad to develop my ideas, creating a mind map of what I’ll cover, using the iThoughtsHD app.

The other looming thing I need to focus on is working on necessary revisions for a paper that’s been accepted by an academic journal for publication probably next year, subject to the necessary revisions being done. I’ve got the reports from the two readers, and have drawn up a list of the key things to focus on. And again I’m doing the main work on my iPad, having transferred the readers’ reports to there, as well as the latest working version of the journal paper to annotate using my stylus in Goodreader. The revised version of the paper needs to be with the editor in a couple of months, so I’m prioritising working on that now.

I’m also resuming work on my interactive fiction game. I’ve sketched the overall plot in a mind map using iThoughtsHD, and am coding up the game in Inform 7. It has a lovely integrated development environment, which in many ways makes programming like playing a game, and is ridiculously good fun. But large games are still complex entities, so I’m growing mine slowly and steadily, in careful steps. I’ve found that sketching out the overall plot in advance has been really helpful, to keep me focused and productive.

The other thing I’m working on is a series of articles about places with strange histories and much potential for roleplaying ideas, especially horror games like Call of Cthulhu. This developed from a series of articles that I’ve been writing for the Yog-Sothothery magazine for patrons of the Yog-Sothoth website. But I’ve so many possible articles that I could write that I may end up working on something standalone, in anthology form. Anyway I’m having a lot of fun writing these places. Two-thirds of the articles completed so far are about Scottish places with strange histories, and the other third about English things. Generally, though, I find it best to write about things I already know quite a bit about, hence the leaning towards Scottish subjects.

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