Posts Tagged ‘dundee’

My former PhD supervisor has died. He was a renowned Scottish architectural historian, and professor at Dundee University with many relevant books and journal papers to his name. But I wanted to write about my own memories of him, which primarily concern the support he gave me over many years as a part-time postgraduate history student.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Charles over the last few weeks. I’d known he was seriously ill for many months. But after an article published in The Courier recently, recounting his young days, including Beano and Dandy reading, I hoped for a better outcome, not least because he was talking about his hopes for better health, and mentioning some of the places he would like to visit. It was not to be.

I first met Charles in 2001. I’d recently finished my Open University history and classical studies degree, and wanted to go on to do a postgraduate history Masters. I initially signed up for the OU’s Masters degree, but was frustrated that it had to be studied over three years: with my medical condition, and uncertain future, I wanted to finish sooner. But I couldn’t study full-time, which I knew ruled out St Andrews University’s history MLitts which didn’t (and possibly still don’t) offer part-time as an option. But then I learned of Dundee’s new taught postgraduate Masters in Cultural and Urban Histories 1650-1850, which sounded wonderful, and could be studied either full-time in one year or part-time over two years. I emailed Charles to make tentative enquiries, and he emailed me the course book back, and I was sure it was for me, so signed up.

Dundee’s history MPhil (they couldn’t call it an MA because it was a Scottish PG, and it would be a few years before it was renamed to MLitt) was taught weekly on Wednesday afternoons, with seminars on the second floor of the Tower Building at the University of Dundee. Charles led these, but there would often be other members of the history staff coming along to share with us their specialist knowledge. And we were encouraged to bring in primary source material, and discuss them. It was a wonderful time, and Charles was an inspiring teacher. I remember his unconcealed glee as he told us about the Beggar’s Benison club in Fife, and likewise how excited he got when talking about architectural history, such as the changes to the built environment in Enlightenment Scotland. Through him I gained a new appreciation for the importance of urban history: something I had vaguely dabbled with before, but had not studied properly until now. At the end of a year of lectures and essays the full-timers did their dissertations over a few months, while us part-timers had a year to complete. My dissertation was on Melrose regality court (local court) records in the late 17th century, and when the results came in I was the first Dundee history MPhil student to achieve a distinction in the Masters. Charles was delighted for me. I remember meeting him in the city centre by chance, and him saying that my MPhil dissertation was the best-written one he had ever read. I was ever so proud.

After that I started a part-time history PhD, studying reading habits in Scotland circa 1750-1820. Bob Harris was my supervisor, but a few years later he moved from Dundee to Oxford. Initially I carried on with him acting as my supervisor, long-distance, but there were some drawbacks to this, and at a Thesis Monitoring Committee meeting – the system at Dundee to keep a check on how research postgraduates are getting on, and deal with any problems – Charles volunteered to take over as my supervisor. I was delighted, and accepted his offer gratefully. Although it was not his specialist area he was well able to supervise the topic, based on his knowledge of eighteenth and early nineteenth century Scottish society and culture.

Initially it was a slightly difficult supervisor-supervisee relationship. Charles’s brain thought about historical problems in a different way from mine, indeed I had more in common thinking-wise with Bob. And Charles was also keen, at least initially, for me to do a lot of new research, for example looking at an extensive collection of pamphlets and chapbooks. But I was far through my part-time PhD, and didn’t have time for this, especially alongside my disabling neurological disease. However, together with advice from my former supervisor, Charles and I found a really good working way forward, that was productive, and still inspiring. Discussions at supervisor meetings would still leap about unpredictably, as Charles’s quick-thinking brain would latch onto new, unexpected ideas. But we were making forward progress, and both knew what we needed to do – and in particular what I needed to do – to get me to the end. He was my supervisor for the last three years of my part-time PhD, essentially the writing up period, which also saw me finish off necessary research using primary sources. And he was wonderful at helping me through the difficult writing stage, always giving constructive feedback on chapter drafts, and keeping me going.

I will always remember the coffee that Charles served in his office: usually flavoured, often slightly peculiar, but still nice. And he always had a wonderful collection of biscuits on offer: always unhealthy but ever so tasty! He was also always lending me books. His office was a tower of piles of books – I was never quite sure how he found anything – and he often had something new (or old, sometimes very) to show me, and often lend me. Best of all I always felt inspired and motivated by the supervisor meetings, ready for the next challenge ahead.

Most helpful were his penetrating questions about my research. He was never backward in asking “So what?!” about what I’d done, forcing me to put the research into the broader context and explain why it was important. And he made a big contribution to the analytical side of my PhD thesis by suggesting a higher-level subject categorisation method that I could use throughout my thesis to produce some numbers for relative weights of entertainment, improvement and religious reading, and thus permit meaningful comparisons between different pieces of evidence for reading habits and reading choices.

After my successful viva I had a meeting with Charles where we discussed my plans for the future, and in particular ideas for publication. He was keen for me to aim for extremely ambitious journals: some of which have paid off since, others not so successfully. But all of his suggestions were good, and worth trying. And we kept in contact ever since. The last time I saw him for an extended length of time I was in the university on an off-chance, and after visiting the library I ended up in College Hall, then thought I’d phone his office just in case he was around and free, so I could come and have a chat. And he was welcoming as usual, said come on over, and served me biscuits and coffee, and we nattered for an hour.

It’s impossible not to be sad about his passing, but I’ve been trying really hard over the last few weeks to remember good times with him. For example during our MPhil course he took the students on a walking tour around historic Dundee, at least the city centre parts. I had to use a wheelchair for the walk, with my husband Martin pushing, and we went up the most amazingly tiny wynds. Enormous fun, and we all learned so much. There’s now a Dundee Heritage Walk website based on the tours he did.

I’m also inspired again to pursue some of the interests he fostered in me. For example I’ll continue to photograph interesting examples of old architecture around Dundee and further afield: I’d never noticed them properly until he taught us so much architectural history. And I want to do more urban history research, following both the Masters he taught, and the year’s Research Asssistant work I did with Bob Harris on his pilot small Scottish towns study. And even simpler things, like eating houmous and pitta bread. I’d never tried houmous until Charles suggested I might like it, and I did. Even that brings back pleasant memories.

I am so sad that he has died, and my thoughts are with his family at the moment, and their great loss. But I am honoured to have known him, and am grateful for the difference he made to my life. A kind, wonderful human being.

For more information about Charles, including his research interests, see (at least for now) the history department web page about him.

There is an upcoming conference to celebrate Charles’s contribution to Renaissance architecture research: A New Platform for Scottish Renaissance Studies. This is to be held at Perth at the end of October. Originally, of course, Charles intended to be there. Now that can no longer happen, but we go ahead in his honour, celebrating what he did.

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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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I’m a graduate member of a nearby university library. I used to nip in regularly to check their book history journals (per Z) whose recent issues, along with other journals, were shelved on open shelves on the ground floor. When I nipped in the other day – albeit after some time since the last time, and since a library redevelopment project – I found that recent journals were now on the main shelves, not in a separate section as before. But not the per Z journals I was looking for, which, like most of the other Z (book history) books, are stored locked away in the library store, not on open access.

The librarian I spoke to initially said “We have electronic subscriptions to some of these”, but of course, as I pointed out, I have no way of accessing these. As is common with university libraries such electronic subscriptions are restricted to staff and current matriculated students, and other members of the library, including life graduate members like myself, have no means of accessing them. But increasingly university libraries provide electronic subscriptions as the only means of access to journals, with no paper copies shelved. This is fine for staff/current students, but no good for external readers, including independent scholars like myself. I understand the restrictions are imposed by the copyright holders / publishers, and individual universities rarely negotiate for wider access.

I was told I could order up recent copies of the issues I wanted through the computer system. That’s fine in theory, except that when I used to scan them on the current journal shelves I would look through dozens of journal issues at a time: both recent issues of a number of book history journals, and some older issues published since my last visit. I can put individual requests for them, but doubt the library system will like the numbers I would ask for. And I’m not even sure what all the relevant titles are: again with them on open shelves I could scan through them quickly and easily. Now I need to know what they are all called, and I’m not sure about that. Plus I need to arrange recalling all of the required issues in for a time I know I will be back in St Andrews.

Of course I am lucky to be able to access another university library nearby, as an honorary research fellow. Indeed I asked for that fellowship after finishing my PhD in order for me to continue to have good access to library journals, in particular electronic journals. But Dundee University doesn’t subscribe to the same range of journals as St Andrews, and in particular misses out a lot of book history journals which I could only access locally at St Andrews. And are now locked away in the library store, rather unhelpfully.

Still I should be grateful they are getting them at all. But it’s requiring a lot more organisation for me to see them than in the past. And I wonder if it means that these journals will be read less, now they are not on open shelves. And that in itself might lead to an argument being made by libraries for reducing their subscriptions/numbers held.

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I’ve just been revisiting references I found to the start of street lighting in 18th century Dundee. Street lighting spread throughout Britain from the 18th century onwards, with larger towns and cities tending to acquire it sooner. In Dundee street lighting started in the winter of 1752, and the lights were powered initially by whale oil. References to the street lighting can be traced in the records of the town council treasurer. Here for example is the account from 1766-1767:

By Cash paid for a Tun of oyle drawing off bought at the Whale Fishing Warehouse – 6 6
By do paid the men bring down the Lamps & cariing them up to the Town house – 2 –
By do paid the Three Lamp lighters for the Season 4 10 –
By do paid James Syme for a Tun of oyle 23 3 –
By do paid for Tow for Cleaning the Lamps the Season – 10 –
By do paid John Thomson for his accot of mending & Cotton wick 3 10 –
By do paid for Casks to draw off the oyle in – 15 –
32 16 6

Street lighting was one of a number of improvements that started in 18th century Britain, and can be used, along with other things such as paving and changes to street layout, as well as increased provision of cultural facilities such as theatres and assembly rooms, as a measure of how much a specific town had improved living conditions for its inhabitants. In England much research and useful writing on town improvement in this period, the so-called urban renaissance, has been carried out by Peter Borsay. In Scotland less has been done, especially below city level, although the pilot study into Angus burghs that I worked on for Dr Bob Harris was followed more recently by a larger study looking at small towns in this period through Scotland. This has led to a number of academic journal papers sharing the results, and may lead to a book in future too.

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