Books, bugs and a dead rat…Hands on History at the National Archives

Books, bugs and a dead rat…Hands on History at the National Archives

A busy couple of weeks and were nearly at the end of February… I am going to briefly write about a couple of talks I attended at the National Archives in Kew.

Late last year I was fortunate enough to attend a #citylis arranged visit to the National Archives which included a talk about their work and a behind the scenes tour, some of their operations including the document handling,¬†conservation and¬†digitization,¬†sadly no pictures were allowed. It was a fascinating tour, which I had planned to write about here but didn’t sadly didn’t have time.

Since then I have been lucky enough to find the time to go back for two free talks which they have provided as part of programme called Hands on History:

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Polygraphiae libri sex Ioannis Trithemij, abbatis Peapolitani quondam Spanheimensis, ad Maximilianum Caesarem.- 1518

The first event presented an opportunity to examine and interact with a selection of rare books printed and published between 1518 and 1798.

Although, I would have found it interesting anyway it was especially relevant as one of my recent #citylis assignments focussed on the impact of printing on Libraries in the early modern period. Having read about the features introduced by printing, such as contents and title pages, here was a chance to seem them in the flesh, or paper as it were.

There was a wide selection of different books on display including a books on the history of the Exchequer of the Kings of England’, a book entitled The compleat surveyor or, The whole art of surveying of land : by a new instrument lately invented; as also by the plain table, circumferentor, the theodolite as now improv’d, or by the chain only, which contained an array of fold out diagrams, or the beautifully illustrated Cosmographia Petri Apiani : per Gemmam Frisium apud Louanienses medicum & mathematicum insignem, iam demum ab omnibus vindicata mendis, ac nonnullis quoque locis aucta, & annotationibus marginalibus illustrata.

An image of the title page of The Compleat Surveyor
The Compleat Surveyor…1722

Some of the books were still in original bindings, while others showed signs of conservation works carried out in the past. One book of particular interest was an early legal dictionary titled The interpreter, or, Booke containing the signification of words : wherein is set forth the true meaning of all, or the most part of such words and termes, as are mentioned in the law writers, or statutes of this … kingdome …: a worke … necessary for such as desire throughly to be instructed in the knowledge of our lawes, statutes, or other antiquities / collected by John Cowell. ¬†. which had been banned for some of its definitions, relating to the monarchy, when it was first published, although its subsequent release featured acceptable and amended definitions.

Title page of the the book the Interpreter which was banned upon first release
The Interpreter or book containing significant words 1637

According to the catalogue of the National Archives manuscript note pasted in the front reads: “The first edition of this book was suppressed in 1610 – a proclamation denounced it as a pernicious book made against the honor and prerogative of the Crown and the dignity of the law. It was not printed again until 1637. Cowell was imprisoned.” References to State Papers are given and a note that says See under Subsidy, King, Parliament, Prerogative. ( For those interested a digitized copy of the book is available online here)

Ammended defintions

The talk gave an insight into the provenance of the books and in some cases how they ended up in the National Archives, one featured a note saying that the book had belonged to a member of the archives staff before being given to the Archive by the Chief Librarian of Kingston upon Thames, this was many years ago now.

There were many other books on display including the effectively titled:

The Office of the clerk of assize : containing the form and method of the proceedings at the assizes and general gaol-delivery as also on the crown and nisi prius side: together with The Office of the clerk of the peace: shewing the true manner and form of the proceedings at the Court of General Quarter-Sessions of the Peace: wih divers forms of presentments and other precedents at assizes and sessions: with a table of fees thereunto belonging. (catalogue record)

Published in 1682 this book was the standard book for the assize clerks and once belonged to Sir John Trollope MP once 7th Baronet Trollope of Casewick, later 1st Baron Kesteven and President of the Poor Law Board.

It was amazing to be able to view such rare books up close (and there was no need for white gloves, although they provide supports and weights, the latter seen in the first photograph) and to be able to look through them albeit delicately. Another bonus was that I could take photos with my phone.

It was a great chance to see some fascinating items, not just the books as a whole, but the illustrations, diagrams, footnotes and some funky illuminated letters, showing that despite the new technology of printed books, there was still a desire to replicate

Beyond the opportunity to see these beautiful rare books, it gave me an idea of the difficulties and challenges that are involved in both the cataloguing and conservation of rare books.


Warning the next section contain pictures of insects and a mummified rat look away now if you’re easily grossed out

You have been warned…


Conservation at The National Archives: Bugs and preventive conservation

The second event I attended was another Hands on History and was all about conservation at the National Archives and was not for anyone who dislikes bugs. It also featured my favourite item from the Archives:

A Mummified Rat

The talk was given by staff from the Collection Care and looked how they prevent damage from insects and other pests.

In their work the Collection Care team have to deal with a wide range of pests some of which may directly affect the collections such as the Case Bearing Clothes Moth, which feeds on Textiles, Guernsey Carpet Beetles, Furniture Beetle and the Common Book Louse. Some insects feed on bindings, others may bore through eating their way through the covers and pages. They hold a large collection of tally sticks which show can show signs of furniture beetle infection Рholes and saw dust  (although they said there has never been an infestation at National Archives).

Image of Tally sticks from the National Archives
Tally sticks from the National Archives – the holes are the result of furniture beetle boring through

Others indicate possible risks such as damp or in some the presence of dead insects provide food for other insects. The Archives also are at risks from rodents, which can gnaw through pretty much anything  and birds which can nest in ducts. In the case of the latter we heard the gruesome the story of how a former Head of the National Archives was sitting at their desk when a horde of maggots began to raining down from the ventilation duct. Apparently they had come from the corpse of pigeon that had somehow become stuck and subsequently died in the ventilation duct. Yuck! To prevent such things occurring, they make use of variety of measures including mesh coverings, repellent gels and plastic owls.

To prevent infestations and damage they employ special adhesive traps which help them monitor for the presence of insects and as part of the talk we were able to examine these complete with a wide variety of dead specimens up-close using special microscopes. Storing documents in boxes off the floor and carefully monitoring the environment to prevent damp and mould are amongst the various measures they take. Monitoring is a large part of the job as is liaising with a variety of other departments such as housekeeping and premises teams. They engage with both Archives staff who can then aid them in monitoring and prevention. They also provide training and guidance to Government departments to prevent infestations from documents being transferred in.

Both talks were fascinating and insightful providing a great way for the Archives to engage with members of the public as well as perhaps sharing knowledge with staff from other archives or museums. I’d recommend anyone interested in attending future events to visit their Eventbrite page or for a full list of past and future events.

Thanks for reading!


I’m pleased to say that¬† passed both essays with 74 and 75 /100 respectively.

Also I found a great blog Table of Discontents the¬†History of the English Book Index¬†its written by¬†Dennis Duncan a¬†Post Doctoral researcher at the¬†Bodleian Library in Oxford who’s conducting a Research Project which:

…charts the history of the book index from the late middle-ages to the¬†age of the Kindle. It also examines the anxiety which has accompanied the index¬†from its earliest days ‚Äď that it poses a threat to ‚Äėdeep reading‚Äô, bringing about a¬†degraded form of learning, a claim which can be found as far back as the early¬†sixteenth-century and which is still alive and well in Nicholas Carr‚Äôs ‚ÄėIs Google¬†Making us Stupid?‚Äô (2008). Tracing the development of the index, its critics, and¬†its variety and distribution across different genres (why, for example, are novels¬†rarely indexed?), the project shows how the index has shaped the ways that we¬†read, as well as coming to represent the distinction between factual and fictional¬†modes of writing. As indexing becomes the paradigm for the processing of ‚Äėbig¬†data‚Äô, and digital archiving brings about both a quantitative leap in the accessibility¬†of materials and a qualitative change in how scholars treat them, the project¬†provides a timely historical context for the way that the index affects conceptions¬†of knowledge and scholarly practice.

Its well worth a look if your interested in early printing or the evolution of indexing.


British Library Labs Roadshow 2016

British Library Labs Roadshow 2016

citylisHappy New Year (only a month late!)

I’m kicking the new year off with a quick recap before the main event, the British Library Labs 2016 Roadshow.

Since last we met, or rather since last I blogged, I have been busy with assignments, Christmas and now I’m back into lectures for a new semester. Last Semester I started my MSc Library Science at City University, which provided me with the impetus and opportunity to (re)start this blog. Last term I studied the grandly titled Library and Information Science Foundation, a whistlestop tour of history, looking at the origins of Libraries and Information Science as we know it today, and the enigmatic sounding DITA which translates to Digital Information Technology and Architecture.

This time around its Digital Libraries, looking at the collection and management of Digital and Digitized Materials (including repositories Рwhich gives me a head start, since I focussed on that for my assignment) and Information Resources and Organisation, which looks at cataloguing rules, taxonomies, thesauri and more.

So the main event, The British Library Labs Roadshow 2016. Last year, I was fortunate enough to attend the British Library Labs Symposium, which you can read all about right here, the Roadshow kicks off the process for the British Library Labs Competition 2016 which will culminate in this years BL Labs Symposium, when the competition winners are announced.

British Library Labs Competition 2016

The annual Competition is looking for transformative project ideas which use the British Library‚Äôs digital collections and data in new and exciting ways. Two Labs Competition finalists will be selected to work ‘in residence’ with the BL Labs team between May and early November 2016, where they will get expert help, access to the Library‚Äôs resources and financial support to realise their projects.

Winners will receive a first prize of £3000 and runners up £1000 courtesy of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation at the Labs Symposium on 7th November 2016 at the British Library in London where they will showcase their work.

The deadline for entering is midnight British Summer Time (BST) on 11th April 2016. 1


The evening kicked off with an introduction by #citylis course director and lecturer Dr Lyn Robinson¬†who said a few words about the late Marvin Minsky’s work in artificial intelligence and about Luciano Floridi’s concepts of AI and Ethics (Floridi says robots are more likely to be like hoovers, both less and more than we can¬†imagine. (Although, even the BL are using robots¬†for some tasks)

Motivator HAL 9000 soory dave
Stanley Kubrick’s HAL – Minsky advised Kubrick on the capabilities of the homicidal AI
 She said that its not contrary to what fiction would have us believe, its not killer AI we need to be concerned with so much as Digital Data, Big Data, Metadata and Meta-Metadata (Metadata about Metadata);

Data, Data everywhere – inside a Google Data Centre

Lyn Handed over to Dr Aquiles Alencar-Brayner, a Citylis Alumnus and now a Digital Curator for the British Library Labs. His presentation provide an overview to the work of and challenges faced by the BL Labs team, he talked about the 10 ‘in’ rules of Digital Libraries and the problems of scale in terms of storing and managing the data that is generated every day.

Digital Libraries: 10 “in” rules – from a presentation by ¬†Dr Aquiles Alencar-

Dr Alencar-Brayner went on to discuss how the Digital Scholarship team supports BL staff and researchers  through  training courses and the projects they have run. He talked about how Digital Scholarship team are working to assist in the capture and conservation of personal digital devices and born digital manuscripts (the modern equivalent of the handwritten notebooks and diaries of old) for future analysis and access.

Lastly he gave some examples of how they have engaged with the public through exhibitions and crowdsourcing efforts such as the Growing Knowledge Exhibiton (2010 – 2011) and the BL Sound Map ‘Your accents’ interactive map of accents (more about the project here).

Next to take the floor was¬†Mahendra Mahey Project Manager of the British Library Labs. Mahendra talked about the reasons for the British Library labs Awards, a means to learn about who is using the Library’s digital content and data, what they are doing with it, why and how. He explained that they also want to understand how they are supporting future users of their digital content/data and how they should be supporting them.

He then talked about last years winners, and the ways in which they made use of the British Library’s digital content (see my post for last years awards) and went on to announce this years competition. (see above).

Following on from Mahendra’s presentation, was a Q &¬†A panel from¬†#citylis students who were asked to talk about their experience and involvement with the British Library Labs. The Q¬†& A¬†was joined by former BL Labs Trainee¬†Dimitra Charalampidou, via Skype, who talked about her¬†experience of uploading Digitized Bookbinding sets¬†to Wikimedia. It was a great opportunity to learn¬†first hand the ways in which students can gain skills¬†and¬†experience through¬†working with the BL Labs.

Farces… a slide from Ben O’Steen’s presentation

After the Q & A, Ben O’Steen,¬†Technical Lead for BL Labs, gave a though provoking presentation called¬†Farces and Failures. He talked about how the when the¬†British Library Labs team¬†work with researchers on a specific problem, they are also trying to understand how widely that problem is felt by the wider community. He talked¬†about how we name and label things can shape the questions that people ask and the assumptions they¬†make. Introducing the the concept of the farce where two people have a conversation and leave with a completely different ideas of what they talked about he said that common farce inducing¬†words¬†included Access, Collection, Metadata content and even Crowdsourced. Access to one person can mean a completely different thing to another.¬†Much of the confusion can come from the assumption that a¬†sample of¬†digitized works, such as the Microsoft Books Collection, is representative of the overall sample. Other examples included the best guess dates in metadata.¬†This led to the development of the sample generator¬†a tool that was created which created statistically representative samples from the British Library‚Äôs book collections.

What does¬†do we mean by “Access”? Ben O’Steen

He rounded out the talk by discussing how failure and imperfection can be helpful, the misconceptions surrounding crowdsourcing and a look at the use of games to aid in tagging content.

The final part of the evening, the ideas lab, was the most fun. In groups we had, 15 minutes, to try an pitch an idea to the BL Labs team for innovative use of their digital data, there were some intriguing ideas such as a soundtracks for novels using Archival sounds, and a tinder style app for tagging content. In the end the winning idea came from my team led by fellow #citylis student Hannah Kolef, which pitched a mashup between crime fiction metadata and real crime statistics to see explore possible correlations between fantasy and reality.

Overall it was a great and informative, evening and a privilege to be able to attend the inaugural stop on the 2016 Roadshow, in the company of fellow #citylisers and others. These events are one of the great things about #citylis, and also the BL, the opportunity to meet, interact and learn from so many different people.

1. British Library Labs Competition: