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:

20160202_143326 (2)
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 http://nationalarchives.gov.uk 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.


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

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