Friday, 7 December 2012

The Joys of Data Protection

Archives are made and formed by people and consequently include personal information about those people. Whether a researcher requests details of an ancestor who attended Camborne School of Mines, minutes from a meeting, or wishes to look at University records it is very likely that at some point personal information will become evident. Therefore, any researcher intending to look at archive material is required to sign an agreement that they will take responsibility for appropriate use of any personal information found, in accordance with Data Protection principles. It was for this reason I was keen to refresh my knowledge of the legislation. Subsequently, I undertook and completed a course designed to introduce University staff to their responsibilities under the Act.

Data Protection is not just an issue for professionals and organisations. Every individual is inherently entitled to a number of subject rights, such as the right to request information held about them by an organisation. The course approached what can be a very complicated subject by looking at these rights and how the act protects and influences every individual. It then progressed to our professional positions and the responsible use of other people's information in performing that role.

For any information professional, knowledge of legislation relating to information rights is essential. With the Information Commissioner able to impose fines of up to £500,000, it is an imperative to maintain an Archivist's and Organisation's professional reputation and the welfare of those individuals whose information we hold. Whether a breach occurs due to accidental loss, theft or simply released in error, the ICO does not differentiate. Having had both our laptops in the Archive Service recently encrypted to meet legislative requirements, it is interesting that just two months ago an unencrypted device belonging to the police service was stolen. This resulted in the loss of sensitive personal information relating to over one thousand people and the imposition of a fine of £150,000.

More recently privacy laws have come to the fore with the recommendations of the Leveson inquiry to repeal the journalism exemption within the Data Protection Act, and in so doing, providing legislative power over the press. The debate as to the importance of a free press within a democracy and the effects of legislative control on society demonstrate how far reaching the Data Protection laws are; thereby affecting all.

Webster, Ben 'Newspaper bosses told to prove they can sort out press without a new law', The Times 1st Dec 2012
Information Commissioner's Office, 'Monetary penalty notices'  [Accessed 3/12/12]

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Book Conservation for all!

Throughout the last week I have attended a couple of sessions run by interns from a private book conservation company in Cornwall. Funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund it enabled people from a variety of organisations to find out how best to display and handle their rare book collections. Representatives from The Royal Cornwall Museum, Royal Cornwall Polytechnic Society, Cornwall Records Office, Liskeard and District Museum and various other local organisations learnt how to produce display stands, book shoes and boxes for books at a price easily achievable by the smallest of organisations.

The sessions started with an introduction to the technical terms relating to the different parts and structures of a book. For instance, did you know that the little tab at the top of the book which is quite often used to pull the book off the shelf (don't pull it by this, it does damage the book structure), is called the headband? This moved on to how different construction methods alter the way a book wears and consequently the different ways we can reduce or minimise that wear, particularly when on display. We produced a display support customised for a book's individual  requirements and practised wrapping books in acid free tissue paper; a bit of pre-Christmas wrapping practise. You may be asking the same question I did, which is why on earth would you wrap a book in tissue paper? Well, apparently this is done if the book has pieces falling off, in which case it keeps all the material together and prevents the loss of any parts. Wrapping also provides protection to elaborate decoration on the cover and prevents abrasive action from neighbouring books, particularly if they have metal furniture, and finally, wrapping helps protect a collection if it is being relocated.

This workshop was really useful for us in the Archive Service. Currently our archive assistant, Carole, is cataloguing the Nick Darke Collection in which there are numerous note books. These are quite often spiral pads and other cheaply constructed notebooks which are not necessarily conducive to long term preservation. By using the techniques demonstrated, we will be able to make archival boxes for each individual notebook and so help reduce the wear and damage to the books by protecting them against dust, atmospheric pollutants and light. Such boxes are also able to minimise the effects of temperature and humidity fluctuations in the storage space.

But of course, whilst you can try to prevent damage from external sources it is very difficult to protect an item from the very material it is made of. One of the greatest enemies of paper conservation is the acidity of the paper itself. Prior to the early nineteenth century paper was made from plant fibres such as cotton or flax which have longer fibres and so produce a stronger material. Since then, demand for paper has meant new processes and materials have been employed. Some of these introduce acids to the material during the manufacturing process, for instance bleaching agents, or use materials which can become acidic. Cheap papers, such as newspaper, are made using wood pulp, which not only has shorter fibres, but also contains lignin. Lignin is a natural substance within wood, found in the cell walls, which provides the structure and strength of the plant, but as lignin deteriorates it gives off acid. Newspaper is notoriously fragile and prone to discolouration for this very reason. To add to the issue, acidity can migrate from one material to another, so although paper may not start off as acidic, it can become so through contact, eventually causing disclouration of the paper.

Within the archival world there is a huge array of different groups and organisations holding archives, all with very different access to resources and funding. When you send off for a catalogue from an archival company it can be hugely intimidating and overwhelming, not only with the amount of products on offer, but also the cost implications, which can leave many groups feeling as though there is very little they can do to care for their collections. What was so good about this workshop was that it introduced you to the basic materials needed and showed how cheaply and easily you can make a difference and care for your collection. As someone who has volunteered and worked at a variety of different archives, I can see how this workshop would be invaluable to groups with small budgets who struggle to get funding.

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Gloves- on or off?

Last week we were involved with a number of sessions to introduce english students to the wonders of 19th century periodicals. The materials included copies of The Graphic, Lady's Own Paper and the Illustrated London News. For each session our Archivist and one of the Academic Liaison Team introduced the material and gave a short introduction on how to use and handle the materials. Much to our surprise, one of the students showed some disappointment when asked to wash their hands prior to handling the material rather than wearing the magic cotton gloves.

So, when and why did donning gloves first appear in the archival annals? Surprisingly, Baker and Silverman suggest the spread of gloves into the reading room has only occurred during the last twenty years and as such it is a fairly new development. [1] There are few who would disagree that throughout this period our appetite for the past has grown which has perhaps necessitated a response to control the ever increasing demands placed on some archival material.

It could also be said that gloves contribute towards our experience of the past by building a sense of anticipation and occasion when we view historical material. This effect has long been utilised by television to inspire awe in its audiences and in so doing build viewer expectations during historical and genealogical programmes.The gloves reinforce the fragility of the past as if without them to protect it, the past will escape our grasp and disappear into the ether. This has not been without benefit to the guiding archival principle of preservation. This deference to the past increases our sense of value in a document or object, so facilitating the archival goal of preservation by guiding a user's behaviour towards an archive.

Yet, the question as to whether or not you should wear gloves remains undecided. Many Conservators and Archivists no longer recommend their use. This is largely because the initial delight in donning the magic gloves is soon replaced by frustration and discomfort as sensitivity to touch is reduced, encouraging rougher treatment of the material through the inability to fully interact with the item. Neither The National Archive or British Library requires readers to wear cotton gloves, unless handling particularly delicate material such as photographs. [2+3] However, there are institutions that still prefer gloves to be worn and. noting the difficulties of using cotton, supply nitrile gloves instead. Archives Outside is a website managed by staff at the State Records Repository of NSW Australia, to help promote other archives in the state and advise on the care and management of those collections. The senior conservator there recommends in their general handling procedures that when handling archives, gloves should be worn where possible, but points out plastic as the best option, so circumventing the issues of reduced sensitivity. [ 4] Indeed, they even ran a poll of reader's preferences between nitrile and cotton, and  found cotton ranked very closely behind nitrile with 29% compared to 26%.[5] A surprisingly close result considering the supposed difficulties of using cotton.The Jury remains out!

What do you think? Is it best to recommend gloves or do you think most readers respect the rules and wash their hands?

[1]Silverman, Randy. & Baker, Cathleen A. 'Misperceptions about white gloves', International Preservation News, No. 37 Dec 2005  [Accessed 8/11/2012]
[2]The National Archives, 'What is the policy of the National Archives on wearing gloves to handle documents', [Accessed 8/11/12]
[3]Pimlott, Jane. 'Use of white cotton gloves for handling collection items'
[4] Hadlow, Elizabeth. Archives Outside,'General Handling Procedures' [9/11/12]
[5]Archives Outside, 'Glove Poll',  [9th Nov 2009]

Monday, 29 October 2012

A Doppelganger!

We had a really interesting enquiry this week when an ex-student contacted us after friends spotted his double in the 1927 Cambourne School of Mines School Photograph. Due to the apparent possibility that his grandfather went to CSM we were charged with finding the identity of the said student and checking various family names against the admission registers to see if it was indeed his Grandfather. Despite our best efforts, none of the family surnames corresponded with the registers which left us with the difficult task of finding out who the mystery student in the photograph could be.
(c) CSM
He was a happy looking chap, having obviously had a fit of the giggles midway through the very serious business of the school photograph. Unfortunately, none of the school photos included any names which makes identifying specific students particularly difficult, however, we had a lucky break. Lewis & Hathoway eat your heart out!

In one of the sports team pictures was a young man with a hairline very reminiscent of the laughing student, although this young gent was sporting a moustache. The name given was Beattie and when we checked in the admission register we were surprised to find that there was actually two Beattie boys in the school, possibly brothers who attended CSM at exactly the same time.

So, although it seemed unlikely that the Grandfather attended CSM, we did solve the mystery of the Laughing Student!

Monday, 22 October 2012

An Exchange

Last week we were lucky enough to be hosting a visit from an archivist who works at the University of Arts Archive in Berlin. A number of trips were organised for her so she could experience different Archive Services while also getting to see a bit of Cornwall. I was lucky enough to be accompanying her on the visits which included the University Library at Woodlane in Falmouth, Heritage Collections at the University of Exeter at their Streatham Campus and St Ives Community Archive.

Interestingly, these trips raised a number of differences between practices here and in Germany, the most significant being the role of volunteers in archival practice. In Germany, if there is not a qualified archivist on staff then you are not allowed to hold archival material. In light of this, our trip to St Ives was an interesting experience for her as well as an impressive example of what community groups can achieve.

St Ives Archive is run by a Board of Trustees and boasts around 40 volunteers. With costs per month of £1700 to remain open, they exist very much on a year by year basis. Like many small groups they are constantly fundraising and seeking new sources of support to enable them to continue their work. Without that dedication these valuable collections could be lost.

St Ives Archive
There has been mixed opinions within the profession towards community archives. Some have voiced misgivings, particularly towards access to such collections by people outside the 'community' [ARC March 2011]. Yet, without these groups, valuable aspects of our past could be lost. Indeed, for both our visitor and myself the obvious commitment and enthusiasm of those volunteers involved was the most striking aspect of the visit. Certainly, no limitations on access are applied at St Ives, which is open to the general public 10-4pm Tuesday to Friday.

The second difference was the terminology. Sarah, our Archivist, and I were enthralled to discover that in Germany there are specific terms for documents as they pass from what we term 'semi-active' to those with actual archival value. 'Archivreif' refers to documents which are no longer needed for current administrative purposes, but are being kept for a fixed term to satisfy  legal or organisational conventions. Financial records, for example, must be kept for 7 years, so during that period those records would be archivreif. We would term this semi-active.

Similarly, once that period has finished and the appraisal process has judged the document of archival value, in Germany it would be referred to as 'Archivw├╝rdig.' We don't really have a specific archival term for these time frames, other than a semi-current record and eventually an archival record.

The issues of professional terminology and cultural differences provided a real topic of discussion throughout the week. One such debate centered on the application of the rather generic term 'archive'. In English it can refer to the repository, a collection or even a single item. It was suggested by our Archivist that if our professional terminology is so generic should we really be surprised that the general public are sometimes confused about exactly what Archivist's do. A dissertation topic perhaps!

Monday, 8 October 2012

A Surprise

The Archive Service had quite a surprise on Thursday when a delivery of boxes containing university records arrived. Although we had been expecting them for some time we were unsure as to when they would actually come and just how much material they would contain. This will be quite an introduction to the archival practice of appraisal; that is the decision making process of what should be kept, and equally, what should be disposed of. The profession has long debated these questions, as of course, you cannot keep everything. Watch this space to see how we progress!

Social Media

It has now been two weeks since I started here in the Archive and Special Collections Service and it has certainly been a baptism of social media. I have gone from being someone who has never used Facebook, let alone Twitter, to someone who not only has their own blog, but has replied to a number of tweets and scheduled the next week of messages for release. Of particular help was a course I attended during my first week which provided an introduction into the various social media sites available and how businesses use these platforms for marketing. Browsing through some company sites demonstrated how different companies employed various strategies in their use of social media. Some brands tended to use Twitter just to advertise promotions or special offers and preserved a distant association with their users; whereas others tried to present a friendlier informal persona, replying to individuals, and in so doing, constructing a relationship between the user and the business.

Interestingly, the September issue of ARC, which is the Archives and Records Association journal, featured an article about Twitter being used to publish content from an historical diary thus improving the visibility of the collection. Last year the Royal Bank of Scotland Group Archives started to publish extracts from the diary of the cashier at the bank during the Jacobite rising in 1745 called @Johnofthebank. To retain the authenticity of the Twitter feed the group started an extra feed @RBS-Archives to allow for discussion and comments without affecting the historical content. A website was also introduced to provide the historical context and explanation that was required to support the feed. It began during the summer of 2011 and currently has, at the time of writing, 418 followers. There are also a number of other historical diaries being published on Twitter such as the Gertrude Savile diary by Nottingham Archives. The course certainly opened my eyes to the possibilities that these sites present to the profession. Archives are always trying to improve accessibility and encourage new users to come and have a look at material. Twitter provides us with a fantastic and free opportunity to reach new audiences and get collection content in to the public arena.

Thursday, 27 September 2012


My name is Grace Pritchard-Woods and I came to Cornwall from Cheltenham in Gloucestershire to take up the position as intern at the University College of Falmouth and University of Exeter’s Cornwall Campus at Penryn.

My arrival within the archival world was somewhat convoluted. After completing A-Levels I began work in a pharmacy as a technician dispensing prescriptions and fulfilling orders for nursing homes. Some years later I decided I wanted to go to University to resume my studies, so gaining a degree in history and heritage. My course enabled me to do a number of archaeology modules which relied heavily on the Archive and Special Collections Service within the University. This became an essential resource for my dissertation which was based on archaeological sites within the county and how interpretations of those sites had changed over time. As a result, I volunteered with the Special Collections Department for a few hours a week and began to consider the archive profession as a possible career choice. However, having taken part in a number of voluntary digs, I decided to follow the archaeological route and completed an MA in Landscape Archaeology. Although I enjoyed the course, it soon became clear that I had made the wrong decision, as again much of my time was involved with archival research and it was this aspect which I was really passionate about. I think the experience of volunteering on a dig during which it snowed throughout may have had something to do with it!

I was lucky enough, having volunteered for a while at Gloucestershire Archives, to get a part time job in a school archive. Straight away I loved the job as it was so diverse. The Archivist was a retired member of staff and very interested in the research side of the work, whilst my responsibility was firmly based on the archival aspects of the collection. This included dealing with enquiries, box listing, ensuring current material was deposited, packing material and organising displays and events. The collection, and indeed the department, was very much in its infancy, which provided me with a fantastic opportunity to start from scratch without having to accommodate pre-existing systems. It also meant that knowledge of exactly what was in the collections was still being gathered by going through the numerous boxes which were stored in various locations around the School. The major problem with such a young collection was locating items, which relied largely on memory and a thematically arranged filing system which was in use. Although not in keeping with archival principles, the box files did at least allow material to be located and consulted. One of the priorities when I arrived was to introduce software to enable the huge task of cataloging the collection to begin and facilitate location and subsequent retrieval of material. It was an exciting role and a steep learning curve but also, for someone with limited experience, it was a daunting task.

While I was working at the School I enrolled on the Archives and Records Management long distance course with Dundee University. This has provided me with an awareness of the theoretical principles guiding archival practice, but I increasingly felt that I needed experience, not only of other archives, but also with a professional archivist with whom I could gain the practical experience to complement my studies. The archive here at Falmouth College University and University of Exeter Cornwall Campus is a wonderful opportunity for me to do just that. The collections very much reflect the specialist art courses that the College offers, and with that, the chance to use archives in a very different way to which I have been accustomed. The Cornish Performance Archive is a fabulous example of that, and one of many collections I hope to become more familiar with during my time here.