Today’s documentary evidence is recorded as a series of 0s and 1s and stored on hard drives and servers. Therefore, archives need technical people and new approaches to capture and preserve these digital records today to ensure they are available in the future.
Bridging the Digital Gap, the technical traineeship programme from The National Archives, aims to bring in new people with different skills and backgrounds to create a digitally equipped and more diverse workforce. Through these traineeships, talented technical people use their skills to increase archives’ ability to retain and safeguard vital digital materials and to find new ways for others to access the history they record.
Supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, the programme involves three cohorts of eight trainees each. Trainees are employed by The National Archives and seconded to a host institution for their 15-month placement. Hosts include local archives and record offices, universities, and charities.
The first two cohorts of trainees worked at archives in Yorkshire, Norfolk, and London in 2018-2020. The third cohort will be based in London and the South West in 2021-2022.
While working at their host institution, trainees receive on-the-job training in standard archive practices and digital-specific areas. They are involved in digital preservation, digitisation, digital capture, cataloguing, and digital engagement.
Depending on the materials in their host archive, trainees have digitised paper-based materials, photographic prints and negatives, films, videotapes, and audiotapes. They have uploaded digital ‘surrogates’ of analogue items to their host’s online catalogue, geo-tagged images on their host’s website, and expanded information about archival films on their host’s YouTube channel.
Through their training in digital preservation, trainees have learned to ‘ingest’ digital files (text, images, audio, and video) and migrate digital collections into their host’s digital repository, usually Preservica or Archivematica. They have run regular checks to ensure the digital materials are retaining their integrity.
Some have captured emails and websites for inclusion in the digital archive. Others have made preservation copies of assets on digital media that are becoming obsolete.
Trainees have written blog posts, tweets, and Instagram stories. One devised an innovative social media campaign in which oral history recordings were linked with subtitled video clips.
During their paid placement, trainees also take part in a series of training opportunities provided by The National Archives, such as workshops, online courses, and seminars with expert speakers. Each trainee has a personal budget to spend on conferences and courses of their choice. They can also take advantage of member-only benefits from organisations to which TNA belongs, such as the Digital Preservation Coalition and the Open Preservation Foundation.
Through the programme’s partner, the Archives and Records Association (ARA), trainees receive individual membership and work toward Foundation Membership of ARA during their placement.
The Bridging the Digital Gap programme enables trainees to develop key skills that prepare them for careers in the heritage sector. Trainees from the first cohort are now employed in digital roles at the British Library, Cambridge University Library, and British Film Institute.
I will never forget my very first experience of working in an archive and feeling the excitement at cataloguing a small collection into CALM and then seeing the finished description online. If I wasn’t already pretty set on my future career path, that settled it for me; I was hooked and ready for more. Working with archives is an immense privilege and whilst I will always get slightly giddy at seeing original, historic documents, providing access to these collections through arranging and describing them has been a primary driver throughout my career. I don’t just want to experience the awe of them for myself; I want the widest possible audience to know they exist and that they are there for use and research.
Although I no longer work with collections directly anymore, I am still just as passionate about providing access to collections through description and happily get to continue this work in my current role as Digital Development Officer at The National Archives. Working in the Archives Sector Development department, I help to facilitate access to and support for our web-based collections publishing tool, Manage Your Collections (MYC). Launched in 2017 and used by over 230 archives so far, MYC allows archives the ability to add their collection descriptions to Discovery, a union catalogue of The National Archives and other UK archives, which comprises over 33 million record descriptions (one-third of those from UK archives). Discovery gets on average 20,000 hits a day from researchers and so by adding collection descriptions to Discovery, exposure to collections is amplified to an international audience.
The digital age we find ourselves in today, with information seemingly at our fingertips, is a real boon for archives. Collections information can be published in online catalogues, archive services can be found on YouTube and Instagram, and Archives Twitter is the reason why I haven’t yet deleted my account. The content is just too enticing – the Sainsbury’s Archive recent 1980 Yoghurt World Cup being just one example. However, although there’s a lot we see, I am also very aware of what we don’t see. There are many, many archives out there who don’t have any way to get their collection descriptions online due to resourcing – money, time and people are all constraints on the work that archives, particularly community archives, can undertake.
This, however, is where I see MYC being of particular benefit to community archives. Over the last couple of years as we have rolled MYC out, we have had opportunities to work with some community archives, to learn about the challenges they face and the obstacles they need to overcome to be able to publish collections online. We’ve been able to shape guidance, like our Cataloguing archive collections webpage, where we introduce what archival cataloguing looks like to those dedicated volunteers who find themselves at the helm of caring for community collections without formal training in archival management. We have also developed training in how to describe collections and how to apply that knowledge in order to use MYC. Happily, we have also been able to celebrate with community archives as they have published collections to Discovery, including a recent addition of the Spratton Local History Collection.
It can feel overwhelming thinking about how we can take boxes on shelves and turn them into neat descriptions, particularly as ISAD(G), the international cataloguing standard for archives, can seem like learning a new language to the uninitiated. To help demystify the process a little and to give real world examples from community-based organisations who use MYC, we have published case studies showing how each archive has developed processes for describing and publishing their collections online for the very first time.
Collections that reside with community and heritage groups have just as much use and research potential as those that reside in larger, better-resourced archives. Discovery has the potential to surface marginalised voices and histories and to allow us to build a more representative national narrative than any single catalogue could do on its own. If we want to reach more and diverse audiences, we need people to know archives exist. One of the fundamental drivers of this connectivity is access to resources that will enable the provision of online access to collections. MYC and Discovery can play a key role in this by providing a platform that is free to use and that allows archives to take full control of their content. What’s more, MYC provides the training and support needed for community archives to feel like they can confidently tackle the task.
The Archives and Records Association, Scotland’s social media campaigns: #ArchiveZ and Instagram
I think it is safe to say that this year is a little different than most, no matter what part of the archives and record keeping sector we work in. With everything going on in the world just now, so many of our colleagues working from home, and being away from our collections, social media has been a great way to stay connected to one another, and to feel connected to our beloved archives, even from a distance.
We’re now 12 weeks into the 2020 #ArchiveZ ARAS campaign, which we are running on all three of our social media accounts – Twitter, Facebook, and our latest addition, Instagram. With a new letter of the alphabet as the ‘theme’ each week, the campaign is more relaxed than some of our other campaigns, where archivists and repositories can contribute as much or as little as they like and can include almost anything you can think of from your collections, so long as they match the weekly theme – no matter how tenuous!
Instagram: the latest addition to the ARAS social media family
We set up the ARAS Instagram account in 2019, with two aims: the first was to expand our social media engagement with ARA Scotland members and the wider public; the second was to create a space to amplify the voices and contents of our Scottish collections, giving the opportunity for institutions which already have a social media presence, as well as those who are just beginning to explore the possibilities that Instagram provides. Instagram is quickly becoming a key platform for reaching a younger demographic worldwide, and as it is image-focused, creates an ideal space for allowing the public to gain an insight into life within the archive, highlighting the repositories, archivists, special projects, and the collections themselves in a new way.
The first content on the Instagram account was during last year’s #Archive30, showing items from the collections from the ARAS committee members that fit the daily themes, as a way to test the waters for the new platform. In June, we hosted our first Scottish Archive Highlight, sharing the collections of the University of Dundee archives. Since then, in addition to posts relating to ARAS events, social media campaigns, and providing information to our followers, we have been hosting monthly highlights of different Scottish archives from university, business, and local authority archives. As every archive is entirely unique, each month’s archive highlight has been a completely different experience, despite the same basic themes being explored each month. In a post each day, featured archives introduce the repository, most popular collections, staff highlight, volunteer or community highlight, and a wildcard or event announcement to the account followers.
Instagram: Tips & Tricks
Based on experiences running the ARAS Instagram over the past year, as well as my own personal experience using Instagram, Below are some tips and tricks specific to creating content for Instagram, although they apply to other platforms as well.
1. Keep it simple
There is no right way to run any social media account, but the best way to keep your activity sustainable is to keep it simple, and make it something that YOU know about, and are interested in talking about—it makes it so much easier to write the content if you care about the topic, and it helps you answer any questions from your followers!
2. Use lots of visuals to share your archive stories
Visuals are always important on social media—a picture really is worth a thousand words, which is particularly important when you have a character limit! Instagram’s character limit is substantially larger than Twitter’s, but your audience may not always be inclined to read an essay of a caption. If you can grab their attention with a captivating visual, however, they may be more interested in learning more about what they are seeing. In addition to still images, video clips provide a great way to portray the scale of an item, or to engage with it in a more dynamic way. This is particularly useful just now, with so many of us working from home and without public access to our physical collections, as it allows for more meaningful digital engagement with our archives.
3. Vary your content, but stay consistent
I realise that this may seem like a contradiction—particularly when first starting an Instagram account, I think it is important to experiment with the types of content you share with your followers, but it is equally important to share your content consistently. What is your target audience? What messages do you want to share with that audience? Questions like these should be used to help you decide the best time of day to post, and what types of content you want to share. Once those questions have been answered, plan out a schedule of when you are posting—even if only once per month, make it so each post goes out at the same time. Making a schedule is particularly helpful if more than one person is contributing to the account, making sure that there are not inadvertent long periods without content to share with your followers.
4. Jump in with existing campaigns or start your own!
Keep an eye out for local and sector-wide social media campaigns that you can adapt to items from your collections. While each platform has its own community, campaigns and hashtags travel well across platforms. Twitter is an absolutely fantastic place to keep up to date with upcoming social media campaigns and themed days—each month @ArchiveHashtag posts a really useful run through of the month’s themed days, giving plenty of time to schedule content, and any campaigns run by ARA or ARAS will be shared through our member lists, and our social media accounts.
5. Use content across platforms
If you are already using other social media platforms, there is no reason why not to use the same content on Instagram too, potentially with a few minor tweaks. If you are used to posting on Twitter, then Instagram may appear slower paced, but that can work to your advantage. As mentioned above, Instagram’s caption length limits are much higher than Twitter’s, meaning that if you are putting out a thread of content on Twitter with associated visuals, the thread can be condensed into a single Instagram post, with up to 10 pieces of media (including videos up to 0:59 seconds long). Posts can be published directly to both an Instagram and Facebook page through the Instagram app, and both are compatible with scheduling programs such as Hootsuite.
Since beginning on the new platform a year ago, the ARAS Instagram account has become a central part of our engagement channels; we have successfully attracted over 560 followers and have highlighted twelve archives across Scotland. During feature weeks the account receives an average of 2000 impressions on Instagram, with an additional audience through Facebook, where posts are also shared. Our feature week posts have encouraged the public to engage with collections and their repositories, often asking questions either about the collections and content shared, or else for more specific information for their own research. We have really enjoyed watching Instagram become more popular amongst archives across Scotland, and are looking forward to seeing what the next year brings!
Ravana Eagleheart – Communications Officer ARA Scotland
In the UK, before Covid-19 many of us travelled with relatively little thought – whether by private or individual means, or public transport. But during lockdown our habits largely changed – certainly in terms of travelling any distance. As lockdown eases we’re being urged to avoid public transport where possible – and transport workers have paid a high price for their jobs. Bus staff have one of the highest mortality rates, for example, by occupational group. It’s a valuable reminder that whilst travel can be liberating for passengers, it relies on the labour of staff to make possible – and with it come risks.
The ‘Railway Work, Life & Death’ project is looking further back in time, at accidents and ill-health amongst British and Irish railway employees, between approximately 1889 and 1939. We’re a collaboration between the National Railway Museum, the Modern Records Centre at the University of Warwick and the University of Portsmouth, working with The National Archives of the UK. We have small, but dedicated, volunteer teams transcribing and researching the accidents contained within documents held at each of the archives – and we’d particularly like to thank them, as without them, nothing would happen. Collaboration and co-production are at the core of our approach, with our volunteers and with people who are making use of project resources.
We are making the transcriptions freely available via our website, to try to improve awareness and use of this invaluable resource. So – we’re working with physical archives, to create a type of digital archive! To date we’ve made available around 6,500 cases covering 1901-1923, but we’re working on an estimated 70,000 further cases across our period. Details come from accident investigations produced by state-appointed inspectors, railway companies and trades unions. They tell us all sorts about staff working practices, workplace hazards and the individual impacts of accidents in one of the UK’s most hazardous industries.
How does all this relate to travel? Well, in all sorts of ways! As noted, passenger travel would not have been possible without the staff running the railway system. Then, as now, they’re easy to overlook – one of our hopes is to make the working lives and experiences of railway employees more visible. Whilst generally you won’t find passenger travel accidents in our archive, of course staff crewed the trains that were involved, so they do fall within our remit – as in the Reading 1914 accident discussed here . We also encourage guest blog posts, and sometimes they touch upon passenger experiences, as in this example .
Staff travel sometimes appears in the records. Sometimes it was more conventional than others. We know that on 11 May 1911, at around 9.20 in the evening, eighteen-year old Caledonian Railway Company signal lighter (someone employed to keep the lamps on signal alight) G Gray was travelling in carriage near Gourock, in Renfrewshire. He leant out to check whether a signal was lit, but the carriage door flew open and he fell from the train. Fortunately for him, he survived, suffering only scalp wounds. Our database is a litany of staff injured or killed on the move: oiling locomotives whilst running, riding on the outside of wagons, thrown from wagons they were travelling in – even one case in which an employee had his leg, ankle and foot injured when three hogsheads of beer fell on him as he was working in a wagon being moved!
It isn’t just the obvious railway travel which features in our data. The railways at this time had substantial interests in all forms of travel, including road transport. We have accidents involving carts and lorries, both staff and non-staff – plenty of people had reason to be working on and near the railways, like coal merchants, carters and farmers. Porters had to move trollies around stations, often across railway lines, and track maintenance staff used trollies to travel to their point of work, sometimes falling from them. This happened on 15 April 1914, when Thomas Hall and William Turner fell from the trollies they were riding on between Chilham and Wye in Kent, injuring their legs. Hydraulic hoists in stations injured or killed staff who were riding in them against the rules – as in the case of Jane Horner, at Stockton station, County Durham, in 1913 (and discussed further here ). And of course, walking was a key means of travel for workers and is found in our project as a part of the accidents staff experienced.
Staff had to travel to or from work, as well. Sometimes this might involve them getting from the immediate point of ‘clocking on/off’ to where they needed to be – as in the case of Midland Railway temporary goods porter TH Narey, at Shipley in Derbyshire. On 23 February 1911 he was walking on the railway when travelling from the goods warehouse where he worked; he was hit by a train, losing an arm and some teeth. The investigation records that he didn’t exercise ‘necessary care’ but also hadn’t been properly supervised; it seems it was common for men to walk along the line here, tacitly being accepted by the foremen.
These, and sadly plenty more cases like them, all came about – directly or indirectly – as a result of travel. What do they all tell us? By finding out more about the individuals who had accidents on the railways, we can see the true costs of the industry – and travel, of passengers and goods. We can see how work was carried out, often including why staff acted in seemingly counterintuitive ways that exposed them to danger.
What are the next steps for the project? We’re always keen to see where staff accidents appear in the holdings of archives beyond those we’re presently working with – we’ve recently been put on to what looks to be an interesting clutch of compensation records at Doncaster Archives, for example. Finding records like these takes some sneaky searching – and the expertise of the archivists, who might have encountered the sorts of things we’re looking for but which are either yet to be catalogued in detail or where accidents feature incidentally to the main purpose of the record.
In terms of our immediate work, there are an awful lot more records to transcribe! We’re working on that, as well as researching as many cases as possible beyond the records we’re handling. In the longer term, we’d like to produce an interactive map of the cases, to provide a much more easily visualised and accessible entry point. We’re keen to move beyond the records of the formal railway industry – we want to link our material to other records, to make it possible to build a life-story of the individuals involved: newspaper reports, births, marriage and death records, autobiography, and family history. We’d like to build a tool to allow anyone to submit the records they are aware of, including details or stories from within their family. All of this will mean we can piece together a much greater picture of the impacts of staff accidents, and will really improve awareness, understanding and use of the records. Watch this space!
And if you fancy getting involved – in transcription, once we’re able to get back into the archives and photograph records, a guest blog post, to alert us to archives we should know about or something else, please just drop us a line. We’d be delighted to hear from you!
Have you heard about #ExploreYourArchive Day? Read on to find out all about it…
What is #ExploreYourArchive Day?
We introduced #ExploreYourArchive Day in March 2020 to provide a focus day for showcasing archive collections that are related to our monthly campaign themes.
When does #ExploreYourArchive Day take place?
#ExploreYourArchive Day takes place on the 10th of each month. (Keep an eye on Twitter for our reminders!)
Why did #ExploreYourArchive Day start?
We started #ExploreYourArchive Day because we understand that some people can’t commit to contributing to our campaign themes continuously throughout each month. Having one focus day also gives more visibility to the overall Explore Your Archive campaign – especially if we have lots of people taking part!
Who is #ExploreYourArchive Day for?
#ExploreYourArchive Day is for archivists, records managers, conservators, researchers, users and all other archive fans. Absolutely anyone who wants to take part is welcome to join in!
How can I join in with #ExploreYourArchive Day?
You can get involved with #ExploreYourArchive Day by tweeting around the monthly Explore Your Archive theme and using our hashtag (#ExploreYourArchive) or by tagging us (@explorearchives).
Don’t forget to check out the social media page on our website to keep up-to-date with everything that we’re doing!
Teesside Archives’ collections feature a range of items relating to the area’s sporting heritage spanning club records, oral histories, plans, photographs and programmes.
Amongst the highlights on the sporting collections are a number of Ayresome Park football stadium plans by world-acclaimed stadium designer Archibald Leitch, recently digitised and currently on show as part of the Art of Ayresome online exhibition. Bringing together work from acclaimed architects, cartoonists, illustrators, painters, photographers and sculptors, Art of Ayresome features numerous historic items and explore the story of Ayresome Park in a creative, engaging and unique way.
Archibald Leitch, born in Glasgow in 1865, was the most famous architect and engineer of football stadiums in the early twentieth century and has been described as ‘the world’s first ever specialist designer of football grounds’. ‘Engineering Archie’ was responsible for designing a number of Britain’s iconic football grounds including Arsenal’s former Highbury home, Glasgow Rangers’ Ibrox Stadium and Manchester United’s Old Trafford. In 1903, Leitch’s Glasgow practice was commissioned to design Boro’s new ‘Ayresome Park’ home as the club made plans to leave the Linthorpe Road Ground. Leitch’s designs for Ayresome Park that have survived and can be found in Teesside Archives form part of a wider collection of plans that chronicle the initial construction of the stadium in 1903 and subsequent enhancements and redevelopments over the decades.
Archie’s Ayresome on show
The Art of Ayresome online exhibition, hosted on the Middlesbrough FC website, features Archibald’s Leitch’s original 1903 plans for Ayresome Park and are the oldest works in the exhibition. The plans provide the visitor with an architectural introduction to Ayresome Park and a detailed, unique perspective on Middlesbrough Football Club’s move to their new home at the beginning of the twentieth century. The plans allow the visitor to explore in minute detail – down to the very foundations – the place that became a central part of life for the club, town and hundreds of thousands of Teessiders.
The plan of the new Grand Stand, received by Middlesbrough Corporation’s Borough Engineer on 21st March 1903, details some of the key features of a typical Archibald Leitch Grand Stand that are evident in Ayresome’s standout feature. In his Engineering Archie, author Simon Inglis describes the new main stand as ‘straight from the pattern book of the firm with which Leitch often worked, the Clyde Structural Iron Company of Glasgow.’ Complete with its barrelled roof, arguably the most notable feature of the new stand was the iconic Leitch semi-circular roof gable, which many fans will remember was adorned for many years with an advertisement for McEwan’s 80/-.
In their detail of the new facilities that formed part of the new ground, the Leitch plans give an indication of the investment and ambitions for the club that underpinned the construction of a new stadium. As Shaun Wilson notes in the ‘Ayresome Memories’ project, Leitch provided a ‘new ground in keeping with Boro’s growing stature.’ Costing a total of £11,857, the stadium was a vast improvement on the facilities at the club’s former Linthorpe Road home. The Athletic News reporter ‘Vulcan’described the new, modern facilities in detail ahead of the ground’s inaugural 1903/04 campaign:
The directors, with great faith and equal enterprise have fitted up their new ground at Ayresome Park in accordance with the most modern requirements. Altogether, well over £6,000 has been spent over the equipment of the enclosure, and £3,000 of this has been devoted to the erection of a new grand stand to seat 3,000 persons, from the designs of Mr. Archibald Leitch, of Glasgow. Underneath this there is a well-appointed gymnasium, a billiard room, offices for the secretary (Mr. J. Robson), a boardroom for the directors, baths and retiring rooms for the home and visiting teams, a referee’s room, and other useful accommodation…With the exception of the sixpenny end where it is terraced with earth ashes, there are stands practically all round the field, and the total accommodation provided is for 32,000, so that the North Yorkshiremen are ready for big business.
The Leitch plan of the Grand Stand – initially disapproved by the local authority and subsequently tweaked – detail the features of this ‘big business’ outlook and the state-of-the-art accommodation of the pavilion in miniscule detail, including the specifications of the terraces to the location of urinals in the changing rooms.
A rare insight into the Linthorpe Road Ground
As well as affording an insight into the design of Boro’s attractive new stand, Leitch’s work in Art of Ayresome also provides a rare insight into the club’s old Linthorpe Road Ground, for which there are no known photos showing the inside of the stadium. The June 1903 plan of the old Linthorpe Road Grand Stand – which would become Ayresome’s early South Stand – provides detail absent from photographs of the stand in situ at Boro’s ‘new’ stadium. When compared with Leitch’s textbook Grand Stand creation, the old Linthorpe Road structure appears primitive and lacks the elegance and grace of the Glaswegian’s creation. Nevertheless, the old stand went on to serve the needs of Boro fans for over three decades until a new Dorman Long constructed stand replaced it in 1937.
New audiences and visitor responses
By featuring Leitch’s plans in Art of Ayresome thousands of fans have been able to enjoy the designs for the first time and learn more about the architect and Boro’s history.
Entries in the Visitor Book and Feedback Questionnaire responses reflects positively on the exhibition’s historical components. One supporter commented that “some of the earlier stuff (i.e. before my time) was fascinating. Lovely half hour spent viewing these drawings”. Another visitor commented that it was “good to see original plans”. When asked if Art of Ayresome had helped respondents learn something new about the history of Ayresome Park or Middlesbrough FC, one answer pointed to the “original plans”, another revealed they had acquired new knowledge of the “Scottish designer of the stadium”, whilst another supporter described how “the artist sketches for the original ground were interesting.”
It is evident from the responses to Leitch’s plans and the initial early feedback on the Art of Ayresome that taking the Leitch material beyond the archives has been beneficial for the exhibition and visitors alike. As a rare architectural example of Boro’s early history, the plans have featured in press coverage of Art of Ayresome. As well as helping develop new knowledge, the exhibition has also evoked positive emotional responses to the Boro’s sporting heritage. During the challenging times posed by COVID-19, Leitch’s plans have played an important role in an ‘uplifting exhibition at a difficult time for many’ and it is hoped will continue to have a positive impact for visitors and engagement with Teesside Archives’ collections and the area’s football heritage.
A few months ago, through a series of coincidences, staff at Suffolk Archives discovered something remarkable.
Amongst the records we hold for the Suffolk Regiment is a bundle of 41 long-lost letters. The letters were written during the retreat to Dunkirk, and for those who did not make it home they may well be their last messages.
These letters, however, never reached the loved ones they were written to. They went astray in France and were discovered in an abandoned post van by a German officer. They spent the next three decades in the officer’s loft, before he handed them in at the British Embassy in Bonn in 1969.
From there they were sent to the Suffolk Regiment, who tried to deliver them to the people they had been intended for 29 years earlier. Alas, most people could not be found at the addresses on the original envelopes, and 41 of the letters were returned to the Suffolk Regiment, and are now safely kept at our Bury St Edmunds office.
When the letters were re-posted in 1969 they included this cover letter which gave some explanation about what had happened to them (Suffolk Archives/Suffolk Regiment Museum)
The letters are full of personality. Many try to be reassuring, some more successfully than others. Many are full of longing for home, and the countryside that would be so beautiful in the May sunshine. One or two (written to girlfriends or would-be girlfriends) border on the risqué. Authors urge their family and friends to write as often as they can to stay in touch.
During work to digitise the letters a few months ago, a staff member started to research what had happened to their authors. Who had made it home, and who hadn’t? Many survived Dunkirk only to end up as Japanese prisoners later in the war.
A flirtatious letter from Private Leman Martin to Miss Pamela Howels (Suffolk Archives/Suffolk Regiment Museum)
And now we get to the most remarkable bit of the story. Another member of staff took a look at the letters and saw that one, sent by Private Harry Cole, was addressed to a house in the village where she lives in east Suffolk. More than that, she recognised the family name. She was quickly able to establish that the Mr Cole she knows is the youngest brother of the author of the letter, who died during the retreat. This was his last letter home, and his family never received it.
Having secured permission from the owners of the letters, the Suffolk Regiment Museum, we sent a copy of Harry’s letter in the post to his youngest brother and hoped it wouldn’t be too much of a shock. Fortunately the family were thrilled to receive the letter, though the discovery is of course tinged with great sadness.
The whole collection of letters is due to be part of an intergenerational project with Suffolk Artlink focused on communication, which would have been well underway at the moment were it not for the Covid-19 lockdown. With the project postponed we still wanted to do something to highlight the letters in 2020 to mark the 80th anniversary of the evacuation from Dunkirk.
We decided that the best way to share the letters was through an online display on our website. Our website is not really built to do this, so we are making the best of the built-in features that it has and using other platforms to help make the content more interactive, in this case especially the design tool Canva.
The online display was accompanied by a press release which told the story of the whole collection of letters and focused on Harry Cole’s letter being delivered 80 years late as a headline. The story has had quite a bit of media interest, appearing in national as well as local news, such as this piece on the BBC website.
There may well be other people out there with connections to the letters, and the online display includes a list of all of the authors and recipients; hopefully some more families will be traced and be able to read the long-lost words of a loved one.
The Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland (RAS) was established in 1823 as an independent organization for promoting research and public interest in the histories and cultures of Asia. Many of its founders had been members of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, founded in 1784 by the famous linguist Sir William Jones.
Why was the RAS founded? In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, greater numbers of Europeans moved to live and work in different parts of Asia, as diplomats, merchants, and soldiers, as trade increased and the British Empire rapidly expanded. But there was still very limited understanding of Asian cultures in Britain, or elsewhere in Europe. The RAS sought to improve public knowledge about Asia, including by supporting translations of classic works of literature; and tried to make it easier for scholars to access books, art, manuscripts, and other objects relating to Asian cultures. The Society’s members often donated their own collections to aid this purpose – ranging from Persian manuscripts to Indian paintings to Japanese ukiyo-e theatrical prints – and most of these collections are still with us today, forming the core of the Society’s holdings.
Today, the RAS is a charity which provides free public access to all its collections via its Reading Room service, and we keep looking for new opportunities to make cultural history available to as many people as possible. We want people to know what we have, and we also want people to know the stories behind the collections. In addition to promoting new study of Asian cultures, we want people to know how British people in the past have studied Asia. Many British people who spent time in India, China, Persia or elsewhere collected art, manuscripts and other objects, to better understand local histories and cultures, or from simple aesthetic or intellectual interest. Today, there is wide public awareness that some cultural artefacts were acquired by Europeans in Asia during or after military conflict. But private scholarly collections, many of which were later donated to libraries and museums, often entered European hands legitimately, in much more mundane fashion: typically purchased on the market, or acquired as copies, commissioned by European enthusiasts, of original paintings and manuscripts.
Digital technology is a great way to make collections accessible to people who live outside London and who, even before the Covid-19 pandemic, might have found it difficult to access our collections. Online access is particularly relevant to the Society because many of our collections originate from Asian countries and may contain much of interest to people who live thousands of miles away. Thanks to digitization, it’s much easier for people living in Nepal, Malaysia, or anywhere else to see what we have.
Although only a portion of our collection is digitized, this amount has grown dramatically in recent years. We have now put hundreds of manuscripts, paintings, and early photographs online, as well as the archive of Thomas Manning, one of the first Englishmen to study Chinese and a close friend of the Romantic author Charles Lamb. The Society aspires to digitize and make available online as much of our collection as we possibly can, and in recent years we have been grateful for opportunities to collaborate with partners including the National Library Board of Singapore and the Internet Archive. Now, the Society can provide direct access to its digital collections through its Digital Library, which was launched in 2018 with support from the Friends of the National Libraries. The Covid-19 pandemic has meant our building has been closed since mid-March, and so we have been especially grateful that the Digital Library means people can still access some of our most important collections. We have tried to add new digital collections to the platform since we have been closed, and we will continue to do so in the weeks and months ahead.
The government lockdown has revealed how embedded digital technologies have become throughout our daily lives, not least because so many people have remained productive while “working from home”. But the lockdown also reminds us how much of our cultural heritage is now available to see online, from home, while libraries, archives, and museums are shut. Of course, what is online is still only a fraction of our country’s rich heritage collections; and staff and users alike are keen to see heritage institutions safely re-open, so that our cultural life can begin to return to normal. But, thanks to digital technology, the past decade has seen a dramatic change in the accessibility of collections, and now, even a small institution like the RAS can have its own digital collections platform.
When libraries and archives strive to deliver valuable content to their users, they look at the example of what their colleagues have achieved elsewhere. We can imitate what has worked well in other cases, and try to avoid repeating mistakes that have been made before. In the process, while we are pursuing our own priorities and the needs of our users, we are also contributing to a process of selection, and helping good ideas to become more widespread. In this way, piecemeal innovations across different services can be unconsciously coordinated and lead to general improvements in services across wide areas, in ways nobody could have foreseen, until even small libraries and archives ultimately benefit from sophisticated applications and techniques developed by people more expert than us.
Heritage professionals everywhere are looking forward to the re-opening of archives, libraries, galleries, and museums, and are working together to solve the challenges which that involves. When we think about future goals and ambitions, it can be helpful to reflect on how we have responded to challenges in the past. In doing so, we can reflect on the processes that have served us well, and which have allowed the ingenuity of our technically-minded colleagues, the care and diligence of archivists and curators, and the imagination and passion of creators, scholars, and collectors, to help create the rich heritage environment we enjoy today.
Explore Your Archive in Ireland will be
launched on Thursday 21st November in the Irish Architectural
Archive, Merrion Square in Dublin. Kindly supported by the Irish Manuscripts
Commission, the launch will kick off a week of events in local and national
organisations in Ireland, to celebrate Explore Your Archive. ARA, Ireland will
also be launching their new website on the night: https://araireland.com/
The campaign ambassador for Ireland this
year is Fin Dwyer: historian, author and creator of the Irish History Podcast. Fin
commented: “I was delighted to be asked to be Explore Your Archive ambassador
this year. Through my own work as an historian and in my podcast, I recognise
the importance and value of research and storytelling. But it’s also important
that archives are for everyone, not just historians or researchers. You don’t
need to be an expert to use archives; you just need a keen interest and
curiosity in Irish history and heritage.”
There’ll also be plenty of featured
archives from Ireland, including ‘A Christmas Spectacle: The Story of Panto in Dublin’ about the
exhibition in Dublin City Library and Archive; and ‘To
be Taught Everything Necessary…Discover 19th Century Childhood
through Loreto Boarding Schools’ about the IBVM (Loreto), Institute & Irish Province
The first of April was no April Fool for the archive and record keeping sector as ARA Scotlands’ #Archive30 campaign commenced across twitter and other social media platforms.
ARA Scotland is one of the national and regional groups of the Archive and Records Association. They hold a range of training events across the year and are also responsible for the Scotland based Explore Your Archive launch event held in November each year. They also run a series of social media campaigns each year for Scottish archives to contribute to and #Archive30 is one campaign that anyone from anywhere in the world can join in.