All posts by Matthew

First catalogue of the Bodleian’s own historic archive now online

Today sees the online publication of the first catalogue for the Bodleian’s own organisational archive – ‘Library Records’. This archive is a unique and valuable resource which provides evidence of the activities of the Bodleian throughout its 400 year history. To this day, the Bodleian remains one of the foremost cultural institutions in the world and the archive is of particular interest to researchers considering the history of libraries and librarianship, scholarship and the transfer of knowledge, the study of the book, and manuscript studies.

The Library Records collection includes papers concerning Library finances, the construction and repair of buildings, the acquisition and cataloguing of collections; correspondence with donors, depositors and enquirers; and records of readers’ admission and book orders.

Treasures from the Library Records collection include the earliest known ‘reader’s card’ from 1613/14 and an admission register signed by Iris Murdoch and Philip Larkin, 1940.

Image of earliest known Bodleian reader's card

Library Records c. 1693
Located amongst the collection of Bodleian papers made by Bodley’s Librarian, Falconer Madan this small slip of paper gave Henry Barkley of All Souls College, Oxford permission to use the Bodleian Library. It was signed by the Registrar of the University, Thomas French, on 17 February 1613/14, and a note was added in the Library to record that Barkley was admitted as a reader the same day.

Bodleian Admissions Register signed by Iris Murdoch and Philip Larkin, 1940.

Library Records b. 521
An example of a Bodleian Admissions Register signed on the 17 October 1940 by Iris Murdoch of Somerville College and Philip Arthur Larkin of St. John’s. Despite the privations of the Second World War scholarship continued and the Bodleian remained open. Other records in the archive detail the Library’s contribution to the war effort and document Air Raid Precautions undertaken, accounts of collections taken on deposit from other institutions and lists of books removed for safekeeping to Avoncliff.

Theo Boorman and Oliver House

 

 

Farewell to the VCR!

I was interested to learn from a recent BBC News article that July 2016 would see the end for the production of videocassette recorders (VCR). Whilst this hardly comes a surprise, given that VHS tapes have long since been superseded by digital technology, it does present something of a problem for archivists.

Image of VCR

Sony Professional VCR by By Hosseinshamloo (2009). Wikicommons.

VHS tapes have had a relatviely long life (they were first introduced in the 1970s) and ensuring that important content held on them is preserved for future generations will become increasingly difficult. Without the technology to play them, we shall have no means of digitising their content. Despite the end of production, hopefully the VCR will be around for a few more years yet!

EU Referendum Web Archiving Mini-internship – Part 1

On 20 and 21 June eight Oxford University students took part in a web archiving micro-internship at the Weston Library’s Centre for Digital Scholarship. Working with the UK Legal Deposit Web Archive, they contributed to the curation of a special collection of websites on the UK European Referendum. This is the first of two guest blog posts on the micro-internship.

Web archiving micro-interns on the roof of the Weston Library, June 2016.

Web archiving micro-interns on the roof of the Weston Library, June 2016.

Using library archives for their research is not a novelty for any student or scholar. However, web archives represent a completely new dimension of swiftly evolving research methods – they intend to document what is posted online – a  relatively recent form of data collection due to scientific advancements.

For researchers used to traditional archives, the need to store and analyse this data might be not really understandable, however, web archiving, despite being relatively new, is very significant. Firstly, it allows us to store information for generations of future historians and sociologists – contrary to the common perception, many data held on World Wide Web disappears or changes very frequently and rapidly. Secondly, it might be an asset for those pursuing topical research projects in the present – recent technologies (such as prototype SHINE database for historical research) allow us to trace data trends and come to important and fascinating conclusions. Therefore, even if some might underrate web archives, it surely does not diminish their utility to academia.

In the eve of the Brexit referendum, which sparked many debates and discussions in British web space, timely creation of a web collection has proven to be very important – after all, the decision is likely to have long-term consequences for our society, economy, and legal system. Traditionally, individual narratives and civic engagement are set aside when documenting major political decisions. However, a web collection can significantly improve this situation by collecting diverse standpoints expressed in the web sphere. This, in my opinion, perfectly mirrors the ethos of direct democracy where every vote and view counts.

However, important as it is, web archiving comes with a range of practical and ethical obstacles: with huge masses of information being stored online it is very hard to choose what is worthy of being preserved for future generations. Legal restrictions, such as the recent legal deposit legislation, also significantly limit the scope of archivists’ work. During my micro-internship I, along with other interns, tried to overcome these obstacles as much as possible, minimising bias and efficiently using our time resources and server memory. Even in the era of technology, it is the human resources and individual judgment that shape the scope and direction of the collection.

Working on a web collection, especially since the campaigning has increased just before the referendum, was very challenging. However, as interns, we tackled the masses of information by focusing on individual areas of knowledge. Our work on the project was also aided by the guidance provided by our supervisors and discussions on ethical and scientific implications of our research. This was a very rewarding insight into a new area of knowledge, and I am convinced that skills and knowledge acquired and applied by me during the internship will aid me in my future research career.

Anna Lukina

What I learned in London…at the DPTP Digital Preservation Workshop!

A few months ago I applied for a scholarship through the DPC Leadership Programme to attend the DPTP 14-16 March course for those working in digital preservation: The Practice of Digital Preservation.

It was a three-day intermediate course for practitioners who wished to broaden their working knowledge and it covered a wide range of tools and information relating to digital preservation and how to apply them practically to their day-to-day work.

The course was hosted in one of the meeting rooms in the Senate House Library of the University of London, a massive Art Deco building in Bloomsbury (I know because I managed to get a bit lost between breaks!).

Senate House, University of London

The course was three full days of workshops that mixed lectures with group exercises and the occasional break. Amazingly this is the last year they’re doing it as a three day course and they’re going to compress it all into a single day next time (though everything they covered was useful, I don’t know what you’d cut to shorten it—lunch maybe?).

Each day had a different theme.

The first was on approaches to digital preservation. This was an overview of various policy frameworks and standards. The most well-known and accepted being OAIS.

No Google, not OASIS!

Oman-Oasis

Oasis, Oman. Taken by Hendrik Dacquin aka loufi and licensed under CC BY 2.0.

After a brief wrestle with Google’s ‘suggestions’ let’s look at this OAIS Model and admire its weirdly green toned but elegant workflow. If you click through to Wikimedia Commons it even has annotations for the acronyms.

OAIS-

After introducing us to various frameworks, the day mostly focused on the ingest and storage aspect of digital preservation. It covered the 3 main approaches (bit-level preservation, emulation and migration) in-depth and discussed the pros and cons of each.

There are many factors to consider when choosing a method and depending on what your main constraint is: money, time or expertise, different approaches will be more suitable for different organisations and collections. Bit-level preservation is the most basic thing you can do. You are mostly hoping that if you ingest the material exactly as it comes, some future archivist (perhaps with pots of money!) will come along and emulate or migrate it in a way that is far beyond what your poor cash strapped institution can handle.

Emulation is when you create or acquire an environment (not the original one that your digital object was created or housed in) to run your digital object in that attempts to recreate its original look and feel.

Migration which probably works best with contemporary or semi-contemporary objects is used to transfer the object into a format that is more future-proof than its current one. This is an option that needs to be considered in the context of the technical constraints and options available. But perhaps you’re not sure what technical constraints you need to consider? Fear not!

These technical constraints were covered in the second day! This day was on ingestion and it covered file formats, useful tools and several metadata schemas. I’ve probably exhausted you with my very thorough explanation of the first day’s content (also I’d like to leave a bit of mystery for you) so I will just say that there are a lot of file formats and what makes them appealing to the end user can often be the same thing that makes a digital preservationist (ME) tear her hair out.

Thus those interested in preserving digital content have had to  develop (or beg and borrow!) a variety of tools to read, copy, preserve, capture metadata and what have you. They have also spent a lot of time thinking about (and disagreeing over) what to do with these materials and information. From these discussions have emerged various schemata to make these digital objects more…tractable and orderly (haha). They have various fun acronyms (METS, PREMIS, need I go on?) and each has its own proponents but I think everyone is in agreement that metadata is a good thing and XML is even better because it makes that metadata readable by your average human as well as your average computer! A very important thing when you’re wondering what the hell you ingested two months ago that was helpfully name bobsfile1.rtf or something equally descriptive.

The final day was on different strategies for tackling the preservation of more complex born-digital objects such as emails and databases (protip: it’s hard!) and providing access to said objects. This led to a roundup of different and interesting ways institutions are using digital content to engage readers.

There’s a lot of exciting work in this field, such as Stanford University’s ePADD Discovery:

ePADD

Which allows you to explore the email archives of a collection in a user-friendly (albeit slow) interface. It also has links to the more traditional finding aids and catalogue records that you’d expect of an archive.

Or the Wellcome Library’s digital player developed by DigiratiMendel

Which lets you view digital and digitised content in a single integrated system. This includes, cover-to-cover books, as pictured above, archives, artwork, videos, audio files and more!

Everyone should check it out, it’s pretty cool and freely available for others to use. There were many others that I haven’t covered but these really stood out.

It was an intense but interesting three days and I enjoyed sharing my experiences with the other archivists and research data managers who came to attend this workshop. I think it was a good mix of theory and practical knowledge and will certainly help me in the future. Also I have to say Ed Pinsent and Steph Taylor did a great job!

Web Archiving Micro-internship – Part 2

On 14 and 15 March eight Oxford University students took part in a web archiving micro-internship at the Weston Library’s Centre for Digital Scholarship. Working with the UK Legal Deposit Web Archive, they contributed to the curation of a special collection of websites on the UK European Referendum. This is the second of two guest blog posts on the micro-internship.

The most central aspect of modern life is now the proliferation of digital technology. Since the 1990s, it has become a central mode of communication which is often taken for granted. At the start of this micro-internship, we were introduced to the concept of the digital ‘black hole’, a term used to describe the irrevocable loss of this information. Unlike physical correspondence and materials–the letters, writs, and manuscripts of earlier centuries–so much of what we write is fragile and evanescent. To stem the loss of this digital history, we were shown how the Bodleian Libraries and other legal deposit libraries use domain crawls to capture online content at pre-determined intervals using the W3ACT tool. This then preserves a screen grab of the website on the Internet Archive, namely the waybackmachine, before the website is updated.

Web archiving micro-interns working in the Centre for Digital Scholarship, Weston Libary, March 2016.

Web archiving micro-interns working in the Centre for Digital Scholarship, Weston Libary, March 2016.

The right to a copy of electronic and other non-print publications, such as e-journals and CD-ROMs by legal deposit libraries only came into existence on 6th April 2013. This meant that libraries were able to create an archive of all websites with domains based in the United Kingdom. The recent ‘right to be forgotten’ law adopted by the EU is a signal of the fact that the legal status of digital archives is nevertheless becoming increasingly complicated, particularly when compiling archives of events receiving international commentary, like the upcoming EU referendum. Each of us focused on a different aspect of the EU referendum, reflecting our individual interests, ranging from national newspapers and student newspapers to the blogs of Scottish MSPs, Welsh AMs, and MEPs, and the blogs of solicitors and legal firms’ websites offering advice to businesses and refugees in the event of a ‘Brexit’. One of the trickier views to archive was that of British expats living abroad. In this situation, unless the site can be proven to be based in the UK, we would have to write to the owner of the domain to request permission to archive the website. In a situation where permission was given but the person expressing those views subsequently wished to erase this history under the ‘right to be forgotten’ law adopted by the EU, should the UK have voted to leave the EU, this would leave the archived material in a tricky legal position. We learned during the internship that this would most likely result in the relevant archived material being deleted. However, this is exactly what the archive was set up to prevent and so the tension between the right to privacy and freedom of information on a public platform presents considerable problems to the aim of web archives to be fully comprehensive, aggravated further by the omission of websites with pay walls.

After finding this material and ensuring it was covered by the legal deposit law, it was necessary to classify the site accurately, identifying the main language, and providing titles and descriptions. For newspaper articles, this was relatively straightforward, but for Welsh and Irish-language publications produced by political parties, languages which I am studying at Jesus college, this was more complicated as the only languages available to select from were German or English–a testament to the nascent stage of the web archive’s development. In addition, classifying material was very much up to our own individual discretion and the descriptions to our own style. To complicate things further, the order in which searched-for material should be presented raises further issues, which we discussed at the end of the micro-internship. Namely whether results should be arranged by ‘most popular’, by date of publication, or any other criterion. The discussions and practical experience offered by this internship gave us an opportunity to help address the legal and administrative challenges facing web archivists.

Daniel Taylor

Web Archiving Micro-internship – Part 1

On 14 and 15 March eight Oxford University students took part in a web archiving micro-internship at the Weston Library’s Centre for Digital Scholarship. Working with the UK Legal Deposit Web Archive, they contributed to the curation of a special collection of websites on the UK European Referendum. This is the first of two guest blog posts on the micro-internship.

During a micro-internship at the Bodleian’s legal deposit web archives, focusing on the EU referendum collection, we have had an occasion to reflect on the meaning of such an archive, and particularly on its potential for creating meaning.

Web archiving micro-interns on the roof of the Weston Library, March 2016.

Web archiving micro-interns on the roof of the Weston Library, March 2016.

A web archive’s potential document base is clearly much wider than a paper collection’s. No material criteria, such as donations and physical availability, play a defining factor in the content archived. The main restriction placed on this particular archive is that of legal permission, which allows only UK domains to be easily archived. Even so, the scope remains incredibly wide.

Therefore, archiving the web implies a deliberate narrowing of choices on the archivist’s side. Much is left to their discretion.

A lot of what we know of history is defined by the material that is preserved. It is difficult to learn about the working class or women in the past from original sources, as material by and about such people is conspicuously absent from our collections. A contemporary web archivist has the chance to select material that can most broadly represent society. This will make it impossible for future historians to ignore the history of many groups, and will enable research into a variety of thoughts and experiences.

This was reflected and magnified in the approaches that the group of interns took, which evidences the importance of having a range of different people cooperate on the gathering of knowledge. One woman, for example, concentrated on the representation of the Brexit referendum in media specific to certain ethnic and religious groups, such as Judaism. Another made sure to include the views of Scottish, Gaelic and Irish media and organisations, in order to avoid an England-only approach. One of the interns chose to gather information about the way the referendum is seen in small communities, enriching the archive with small local publications. On the first day, I concentrated on the views and representation of immigrants, whose lives will be strongly affected by the referendum. On the second day, I preserved information about women’s roles and views.

Such a wide range of approaches contributes to the broadening and deepening of historical studies. It also positively contributes to contemporary social science. This can happen in two main ways. Firstly, it places virtual documents in a setting that makes their analysis easier. It thus enables social scientists to observe internet trends throughout the years, and compare them to each other. For this purpose, a wide range of archived material is essential, and again the archivist has a role in creating the foundational understanding of British society..

Secondly, and perhaps more interestingly (as the first function can be fulfilled by tools on the live web) they allow social scientists to track trends in academia. A web archive describes what subjects and focuses contemporary academia considers to be salient. It points out what we, as researchers, think is worth being saved from the internet black hole.

The defining potential of this is striking, and this internship allowed us to understand the social, political and historical role of archiving.

Zad El Bacha

New catalogue: Letters of Henry Herbert, Lord Porchester

Nineteen letters of Henry Herbert, Lord Porchester, are now available to researchers. Lord Porchester, born in 1800, was the eldest son of Henry Herbert, 2nd Earl of Carnarvon. He succeeded his father as 3rd Earl of Carnarvon in 1833. The letters, mainly written to his father, describe a journey Porchester took through France and Spain, 1821-1822, with Philip Pusey. The letters record his observations of the places he visited and his impressions of Spanish society. They also provide an interesting commentary on the political situation in Spain following the revolution of 1820.

A catalogue of the letters is available online.

New Catalogue: Evan Jones Archive

The catalogue of the Evan Jones archive is now online and the material available for readers to consult.

Born in 1927 in Portland, Jamaica, Jones was educated in both Jamaica and Pennsylvania before studying at Wadham College, Oxford. He graduated in 1952 with a BA (Hons) in English literature and initially went into teaching, but came to establish himself as a poet, novelist, playwright and screenwriter.

The archive consists of screenplays, typescripts, correspondence and publicity material relating to Jones’ poems, novels and screenplays, as well as audio-visual material for the films and television programmes he worked on. Perhaps most notably, the collection contains material concerning his seminal The Fight Against Slavery.

Written by Jones in 1973 and broadcast by the BBC in 1975, The Fight Against Slavery is a 6-part television series which documents the outlawing of slavery in the British Empire. The episodes are based in Africa and the West Indies and tell a story from 1750-1834, with the characters and narrative based on real people and actual events.

The archive includes annotated drafts and typescripts of the different episodes, and the later novel adaptations of the screenplays. There is also publicity material of the series produced by the BBC and printed advertisements for it, as well as contemporary newspaper reviews. The personal letters in the collection indicate that it was well-received and generated much discussion and official correspondence relays the processes behind its broadcast. VHS copies of the series are also in the archive, and will be digitised for preservation and to make them accessible long-term.

Evan Jones is a descendant of both slaves and slave owners, and The Fight Against Slavery seems like a personal effort to disclose the struggles of particular individuals to eradicate the slave trade, with Jones himself introducing each episode.

Not all of Jones’ oeuvre holds the weightiness of this dramatisation though, with films such as Modesty Blaise, a comedy starring Monica Vitti and Dirk Bogarde loosely based on a comic strip of the same name, and the television play Madhouse on Castle Street which features songs performed by Bob Dylan, also being examples of Jones’ screenwriting. As well as this, he is known for the screenplay of the film Escape to Victory. The main plot of this film revolves around a football match between the English and Germans in a German prison camp during World War II, and it stars Michael Caine and Sylvester Stallone. Material on these and other works also feature in the archive, demonstrating the wide-ranging subjects and genres Jones worked on.

Outside of Jamaica, Evan Jones’ writing is perhaps not as well known as his screenplays; but since the 1950s when he wrote ‘Song of the Banana Man’ in an Oxford pub in response to a challenge to show what he thought Jamaican literature should be like, he has returned time and again to his homeland and themes of race, family and identity. Almost half a century later and the banana man’s song still resonates with Jamaicans and ex-pats alike and you can find ‘Song of the Banana Man’ featuring in the Favorite Poem Project http://www.favoritepoem.org/ of Robert Pinsky, the 39th Poet Laureate of the United States.

‘Song of the Banana Man’ was the first poem to use Jamaican patois in a way that was accessible to a broader audience and Ian Thomson[1] cites it as a major influence on the dub poets of the ’70s.

Jones was asked to write Protector of the Indians–a historical book about Bartolomé de las Casas–in 1958 but most of his other literary papers remained unpublished while his career in screenwriting took off. Aside from a series on West Indian history and folklore for children (1989-1991)[2] for Macmillan’s Caribbean Writers collection that is still taught in classrooms today, he has mainly focused his energy on film and television; though he had always had the time to write articles and editorials about Jamaica for various publications.

However, in the 1990s he set out to write a novel because there was a story inside him that wanted to be told. Stone Haven (1998): a fictional historical epic with a semi-autobiographical core, chronicles the lives and loves of the Newton family as they rise to political power. Jones’ close ties to and abiding love for Jamaica informs its pages and it has drawn critical praise for its realistic portrayals of life on the island.

This diverse collection of papers and audio-visual material spanning over six decades of Jones’ life will be a great resource for future researchers.

[1] Thomson, I. The Dead Yard: Tales of Modern Jamaica (2009)

[2] Jones, E. Tales of the Caribbean (1989-1991)

Preserving Social Media – a briefing day

This post is a bit late as the DPC briefing day on Preserving Social Media was almost a month ago, but our excuse is that there was a lot of food for thought!

As digital archives trainees Rachael and I have spent a lot of time thinking about preserving social media (a bit sad maybe, but true!). Everyone loves web 2.0: It’s dynamic and complex; it gives us the ability to communicate and interact across continents; and it’s a giant headache if you’re trying to archive it!

So as you can see we were quite excited about this briefing day, and it did not disappoint!

Throughout the day the talks were pretty evenly split between various means of capturing and curating social media and how researchers looked to access and use it, as well as the quality of datasets they were able to pull from it. They also touched on the legal ramifications of preserving it and there were a few case studies that discussed lessons learnt from institutions that are actively collecting social media.

Nathan Cunningham introduced us to the concept of the Big Data Network and the UK Data Archive. He talked about how much data and metadata the web was currently generating and the funding that the government was putting into it.

Sara Thomson’s keynote focused on different strategies for capturing and curating social media, such as: the pros and cons of Platform APIs, Data Resellers, Third-party Services and Platform Self-Archiving Services.  She also argued the need for better integration of Social Media with Web Archives in order to contextualize the social media; including preserving archived pages of content that URLs link to. She also focuses on more collaboration between institutions in terms of resources, access and methods/knowledge and within institutions with their own researchers and end users.

Stephen Daisley from STV talked about Social Media & Journalism, about how it provided diverse and up-to-date coverage through non-traditional channels and its use as a tool for those underrepresented in mainstream media.

After lunch we had Katrin Weller from GESIS discuss how social scientists were using social media (For research! Not lolcats!) and the challenges of collecting, sharing and documentation. Going back to the methods that Sara Thomson listed in her keynote, most involve a third party and have restrictions on how the data can be shared, what tools can be used on it, how much data they give you. She highlighted the difficulties this can cause when researchers want to replicate or expand upon another researcher’s work as well as other issues that come from using data that they researcher has not collected.

Tom Storrar from the National Archives rounded off the presentations with a talk on how the UK Government’s social media presence was being captured for posterity. His project was to capture the UK Government’s official Twitter presence. This involved deciding what would be in scope including content and metadata, how they would collect this data and finally how they would present it.

Emily:

While I found Sara’s keynote interesting and quite informative—especially in terms of what is available out there and a balanced view of what they have to offer—it wasn’t as relevant as I had hoped as it was focused more on someone else providing the data to you rather than the tools you can use to collect what you are interested in. While there are many benefits to having authorised data resellers or the platform itself giving you archiving abilities (especially being able to harvest all the metadata associated with it) I like the flexibility and power that we get with Archive-IT (though of course in some ways it will be a much shallower collection as we only collect what the end-user sees) and the fact that we aren’t restricted to the data that the providers think we want.

I’m glad that she talked about the need for collaboration so that we don’t all try to reinvent the wheel. At the Bodleian we’re quite lucky because we work closely with other legal deposit libraries to capture web content (including social media) so we regularly have the opportunity to discuss and learn from each other’s experiences. We also have our own Bodleian Library Web Archive where we encourage our own researchers to use it as a repository and a resource that they can help us grow.

One thing that I found problematic was Stephen Daisley’s talk. Well not problematic, but perhaps a bit naïve? While I agreed with some of his points, I think he romanticises the notion of social media as the great equaliser. I can think off the top of my head at least one quite large group of underrepresented voices that are not getting their say in social media; the elderly. And I’m sure that there are many examples that you can come up with if you stop to think of it too. Just because the barrier to access is much lower than traditional news stations does not mean there is no barrier. The vast amount of data and metadata generated makes it tempting to believe that that is the whole of the story but I think we need to remember who isn’t part of the conversation.

I also really enjoyed Tom Storrar’s presentation because it highlights the need to have a clear collection policy, to realise you can’t and shouldn’t capture everything, and to make your decisions transparent so that researchers will know exactly what they do and do not have to work with.

Rachael:

Although the talks on Big Data and social science research were less relevant to our work on the Bodleian Libraries Web Archive, it was an eye-opening introduction to the sheer amount of digital data which is collected. This might be commercial research, profiting from the amount of information we can give to social media sites such as our name, nationality, photos, mobile number, address, and interests; or for forecasting purposes such as predicting results of political elections; or for academic study in areas such as activism, audiences, networks and crisis communication and response. I think Katrin Weller certainly succeeded in dismissing the claim that ‘99% of tweets are worthless babble’ – Weller, Social Media as Research Data, 27/10/2015.

Like Emily, I also enjoyed Tom Storrar’s presentation on the capture of government bodies’ Twitter and YouTube feeds. For me it really highlighted how complex the web of legislation is, requiring them to adapt to changing circumstances. If an organisation ceases to be a government body, the National Archives no longer has the right to capture its social media content. Because of these legal restrictions, no retweets or YouTube comments are captured, which means it is a one-way conversation. I think this is a shame, as we are losing that interaction which is so essential to social media. If YouTube comments are modern day equivalents to the letters sent to the government to comment on its policies, should we be preserving them?

Overall the day was full of fascinating talks and discussions on how to move forward in preserving social media. But, the best part of the briefing day was knowing we weren’t alone! We got to talk to people approaching preserving social media from very different angles; the BBC, the National Archives, etc. And even though we all had different mandates and different foci we still found a lot of common ground.

The Englishwoman’s Guide to Living in the Commonwealth

There is a great deal of focus on the lives and work of the officers of Her Majesty’s Overseas Civil Service and civil contractors working abroad. Here at the Bodleian in our Commonwealth and African collections researchers often consult our many official and personal papers including those of the Overseas Service Pensioners’ Association.

But what about the wives and children that came with them? They had to deal with living in a foreign country with different customs, languages and climates. Many of them, at least initially, had no work routine to settle into or familiar faces to rely on.

Think for a minute of the thousand little things in your everyday life that you take for granted. Dealing with them in another land—even in a large metropolitan city (which many of them were not posted to)—could be confusing enough. For those who moved to a provincial outpost or a small island it was even more of a culture shock.

House and scenes from daily life in the Seychelles

Photo of a WCS member’s house and from her daily life in the Seychelles.

Take something as basic as buying common household goods: Where do you find needle and thread? Do they even have oats here? Can you buy beef? Often you needed to find a local substitute and even if they were available it might be packaged different, you might be looking in the wrong shop or you can’t find the words to describe something that seems so obvious to you. This could end up being an exercise in frustration where you found yourself wandering aimlessly for hours and returning empty handed.

WCS promotional leaflet with a stylized red sun inset with a globe.

WCS promotional leaflet.

Enter the Women’s Corona Society (WCS).

Most people will not have heard of it, but to the emigrating Englishwoman it was a lifeline. They gave courses on food, childcare, and health as well as providing a support network for the wives and families of those who were working abroad. It could be a lonely life with the husband away at work all day and lot of leisure time on your hands.

6 WCS educational pamphlets.

A selection of leaflets for the various courses on offer to their members.

The WCS provided courses to educate the new arrival on living overseas, charities to be volunteers in, visits and outings to familiarise them with the local area and people, social gatherings to relax and meet others in the society etc.

WCS autumn programme featuring doctors and experts speaking on various subjects.

WCS autumn programme.

A schedule of autumn courses shows the range of topics covered from the practical to the educational with doctors, officials and other experts speaking on ‘Malaria and Other Insects Borne Diseases’ to ‘Nature Studies Overseas’ to ‘Beauty round the World’.

One of the WCS members paints an evocative picture of what a prospective newcomer could expect upon arrival.

‘Often, on arrival, a family may live for a while in a hotel – and this can sometimes be a lonely start for a wife whose husband is out at work all day and she knows no one to talk to.’

And for ‘families who go straight into their own homes, the facilities of the Corona “Survival Basket” are often very welcome until their own luggage arrives.’

 

A selection of invitations for London members..

A selection of invitations for London members.

It was not just with the practical aspects of living overseas that WCS helped with. One of the most important things they provided was a social network.

This was fostered by theatre parties, afternoon teas, and charity events.

It wasn’t only a resource and a society for when you were abroad though. They also had a thriving social scene around their London headquarters; as shown by the selection of invitations to the right.

Whether their husbands’ tours of duty were done and they had to reintegrate to British life, or they were Commonwealth citizens moving to the UK for the first time, the WCS was equally there to help them find their feet as well.

Sometimes for returning expats the UK was the most foreign land of all when your friends, family and life had moved on without you.