Category Archives: Event

Sir Oliver Wardrop’s desk diaries donated to the library

Audience members who attended the launch of Nikoloz Aleksidze’s book Georgia: a Cultural Journey through the Wardrop Collection  at the Weston Library on June 1st also had the novel experience of witnessing the arrival of a further addition to the Bodleian’s Wardrop  holdings. A family descendant of Sir Oliver, who was attending the launch, brought his desk diaries to donate to the collection. The Wardrop collection forms the nucleus of the Bodleian’s rich holdings of Georgian books and the donation of the desk diaries enriches this significant collection still further.

Dating from 1882-1948, the diaries provide details of Sir Oliver’s daily meetings and activities. They  will offer scholars an important glimpse into his day-to-day life, particularly during the critical period leading up to and immediately after the formation of the Democratic Republic of Georgia when he served as the British High Commissioner for Transcaucasia.

 

A life in letters: a tribute to Jenny Joseph

Miriam Margolyes

Miriam Margolyes

On Sunday 13th May the actress Miriam Margolyes will be in Oxford to perform a public reading of poems by Oxford alumna Jenny Joseph, the author of Warning:

‘When I am an old woman I shall wear purple
With a red hat which doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me’

The event, hosted by the Bodleian and St Hilda’s College, celebrates the life and work of Jenny Joseph, who died this January, and will include a selection of poetry ranging across her more than 50 year-long writing career. She donated her literary archive to the Bodleian in 2017.

The reading will be at the beautiful, seventeenth-century Convocation House in the Old Bodleian Library from 11.30pm-1.00pm. Tickets cost £12 (£10 concessions), including tea/coffee and a pastry. You can book tickets online at What’s on, or phone the box office at 01865 278112 (there is a £2 booking fee for phone bookings).

Please note that tickets will not be available on the door.

DPC Email Preservation: How Hard Can It Be? Part 2

Source: https://lu2cspjiis-flywheel.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/email-marketing.jpg

In July last year my colleague Miten and I attended a DPC Briefing Day titled Email Preservation: How Hard Can It Be?  which introduced me to the work of the Task Force on Technical Approaches to Email Archives  and we were lucky enough to attend the second session last week.

Arranging a second session gave Chris Prom (@chrisprom), University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Kate Murray (@fileformatology), Library of Congress, co-chair’s of the Task Force the opportunity to reflect upon and add the issues raised from the first session to the Task Force Report, and provided the event attendees with an update on their progress overall, in anticipation of their final report scheduled to be published some time in April.

“Using Email Archives in Research”

The first guest presentation was given by Dr. James Baker (@j_w_baker), University of Sussex, who was inspired to write about the use of email archives within research by two key texts; Born-digital archives at the Wellcome Library: appraisal and sensitivity review of two hard drives (2016), an article by Victoria Sloyan, and Dust (2001) a book by Carolyn Steedman.

These texts led Dr. Baker to think of the “imagination of the archive” as he put it, the mystique of archival research, stemming from the imagery of  19th century research processes. He expanded on this idea, stating “physically and ontologically unique; the manuscript, is no longer what we imagine to be an archive”.

However, despite this new platform for research, Dr. Baker stated that very few people outside of archive professionals know that born-digital archives exist, yet alone use them. This is an issue, as archives require evidence of use, therefore, we need to encourage use.

To address this, Dr. Baker set up a Born-Digital Access Workshop, at the Wellcome Library in collaboration with their Collections Information Team, where he gathered people who use born-digital archives and the archivists who make them, and provided them with a set of 4 varying case-studies. These 4 case-studies were designed to explore the following:

A) the “original” environment; hard drive files in a Windows OS
B) the view experience; using the Wellcome’s Viewer
C) levels of curation; comparing reformatted and renamed collections with unaltered ones
D) the physical media; asking does the media hold value?

Several interesting observations came out of this workshop, which Dr. Baker organised in to three areas:

  1. Levels of description; filenames are important, and are valuable data in themselves to researchers. Users need a balance between curation and an authentic representation of the original order.
  2. “Bog-standard” laptop as access point; using modern technology that is already used by many researchers as the mode of access to email and digital archives creates a sense of familiarity when engaging with the content.
  3. Getting the researcher from desk to archive; there is a substantial amount of work needed to make the researcher aware of the resources available to them and how – can they remote access, how much collection level description is necessary?

Dr. Baker concluded that even with outreach and awareness events such as the one we were all attending, born-digital archives are not yet accessible to researchers, and this has made me realise the digital preservation community must push for access solutions,  and get these out to users, to enable researchers to gain the insights they might from our digital collections.

“Email as a Corporate Record”

The third presentation of the day was given by James Lappin (@JamesLappin), Loughborough University, who discussed the issues involved in applying archival policies to emails in a governmental context.

His main point concerned the routine deletion of email that happens in governments around the world. He said there are no civil servants email accounts scheduled to be saved past the next 3 – 4 years – but, they may be available via a different structure; a kind of records management system. However, Lappin pointed out the crux in this scenario: government departments have no budget to move and save many individuals email accounts, and no real idea of the numerics: how much to save, how much can be saved?

“email is the record of our age” – James Lappin

Lappin suggested an alternative: keep the emails of the senior staff only, however, this begs the questions, how do we filter out sensitive and personal content?

Lappin posits that auto-deletion is the solution, aiming to spare institutions from unmanageable volumes of email and the consequential breach of data protection.
Autodeletion encourages:

  •  governments to kickstart email preservation action,
  • the integration of tech for records management solutions,
  • actively considering the value of emails for long-term preservation

But how do we transfer emails to a EDRMS, what structures do we use, how do we separate individuals, how do we enforce the transfer of emails? These issues are to be worked out, and can be, Lappin argues, if we implement auto-deletion as tool to make email preservation less daunting , as at the end of the day, the current goal is to retain the “important” emails, which will make both government departments and historians happy, and in turn, this makes archivists happy. This does indeed seem like a positive scenario for us all!

However, it was particularly interesting when Lappin made his next point: what if the very nature of email, as intimate and immediate, makes governments uncomfortable with the idea of saving and preserving governmental correspondence? Therefore, governments must be more active in their selection processes, and save something, rather than nothing – which is where the implementation of auto-deletion, could, again, prove useful!

To conclude, Lappin presented a list of characteristics which could justify the preservation of an individuals government email accounts, which included:

  • The role they play is of historic interest
  • They expect their account to be permanently preserved
  • They are given the chance to flag or remove personal correspondence
  • Access to personal correspondence is prevented except in case of overriding legal need

I, personally, feel this fair and thorough, but only time will tell what route various governments take.

On a side note: Lappin runs an excellent comic-based blog on Records Management which you can see here.

Conclusions
One of the key issues that stood out for me today was, maybe surprisingly, not to do with the technology used in email preservation, but how to address the myriad issues email preservation brings to light, namely the feasibility of data protection, sensitivity review and appraisal, particularly prevalent when dealing in such vast quantities of material.

Email can only be preserved once we have defined what constitutes ’email’ and how to proceed ethically, morally and legally. Then, we can move forward with the implementation of the technical frameworks, which have been designed to meet our pre-defined requirements, that will enable access to historically valuable, and information rich, email archives, that will yield much in the name of research.

In the tweet below, Evil Archivist succinctly reminds us of the importance of maintaining and managing our digital records…

Email Preservation: How Hard Can It Be? 2 – DPC Briefing Day

On Wednesday 23rd of January I attended the Digital Preservation Coalition briefing day titled ‘Email Preservation: How Hard Can It Be? 2’ with my colleague Iram. As I attended the first briefing day back in July 2017 it was a great opportunity to see what advances and changes had been achieved. This blog post will briefly highlight what I found particularly thought provoking and focus on two of the talks about e-discovery from a lawyers view point.

The day began with an introduction by the co-chair of the report, Chris Prom (@chrisprom), informing us of the work that the task force had been doing. This was followed by a variety of talks about the use of email archives and some of the technologies used for the large scale processing  from the perspective of researchers and lawyers. The day was concluded with a panel discussion (for a twist, we the audience were the panel) about the pending report and the next steps.

Update on Task Force on Technical Approaches to Email Archives Report

Chris Prom told us how the report had taken on the comments from the previous briefing day and also from consultation with many other people and organisations. This led to clearer and more concise messages. The report itself does not aim to provide hard rules but to give an overview of the current situation and some recommendations that people or organisations involved with, interested in or are considering email preservation can consider.

Reconstruction of Narrative in e-Discovery Investigations and The Future of Email Archiving: Four Propositions

Simon Attfield (Middlesex university) and Larry Chapin (attorney) spoke about narrative and e-discovery. It was a fascinating insight into a lawyers requirements for use of email archives. Larry used the LIBOR scandal as an example of a project he worked on and the power of emails in bringing people to justice. E-discovery from his perspective was its importance to help create a narrative and tell a story, something at the moment a computer cannot do. Emails ‘capture the stuff of story making’ as they have the ability to reach into the crevasses of things and detail the small. He noted how emails contain slang and interestingly the language of intention and desire. These subtleties show the true meaning of what people are saying and that is important in the quest for the truth. Simon Attfield presented his research on the coding aspect to aid lawyers in assessing and sorting through these vast data sets. The work he described here was too technical for me to truly understand however it was clear that collaboration between archivist, users and the programmers/researchers will be vital for better preservation and use strategies.

Jason Baron (@JasonRBaron1) (attorney) gave a talk on the future of email archiving detailing four propositions.

Slide detailing the four propositions for the future of email archives. By Jason R Baron 2018

The general conclusions from this talk was that automation and technology will be playing an even bigger part in the future to help with acquisition, review (filtering out sensitive material) and searching (aiding access to larger collections). As one of the leads of the Capstone project, he told us how that particular project saves all emails for a short time and some forever, removing the misconceptions that all emails are going to be saved forever. Analysis of how successful Capstone has been in reducing signal to noise ratio (so only capturing email records of permanent value) will be important going forward.

The problem of scale, which permeates into most aspects of digital preservation, again arose here. For lawyers, they must review any and all information, which when looking at emails accounts can be colossal. The analogy that was given was of finding a needle in a haystack – lawyers need to find ALL the needles (100% recall).

Current predictive coding for discovery requires human assistance. Users have to tell the program whether the recommendations it produced were correct, the program will learn from this process and hopefully become more accurate. Whilst a program can efficiently and effectively sort personal information such as telephone numbers, date of birth etc it cannot currently sort out textual content that required prior knowledge and non-textual content such as images.

Panel Discussion and Future Direction

The final report is due to be published around May 2018. Email is a complex digital object and the solution to its preservation and archiving will be complex also.

The technical aspects of physically preserving emails are available but we still need to address the effective review and selection of the emails to be made available to the researcher. The tools currently available are not accurate enough for large scale processing, however, as artificial intelligence becomes better and more advanced, it appears this technology will be part of the solution.

Tim Gollins (@timgollins) gave a great overview of the current use of technology within this context, and stressed the point that the current technology is here to ASSIST humans. The tools for selection, appraisal and review need to be tailored for each process and quality test data is needed to train the programs effectively.

The non technical aspects further add to the complexity, and might be more difficult to address, as a community we need to find answers to:

  • Who’s email to capture (particularly interesting when an email account is linked to a position rather than a person)
  • How much to capture (entire accounts such as in the case of Capstone or allowing the user to choose what is worthy of preservation)
  • How to get persons of interest engaged (effectiveness of tools that aid the process e.g. drag and drop into record management systems or integrated preservation tools)
  • Legal implications
  • How to best present the emails for scholarly research (bespoke software such as ePADD or emulation tools that recreate the original environment or a system that a user is familiar with) 

Like most things in the digital sector, this is a fast moving area with ever changing technologies and trends. It might be frustrating there is no hard guidance on email preservation, when the Task Force on Technical Approaches to Email Archives report is published it will be an invaluable resource and a must read for anyone with an interest or actively involved in email preservation. The takeaway message was, and still is, that emails matter!    

What I Wish I Knew Before I Started – DPC Student Conference 2018

On January 24th, four Archives Assistants from Archives and Modern Manuscripts visited Senate House, London for the DPC Student Conference. With the 2018 theme being ‘What I Wish I Knew Before I Started’, it was an opportunity for digital archivists to pass on their wealth of knowledge in the field.

Getting started with digital preservation

The day started with a brief introduction to digital preservation by Sharon McMeekin from the Digital Preservation Coalition. This included an outline of the three basic models of digital preservation: OAIS, DCC lifecycle and the three-legged stool. (More information about these models can be found in the DPC handbook.) Aimed at beginners, this introduction was made accessible and easy to understand, whilst also giving us plenty to think about.

Next to take the stage was Steph Taylor, an Information Manager from CoSector, University of London. Steph is a huge advocate for the use of Twitter to find out the latest information and opinion in the world of digital preservation. As someone who has never had a Twitter account, it made me realise the importance of social media for staying up to date in such a fast-moving profession. Needless to say, I signed myself up to Twitter that evening to find out what I had been missing out on. (You can follow what was happening at the conference with the hashtag #dpc_wiwik.)

The final speaker before lunch was Matthew Addis, giving a technologist’s perspective. Matthew broke down the steps that you would need to take should you be faced with the potentially overwhelming job of starting from the beginning with a depository of digital material. He referenced a two-step approach – conceived by Tim Gollins – named ‘Parsimonious Preservation’, which involves firstly understanding what you have, and secondly keeping the bits safe. In the world of digital preservation, the worst thing you can do is do nothing, so by dealing with the simple and usually low-cost files first, you can protect the vast majority of the collection rather than going straight into the technical, time-consuming and costly minority of material. In the long run, the simple material that could have been dealt with initially may become technical and costly – due to software obsolescence, for instance.

That morning, the thought of tackling a simple digital preservation project would have seemed somewhat daunting. But Matthew illustrated the steps very clearly and as we broke for lunch I was left thinking that actually, with a little guidance, it probably wouldn’t be quite so bad.

Speakers on their experiences in the digital preservation field

During the afternoon, speakers gave presentations on their experiences in the digital preservation field. The speakers were Adrian Brown from the Parliamentary Archives, Glenn Cumiskey from the British Museum and Edith Halvarsson from the Bodleian Libraries. It was fascinating to learn how diverse the day-to-day working lives of digital archivists can be, and how often, as Glenn Cumiskey remarked, you may be the first digital archivist there has ever been within a given organisation, providing a unique opportunity for you to pave the way for its digital future.

Adrian Brown on his digital preservation experience at the Parliamentary Archive

The final speaker of the day, Dave Thomson, explained why it is up to students and new professionals to be ‘disruptive change agents’ and further illustrated the point that digital preservation is a relatively new field. We now have a chance to be the change and make digital preservation something that is at the forefront of business’s minds, helping them avoid the loss of important information due to complacency.

The conference closed with the speakers taking questions from attendees. There was lively discussion over whether postgraduate university courses in archiving and records management are teaching the skills needed for careers in digital preservation. It was decided that although some universities do teach this subject better than others, digital archivists have to make a commitment to life-long learning – not just one postgraduate course. This is a field where the technology and methods are constantly changing, so we need to be continuously developing our skills in accordance with these changes. The discussion certainly left me with lots to think about when considering postgraduate courses this year.

If you are new to the archiving field and want to gain an insight into digital preservation, I would highly recommend the annual conference. I left London with plenty of information, ideas and resources to further my knowledge of the subject, starting my commitment to life-long learning in the area of digital preservation!

 

 

Significance & Authenticity: a Briefing

As an Ancient History graduate, significance and authenticity of source information characterised my university education. Transferring these principles to digital objects in an archival situation is a challenge I look forward to learning more about and embracing. Therefore I set off to Tate Britain on a cold Friday morning excited to explore the Digital Preservation Coalition’s briefing: Significance & Authenticity. Here are some of my reflections.

A dictionary definition is not enough

The morning started with a stimulating discussion led by Sharon McMeekin (DPC), on the definitions of these two concepts within the field of Digital Archives and the context of the varying institutions the delegates were from. Several key points were made, and further questions generated:

Authenticity

  • Authenticity clearly carries with it evidential value; if something is not what it purports to be then how can it (claim to) be authentic?
  • Chains of custody and tracking accidental/intended changes are extremely relevant to maintaining authenticity
  • Further measures such as increasing metadata fields – does this ensure authenticity?

For an archival record to retain authenticity there must be record of the original creation or experience of the digital object; otherwise we are looking at data without context. This also has a bearing on how significant an archival record is. A suggestion was also made that perhaps as a sector too much over-emphasis is placed on integrity checking procedures. Questions surfaced such as: is the digital preservation community too reliant on it? And in turn, is this practical process approach to ensuring authenticity too simplistic?

Significance

  • Records are not just static evidence, they are also for appreciation, education and to use
  • Should the users and re-users (the designated community) be considered more extensively when deciding the significance of a digital object?
  • Emulation as a digital preservation action prioritises the experience of using the data: is this the way to go regarding maintaining both the significant properties together with the authenticity?

There was no doubt left in my mind that the two principles are inextricably linked. However, not only are they increasingly subjective for both the record keeper and the end user, they must be distinguished from one another. For example, if a digital object can be interpreted as both a game and a book, yet the object was created and marketed as a book, does this make it any less significant or authentic? Or is the dispute part of what makes the object significant; the creation, characterisation and presentation of data in digital form is reflective of society today and what researchers may (or may not be) interested in in the future? We do not know and, as a fellow delegate reminded, cannot prejudice future research needs.

Building on the open mindedness that the  discussion encouraged, we were then fortunate enough to hear and learn from practitioners of differing backgrounds regarding how they ensure significance and authenticity of their collections. One particular example had me contemplating all weekend.

Significance & Authenticity of Digital Art by Patricia Falcao & Tom Ensom (Tate)

Patricia and Tom explained that they work with time-based media art and its creators. Working (mostly) with living artists ensures a short chain of provenance, however the nature of the digital art means that applying authenticity and significance is in no way straightforward. A principle which immediately affects the criteria of significance is the fact that it is very important that the Tate can exhibit the works, illustrating that differences in organisations will of course have a bearing on how significant a record is.

One example Tom analysed was the software based Brutalism: Stereo Reality Environment 3 by Peruvian artist Jose Carlos Martinat Mendoza:

Brutalism: Stereo Reality Environment 3 2007 Jose Carlos Martinat Mendoza born 1974 Presented by Eduardo Leme 2007, accessioned 2011 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T13251

The artwork comprises of a range of components: high speed printers, paper rolls,  a web search program and accompanying hardware, movement sensors and a model replica of the Peruvian government building ‘El Petagonito’ which is a symbol of brutalist architecture. The computer is programmed to search the web for references to ‘Brutalism’ and the different extracts of information it gathers are printed from mounted printers on the sculpture, left to fall to the floor around the replica.

Tom explained that retaining authenticity of the digital art was very much a case of the commitment to represent the artists work together with the arrangement and intention. One method of ensuring this is the transfer of a document from the creator called ‘Installation Parameters’. For this particular example, it contained details such as paper type and cabling needs. It also contained display specifications such as the hardware being  a very visible element of the art work.

Further documentation is created and stored to preserve the original authenticity and thus unique significance of the artwork and the integrity of its ‘performance’.  Provenance information such as diagrams, process metadata and the original source code is stored separately to the work itself. However, Tom acknowledged there is no doubt the work will need to change and in turn will be reinterpreted. Interestingly, the point was made that the text itself on the paper itself is time sensitive; live search results related to Brutalism will evolve and change.

Looking ahead, what will happen when the hardware fails? And even, what will happen when nobody uses printers anymore? Stockpiling is only a short term plan for maintaining authenticity and significance. Furthermore, even if hardware can be guaranteed then the program software itself generates different issues. Software emulation, code-change tracking systems and a binary analysis are all to be explored as a means to enable authenticity but there will always be a risk and need for alternative solutions.

Would these changes reduce the authenticity or significance? I believe authenticity is associated with intention and so perhaps if changes are communicated to the user with justifications this could be one way of maintaining this principle. Significance, on the other hand, is more tricky. Without the significant and notable properties of the work, is significance automatically lost?

This case study reinforced that there is much to explore and consider when approaching the principles of authenticity and significance of digital objects. To conclude, Tom and Patricia reinforced that within the artistic context, decisions around authenticity and significance are made through collaborative dialogues with the artist/creator which does indeed provide direction.

Workshop

After 3 more talks and a panel session the briefing ended with a workshop requiring us to evaluate the significance and authenticity of a digital object provided. As a trainee digital archivist I can be guilty of shying away from group discussions/exercises within the community of practice, so I was really pleased to jump in and contribute during the group workshop exercise.

Thank you to the DPC and all involved for a brilliant day.

Collecting Space: The Inaugural Science and Technology Archives Group Conference

On Friday 17th of November I attended the inaugural Science and Technology Archives Group (STAG) conference held at the fantastic Dana Library and Research Centre. The theme was ‘Collecting Space’ and bought together a variety of people working in or with science and technology archives relating to the topic of ‘Space’. The day consisted of a variety of talks (with topics as varied as The Cassini probe to UFOs), a tour of the Skylark exhibition and a final discussion on the future direction of STAG.

What is STAG?

The Science and technology archives group is a recently formed group (September 2016) to celebrate and promote scientific archives and to to engage anyone that has an interest in the creation, use and preservation of such archives. 

The keynote presentation was by Professor Michele Dougherty, who gave us a fascinating insight into the Cassini project, aided by some amazing photos. 

Colour-coded version of an ISS NAC clear-filter image of Enceladus’ near surface plumes at the south pole of the moon. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI

Her concern with regards to archiving data was context. We were told how her raw data could be given to an archive however it would be almost meaningless without the relevant information about context, for example calibration parameters. Without it data could be misinterpreted.

Dr James Peters from the University of Manchester told us of the unique challenges of the Jodrell Bank Observatory Archive, also called the ‘sleeping giant’. They have a vast amount of material that has yet to be accessioned but requires highly specialised scientific knowledge to understand it. Highlighting the importance of the relationships between the creator of an archive and the repository. Promoting use of the archive was of particular concern, which was also shared by Dr Sian Prosser of the Royal Astronomical Society archives. She spoke of the challenges for current collection development. I’m looking forward to finding out about the events and activities planned for their bi-centenary in 2020.

We also heard from Dr Tom Lean of the Oral History of British Science at the British library. This was a great example of the vast amount of knowledge and history that is effectively hidden. The success of a project is typically well documented however the stories of the things that went wrong or of the relationships between groups has the potential to be lost. Whilst they may be lacking in scientific research value, they reveal the personal side of the projects and are a reminder of the people and personalities behind world changing projects and discoveries.

Dr David Clarke spoke about the Ministry of Defence UFO files release program. I was surprised to hear that as recently as 2009 there was a government funded UFO desk. In 2009 these surviving records were transferred to the National Archives. All files were digitised and made available online. The demand and reach for this content was huge, with millions of views and downloads from over 160 countries. Such an archive, whilst people may dismiss its relevance and use scientifically, provides an amazing window into the psyche of the society at that time.

Dr Amy Chambers spoke about how much scientific research and knowledge can go into producing a film and used Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey as an example. This was described as a science fiction dream + space documentary. Directors like Kubrick would delve deeply into the subject matter and speak to a whole host of professionals in both academia and industry to get the most up to date scientific thinking of the time. Even researching concepts that would potentially never make it on screen. This was highlighted as a way of capturing scientific knowledge and the current thoughts about the future of science at that point in history. Today it is no different, Interstellar, produced by Christopher Nolan, consulted Professor Kip Thorne and the collaboration produced a publication on gravitational lensing in the journal Classical and Quantum Gravity.

It was great to see the Dana research library and a small exhibition of some of the space related material that the Science Museum holds. There was the Apollo 11 flight plan that was signed by all the astronauts that took part and included a letter from the Independent Television News, as they used that book to help with the televised broadcast. We also got to see the recently opened Skylark exhibition, celebrating British achievements in space research.

Launch of a British Skylark sounding rocket from Woomera in South Australia. Image credit: NASA

The final part of the conference was an open discussion focusing on the challenges and future of science and technology archives and how these could be addressed.

Awareness and exposure

From my experience of being a chemistry graduate, I can speak first hand of the lack of awareness of science archives. I feel that I was not alone, as during the course of a science degree, especially for research projects, archives are never really needed compared to other disciplines as most of the material we needed was found in online journals. Although I completed my degree some time ago, I feel this is still the case today when I speak to friends who study and work in the science sector. It seems that promotion of science and technology archives to scientists (at any stage of their career, but especially at the start) will make them aware of the rich source of material out there that can be of benefit to them, and subsequently they will become more involved and interested in creating and maintaining such archives.

Content

Science and technology archives, for an archivist with little to no knowledge of that particular area of science, understanding the vastly complex data and material is a potentially impossible job. The nomenclature used in scientific disciplines can be highly specialised and specific and so deciphering the material can be made extremely difficult.

This problem could be resolved in one of two ways. Firstly, the creator of the material or a scientist working in that area can be consulted. Whilst this can be time consuming, it is a necessity as the highly specialised nature of certain topics, can mean there are only a handful of people that can understand the work. Secondly, when the material is created, the creator should be encouraged to explain and store data in a way that will allow future users to understand and contextualise the data better.

As science and technology companies can be highly secretive entities, problems with exploiting sensitive material arise. It was suggested maybe seeking the advice of other specialist archive groups that have dealt with highly sensitive archives.

It appears that there is still a great deal of work to do to promote access, exploitation and awareness of current science and technology archives (for both creators and users). STAG is a fantastic way to get like minds together to discuss and implement solutions. I’m really looking forward to seeing how this develops and hopefully I will be able to contribute to this exciting, worthwhile and necessary future for science and technology archives.

Jenny Joseph celebration with Miriam Margolyes

Miriam Margolyes

Miriam Margolyes

On Sunday 10th December the actress Miriam Margolyes will be in Oxford to perform a public reading of poems by Oxford alumna Jenny Joseph, the author of Warning:

‘When I am an old woman I shall wear purple
With a red hat which doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me’

The event, hosted by the Bodleian and St Hilda’s College, celebrates the recent gift of Jenny Joseph’s literary archive to the Bodleian and will include a selection of poetry ranging across her more than 50 year-long writing career. There will also be a free display of material from the archive in the Weston Library over that weekend.

The reading will be at the beautiful, seventeenth-century Convocation House in the Old Bodleian Library from 12pm-1.30pm. Tickets cost £8, including tea/coffee and a pastry. You can complete our booking form at What’s On to reserve tickets in advance. (Please note that tickets will not be available on the door.)

A sympathy for strangers: Oxfam and the history of humanitarianism

On Tuesday 31st October the Oxfam Archive Assistants attended a lecture at St Antony’s College by Princeton University’s Professor Jeremy Adelman, entitled Towards a Global History of Humanitarianism. Professor Adelman’s focus was primarily the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but his narrative had implications for the way we might view contemporary humanitarian agencies such as Oxfam.

 

Historians have not always been kind in their assessments of international humanitarianism. Alex de Waal was broadly critical of the role such agencies have played when dealing with famine on the African continent: by supplying aid externally, he argues, they inadvertently undermine the democratic accountability of African governments, disincentivizing humanitarian intervention or crisis prevention as a way of preserving political power.[1] To an extent, Adelman spoke in a similar vein: abolitionists may have helped stimulate the rise of humanitarianism in the nineteenth century but colonial penetration itself was often justified in terms of humanitarian intervention, where the white settler was morally and ethically obliged to ‘civilize’ the unsophisticated ‘native’. Humanitarian discourse, Adelman argued, is by its nature racialized, and it invariably reinforces the self-image of Western nations as occupying the apex of a civilizational hierarchy.

 

This might seem somewhat damning of all Oxfam does and stands for. However, Adelman also spoke of a ‘sympathy for strangers’ which grew out of increasing global connectedness and integration as telegraph cables, railways and steamships curtailed the spatial and intellectual distances between disparate peoples. The camera was, according to Adelman, a fundamental technological innovation in this respect and the relationship between photography and humanitarianism has in many ways been central to the development of charities like Oxfam. Borrowing from Susan Sontag, Adelman suggested that ‘moral witnesses’ – i.e., photographers – record public memories of pain, creating a connection between the ‘victim’ – the subject of the photograph – and the viewer.

 

In the 19th century missionaries armed themselves with Kodak cameras, and by producing lantern slide shows of their experiences in foreign climes hoped to raise money for future missionary work. But in the Congo Free State, rendered a personal possession of King Leopold of Belgium in 1885, missionaries began to use their cameras to record atrocities committed against Congolese rubber plantation workers. In the face of international scrutiny – which admittedly was somewhat more self-interested than compassionate – King Leopold was forced to cede Congo as a personal asset. It could certainly be argued that such photographs exploited the pain of others, titillating public interest at home without any true empathy for or understanding of the Congolese people. According to Susan Sontag, the ‘knowledge gained through still photographs will always be some kind of sentimentalism, whether cynical or humanist’.[2]

 

 

But the power of the photograph to reinforce moral or empathetic feeling can be – and has been – used for the genuine betterment of others. From 1957 to the early 1960s Oxfam sent simple Christmas ‘appeal’ cards to its donors, featuring a simple ‘thank you’ message and photographs of individuals helped by the charity. A card from 1958 showed a huge-eyed little girl, sitting wrapped in a coat and woollen socks with a spoon stuck into a beaker of food. The caption read ‘This little Greek girl was found as a baby hungry and dying… Now she is properly fed… because Oxfam sends food, and years ago was able to plant black-currant bushes in her village which are now bearing fruit.’ This photograph does not simply broadcast the pain of strangers. It broadcasts hope, and promises resolution through charitable action. While a healthy scepticism and constructive interrogation of the conduct of international agencies is to be encouraged, we should be careful not to overlook and devalue the charitable efforts inspired by genuine ‘sympathy for strangers’.

[1] Alex de Waal, Famine Crimes: Politics and the Disaster Relief Industry in Africa (1997)

[2] Susan Sontag, On Photography (1973)

Looking back and pushing forwards: 75 years of Oxfam

As an Archives Assistant spending the next twelve months helping to catalogue the Oxfam Archive, I probably shouldn’t admit how woefully ignorant I was of Oxfam before I started. I knew their shops sold cheap books and nice Christmas cards. I knew you could buy someone a goat or a toilet for Christmas, and that this goat or toilet would go to someone who lived somewhere without a sewage system or a supermarket selling pasteurized milk. But beyond this, I’d never really stopped to think who ‘Oxfam’ were and what they meant. It came as a surprise that ‘Oxfam’ wasn’t just a made-up word but came from Oxford Committee for Famine Relief, and that a charity which was born in one small city has spread its offices and infrastructure across the globe. I’ve learnt a lot in the two months since I started. But Oxfam’s 75th birthday party, held in Oxford’s town hall on Friday 6th October, taught me a lot more. 

some of the archive material used for the ‘show and tell’ sessions

 

At the Bodleian we were involved with preparations for the 75th anniversary in a low-key way, answering enquiries from Oxfam staff regarding photographs which would be used in exhibitions and slideshow presentations. Between the 4th and the 6th October there were also opportunities for Oxfam staff and volunteers to view some of the highlights of the Oxfam archive in the Bodleian, and this proved a learning experience for me as well. Through objects such as a scrapbook documenting fundraising and a damp-gnawed but still-legible gift-shop cashbook from 1948-9, I realised the importance of innovatory and motivated figures like Robert Castle and Joe Mitty, who respectively established the first permanent Oxfam shop and helped make the charity-shop phenomenon what it is today. A particularly memorable entry in the cashbook was simply ‘Dog’, which sold for 5 shillings – we presume the dog was ornamental, especially as an ‘Elephant’ was also sold at around the same time!

Oxfam’s first permanent shop on Broad Street, Oxford

 

The anniversary celebrations themselves took place on Friday 6th October in Oxford’s Town Hall. We were treated to cake and tea in the Assembly Room, and then moved into the ornate Main Hall where the Oxfam choir sung us into our seats. The full hall made me realise not only the importance of Oxfam as a UK employer, but also as a social institution which generations of people have grown up with. Many of the volunteers were elderly, but a gurgling baby at the back of the hall indicated that the Oxfamily spans all ages.

 

My job is to catalogue Oxfam’s project files, bundles of correspondence, receipts and reports which document how development work plays out on the ground. This is what Stan Thekaekara, founder-director of trade model ‘Just Change’ and one of the evening’s speakers, would call the ‘worm’s eye view’. I was much less aware of the ‘bird’s-eye view’, the need for an overarching vision and policy and the tension that can result between the bird and the worm, between the decision-makers at home and the boots on the ground. This was something discussed by the panel hosted by Duncan Green, strategic advisor at Oxfam GB. The panellists debated the need to reorient the global economic system away from exponential growth and a capitalistic zero sum game, but also the importance of listening to the communities worst-affected by this system and providing them with the knowledge that could help improve their lives.

the programme for the evening’s events

 

 

In a discussion on the future of Oxfam, Mark Goldring (Oxfam GB’s Chief Executive) suggested this focus on communities was already being embodied by Oxfam International, the worldwide confederation of Oxfam affiliates. Oxfam International Executive Director Winne Byanyima was optimistic as she announced that Oxfam International’s headquarters would shortly be moving to Nairobi, and the celebratory talks concluded with reiterations of Oxfam’s commitment to end poverty.

While the optimism and passion of the speakers was inspiring, I couldn’t help but notice the tragic irony of the fact that, twenty-five years ago, Oxfam’s 50th anniversary celebrations were overshadowed by the influx of Rohingya Muslims into Bangladesh, and that 2017 has witnessed renewed attacks and allegations of genocide by the Myanmar authorities. Despite Oxfam’s energy and determination, I can’t help but think that, while human hatred continues to fuel governments, human suffering will not be easy to uproot.