Category Archives: Division

The UK Web Archive Ebola Outbreak collection

By CDC Global (Ebola virus) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By CDC Global (Ebola virus) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Next month marks the four year anniversary of the WHO’s public announcement of “a rapidly evolving outbreak of Ebola virus disease (EVD)” that went on to become the deadliest outbreak of EVD in history.

With more than 28,000 cases and 11,000 deaths, it moved with such speed and virulence that–though concentrated in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone–it was feared at the time that the Ebola virus disease outbreak of 2014-2016 would soon spread to become a global pandemic.

No cure or vaccine has yet been discovered and cases continue to flare up in West Africa. The most recent was declared over on 2 July 2017. Yet today most people in the UK unless directly affected don’t give it a second thought.

Searching online now, you can find fact sheets detailing everything you might want to know about patient zero and the subsequent rapid spread of infection. You can find discussions detailing the international response (or failure to do so) and lessons learned. You might even find the reminiscences of aid workers and survivors. But these sites all examine the outbreak in retrospect and their pages and stories have been updated so often that posts from then can no longer be found.

Posts that reflected the fear and uncertainty that permeated the UK during the epidemic. The urgent status updates and travel warnings.  The misinformation that people were telling each other. The speculation that ran riot. The groundswell of giving. The mobilisation of aid.

Understandably when we talk about epidemics the focus is on the scale of physical suffering: numbers stricken and dead; money spent and supplies sent; the speed and extent of its spread.

Whilst UKWA regularly collects the websites of major news channels and governmental agencies, what we wanted to capture was the public dialogue on, and interpretation of, events as they unfolded. To see how local interests and communities saw the crisis through the lenses of their own experience.

To this end, the special collection Ebola Outbreak, West Africa 2014 features a broad selection of websites concerning the UK response to the Ebola virus crisis. Here you can find:

  • The Anglican community’s view on the role of faith during the crisis;
  • Alternative medicine touting the virtues of liposomal vitamin C as a cure for Ebola;
  • Local football clubs fundraising to send aid;
  • Parents in the UK withdrawing children from school because of fear of the virus’ spread;
  • Think tanks’ and academics’ views on the national and international response;
  • Universities issuing guidance and reports on dealing with international students; and more.

Active collection for Ebola began in November 2014 at the height of the outbreak whilst related websites dating back to the infection of patient zero in December 2013 have been retrospectively added to the collection. Collection continued through to January 2016, a few months before the outbreak began tailing off in April 2016.

The Ebola collection is available via the UK Web Archive’s new beta interface.

New Catalogue: The Archive of Hilary Bailey

The catalogue of the archive of Hilary Bailey is now available online here.

Hilary Bailey (1936 – 2017), was a writer and editor whose career spanned many decades and genres. Her early output largely focussed on science fiction, with many of her short stories, including The Fall of Frenchy Steiner (1964), published in the science fiction publication New Worlds during the 1960s, and during this time she also co-authored The Black Corridor (1969) with her then husband, the science fiction writer Michael Moorcock; Bailey served as editor of New Worlds from 1974 to 1976 .

Her social circle contained a number of science fiction writers who were fellow contributors to New Worlds, including Graham Hall, another science fiction writer and editor of New Worlds whose papers are also included within the archive.

Hilary Bailey’s post-New Worlds output tended not to fall under the genre of science fiction. Her first solo full length novel, Polly Put The Kettle On (1975), was the first Polly Kops novel she wrote, and the character would later feature in Mrs Mulvaney (1978) and As Time Goes By (1988) – novels focussing on a woman in London through the 1960s to the 1980s.

Indeed, much of Bailey’s work had a focus on women, including her retellings and sequels of classic novels – including Frankenstein’s Bride (1995) – an alternate telling wherein Victor Frankenstein agrees to build the monster a wife rather than spurning the suggestion and Mrs Rochester (1997), which imagines Jane Eyre’s life a number of years  into her marriage to Edward Rochester. Women were also the focus of her historical fiction novel, The Cry From Street To Street (1992), which imagined the life of a victim of Jack the Ripper and Cassandra (1993), a retelling of the fall of Troy. She also authored a biography on Vera Brittain.

Draft artwork for the book jacket of As Time Goes By (1988)

Her most recent work ranged from the speculative fiction Fifty-first State (2008), a novel set in the then near-future of 2013, looking at politics within the United Kingdom, to imagining Sherlock Holmes’ sister in The Strange Adventures of Charlotte Holmes (2012).

The archive comprises a large amount of correspondence both personal, with family, friends and other writers and professional, with publishers and literary agents, as well as artwork for book jackets, early draft manuscripts for novels and assorted miscellanea.

Bailey’s archive also includes a small series at the end consisting of correspondence and draft writings belonging to Graham Hall (1947-1980), a friend of Bailey’s and fellow New Worlds contributor, editor, science fiction writer and general science fiction enthusiast. As Hall’s writing career was cut short by his death in 1980, aged just 32, his name is perhaps not as easily recognisable as those of his correspondents. His correspondence contains interesting information regarding science fiction enthusiasts in the 1960s, from Hall’s early involvement with fanzines and hopes to compile bibliographies for the work of more well-known science fiction writers, to his involvement with the scene and time as editor of New Worlds. Hall’s illness and death are chronicled in Michael Moorcock’s novel, Letters from Hollywood (1986).

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!    

Oxford College Archives

A new website for Oxford College Archives has been launched at https://oac.web.ox.ac.uk/.

Painting of Oxford students entitled 'Conversation Piece, Worcester College' by Edward HallidayThe site includes a general introduction to the archives held by the Oxford colleges, individual pages on most of the colleges (with further links to catalogues etc.) and links to associated archives in the City and University.  There is also an FAQ page, a glossary of all those odd Oxford terms, and a bibliography.  The site will be enhanced and updated regularly.

New Conservative Party Archive releases under the 30 year rule

Top-level strategy papers that detail the Thatcher government’s efforts to secure a third term are among papers newly-released by the Conservative Party Archive for 2018. The previously-restricted documents, now made available for the first time under the 30 year rule, form part of an extensive series of party papers from the election year of 1987, including drafts of the Conservative manifesto, detailed plans of campaign activities, and election briefings prepared by the Conservative Research Department. This piece briefly examines two such documents from one of the newly-released files [CRD 4/30/7/25], private briefings prepared for the Prime Minister’s election planning meetings in December 1986 and April 1987, to illustrate the research potential of these newly-available collections.

Although the 1987 election ultimately resulted in a second landslide for Thatcher’s Conservatives, the party was far from certain of such an outcome. ‘We believe that the electorate will be in a more questioning mood than in 1983 in the aftermath of the Falklands’, the December 1986 report cautioned, stressing the need for the party to develop and communicate clear plans for the future rather than simply seeking re-election on the basis of past achievements. The changing nature of the electoral map prompted particular concern. Although the Conservatives had opened up a narrow polling lead, the report identified a ‘sharp North-South disparity’, which posed a serious risk to the Conservative position: while the party’s national polling suggested a parliamentary majority of 20, this ‘disappeared entirely and left us in a minority of 2’ when regional variations were taken into account. In an echo of the party’s present-day challenges, the report additionally flagged up the dangers of the growing age-gap in the party’s support: ‘the under 45 group, and particularly first time voters, are still a cause of considerable concern.’

The Conservative Party’s electoral position was complicated by the growing North-South political divide. [CRD 4/30/7/25].

The prospect of a lost majority was still taken seriously on the eve of the election campaign, as the papers prepared for a top-level meeting at Downing Street on 16 April 1987 reveal. Although Party Chairman Norman Tebbit’s paper on general strategy began with the cautious observation that the government were favoured to win ‘with a smaller but working majority’, he warned that ‘the prospect of a hung parliament is attractive to the press and will be promoted by those hostile to us’. To counter this, he urged, the party needed to polarise the issues as far as possible, presenting a Conservative majority as the only alternative to weak or extreme government: ‘Our aim should be to make the supreme issue whether there will be a continuation of Conservative Government or through a “hung” Parliament a Labour administration with Alliance or other minority party support.’

Strategies aside, the party’s election plans also give a fascinating insight into how the party sought to understand and reshape its image going into the election. Discussing the party’s loss of support during the middle of 1986, the CCO Campaign Plans document warned of a ‘a growing perceived conflict between the two important themes of “Calvinism” or “individual responsibility” on the one hand, and “caring” on the other […] reflected in serious concerns about unemployment, health care, education and pensions’. Yet the strategy paper also reveals a resistance to any significant change in course: the proposal to organise the Prime Minister’s campaign tours around the theme of ‘regeneration’ is pointedly removed from the draft document in favour of a more individualistic emphasis on ‘believing [in] people’ and ‘personal property’. Similarly on Thatcher’s own image, the paper goes out of its way to reject suggestions that she adopt a ‘soft’ image, instead recommending a campaign focused upon her strengths: ‘leadership, strength and experience.’

Early plans emphasised that the Prime Minister campaign on the idea of ‘Regeneration’, but as the notes in the margin show others favoured a more ideological campaign theme. [CRD 4/30/7/25].

These papers will provide an essential resource for scholars of the 1987 general election and the politics of the Thatcher era, complementing the Conservative Party Archive’s existing collections of published material from the campaign. The Bodleian has also additionally taken receipt of a large donation of previously undocumented files from this period, so it is hoped that the CPA will be able to continue to expand its collections on the 1987 general election in years to come.

Among the new releases is the first draft of the 1987 Manifesto [CRD/4/30/7/29], shown here next to the final version [PUB 157/4].

The material examined in this blog post will be made available from 1 Jan 2018. In addition to papers on the 1987 general election, the list of newly-released papers also includes material on the introduction of the poll tax, the party’s private polling and opinion research, and a wide range of briefings produced by the Conservative Research Department. For a full list of derestricted items, see the CPA website.

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.)

Subcultures as Integrative Forces in East-Central Europe 1900 – present: a Bodleian Libraries’ Web Archive record

A problem, and a solution in action:

The ephemeral nature of internet content (the average life of a web page is 100 days – illustrating that websites do not need to be purposefully deleted to vanish) is only one contributing factor to data loss. Web preservation is high priority;  action is required. This is a driver for not only Bodleian Libraries’ Web Archive, but digital preservation initiatives on a global scale.

However, today I would like to share the solution in action, an example from BLWA’s University of Oxford Collection: Subcultures as Integrative Forces in East-Central Europe 1900 – present.

On the live web, attempts to access the site are met with automatic redirects to BLWA’s most recent archived capture (24 Jan. 2017). The yellow banner indicates it is part of our archive. Image from http://wayback.archive-it.org/2502/20170124104518/http://subcultures.mml.ox.ac.uk/home.html

Subcultures is a University of Oxford project, backed by the Arts & Humanities Research Council, which through its explorative redefinition of ‘sub-cultures’ aims to challenge the current way of understanding simultaneous identification forms in the region of Eastern Europe through a multi-disciplinary methodology of social anthropology, discourse analysis, historical studies and linguistics. The project ran from 2012-2016.

The Subcultures website is an incredibly rich record of the project and it’s numerous works.  It held cross-continent collaborative initiatives including lectures, international workshops and seminars, as well as an outreach programme including academic publications. Furthermore, comparative micro-studies were conducted in parallel with main collaborative project: Linguistic Identities: L’viv/Lodz, c.1900; Myth and Memory: Jews and Germans, Interwar Romania; Historical Discourses: Communist Silesia and Discursive Constructions: L’viv and Wroclaw to present. The scope and content of the project, including key questions, materials, past and present events and network information is* all hosted on http://subcultures.mml.ox.ac.uk/home.html.

Was*. The site is no longer live on the internet.

However, as well as an automatic re-direction to our most recent archival copy, a search on Bodleian Libraries’ Web Archive generates 6 captures in total:

Search results for Subcultures within BLWA. Image from https://archive-it.org/home/bodleian?q=Subcultures

The materials tab of the site fully functions in the archived capture: you are able to listen to the podcasts and download the papers on theory and case studies as PDF versions.

The use of Subcultures

To explore the importance of web-archiving in this context, let us think about the potential use(rs) of this record and the implications if the website were no longer available:

As the  project comprised a wider outreach programme alongside its research, content such as PDF publications and podcasts were available for download, consultation and further research. The website platform means that these innovative collaborations and the data informed by the primary methodology are available for access. This is of access to the public on a global scale for education and knowledge and interaction with important issues – without even elaborating on how academics, researchers, historians and the wider user community will benefit from the availability of the materials from this web archive. Outreach by its very nature demands an unspecified group of people to lend its services to help.

Listening to the podcast of the project event hosted in Krakow: ‘Hybrid Identity’ in 2014. Rationale, abstracts and biographies from the workshop can also be opened. Image from http://wayback.archive-it.org/2502/20170124104618/http://subcultures.mml.ox.ac.uk/materials/workshop-krakow-hybrid-identity-september-2014.html

Furthermore, the site provides an irreplaceable record of institutional history for University of Oxford as a whole, as well as its research and collaborations. This is a dominant purpose of our University of Oxford collection. The role of preserving for posterity cannot be underplayed. Subcultures provides data that will be used, re-used and of grave importance for decades to come, and also documents decisions and projects of the University of Oxford. For example, the outline and rationale of the project is available in full through the Background Paper – Theory, available for consultation through the archived capture as it would be through the live web. Biographical details of contributors are also hosted on the captures, preserving records of people involved and their roles for further posterity and accountability.

Building on the importance of access to research: internet presence increases scholarly interaction. The scope of the project is of great relevance, and data for research is not only available from the capture of the site, but the use of internet archives as datasets are expected to become more prominent.

Participate!

Here at BLWA the archiving process begins with a nomination for archiving: if you have a site that you believe is of value for preserving as part of one of our collections then please do so here. The nomination form will go to the curators and web-archivists on the  BLWA team for selection checks and further processing. We would love to hear your nominations.

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)

Donation of Monier-Williams archive

The Bodleian owes much of its rich collection of Indic manuscripts and books to the personal collection of Oxford University’s Boden Professor of Sanskrit, Sir Monier Monier-Williams and that of the Indian Institute Library, which he founded in 1883. Scholars have long assumed that the library also holds Sir Monier’s papers: these, however, remained with his family.

Sir Monier-Williams’ great great grandson has now most generously donated these papers to the library.  This archival collection includes diaries, material on the controversial election of Sir Monier to the Boden Professorship, his lecture notes and scrapbooks of newspaper clippings, all of which provide new insights into his career and the history of Indian Studies at Oxford.