Category Archives: Social Sciences

“What the hell are you doing?” The Lewisham North By-Election, 1957

Next week the voters of Lewisham East will go to the polls to elect a new member of parliament. Using the collections of the Conservative Party Archive, this blog post looks back at the last parliamentary by-election in the borough, held in 1957.

On 16 Feb 1957 a letter arrived at Conservative Central Office on the subject of the Lewisham North by-election, held two days previously. Addressed to the “Party Manager”, it read simply:- “Dear Sir, What the hell are you doing?”. [CCO 1/12/25/3]

Scanned image of a letter sent to Conservative Central Office, reading "Dear Sir, North Lewisham Bye-Election (and no doubt others) - What the hell are you doing?"

A letter recieved by Conservative Central Office following the party’s defeat in the Lewisham North by-election. [CCO 1/12/25/3]

The letter was just one of many critical messages sent in by Conservative supporters around the country following the by-election, which had seen the party lose the seat to Labour on a swing of 5.5%. The vote had been the Tories’ first electoral test since Harold Macmillan had replaced Anthony Eden as Prime Minister – and it appeared that the change in leadership had failed to improve the party’s fortunes.

The by-election was triggered by the death of Sir Austin Hudson, the Conservative member for the seat since 1950. Although present-day Lewisham is seen as a Labour stronghold, in the 1950s the Conservatives had a strong record in the area, and with a new leader in Downing Street the government could be expected to have a fair chance of retaining the seat on a platform of tax cuts and improved living standards. In his election address the party’s candidate, Norman Farmer, urged voters to give a “vote of confidence to the new Conservative government”, and echoed Macmillan’s pledge that “Britain has been great, is great and will stay great.” [PUB 229/1/12]

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The Conservative Campaign was soon blown off course however, as Labour went on the attack over the government’s controversial Rent Bill, which dismantled much of the post-war rent control system. The Labour candidate Niall MacDermot used his election address to warn that tenants will be left “at the mercy of the landlord” under the Tory plans. [PUB 229/1/12] The line of attack appears to have worked:- a memorandum by the party’s Chief Organisation Officer on 8 Feb 1957 notes that “The main lines of opposition attack appears to be the ‘Rent Bill’. We are likely to lose Conservative support on the issue… I am not very hopeful of holding the seat”. [CCO 1/12/25/2]

Scanned image showing the first page of a report on the Conservative Party's prospects in the Lewisham North by-election, 1957.

Conservative Party report on the campaign situation in Lewisham, dated 8 Feb 1957. [CCO 1/12/25/2]

Another issue that haunted the Conservatives was the legacy of the Suez Crisis, which had brought down Eden’s premiership. Not only did Labour continue to attack the Conservatives’ handling of the episode, but in Lewisham North the party also faced a challenge from the right-wing League of Empire Loyalists, an imperialist pressure group that supported independent candidate Lesley Greene. Greene, who was also the organising secretary of the League, used her election address to denounce the government for the loss of British influence over Suez: “All but one of the Cabinet Ministers responsible for this sickening humiliation are still members of the Government. Where is their national pride?” [PUB 229/1/12] The Conservatives sought to counter such charges by appealing to voters’ patriotism: “Don’t Listen to Nasser’s Advice’ urged one of Farmer’s leaflets, claiming that the Egyptian leader wanted to see the Conservatives defeated. [CCO 1/12/25/2] The party failed to defuse the issue however, and the Conservatives were forced onto the defensive throughout the campaign.

Scanned image of a Conservative election leaflet with slogan "Don't Listen to Nasser's Advice".

Election leaflet in support of the Conservative candidate Norman Farmer. [CCO 1/12/25/2]

Unsurprisingly, Conservative post-mortem reports on the by-election defeat identified Labour’s campaign against the Rent Bill and the fallout from Suez as major reasons for the defeat. However, the party’s campaigners also identified more practical reasons for the failure to hold the seat:- Labour for instance were accused of deploying an illegal number of cars to ferry their voters to the polling stations (the use of private motor transport in elections was strictly regulated in the post-war period), while one Conservative canvasser berated the party for “knocking-up” their supporters too late in the day, as “it is difficult to get women to vote in the evenings as they have their husbands’ dinners to prepare”. [CCO 1/12/25/3] Reports such as these offer a fascinating insight into the very different nature of election campaigns in the 1950s.

The Conservative defeat in North Lewisham was ultimately short-lived: the party regained the seat in Macmillan’s 1959 general election victory, and subsequently held it until 1966. Even so, the contest gives us a snapshot of British politics at a time of great upheaval and change. Whoever wins in Lewisham East next Thursday, it might well be that historians of the future will similarly look at the records of the campaign in order to understand our own politics and times.

This blog is based on the Conservative Party Archive’s correspondence series and collection of historical election addresses. The archive as whole contains the official papers of the Conservative Party’s parliamentary, professional and voluntary wings, spanning from 1867 through to the present day. Visit our website for more information on our holdings and to view our full online catalogues.

The UK Web Archive: Online Enthusiast Communities in the UK

The beginnings of the Online Enthusiast collection of the UK Web Archive can be traced back to November 2016 and a task to scope out the viability and write a proposal for two potential special collections with a focus on current web use: Mental Health, and Online Enthusiasts.

The Online Enthusiasts special collection was intended to show how people within the UK are using the internet to aid them in practising their hobbies, for example discussing their collections of objects or coordinating their bus spotting. If it was something a person could enthuse about and it was on the internet within the UK then it was in scope. Where many UK Web Archive Special Collections are centred on a specific event and online reactions, this was more an attempt to represent the way in which people are using the internet on an everyday basis.

The first step toward a proposal was to assess the viability of the collection, and this meant searching out any potential online enthusiast sites to judge whether this collection would have enough content hosted within the UK to validate its existence. As it turns out, UK hobbyists are very active in their online communities and finding enough content was, if anything, the opposite of an issue. Difficulty came with trying to accurately represent the sheer scope of content available – it’s difficult to google something that you weren’t aware existed 5 minutes ago. After an afternoon among the forums and blogs of ferry spotters, stamp collectors, homebrewers, yarn-bombers, coffee enthusiasts and postbox seekers, there was enough proof of content to complete the initial proposal stating that a collection displaying the myriad uses hobbyists in the UK have for the internet is not only viable but also worthwhile. Eventually that proposal was accepted and the Online Enthusiast collection was born.

The UKWA Online Enthusiast Communities in the UK collection provides a unique cultural insight into how communities interact in digital spheres. It shows that with the power of the internet people with similar unique hobbies and interests can connect and share and enthuse about their favourite hobbies. Many of these communities grow and shrink at rapid paces and therefore many years of content can be lost if a website is no longer hosted.

With the amount of content on the internet, finding websites had a domino effect, where one site would link to another site for a similar enthusiast community, or we would find lists including hobbies we’d never even considered before. This meant that before long we had a wealth of content that we realised would need categorising. Our main approach to categorising the content was along thematic lines. After identifying what we were dealing with, we created a number of sub-collections, examples of which include: Animal related hobbies, collecting focused hobbies, observation hobbies, and sports.

The approach to selecting content for the collection was mainly focused around identifying UK-centric hobbies and using various search terms to identify active communities. The majority of these communities were forums. These forums provided enthusiasts with a platform to discuss various topics related to their hobbies whilst also providing the opportunity for them to share other forms of media such as video, audio and photographic content. Other platforms such as blogs and other websites were also collected, the blogs often focused on submitting content to the blog owner who would then filter and post related content to the community.

As of May 2018 the collection has over 300 archived websites. We found that the most filled categories for hobbies were Sports, collecting and animal related hobbies.

A few examples of websites related to hobbies that were new to us include:

  • UK Pidgeon Racing Forum: An online enthusiast forum concerned with pigeon racing.
  • Fighting Robots Association Forum: An online enthusiast forum for those involved with the creation of fighting robots.
  • Wetherspoon’s Carpets (Tumblr): A Tumblr blog concerned with taking photographs of the unique carpets inside the Wetherspoon’s chain of pubs across the UK.
  • Mine Exploration and History Forum: An online enthusiast community concerned with mine exploration in the UK.
  • Chinese Scooter Club Forum: An online enthusiast community concerned with all things related to Chinese scooters.
  • Knit The City (now Whodunnknit): A website belonging to a graffiti-knitter/yarnbomber from the UK

The Online Enthusiast Communities in the UK collection is via the UK Web Archive’s new beta interface

Opie Archive: Working papers and publications material now available

The catalogues of two further series of the Opie Archive have now been completed and are available to search online here. Series B comprises the Opies’ working papers and research materials, while Series C consists of material relating to the Opies’ publications.

The first part of the working papers series contains a collection of 239 subject files, stored in 105 boxes (MSS. Opie 47-151). Compiled by Iona Opie, in the days before Excel spreadsheets, this series of subject files represents a large, analogue database of all the Opies’ research materials, which formed the basis of their published works. The files cover a range of topics, such as nursery rhymes, children’s songs, games and playground lore, as well as their historical, literary, sociological and geographical context. They contain research notes and drafts, extracts of material written by children in response to the Opies’ school surveys, newspaper cuttings, journal articles, letters from the Opies’ many correspondents, photographs, postcards and other ephemera. The subject files were added to over a number of years, largely from the 1940s to the 1980s and -’90s, although several files also include older collected material, such as extracts of material on children’s games gathered by A.S. Macmillan in 1922 and sent to the Opies by his daughter.

The Opie working files are housed in their original ‘Loxonian’ binders from circa the 1940s-1950s, which will be of interest to any connoisseurs of vintage stationary. These ingenious hardcover binders come with laces, much like shoe laces, which hold the sheets in place, and are then fastened at the front with metal spiral clips.

As far as possible, the arrangement of the files aims to reflect the Opies’ own original file order, based on their numbered or alphabetical file titles; otherwise the files are arranged chronologically, according to the publication date of the various Opie books to which the files relate. However, not all of the material collected by the Opies made it into their published books. For instance, some of the collected songs, rhymes and jokes contained in the ‘Improper’ files in MS. Opie 61, are surprisingly bawdy, and certainly could not have been included in a book like The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren back in 1959. Nevertheless, even those relatively innocent verses that did make it into this book, were too strong for some; a few amusing newspaper clippings from 1966, contained in MS. Opie 75, tell of a substitute teacher who was reprimanded after scandalised parents complained about the ‘saucy’ verses he had read aloud from the Opies’ Lore and Language book to a class of 13-year-old pupils.

Some unexpected items found inside some of the subject files included a Kellogg’s Crunchy Nut cereal box from the 1990s with a Humpty Dumpty ‘spot the differences’ puzzle on the back, contained in a file on nursery rhymes, a ring tab from a tin can in a section on ‘projectiles’ within a file on children’s activities, various football and baseball trading cards, some 1970s crisp packets, a 1980s ‘friendship pin’ created using a safety pin and colourful beads, to be worn attached to one’s shoe laces or lapel, and even some samples of grasses, from the 1960s, which children used to bind together in clusters to create miniature trees. The grass samples, which were stuck down under a sheet of cellophane, were duly examined by our Conservation department, but were fortunately pronounced safe, in archive preservation terms.

[1960s grass samples, and a 1980s ‘friendship pin’ – two unexpected items found in file ‘Activities D-G’, MS. Opie 145]

Additional material, also relating to the Opies’ work and research, which did not originally belong to their pre-existing collection of subject files, was added onto the end of the Working Papers series, but in a separate sub-series (MSS Opie 152-168). This includes material on children’s books, further research notes, scrapbooks, newspaper cuttings files, and even the Opies’ library tickets and bibliographical notes, which show the vast number of books they consulted in the course of their research.

The fruits of all this research can be seen in Series C of the Opie Archive, which contains material relating to the Opies’ publications. This material shows how Peter and Iona’s published works took shape, including manuscripts, corrections, paste-ups, and proof copies, as well as correspondence with publishers, concerning the process of planning and producing their books. The reception of these books, once they were finally released into the world, is documented in the press cuttings of book reviews, carefully saved up (one imagines, with some pride) by the Opies. Aside from their books, other Opie productions are likewise included in this series, such as various articles, lectures, exhibitions and broadcasts. Moreover, any Opie enthusiasts will be particularly interested in the tantalising glimpse of further Opie works which might have been, offered by papers relating to book proposals and publishing projects which were never realised.


Please be aware that work on the remaining Opie Archive is still ongoing, and parts of the archive will continue to become temporarily unavailable whilst preservation and cataloguing work is being carried out. We aim to accommodate urgent researchers’ requests for access wherever possible, however, if you do need to consult uncatalogued material from the Opie Archive before June 2018, please ensure that you contact us with as much advance notice as possible, so that we can advise on the availability of the material in question and make any necessary arrangements.


The Opie cataloguing project is generously funded by the Wellcome Trust.

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.

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.

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)

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.