Category Archives: Social Sciences

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.

British Ambassador to Georgia visits Wardrop collection

On Monday 25th October the Justin McKenzie Smith, the British Ambassador to Georgia, visited Oxford University’s  Georgian Studies Programme and the Bodleian’s Wardrop Collection. During his time at the library he was shown some of the new materials added to the collection in May and learned more about plans for 2018, which include Nikoloz Aleksidze’s forthcoming book with Bodleian Library Publishing, Georgia: a cultural journey through the Wardrop Collection.

Children’s Papers: Series 1 catalogue of Opie Archive now available

The cataloguing of the first series of the Opie Archive, which comprises children’s papers, as well as related correspondence from school teachers, has now been completed. The catalogue is available to search online here.

The material in the first 13 boxes spans most of the 1950s, during which time, Iona and Peter Opie were working on their book, The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren, which was published towards the end of 1959. They began by placing an advert in the Times Educational Supplement, seeking teachers willing to assist in their research. Those who responded, soon put the Opies in touch with further colleagues in other schools, until they had recruited a wide network of enthusiastic teachers across the country. In order to keep track of their dizzying number of correspondents, the Opies kept meticulous notes in a series of small address books, in which each contact was assigned a reference code. The material in the first 13 boxes is, therefore, arranged in order of the reference codes of those contacts who had sent in each batch of papers. The subsequent 20 boxes, following the publication of The Lore and Language, date mostly from 1960 onwards. From this point, the material is instead arranged alphabetically, by the area the material had come from – from Aberdeen to York.

The Opie address books, which hold the key to all their many correspondents

The papers, often accompanied by colourful illustrations, list the children’s favourite counting out and skipping rhymes, describe games such as ball games, chasing games and marbles, explain slang terms and expressions currently in use, recount the latest playground fads and crazes, and outline various traditions, superstitions and other playground lore that have been passed down to them. Some of the games described would make modern-day readers flinch, such as the popular game “Knifey”, which involves throwing a pocket knife to stick in the ground near the opponent’s leg. The children’s papers are usually prefaced by a note from their teacher, often apologising for spelling mistakes in their pupils’ work, and sometimes recalling their own childhood songs and games. The teachers’ insights are often particularly interesting, such as when one teacher observes that the few English-language songs and rhymes known to the children in their predominantly Welsh-speaking school in Ruthin, north Wales, appear to be the legacy left by children from Liverpool, who had been evacuated there during the war.

The series also includes a sub-section of material received from sources other than schools, such as from fellow researchers working in the same field as the Opies, or a collection of local rhymes and songs from across Scotland, gathered by the editors of the Aberdeen Press and Journal newspaper. This section also includes ten boxes of children’s essays submitted to the Camberwell Public Libraries Essay Competition, passed on to the Opies by Camberwell’s Chief Librarian. These competition entries provide a fascinating glimpse into the children’s thoughts and lives. The essays are very clearly rooted in their time, which is apparent not only through the 1950s and ’60s hairstyles and fashions, discernible in some of the charming, childish illustrations, but also in the children’s responses to essay topics such as “What I want to be when I leave school”, in which all the girls aspire to be nurses, dressmakers and typists, while their male counterparts seek to become firemen, policemen and train drivers. Other interesting responses were elicited by the 1955 essay title “A visit to the moon” – some children setting their stories firmly in the realm of fantasy, imagining being transported to the moon by fairies or goblins, while others wrote of rocket ships, but set their stories in the far distant year 3000, little imagining that the moon landing could become a reality in just over a decade’s time.

Shiny, new, archive boxes, all labelled up and barcoded!

To begin with, the bundles of papers were mostly still packaged in the same old, brown envelopes in which they had been stored by the Opies. Part of our task, in order to preserve the material long-term, was to remove all the harmful fasteners that could cause damage to the papers over time, such as rusty paperclips, pins and staples, as well as brittle, dried-up elastic bands. The papers could then be repackaged into standard, acid-free archive folders and boxes. In those instances where whole batches of papers had been folded or rolled up within their envelopes, the process of unfurling and flattening them to lie safely and neatly in their archive folders, was rather time-consuming.

Some of the rusty fasteners, removed from the Opie schools material

Our final task was foliation – which means physically numbering all the individual leaves (or “folios”) in each box, in pencil, so that the original order of the pages will never become muddled. The foliation process demanded sustained concentration, as it was all too easy to either miscount or accidently skip a page, especially given that the leaves in each bundle were all different sizes. Once such an error is discovered, all the subsequent numbers in the sequence are then, of course, likewise out of sync – a highly frustrating occurrence which we sought to avoid! In total, we numbered over 24 and a half thousand leaves across 46 boxes.

The Opie cataloguing project is generously funded by the Wellcome Trust. While the catalogue of this first series has now been completed, please note that work on the remaining Opie Archive is still ongoing, and sequences of the Opie Archive will continue to become temporarily unavailable whilst preservation, cataloguing and digitisation work is being carried out. We will try to accommodate urgent researchers’ requests for access wherever possible, however, if you need to consult material from the Opie Archive before June 2018, please do 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.

Supported by the Wellcome Trust

Oxfam archive inspires potential University of Oxford students

Nineteen year-12 students recently attended a seminar in the Weston Library’s impressive Bahari Room as part of a summer school organised by Wadham College.

The programme allows students from schools with low application/entry rates into higher education to experience university life through a four-day residential. During the visit, students attended lectures, seminars and tutorials, giving them a taste of what it is like to be an undergraduate at the University of Oxford.

The theme for this year was ‘The Politics of Immigration’ and in the seminar, students had the chance to handle a selection of material taken from the Oxfam archive. They were then asked to discuss the representation of Palestinian refugees in the archival documents dating from the 1960s. The material used was taken from the Communications section of the archive – i.e. records of Oxfam’s external communication with the public – and is just a very small example of the material available to the public in the extensive Oxfam archive (the Communications catalogue is online here).

An example of some of the material that the students were using from the Communications section of the Oxfam archive.

Though initially hesitant, we were pleased when two eager students volunteered to open up the archival boxes and find the files that were needed. After being carefully handled by our volunteers, all the files were laid out for the students to analyse in groups.

Dr. Tom Sinclair and a student unpacking an archival box.

The students then took it in turns to give examples of how Palestinian refugees were represented in the Oxfam material. One of the excellent examples that students spotted was how Oxfam was able to remain politically neutral (a constitutional necessity for charities) by not specifying why the refugees were displaced. Students also remarked that Oxfam preferred to focus on individual stories in their communications – for instance, that of a displaced teenager with aspirations to be an engineer – which the students suggested helped humanise a crisis that could be difficult for the public to comprehend.

The students studied selected material from the Oxfam archive and gave examples of how Palestinian refugees were represented.

Overall, the ‘Politics of Immigration’ seminar was a great success that gave the students a good feel for what it would be like to use the archives to complete research for a dissertation or other academic project.

Dr Tom Sinclair, who organised the summer school, said: “It was such a privilege to be in that lovely room and have such free access to the archives… I really think that a couple of the students were inspired, and I hope they’ll be future Oxford undergraduates visiting the archives again in a few years’ time.”

Email Preservation: How Hard Can it Be? DPC Briefing Day

On Thursday 6th July 2017 I attended the Digital Preservation Coalition briefing day in partnership with the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation on email preservation titled ‘Email preservation: how hard can it be?’. It was hosted at The National archives (TNA), this was my first visit to TNA and it was fantastic. I didn’t know a great deal about email preservation prior to this and so I was really looking forward to learning about this topic.

The National Archives, Photograph by Mike Peel (www.mikepeel.net)., CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9786613

The aim of the day was to engage in discussion about some of the current tools, technologies and thoughts on email preservation. It was orientated around the ‘Task Force on Technical Approaches to Email Preservation’ report that is currently in its draft phase. We also got to hear about interesting case studies from the British library, TNA and Preservica, each presenting their own unique experiences in relation to this topic. It was a great opportunity to learn about this area and hear from the co-chairs (Kate Murray and Christopher Prom) and the audience about their thoughts on the current situation and possible future directions.

We heard from Jonathan Pledge from British library (BL). He told us about the forensic capture expertise gained by the BL and using EnCase to capture email data from hard drives, CD’s and USB’s. We also got an insight into how they are deciding which email archive tool to use. Aid4mail fits better with their work flow however ePADD with its holistic approach was something they were considering. During their ingest they separate the emails from the attachments. They found that after the time consuming process of removing emails that would violate the data protection laws, there was very little usable content left, as often, entire threads would have to be redacted due to one message. This is not the most effective use of an archivist time and is something they are working to address.

We also heard from Anthea Seles who works with government collections at TNA. We learnt that from their research, they discovered that approximately 1TB of data in an organisations own electronic document and records management system is linked to 10TB of related data in shared drives. Her focus was on discovery and data analytics. For example, a way to increase efficiency and focus the attention of the curator on was to batch email. If an email was sent from TNA to a vast number of people, then there is a high chance that the content does not contain sensitive information. However, if it was sent to a high profile individual, then there is a higher chance that it will contain sensitive information, so the curator can focus their attention on those messages.

Hearing from Preservica was interesting as it gave an insight into the commercial side of email archiving. In their view, preservation was not an issue. For them, their attention was focused on addressing issues such as identifying duplicates/unwanted emails efficiently. Developing tools for performing whole collection email analysis and, interestingly, how to solve the problem of acquiring emails via a continuous transfer.

Emails are not going to be the main form of communication forever (the rise in the popularity of instant messaging is clear to see) however we learnt that we are still expecting growth in its use for the near future.

One of the main issues that was bought up was the potential size of future email archives and the issue that come with effective and efficient appraisal. What is large in academic terms, e.g. 100 000 emails, is not in government. The figure of over 200 million emails at the George W. Bush presidential library is a phenomenal amount and the Obama administrations is estimated at 300 million. This requires smart solutions and we learnt how the use of artificial intelligence and machine learning could help.

Continuous active learning was highlighted to improve searches. An example of searching for Miami dolphins was given. The Miami Dolphins are an American football team however someone might so be looking for information about dolphins in Miami. Initially the computer would present different search results and the user would choose which the more relevant result is, over time it will learn what it is the user is looking for in cases where searches can be ambiguous.

Another issue that was highlighted was, how do you make sure that you have searched the correct person? How do you avoid false positives? At TNA the ‘Traces Through Time’ project aimed to do that, initially with World War One records. This technology, using big data analytics can be used with email archives. There is also work on mining the email signature as a way to better determine ownership of the message.

User experience was also discussed. Emulation is an area of particular interest. The positive of this is that it recreates how the original user would have experienced the emails. However this technology is still being developed. Bit level preservation is a solution to make sure we capture and preserve the data now. This prevents loss of the archive and allows the information and value to be extracted in the future once the tools have been developed.

It was interesting to hear how policy could affect how easy it would be to acquire email archives. The new General Data Protection Regulation that will come into effect in May 2018 will mean anyone in breach of this will suffer worse penalties, up to 4% of annual worldwide turnover. This means that companies may air on the side of caution with regards to keeping personal data such as emails.

Whilst the email protocols are well standardised, allowing emails to be sent from one client to another (e.g. AOL account from early 1990’s to Gmail of now) the acquisition of them are not. When archivists get hold of email archives, they are left with the remnants of whatever the email client/user has done to it. This means metadata may have been added or removed and formats can vary. This adds a further level of complexity to the whole process

The day was thoroughly enjoyable. It was a fantastic way to learn about archiving emails. As emails are now one of the main methods of communication, for government, large organisations and personal use, it is important that we develop the tools, techniques and policies for email preservation. To answer the question ‘how hard can it be?’ I’d say very. Emails are not simple objects of text, they are highly complex entities comprising of attachments, links and embedded content. The solution will be complex but there is a great community of researchers, individuals, libraries and commercial entities working on solving this problem. I look forward to hearing the update in January 2018 when the task force is due to meet again.

The first rule of Pig Club…

Rulebook of Nailsworth Pig Club, from the Sir Stafford Cripps archive at the Bodleian Library [sc22/1c]

Rulebook of Nailsworth Pig Club, April 1918, from the Sir Stafford Cripps archive [sc22/1c]

There’s just something about this delightful little three page rulebook that tickles me. Perhaps it’s the use of phrases like ‘eligible pigs’. Otherwise, it’s a perfectly serious document which details the ins and outs of the provision, insurance and inspection of pigs and potatoes (pigs and potatoes!) raised by members of the club.

It appears to have been produced by Gloucestershire County Council and was presumably part of a county-, or country-wide effort to encourage people to raise their own food during the war (also done during the second world war). Despite the central concern of food production, though, it’s a surprisingly cheering document for people concerned with animal welfare, as it’s very specific that the animals must be healthy and well-cared for, and that insurance compensation would not be paid if ‘the death or sickness of a pig is attributed to bad food, insufficient attention, or other carelessness or ill-treatment’.

One of my favourite things about the rulebook is who it belonged to: Stafford Cripps, probably best known as Britain’s ambassador to Moscow in 1940-1942 and as the austerity chancellor from 1947-1950. When this document was produced however, Cripps was not yet a political high flier. A chemistry graduate and practicing lawyer, he was both married and in ill health in 1914, which meant that he was not called up. He kept himself busy with recruitment efforts and then volunteered for a year in France as a Red Cross ambulance driver. In late 1915 he offered his chemistry expertise to the Ministry of Munitions and was posted to one of the country’s biggest munitions factories in Queensferry, near Chester. From early 1916, Cripps was running it, and it took its toll on his health. In early 1918, when this rulebook was drawn up, he was convalescing from a physical breakdown. Somehow, though, he still managed to find the time and energy to serve as honorary secretary of the Nailsworth Pig Club. The now nearly 100 year old rulebook survives in his archive at the Bodleian Library.

Incidentally, the first rule of Pig Club?:

  1. NAME.–The Society shall be called the “Nailsworth Pig Club.”

Can’t argue with that.

Web Archiving Week 2017 – “Pages for kids, by kids”

Yesterday I was lucky enough to attend a day of the Web Archiving Week 2017 conferences in Senate House, London along with another graduate trainee digital archivist.

A beautiful staircase in Senate House

Every session I attended throughout the day was fascinating, but Ian Milligan’s ‘Pages by kids, for kids’: unlocking childhood and youth history through the GeoCities web archive stood out for me as truly capturing part of what makes a web archive so important to society today.

Pages by kids, for kids

GeoCities, for those unfamiliar with the name, was a website founded in 1994 from which anyone could build their own free website which would become part of a ‘neighbourhood’. Each neighbourhood was themed for a particular topic, allowing topic clusters to form from created websites. GeoCities was shut down in Europe and the US in 2009, but evidence of it still exists in the Internet Archive.

Milligan’s talk focused particularly on the Enchanted Forest neighbourhood between 1996 and 1999. The Enchanted Forest was dedicated to child-friendliness and was the only age based neighbourhood, and as such had extra rules and community moderation to ensure nothing age inappropriate was present.

“The web was not just made by dot.com companies”

The above image shows what I think was one of the key points from the talk, a quote from the New York Times, March 17th 1997
“The web was not just made by dot.com companies, but that eleven-year-old boys and grandmothers are also busy putting up Web sites. Of course, the quality of these sites varies greatly, but low-cost and even free home page services are a growing part of the on-line world.”

The internet is a democracy, and to show a true record of how and why it has been used it necessarily involves people – not just businesses. By having GeoCities websites within the Internet Archive, it’s possible to access direct evidence of how people were using the internet in the late part of the 20th century, but, as Ian Milligan’s talk explained, it also allows access to direct evidence of childhood and youth culture forming on the internet.

Milligan pointed out that access to evidence of childhood and youth culture is rare, normally historical evidence comes in the form of adults remembering their time as children or from researchers studying children, but something produced by a child for other children would rarely make it into a traditional archive. Within the trove of archived GeoCities websites, however, children producing web content for children is clearly visible. From this, it is possible to examine what constituted popular activities for children on GeoCities in the late 20th century.

Milligan noted one major activity within the Enchanted Forest centred around an awards culture, wherein a popular site would award users based on several web page qualities such as no personal identifiable information, working links and loading times of less than one minute. Some users would create their own awards to present to people, for example an award for finding all the Winnie the Pooh words in a word search. His findings showed that 15% of Enchanted Forest websites had a dedicated awards page.

A darker side of a child-centric portion of the web was also revealed in the Geokidz club. On the surface, the Geokidz Club appeared to be an unofficial online clubhouse where children could share poetry and book reviews, they could chat and take HTML lessons – but these activities came at the price of a survey which contained questions about the lifestyles of the child’s parents (the type of information would appeal to advertisers). This formed part of one of the first internet privacy court cases due to the data being obtained from children and sold on without proper informed consent.

It was among my favourite talks of the day, and showed how much richer our understanding of the recent past can be using web archives, as well as the benefit to researchers of the history of youth and childhood.
It felt particularly relevant to me, as someone who spent her teen years on the internet watching, and being involved in, youth culture happening online in the 2000s to know that online youth culture, which can feel very ephemeral, can be saved for future research in web archives.

A wall hanging in Senate House (made of sisal)

In truth, any talk I attended would have made an interesting topic for this blog – the entire day was filled with informative speakers, interesting presentations and monumental, hair-like wall hangings. But I felt Ian Milligan’s talk gave such a positive example of how the internet, and particularly web archives, can give a voice to those whose experiences might be lost otherwise.

The 1923 General Election

 

Junior Imperial League Gazette

Junior Imperial League Gazette, Dec 1923, p.7 [PUB 199/2]

The Prime Minister, Theresa May, surprised many when she announced her intention to call a UK general election to be held this Thursday, 8 June 2017. The ‘snap’ election came as a shock not least because, as she acknowledged in her announcement, since becoming Prime Minister she had made it clear that she did not anticipate any election before the next scheduled general election in 2020. A combination of Westminster ‘game playing’, which might weaken her government’s hand in Brexit preparations and negotiations, and the fact that talks would otherwise reach a critical stage in the run up to the next scheduled election, led Mrs May to conclude that it was in the national interest to hold an election after all and by so doing remove possible uncertainty or instability with regard to the country’s future. So the electorate is being asked to provide Mrs May and her Conservative government with a direct mandate to settle the terms of Britain’s exit from the European Union, leaving it “free to chart its own way in the world” (regaining control of our money, laws, and borders with the opportunity to strike our own trade deals). Surely few can have missed the campaign mantra ‘strong and stable leadership’ versus a ‘coalition of chaos’ (Labour propped up by the Liberal Democrats and Scottish Nationalist Parties).

So, as we look forward to the results of this week’s ‘snap’ general election it might be interesting to look back to a previous ‘snap’ election, specifically the general election called by Stanley Baldwin in 1923.

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Additions to the Wardrop Collection

On May 17th descendants of the British diplomat Sir Oliver Wardrop visited the Bodleian to donate further items to the Wardrop collection on Georgia. The newly donated material contains correspondence by Sir Oliver written during his period as British High Commissioner for Transcaucasia, 1919-20, and letters written by his sister Marjory on her first visit to Georgia in 1894.

During their visit, family members were shown manuscripts already in the Library’s  Wardrop collection by Dr. Nikoloz Aleksidze, who is currently writing a book about the collection.

Descendants of Sir Oliver Wardrop with Dr. Nikoloz Aleksidze showing their additions to the Wardrop collection

Nursery rhymes, childhood folklore, and play: The archive of Iona and Peter Opie

Iona and Peter Opie were a husband-and-wife team researching childhood folklore. They started their work in the 1940s, when the birth of their first child sparked off their interest in nursery rhymes, and over more than four decades, they extended their research into many other areas of children’s culture, including children’s language, customs and beliefs, play and games. The Opies published more than 20 books – anthologies of traditional nursery rhymes, songs and fairy tales, as well as observations and analysis of children’s play and games in the street and in the playground, and the lore and language of schoolchildren.

Iona and Peter Opie in the playground

The Opies were avid collectors, and over the decades amassed one of the world’s largest collections of children’s books and printed ephemara, covering children’s literature from the 16th to the 20th century. The Opie Collection of Children’s Literature – over 20,000 pieces – was donated to the Bodleian Library in 1988.
But for their research in children’s culture the Opies not only relied on books published for children. They also wanted to collect the oral traditions of childhood – the rhymes, songs and games, the language and customs of the playground – and,  quite a new approach at the time, they wanted to collect these from the children themselves.

In November 1951, the Opies placed an advert in the Sunday Times, asking for help from teachers in collecting children’s lore and language, the idea being that schoolchildren answered a set of questions about counting out rhymes, local superstitions, cheers, slang and abbreviations, and send in  the ‘suggestionaires’, as the Opies called their survey sheets, via their teachers. Over the years the method evolved into asking open questions, or encouraging the children to freely describe their games and playground activities, hobbies and preferences. The teachers were instructed not to direct or aid the children when writing these papers, and even to leave the spelling unchecked.
From the 1950s through to the 1990s, the Opies received thousands of replies from children from all over the UK, often with accompanying letters by the teachers describing the local playground culture from their perspective, and sending in school journals, photographs, newspaper clipping and other background information. With some of their correspondents, the Opies stayed in touch over years, allowing them to trace the development of games and playground crazes at a particular school or in a particular area over time.

From the Opie Archive: One of 38 boxes of children’s letters

Box contents: Letters bundled by school – the Opies’ number referencing system in place.

To process and analyse their data, the Opies developed a daily work routine: Iona Opie would sort and analyse the incoming information and compile working material, adding survey responses, secondary literature and bibliographical notes. Peter Opie would then write up the results in a first draft, on which Iona would comment on the basis of her data, and so on. This produced an ever-expanding system  of sheet files – each one relating to a particular game or activity, with Iona’s rigorous approach to research data management (… this was long before databases and spreadsheets!) being crucial to keeping physical and intellectual control of the complex and extensive collection of research material.

From the c. 300 Opie working files, or as Iona Opie commented: “we have no memories, we have only filing system”.

The  original children’s papers and teachers’ correspondence, along with the working files, form the core of the Opie Archive, which has been transferred from Iona and Peter Opie’s home and ‘research headquarters’ in West Liss, Hampshire, to the Bodleian Library in various tranches since the 1990s. The archive – a total of 248 boxes – has been in use by researchers, but with only basic finding aids available it was difficult to navigate for anyone who did not know exactly what they were looking for.
Whilst the children’s papers, working files and professional correspondence are still very well organised in the original Opie filing system, other parts of the archive – materials relating to the Opies’ publications such as drafts and notes for books, and an extensive series of  personal papers and memorabilia, diaries and family correspondence – remain unsorted, uncatalogued and thus largely inaccessible to researchers.

Some of the boxes containing Peter Mason Opie’s [P.M.O.] personal papers and correspondence, as well as the manuscript of his first autobiographical book ‘I Want to be a Success’, published in 1939.

To open up the full research potential of the Opie Archive, a cataloguing project has started with the generous support of the Wellcome Trust. Over the next 16 months, we will sort and describe the archive to professional standards, consider questions of copyright and data protection, and address any conservation needs. We aim to release part-catalogues as work progresses through the series of the collection, with the final, complete catalogue becoming available in June 2018.

The first weeks of the project have flown by with stock taking and project planning, working from existing lists to get an overview of the content and structure of the archive, assessing the physical status, thinking about the future arrangement of the collection, and developing a detailed working plan.
Not least, there was a lot of background reading to do, to get an idea of the Opies’ lives and work, and provide the context of the archives material we are dealing with.

Lists and books, books and lists – it’s an archivist’s life! But not many people get to read fairy tales and playground stories for their work, so I won’t complain…

Please note that whilst we will try to accommodate urgent researchers’ requests for access wherever possible, sequences of the Opie Archive will become temporarily unavailable whilst preservation and cataloguing work is being carried out. If you need to consult material from the Opie Archive before June 2018, please contact us with as much advance notice as possible, so we can advise on the availability of the material in question and make the necessary arrangements.

In the meantime, we will keep you updated with further blog posts on the progress of the cataloguing work, and make sure to share some stories from the Opies’ fascinating world of childhood games and nursery rhymes.

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Supported by the Wellcome Trust