‘Counter Archive’: Black Lives in the Archives

by Devika

Peter Brathwaite FRSA is a British baritone, broadcaster, theatre artist, music columnist and a developer of music programming. Read more here. His photographic book project Rediscovering Black Portraiture highlights Black individuals in the history of visual arts, and in a similar but more personal vein Brathwaite has undertaken research to uncover Black histories in archives.

At a workshop with the Bodleian Libraries project ‘We Are Our History’ 24 October 2023, held at the Weston Library for Special Collections, Brathwaite led participants on a journey through archives connected with Codrington College, Barbados, and other historical documents of Britain’s Caribbean colonies during enslavement. For Brathwaite there were familial connections: he found his ancestors Edward/Addo and Margaret Brathwaite, as well as his enslaver ancestor John Brathwaite, referenced in the records.

A key part of the workshop was the ‘counter-archive’ of material that Brathwaite brought into the Library, curated by himself, in the form of photographs, maps, a Bible, and song. The group sang ‘The Breadfruit Song’ together, with Brathwaite prompting participants to think about the vitality of singing compared to the loss of magic, aura, materiality and perhaps of reality when dealing with words on paper. While singing in the Bodleian sounds impossible and almost sacrilegious, music, as Brathwaite explained, is a critical experience and archive. An archive created by the disempowered. When denied their identity beyond being owned as property on paper, the traditional archive, music communicates that experience instead. Traditional archives thus necessitate the use of counter-archives especially in contexts where historically people have been denied inclusion in official records.

Bringing expertise to archival research, including familial and community memories preserved outside of archival sources, was an important theme of the workshop. Brathwaite gave the example of spotting specific words in documents whose significance might be missed by individuals unfamiliar with the relevant context. He pointed out that historical records referred to rebellions by enslaved individuals as ‘mischief’.  Mischief was a shorthand for living, he declared, especially for the enslaved. Words like ‘mischief’ could be used to connote the infantilization of the body of colour, to justify regimes of control.

The workshop led to a very well-attended lecture by Peter Brathwaite … which led to a short film … which led to the temporary display mentioned below.

Collaboration with artists, storytellers, academics and more, as part of the ‘We Are Our History’ project, goes beyond one off events. We are keen on helping researchers discover and work with the archives. This facilitates relationships with the archives, especially beyond traditional treatments, as in this case, that help both the Bodleian and researchers learn from these narratives, stories, unconventional treatments and counter archives. For the library, the learning is about being more inclusive of stories traditionally not told, and more aware of practices that sedimented a lack of inclusion–and how we can change those practices to be more inclusive in the future. Working with artists like Peter Brathwaite is an incredible learning experience for those involved in the initiatives but also for the library as a whole, and that is the purpose of these collaborations as opposed to performative checks.

The temporary display, ‘Mischief in the Archives,’ at the Weston Library until 7 April, draws out the themes of Peter Brathwaite’s archival research.  https://visit.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/event/mischief-in-the-archives

For more on this story see: https://www.ox.ac.uk/news/features/hearing-through-overwhelming-silence-enslaved-ancestors-found-bodleian-archives-opera

Peter Brathwaite at the Bodleian LibraryAlso watch the short film: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NVQU7El6EqI


Collage Comparison: A Case Study of Comparison and Juxtaposition in Archives

Collage Comparison poster, detail. Collage Comparison Symposium and Julia Utreras

by Devika

Methods of reading and understanding archives are constantly evolving. The question of ‘whose voices?’ are heard in archival materials has encouraged attention to gaps and silences. With the project ‘We Are Our History,’ the Bodleian Libraries have found guidance from researchers inside and outside academia on new approaches to archives. The symposium ‘Collage Comparison,’ (September 29-30, 2023, St Anne’s College Oxford and Bodleian Libraries) was devised by the Oxford Comparative Criticism and Translation (OCCT) Research Centre, using collage as a method of bringing archival materials into dialogue with each other. The two-day symposium brought together artists, practitioners, and scholars from a range of disciplines within Oxford and beyond—from English, Modern Languages, and History of Art to Ethnomusicology, Visual Anthropology, and Curatorial Studies.

Organisers Dr Joseph Hankinson, Dr Tinashe Mushakavanhu and Dr Georgia Nasseh explored how collage, conceptually and practically, can provide a new and decolonised rhetoric for understanding translation and archival work.

 Understanding Archives Differently with Collage

On the first day, the group was guided in creative collage-making by artist Sofia Yalla. The session led by Yalla explored how professional archives relate to personal archives, with participants being given either a ‘construction’ or a ‘deconstruction’ kit, having to connect and collaborate in these two processes of selecting and building an archive.

The choice of collage as the focal point for exploration was deeply rooted in its historical ties to the African continent and its diaspora. With its delicate balance of appropriation and expropriation, fragmentation, and juxtaposition, collage played a pivotal role in the artistic expressions of writers like Kojo Laing and M. NourbeSe Philip. From the start, the symposium used the potential of collage as a model, with participants’ self-introductions woven into a conversation ‘performed’ by all the participants, rather than standing as separate, individual statements.

On the second day, the symposium worked with an archive held in the Bodleian, the archive of the Anti-Apartheid Movement. In this workshop hosted by Dr Mushakavanahu,  it was fascinating to observe the different creations by individuals interacting with the same document. Participants sitting side-by-side and creating collage (from photographs of the archival materials) became a true example of diversity: difference, similarity, and juxtaposition of perspectives in the archives. The need to understand how one set of texts could mean something entirely different for different communities–multiple understandings of the same texts–is an advantage, not a limitation.

 Digital Collage and Future Accessibility

Discussion during the symposium explored how academic work informed the aesthetics of collage and considered future accessibility to the created material. The Zine created by attendees as part of their final morning in the Symposium will be available on the Collage Comparison website. The Zine exemplifies many of the ideas discussed above; most importantly, the potential collage holds as a technique towards interacting with archives – digitally or in person.

See Collage Comparison for description of the symposium aims and images of the workshop in progress.

For the Bodleian Libraries,  Collage Comparison provided a model of collaborative working and showed the alchemy in archives placed in a new relationship with researchers. See the ‘We Are Our History’ project website. https://www.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/about/libraries/our-work/we-are-our-history

Dr Tinashe Mushakavanhu will lecture on ‘Cut/Copy/Paste: Collage as a form of reading and writing the archive’, on Tuesday 24 January at 1 pm, in the Weston Library, Broad Street, Oxford. Registration required: https://visit.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/waoh-conversations

The First Folio: a compositor speaks

Re-setting of The Tempest in 2023

Celebrating the 400th anniversary of the First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays, the Bodleian Bibliographical Press offers a type reproduction of the first page of the first play in that book, The Tempest. Two modern typesetters have reproduced the page hand-set in type, recreating the habits, faults and foibles of the original compositors of the First Folio. Below are reflections on the experiment. The printed Tempest sheets are on sale in the Bodleian Shop. Members of the public will have a chance to print their own on Sunday Nov. 19 at the Weston Library; see Event listings for details.

Michael Daniell writes:

‘The Tempest’, the first play in the folio, also happened to be one of 19 Shakespeare plays for which there was probably not an earlier printed version. So one would have expected it to be designed and typeset with great care. As Richard Lawrence and I proceeded with the typesetting, I soon came to realize that what passed for acceptable in 1623 London would not pass muster today.

There is erratic spacing around punctuation and there is no sign that its purpose was to fill out the length of a line. Casting an eye down the left-hand margin of each column showed that there was no consistency in the space used to indent a speaker’s name. Sometimes this seemed to have been so that a word did not have to be broken at the end of the line, but often there was no apparent reason for what we would regard as poor alignment of text. There were instances of awkward work breaks at line ends: en-ter, e-nough, ma-ster, roa-rers, han-ging, drow-ning.

It is known that there were four stages of correction made to this page while it was on the press, the first stage being the correction of the initial letter which had been positioned upside-down. (See Charlton Hinman, The Printing and Proof-Reading of the First Folio of Shakespeare, 1963). The correction of such an obvious mistake suggests that there may have been earlier stages of correction to the main body of the text in galley before it was made up into a page. It is perhaps significant that the other three stages of correction that we know about involved the larger 24-point display lines such as the Act heading, that might have been added last.

After working on the setting of ‘The Tempest’ at the Bodleian Bibliographical Press, I decided to print a further folio page on my own press. I’d read that the first page of ‘The Tempest’ had been set by a particular compositor, identified as Compositor B, who set almost half the pages in the First Folio. I wanted to print a page associated with Compositor A, who only set a quarter of the book. My choice was the first page of ‘1 Henry VI’ as it was distinguished by an elegant tapered block of stage directions. It also had a fine headpiece ornament that was also used to introduce 12 other plays in the book. I checked that my play was also one of the ones that had not been printed previously in quarto, and so might be a fair comparison with the work of Compositor B.

In my typesetting of the ‘1 Henry VI’ page, I found that there were no word breaks, though there were some very tight lines, in one of which Compositor A had resorted to the use of an ampersand. There was the same irregular spacing around punctuation, and the same irregular use of swash italic letters. As these italic letters occur in the speech headings, any inconsistency is particularly conspicuous. Other features of Compositor A’s setting included more frequent use of capital letters introducing nouns, and slightly more consistent indentation of speech headings.

A check of the other plays in the folio showed the same inconsistency in the use of swash italic letters but there were fewer awkward word breaks and the spacing of punctuation points was more as we would expect today. This was also the case when I looked at two other books printed on the Jaggard presses in 1622, William Burton, The Description of Leicestershire and the third edition of Thomas Wilson, A Christian Dictionarie.

The aim of typesetting two pages from the First Folio had been to reproduce the 1622-23 printing as closely as possible.  We used 14-point Caslon cast by the typefounder Stephenson Blake, a typeface that comes close in appearance and size to the type used to set the original First Folio. We followed the 17th-century practice of setting the lines without interlinear leading, a process that presents challenges when making corrections or moving lines once they are set as the individual pieces of type all too easily slip from one line to another.  The format of the First Folio followed the Golden Mean, 1:1.61. Because of the different size of the type, our efforts were necessarily wider, 1:1.52, but the effect was still striking and I hope would have met with some approval from the original compositors and printers.

Show and Tell for students: Art and Ephemera in the Bodleian

Altered copy of: Gibson's guide to Stephen's Commentaries on the laws of England (London, 1922), with a substantial shard of glass projecting through the volume.
John Latham, 1921-2006, book artist, Gibson’s Guide.

For students: Tuesday 17 October (Week 2), 1-2 pm, Bahari Seminar Room, Weston Library
Art and Ephemera offers an introduction to finding and using artists’ books and ephemera at the Bodleian with Jo Maddocks, Assistant Curator, Rare Books and Annabelle Hondier, Assistant Curator, John Johnson Collection.

Note: your University of Oxford Card or Bodleian Reader Card is essential for access to the Weston Library.

Registration required: email bookcentre@bodleian.ox.ac.ukmust include subject lineArt and ephemera.

Above is an image of an altered copy of Gibson’s guide to Stephen’s Commentaries on the laws of England (London, 1922), with a substantial shard of glass projecting through the volume, made by book artist John Latham as part of his ‘Skoob’ series. Find it on the Bodleian’s online catalogue, SOLO


Bodleian Printer in Residence: Tia Blassingame

Tia Blassingame will be printer in residence at the Bodleian Bibliographical Press from 9 October to 9 November 2023. During this time she will develop existing work (Black: A Handbook), make new work, research with Bodleian Special Collections, and share her practice with Bodleian staff and meet local groups, students, and the public.

Blassingame is a book artist, a printer, publisher (Primrose Press), a curator and an educator. She uses book arts and printmaking (letterpress, pressure printing, digital printing) to create racially-charged images that seduce the reader into nuanced discussions on issues of race and racism.

Tia Blassingame is an Associate Professor of Art at Scripps College, where she teaches Book Arts and Letterpress Printing, and serves as the Director of Scripps College Press. Her artist’s books and prints can be found in library and museum collections across the world. In 2019, Blassingame founded the Book/Print Artist/Scholar of Color Collective, a group that brings Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) book artists, papermakers, curators, letterpress printers, printmakers into conversation and collaboration with scholars of Book History and Print Culture to build community support systems. Most recently, Blassingame has co-curated, with writer, book artist, publisher Stephanie Sauer, the NEA and Center for Craft grants-awarded exhibition, Paper Is People: Decolonizing Global Paper Cultures, held at Minnesota Center for Book Arts, (April 14- August 12, 2023) and San Francisco Center for the Book (October 28 -December 22, 2023).

During the period of her residency, Blassingame’s book ‘Mourning/Warning’ will be on display in the Alphabets Alive! exhibition in the Weston Library. As part of this exhibition, on Saturday 14 October, Blassingame will participate in a public engagement event, The ABC of Bodley a bookbinding workshop with Bodleian Conservator Andrew Honey.

On 24 October, 1-2pm, join us for her talk, We Rise (Together): Taking and Making Space for BIPOC Book Arts Creatives, Cultures, and Histories,  Lecture Theatre, Weston Library. Tia Blassingame will introduce her work with the Book/Print Artist/Scholar of Color Collective and talk through methods to support and empower BIPOC book and print artists so that they can thrive in the book arts field and beyond.

Under the microscope

Conserving a Mughal Album from the Shahjahan period (MS. Douce Or. a. 1.) by Julia Bearman, Senior Paper Conservator, Bodleian Library.

Bequeathed to the Bodleian Library in 1834 by antiquary and bibliophile Francis Douce, MS. Douce Or. a. 1 is the earliest album within the Libraries’ Mughal collection.  The album was assembled in the 17th century for a member of the Mughal Imperial family and contains 41 pictures and 53 calligraphic panels within decorated lacquered boards.

MS. Douce Or. a. 1 has been the recent focus of treatment in the Bodleian Libraries conservation studio. Fragilities to the painted images became evident in 2019 during an assessment of its condition to determine whether it could be lent for an exhibition abroad. Thanks to the generous support from a group of donors the conservation treatment went ahead and is due for completion in 2023.

MS. Douce Or. a. 1, fols. 56a/55b.
Ms. Douce Or. a. 1, fols. 11a/10b.

Each folio is made from several sheets of paper pasted together to form a thick sheet and burnished to create a smooth surface. The corners were found to be fragile where they had been touched repeatedly over the centuries causing them to break and delaminate. The conservation treatment included stabilizing these areas by adhering a very thin (3.5g/m2) Japanese paper to them.

The condition of the paint layer on both the paintings and calligraphies was examined under a stereo microscope at magnifications of up to 40x. This revealed not only paint loss but also actively unstable miniscule flakes of paint beginning to lift away from the paper beneath. The securing of these unstable flakes to prevent further losses was of primary importance.

Julia Bearman viewing MS. Douce Or. a 1 under the microscope.

To stabilize the paint, a liquid adhesive was introduced under the edges of each unstable flake using an exceptionally fine tipped brush and a steady hand, whilst viewing the manuscript through the microscope. Within the field of conservation there are a number of adhesives suitable for the consolidation of painted media and the one chosen for this project was the polysaccharide JunFunori®, which is the purified form of Funori, a Japanese adhesive made from the red algae genus Gloiopeltis furcate.

MS. Douce Or. a. 1, fol. 42a and Paint flakes after stabilization. MS. Douce Or. a. 1, fol. 42a.

The microscope was also a useful tool to view the boards, and revealed layers of paper, gesso, paint, gold and lacquer. The lacquered boards require further study in order to understand how they were produced and to understand their ageing process and their conservation issues.

Lacquered boards, MS. Douce Or. a. 1

The materials and techniques of traditional Persian lacquered bookbinding will be explored with Prof. Dr. Mandana Barkeshli, a conservation scientist and academic, and her colleague Dr. Hamid Malekian, during a forthcoming workshop for conservators and a public lecture.*

*Persian lacquered bookbinding: A journey through its layers and conservation challenges, by  Prof. Dr. Mandana Barkeshli takes place on Tuesday 27 June 11-12pm at Weston Library, Bodleian Libraries. Book your place here.

The Bodleian Libraries gratefully acknowledge support from these donors for the conservation of this album:

Lady McNeice Charitable Foundation
Davidson Family Charitable Trust
Jan Hall
Rafaël Biosse Duplan
Clive C R Bannister
Anonymous donors

Collecting Women’s Literary Lives

Guest blog article by Eleanor Clark, winner of the Colin Franklin Prize for Book-Collecting 2023.

I first encountered Winifred Holtby’s South Riding in Exeter’s Oxfam shop, in a worn Virago reprint. I was twelve and didn’t yet know to hold out for the darker green originals. The novel is nearly 600 pages long, including maps and character lists. Exactly the kind of tome that a bookish twelve-year-old can devour in a week, moving only to dodge footballs in the playground. I think if I came across it now, I’d find it harder to commit to. There’s a voraciousness to being twelve which I doubt I’ll ever see again. It’s fortuitous, then, that books, like people, sometimes come along at precisely the right moment in our lives.

Winifred Holtby, South Riding, first edition 1936. London and Glasgow: Collins Clear-Type Press, first printing 1936. Purchased with the support of the Colin Franklin Prize for Book Collecting, 2023.

On dust jacket of the first edition of South Riding, Jonathan Cape describes it as ‘unquestionably the greatest novel we have been privileged to publish’. Not even Virago would write that about Holtby today. Until I held this copy of South Riding in my hands – the first edition I’ve been privileged to be able to buy for the Library as part of the Colin Franklin Prize – I had no idea that Cape had written this endorsement. The ‘middlebrow’ label has not only completely swamped many interwar women writers’ works, but swallowed what they once meant to readers. I think the familiar generic forms of these fictions veil a quiet radicalism that allows readers, especially women, to envisage a life beyond social prescription, a life on the fringes of the possible. And in many cases, the radicalism isn’t even particularly quiet.

My collection began with a dust jacket-less first edition of Vera Brittain’s Humiliation with Honour, for £2.50. The Prologue is an epistle to Brittain’s son, with whom she had a complex relationship. The letter might read as a mother who prioritised political and literary life belatedly acknowledging her child. But my copy denies that reading. A child’s heavy scribbles cover the title page and prologue, over a scrawled inscription from 1943. I like to imagine it plucked from a busy mother’s handbag and defaced before she notices. A male dominated market desires purity, but real life is more truly captured when high textual ideas and messy material reality incorporate each other.

My copy of Thrice a Stranger extends this principle from feminism to socialism. This is a scarce title and, as a Gollancz publication, scarcer still with dust jacket. My copy is signed but bears three Manchester Public Library stamps. The co-existence of value-augmenting signature and value-diminishing stamps fascinates me. It’s possible that Brittain, a committed socialist, chose to sign a library copy to which working people had access.

This is why I collect books: the physical object is where we see readers interacting with texts. Rare book markets stigmatise marks left by readers, unless they are the ‘right’ kind of reader: the illustrious kind. I find this completely nonsensical. How can evidence that a book has been read, listened to, and loved, by the audience for whom it was written possibly diminish its value? Only if our notions of the value of stories are themselves warped.

I am proud that my collection includes damaged books. I can’t pretend I intended it to be so: I began collecting both cluelessly and pennilessly. But now I find that collecting books whose market value is derided is part of the work of revalorising texts whose critical fortunes have also fallen. I value the ‘middlebrow’, and I value its readers.

When I survey my collection, I feel the tenacity of these writers. Women like Holtby, Brittain, Spark and Bowen were not always brave and bold, but they wrote women who are. They write us all how we would like ourselves to be – a little bit more self-confident. Copies of their books that embody that self-confidence, that defiance of odds and social standards; copies that make testaments to the youth that grew up with them – those are the copies I want on my bookshelf.

BOOKNESS speaks to Justine Provino

In the final podcast in this series of BOOKNESS, book conservator and PhD candidate Justine Provino talks about her research into the self-destructive book Agrippa: A Book of the Dead.

Listen to the episode here.

Justine Provino with Agrippa (Rec. a.25) at the Bodleian’s Visiting Scholars’ Centre.

It’s a nesting doll about ageing and decay, and the publisher, the artist, and the writer really worked together … to express all these ideas throughout the materiality of every component of the artists’ book

The codex wrapped in the textile ‘shroud’ within a recess in the box base.
Detail of label on the box lid.
Condition record of unbound Agrippa image, with traces of the ‘disappearing image’ (MS. Eng. b. 2160)

The release of this episode of BOOKNESS on 9th December 2022 marks the 30th anniversary of the publishing of this work. Happy birthday Agrippa!

Useful links for this episode:

  • Watch William Gibson’s poem Agrippa: A Book of the Dead
    running in emulation on a 1992-era Mac computer here
  • Read Justine’s article in issue 3 of Inscription

BOOKNESS speaks to Stephen Emmerson

In the third podcast in the series, BOOKNESS talks to poet and artist Stephen Emmerson about his work Translation of Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge, a paperback novel ‘translated’ into mushrooms.

Listen to the episode here.

In transforming, playing, or recomposing books, I’m trying to reconnect with the magic of it.

A record photograph taken by the Bodleian’s Conservation team showing the condition of  ‘Translation’ (Cons.Res. 43) in May 2021.

I kept it on the window sill … and it completely dried out … the preservation was kind of accidental to begin with …

” A nice array of fruiting”. A record photo showing a detail of the mushroom growth.

It could be rehydrated again, in theory, but hopefully it’s no longer spore producing for the sake of all the other books in the library…

Useful links and glossary checks in this episode:

BOOKNESS speaks to Yiota Demetriou

In this week’s episode, BOOKNESS talks to multi-media artist Yiota Demetriou, about her work  To You, a book printed in thermochromic ink.

Listen to the episode here.

A woman sits behind a table with her right hand placed on an open book. The book has black pages, but close to her hand white patches can be seen, with small black text. In her other hand she holds a mug with a hot drink. In the foreground is an open brown box.
Artist Laura Kriefman experiencing ‘To You’ (Image by George Margelis, 2019)

It’s a book as much as it is an art object … as a book, read it, interact with it, touch its pages, infuse its pages with your warmth … from the art experience, I guess it’s more about the audiences way of how they want to interact with it …

‘To You’ (Rec. d.625) on show in the Sensational Books exhibition at the Weston Library.

I’ve always been interested in interactive books since I was little, I am neurodiverse myself so it’s easier for me … to engage with books that … use different senses because they would capture my entire focus.

A white hand with a green sleeve pressed against a black piece of paper stuck to a grey wall.
A single leaf of ‘To You’ that visitors to the Sensational Books exhibition can interact with.

It is an artwork that is supposed to be touched and it’s supposed to wear and tear … as you start to expose and touch … as you’re reading the content, it becomes more familiar with you …

The interactive materials wall in the Sensational Books exhibition showing a leaf of thermochromic paper that has been activated by the heat of a hand, and shows signs of the many interactions that have happened already over the course of the exhibition.

Useful links and glossary checks in this episode:

  • Find out more about Yiota’s work here.
  • Listen again to episode 1 of BOOKNESS to recap on what artists’ books are and the collection here at the Bodleian.
  • Watch a video of To You in action.
  • Visit the Sensational Books exhibition at the Bodleian’s Weston Library in Oxford until 4th December 2022, and experience Yiota’s work for yourself!