Adventures of an Amateur Archivist

Mmmmm. Cake.

Mmmmm. Cake. (Edsel Little – Flicka)

I didn’t grow up wanting to be an archivist. My one clear ambition, around the age of eight, was to be a baker in the morning and an author in the afternoon. When it came to choosing a degree I was fairly lost, after all who really knows what they want to do when they’re seventeen. I decided to do Classical and Archaeological studies, like most people simply because I liked the subject at school, and chose the University of Kent as I knew Canterbury well and found the course contained many uniquely interesting modules.

The idea of becoming an archivist came to me about halfway through my second year at Kent. I have always been fascinated by history, even as a young child, but struggled working out how to use it in my career. I couldn’t be a history teacher, neither could I see myself as a lecturer in history – I was terrified of speaking to groups of people. I couldn’t picture myself as a career historian. Despite archaeology being part of my degree title, I followed more of an Ancient History pathway, deciding archaeology was not the right fit for me.

Bizarrely I think a large influence was the BBC’s ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ I have always primarily been more interested in social and religious history than any other sphere, and I think the initial idea I had was to become a genealogist, but WDYTYA showed me archives could hold a wealth of hugely interesting and varied material, and to be working with that material, and maybe even be in charge of what happens to it, is what pulled me towards the career. I also hold a firm belief that anything of historical value should be preserved and made available for anyone who wants to see it.

So, after a couple of years of job hunting, and a year stint as a casual and Saturday girl at my local council libraries, I managed to get a job as a Metadata Assistant at my old university. I hadn’t expected to return to Kent, but I was exceedingly happy to do so. I viewed this job as more or less perfect in terms of transitioning between libraries and archives, the wealth of experience I would gain, and the direction I wanted to be going in. Needless to say I could hardly believe my luck.

My co-workers of happiness (and me)

My co-workers of happiness (and me)

My first task was to conquer cataloguing. I had no previous experience and so have learnt everything from scratch. Initially I was focussed on regular academic books, and then I was introduced to Special Collections book cataloguing. Initially the experience was incredibly confusing. The empty catalogue record looked to me a little like a small Excel spreadsheet with a list of, (then meaningless), numbers at the side. Now it makes perfect sense to me, but at the time I found it challenging.

7cm tall Merchant of Venice I catalogued from the Reading Rayner Collection

7cm tall Merchant of Venice I catalogued from the Reading Rayner Collection

Later I was moved on to cataloguing for the British Cartoon Archive (BCA), which doesn’t just involve books. My principle duty is cataloguing modern political cartoons from the daily newspapers. This uses a different program to book cataloguing, so, just as I was adjusting to the first program, I was given another, totally different, one to master. Cartoon cataloguing is definitely a skill that improves with practice. The point is to enter search terms in the record that describe the cartoon, but working out what is going on in any given cartoon isn’t always straightforward. What I struggled with most was approaching this with little diverse political knowledge. I had no idea who most of the people in the cartoons even were. Now I can recognise caricatures of people, despite not knowing what they look like in reality.

A hugely important collection within the BCA is that of Carl Giles, and as part of this we have stacks of blank Christmas cards, designed by him. My first non-cataloguing job was to count these, and put them in boxes. The novelty soon wore off. Unsurprising when you consider I counted over thirteen thousand of these. However I did eventually get through them, and the sense of triumph when they were done was palpable. My work at the BCA has become more diverse, although boxes continue to play a remarkably large part in my life.

Many many Giles annuals (without attendant boxes)

Many many Giles annuals (without attendant boxes)

A few months into my work at Kent the BCA received a new and highly significant collection of the political cartoonist Leon Kuhn. He was an anti-war cartoonist, who campaigned alongside George Galloway’s party Respect in the 2005 general election. His work, I have learned, is unique, hard hitting, and often fairly disturbing. It is also large. I was given the task of unrolling and relocating his political posters, many of which were taller than my five feet two inches. I appreciate that for a human five foot two is not especially tall, but for rolls of paper it is pretty big, not to mention unwieldy. I also had to relocate the rest of the collection, including boxes of campaign leaflets, photos and books. I did enjoy this work, especially as it was my first real opportunity to see some of the collections, but I felt a little like a removals lady.

The work that I am proudest of taking on is of a more social nature. I have always struggled to talk to people, be they in groups, or just one person I don’t know particularly well. I often find my nerves get the better of me to the point of panic attacks. So when I was asked if I wanted to supervise volunteers in a rare book cleaning project and help out in seminars run for students using Special Collections and Archives material, my first response, both times, was panic and a distinct sense of ‘no way,’ after all I had only been in the job three months, surely there was no way I was prepared for this. I ignored my brain screaming wordlessly at me, and agreed to give both a go.

The volunteering was the easier of the two to deal with. Initially I only had one volunteer to supervise cleaning rare books in preparation for our move to the Templeman extension next year, and I was lucky that she was a happy, friendly and chatty sort of person. It went a lot better than I anticipated and I actually enjoyed doing it, which is what surprised me the most. This project has allowed my confidence to grow substantially.

Before and after - volunteer cleaning

Before and after – volunteer cleaning

The seminars were harder. There would be a group of students who would all be listening to, and for the most part looking at, me whilst I gave a run down on what Special Collections and Archives was, how to order items and how to use the material we had out in the seminar. I was shaking at the time, but I overcame my nerves, and found presenting became easier with each seminar. This came with a great sense of achievement, as I overcame my initial concerns.

I think it’s easy to say the most interesting thing that has occurred in my brief time here was the Reading Room leak. I came in on a Monday morning to be informed it was basically raining in the reading room. Over the course of the day tiles fell off the ceiling and the carpet was soaked through, however all staff pulled together to ensure there was no major damage to any collection items. Throughout the day, and over the course of the next couple of days, I helped various other staff members remove items from the room, such as reference books, old playbills from our theatre collections, and the Indonesian shaman’s staff. (You get some weird looks when you carry that through the library and into a lift). Basically the entire of that week was a little frantic. I regularly had to leave my usual work to go and help deal with the disaster. I spent a lot of time scurrying around the building, and found I was exhausted at the end of it. But oddly I almost enjoyed the experience. Especially after we managed to save everything.

My colleague Josie in the leaking reading room

My colleague Josie in the leaking reading room

My experience has been invaluable. I have huge variety in the work I do, with ample opportunity to push myself further. I have a much clearer idea of the work archivists do, and most importantly for me I have confirmed to myself that this is the area in which I want to work. I absolutely love the work I do, although that may not always come across. Even tasks that I didn’t necessarily find easy are an important experience, and I think it’s good for archivists to be involved in their collections with work at every level. My experience of working with a variety of collections, in a variety of functions has prepared me to commit to a postgraduate course in archive management. I work in the happy knowledge that I am incredibly lucky to be working here. It took me two years following graduation to get a full time job, but now I know that it was worth the wait, and I am unbelievably happy to be back at Kent.

Rachel Dickinson

Thou shall not leak!!

Thou shall not leak!!

Going on a summer holiday? 9.1: what William did next

The last time I posted on this topic, I’ve discovered, was back in April last year. It’s been more than a year now, and I do feel that I have neglected poor old William Harris, having left him in Rome at the Carnival of 1822. That’s not to say that my Wm Harris Syracuse d sealenthusiasm for discovering more about his journey has diminished; in fact, the other day I was idly glancing through a holiday brochure and saw a package tour around Sicily, covering Mount Etna, Palermo, Siracusa and Taormina and got a bit over excited. No, this isn’t my planned holiday for this year (not at that price!) but this does follow the journey which William and his friends took nearly 200 years ago. In fact, it looks like William was part of the team which undertook some of the earliest work on these now very popular tourist destinations.

For anyone who is new to this series, some time ago (longer than I care to admit) one of our volunteers discovered some correspondence in an uncatalogued tin box which turned out to be letters written by one William Harris Junr. to his father, in Norton Place, during the 1820s. William (the younger) was an architect who had set off around Europe to discover the classical knowledge which was key to his profession, and undertook something of what we’d now call the role of art historian and archaeologist during his trip.Having crossed from Dover to Calais, taken in Paris, Geneva and the towns of northern Italy, William and his friends reached Rome in the autumn of 1821. From there, because of the ongoing wars in Greece, they set out for Sicily, where the journey eventually reached its thrilling conclusion.

If you’re new to this series, do take a look back at the other posts; if you’ve been following the story so far, I do hope that the long delay in this installment hasn’t put you off!

An image of William's letter

William’s letter from Syracuse

While the tourist brochure I was looking at provides much the same route as William took, the early nineteenth century experience of such tourism was rather different to our own. For one thing, the roads were more dangerous; our little group of travellers has already experienced the threat of robbery and kidnap, storms in the mountains and the threat of pestilence at Livorno. In addition, whether it’s particularly true of this group, or whether this applies more widely to travllers at this time, there seems to have been a fasination with getting close to danger. I’ve already related how William descended into a crater, tied to a piece of rope, but found that the heat of the (volcanic) earth scorched through his thick bootsoles in a few minutes. I imagine that, given the dangers inherent in travel, there had to be an element of the daredevil in you to set out on these journeys at all. This letter proves no exception: in June 1822, William and his friends decided to climb Mount Etna.

The missive is one of the longest in the series – not overwritten but put down in tiny handwritng on a large, unfolder sheet. Perhaps this was some of his drawing paper, requisitioned for the purpose, but in any case, for the sake of sanity, I’m going to have to split this letter into two. So, before they got as far as Etna, he and his friends took in the sights of Taormina, learned about local history and ran afoul of a Superior-General’s election.

Of course, being drawn to danger did not necesarilly mean embracing discomfort: William found the lack of roads in Sicily deplorable, claiming that this was a detriment to ‘commerce and improvments of almost every kind’. Apparently, the English had earlier tried to build roads on the island, but their imposition of tolls on the populartion failed, since ‘the toll houses were destroyed in the night’. Since the roads couldn’t support a carriage of any kind, William noted the use of a ‘settiga’ in the locality, which he described as ‘a whimsical sort of horse-sedan…. It resembles somewhat the form of a “Vis-à-vis”…but in the style of a …hackney coach.’ This rather confusing description leads to all kinds of stretching of the imagination, but does show how alien William and his friends found the customs of this country which we now consider only a couple of hours’ distant.

William describes the 'vis-a-vis' contraption

William describes the ‘vis-a-vis’ contraption

Despite the intrigue of the settiga, donkeys were the made method of conveyance for the small band of architects as they set out from Messina on foot. At Palermo, the small group was joined by a Mr. Atkinson, ‘a well informed and agreeable man, about 30’. This gentleman had studied law, but had given up the profession and spent the previous four years travelling the Continent. As you may recall, the rest of William’s travelling companions were all architects (which has led me to wonder whether Europe was awash with young English architects at this point, or whether they just travelled in packs), but Atkinson need not have felt left out. William explains that Atkinson had spent the time travelling with two architects, friends of Thomas Angell, who had joined the group in Paris. The longest serving member of the group, besides William, seems to have been something of the comedy partner. Mr. Brooks arrived late in Dover, so that William considered leaving without him, insisted having packing cases of fashionable clothes sent out from England and appears to have let William add notes to his own letters to assure his family that he was safe. This trek from Messina to Taormina proved no different:

Brooks – who likes to get through the world easily – mounted a donkey at the end of the first 12 miles

The rest of the group, however, continued on foot, reaching Taormina only to discover that their timing had been somewhat unfortunate. While they had hoped to stay at the Benedictine Convent, they found that ‘the place was so full of priests’; 300, in face, who had assembled for the election of a Superior-general. Having reached their goal, the travellers were determined to make the best of it, and lodged at ‘a dirty inferior ‘Locanda’…into a room so filthy that after the first night we determined on sleeping at a tolerable inn 2 miles off and close to the sea shore’. This extra distance appears to have paid off, at least in terms of comfort, but did mean that the architects had to start the ascent to Taormina’s Greek ampitheatre before sunrise, to avoid the ‘fatigue of 2 miles of steep ascent’.

Once a part of the kingdom of Syracuse, the settlement of Taormina was well established by the time the Romans arrived in the third century BC. The town provided plenty ‘antiquities’, and was already popular with antiquarians when William and his friends visited. The theatre proved a point of particular interest for William;

The situation of this theatre is magnificent; placed on the ridge of a fine chain of mountains which run out to the sea, it commands scenery of the grandest description… Angell and myself…determined on measuring it – it proved a work of tedious duration from the difficulty of attaining dimensions, being much ruined

A modern view of the theatre at Taormina

A modern view of the theatre at Taormina

Of the other antiquities in the town, William proved less enamoured, adding that they were ‘generally much dilapidated.’ Perhaps the same could be said of the official to whom they were introduced in Taormina; ‘we immediately found he was an original character’, since he quickly showed them a bundle of materials he was looking to publish when he learned about the reason for their visit. They had further evidence of his status as ‘an original character’ that evening:

he gave us an invitation to attend his public lecture in the ancient Greek theatre in the evening. Several of his friends were present and a young man read aloud his chapter on that monument of antiquity which he interrupted “ever and anon” by his own personal explanations, given with great emphasis and in a strong nasal tone.

On 30 May, the group left Taormina for Nicolasai, where they found the widespread use of lava in buildings and the burnt soil made the place ‘sombre and uninviting’. The better sort of buildings met with more approval from the architects:

the cornices are of black lava and the walls covered with white plaster, a most singular contrast; one may almost call it architecture in mourning.

From there, they learned that a local physician and professor was in the habit of putting up travellers intent on climbing the mountain and, in spite of a rather English mix up over a lack of letters of introduction, William and his friends were welcomed to rest before their ascent the following day. Here, his letter breaks off to explain to his father that he will transcibe directly from his notebook – if this is the case, then he has a wonderful turn of phrase even when busy climbing a mountain!

William’s narrative is so illuminating and detailed that I think it’s best to leave this until another post – or else you’ll be here for another hour at least. But I promise I’ll do better, this time, to finish the tale in good time so that we can take in the last few stops on William’s journey at a leisurely pace. One thing you can be sure of – it won’t be a dull holiday, and there are probably more ‘original characters’ to come!


Victorians, assassinations and monsters

Here we are at the end of the first week of term – and would you believe, it’s almost exactly a month since Christmas. With so much of January behind us already, we’re looking forward to the rest of the year and I’d like to take the opportunity just to mention some of the excitement we’ve got to come in the next few months.


Playbill from Theatre Royal, Hull, 1850

On Monday, we had our first taught session with the Victorian and Edwardian Theatre students in the reading room. It’s always great to get to meet and talk to researchers, as well as providing materials to inspire them and help them with their discoveries. One of the great things about this module is that each time we’ve run it, all of the second year Drama students are swept up with enthusiasm for the materials and being able to use them in creative ways to explore a topic of their choice. Of course, we’re in the early days so far and tutors Ken Pickering and Mark Woolgar still have plenty of sessions left – covering topics as diverse as pantomime, Henry Irving and votes for women. We’re very much looking forward to getting to know the students and to support their work which leads to a public exhibition in April.

If you’d like to learn more about this module, or see examples of past exhibitions by students of this course, take a look at our Exhibition pages on the website. If you’re interested in setting up teaching opportunities with the collections, please do get in touch with us.

While we’re on the topic of exhibitions, we have a brand new exhibition in the Gallery this term. ‘The Bullet is Stronger than the Ballot‘ is built around the unique holdings on the British Cartoon Archive, and explores the theme of political assassination. This ties in with the Beaney’s season on the theme which features Manet’s ‘The Execution of Maximilian’ and John Opie’s eighteenth century painting, ‘The Murder of Thomas Becket’. More information about our exhibition, which will run until 2 March, is available on our website as well.

The Devil rides again...come and discover the monsters hidden in the library

The Devil rides again! Discover monsters hidden in the library

If you’re more interested in some mystery and the odd spine-chilling tale, the second lecture in our annual series could be the event for you! Monsters in the Library: M. R. James and bestiaries at Canterbury Cathedral will be presented by Diane Heath, who is an assistant lecturer in History at the University of Kent and also teaches at Canterbury Christ Church University. She will be telling us about her research into mythical monsters and beasts in the Cathedral’s collections, drawn together through the work of scholar and author Montague Rhodes James. I have been told that we may discover, as part of this lecture, the medieval methods for finding unicorns. In any case, it will be an intriguing evening which we hope will not result in any nightmares!

The talk will take place at the AV Theatre, Cathedral Lodge, in the Cathedral Precincts at 6.30 on Wednesday 12 Febuary, with refreshments from 6pm.

And that’s all we have time for this week, although I’m sure I’ll be updating you about all kinds of exciting and interesting aspects of our collections in the next months. I hope that we’ll see you at some of these events, and please do let us know what you think of them!

An unforgettable year: 2014

A very happy new year; on behalf of the Special Collections & Archives, I’d like to wish you a successful, peaceful and happy 2014. We finished 2013 in celebratory style, with two book launches for the ever talented students of Simon Smith’s The Book Project module, and a festive get together for our volunteers. Now back at the Templeman Library, we’re getting back into the flow of things, with the reading room back to our normal opening hours, ahead of the start of term on 20 January.

And what a term it’s likely to be! To start with, we have our first exhibition of 2014 opening in just a week’s time, on Friday 17 January. ‘The Bullet is Stronger than the Ballot‘ will explore cartoons of political assassinations, in collaboration with The Beaney, who are 15884 croppedhosting Manet’s ‘The Execution of Maximilian’, as part of a season looking at political assassination, as far back as Thomas Becket. Drawing on a wide range of cartoonists’ work since the Second World War, ‘The Bullet is Stronger than the Ballot’ will be on display in the Templeman Gallery until the end of February. Dr. Nick Hiley, Head of Special Collections and Curator of the British Cartoon Archive, will be giving a talk about British cartoonists and political assasinations at the Beaney on Thursday 20 February.

Exhibition launch 2013We’ll also be heavily involved in teaching this term, particularly with the Drama department, whose ‘Victorian and Edwardian Theatre‘ module has become a huge success. This involves intensive teaching in Special Collections, encouraging students to analyse the rare and unique performance materials we hold, and culminates in an exhibition curated by the students in the Templeman Gallery in April. I’m sure I will be blogging much more about that as we get closer to the time.

With the Templeman Development Project now well under way (foundations and ground floor level now visible), we’re starting to see our planned changes coming into effect. The first impact is going to be the closure of the Templeman Gallery space in the summer of 2014. This means that our final major exhibition, for the time being, will also be our first public presentation of the Kingsley Wood papers, in May 2014. The exhibition will open with the launch of historian Hugh Gault’s new book Kingsley Wood: Making the Heavens Hum. We can’t wait to see the results of all Hugh’s hard work, and many hours spent poring over cuttings in the reading room!

Section of Kingsley Wood's election poster for 1918.

Section of Kingsley Wood’s election poster for 1918

In addition, we still have two talks to come in this year’s Special Collections & Cathedral Library Lecture series – in February, Diane Heath will be telling us all about the monsters and beasts in medieval books, followed by Olly Double guiding us through the giggles of popular comedy, from music hall to standup in June.

Of course, we’ll also be doing all of our normal work cataloguing, processing and caring for collections, helping you with enquiries and research and in particular preparing for the University’s 50th anniversary celebrations next year. And that’s not to mention the start of the 4 year World War One centenary commemorations, or the exciting prospect of watching the Templeman extension – and the new Special Collections basement, offices and research and teaching space – take shape.

All in all, I think it’s going to be a very exciting and busy year!

It’s Behind You!

Book of Words for the Lyceum pantomime 'Queen of Hearts', 1927-1928

Book of Words for the Lyceum pantomime ‘Queen of Hearts’, 1927-1928

Oh no it isn’t…oh yes it is!

I’m sure you can guess exactly what I’m about to blog about, but just in case you hadn’t noticed, with Christmas coming fast upon us, we will soon be well and truly in pantomime season. Here at Special Collections & Archives, we’re already getting into the panto spirit – but don’t worry, we’ve not been dressing up as animals, attempting to purchase magic beans or waiting for our fairy godmothers to complete our exhibitions. No, instead we have teamed up with the Gulbenkian to create a fittingly bright and cheerful tribute to the pantomimes of yesteryear in our latest exhibition, It’s Behind You!

Pop into the Gulbenkian foyer to take a look at some replicas our the magical, marvellous and multicoloured treasures in our Theatre & Performance collections, which date back to the heyday of pantomime.You can see costume designs from pantos of the 1880s, posters for productions at Drury Lane, the Lyceum and provincial theatres and some of the ‘books of words’ created to go alongside later productions.

Behind you: the history

Photograph of Nellie Farren, principal boy c.1880s

Photograph of Nellie Farren, principal boy c.1880s

Early nineteenth century, performances of harlequinades harked back to the Italian Comedia dell’arte, with their slapstick and transformational scenes rather than the modern pantomime. By the end of the century, however, theatrical tycoons such as Augustus Harris at Drury Lane were staging the opulent and comical productions which we would recognise today.

Indeed, it was during these formative years of the pantomime that interest in their stage magic and heroic tales exploded into the popular imagination. Costumes, sets and settings were bold, exotic and expensive to draw in the crowds. Magazines and newspapers dedicated whole issues to pantomime, reviewing productions, explaining stage transformations and, of course, interviewing the stars of the show. The female stars in the roles of principal boy and girl were often as much of a draw as the men who played the dames.

Illustrations of costumes from Aladdin at Drury Lane, produced 26 December 1885

Illustrations of costumes from Aladdin at Drury Lane, produced 26 December 1885

It’s Behind You! will run until 10th January and is freely accessible in the Gulbenkian foyer, so do take the opportunity to have a look before the end of the term and let us know your thoughts. Feel free to Tweet us @UoKSpecialColls, or drop us an email via