Everything to Everybody: update from the Project Archivist

As it is Shakespeare’s birthday on Friday, I thought it was a fitting time to update you on one of the Library’s current projects Everything to Everybody. If you have not heard about it before, this is a joint project being run by the University of Birmingham and Birmingham City Council with the ambitious aim to bring the Birmingham Shakespeare Collection to a wider audience, with the help of many community partners from all around Birmingham.

Selection of production posters from the poster collection in a variety of languages and styles. Collection photographed by Alex Parré.

As the project archivist I am getting the previous historic catalogues (currently only available in printed books in our search room) digitised, updated and added to our online catalogue. The Birmingham Shakespeare collection is internationally significant and contains 100,000 items including rare artwork, posters, scrapbooks, programmes and music scores in 93 different languages.

Continue reading “Everything to Everybody: update from the Project Archivist”

Eddystone Radio

The story of the Birmingham company “Eddystone Radio” began in the year 1860, when Mr Stephen Jarrett and Mr Charles Rainsford entered into business together in the Islington area of Birmingham.

Initially the company made metal goods such as pins and hair grips; they later branched out under the direction of a former office junior, and now assistant Manager, Mr George Laughton. Mr Laughton  purchased a bankrupt business which he named “Stratton and Co” in 1911. In 1920 this company was incorporated into Jarrett and Rainsford .

Entry from Birmingham Trade Directory for Stratton & Co. Ltd 1934, stating they were manufacturing jewellers & wireless receiving sets & component parts manufacturers, 58 Bromsgrove Street.
Stratton and Co from Birmingham Trade Directories 1934

The eldest son of Mr George Rainsford, Mr George Stratton Rainsford was a keen radio enthusiast. In 1923 he suggested the firm begin making radio components for the booming radio construction market, fuelled by the amateur radio operators of the time, and the formation of the British Broadcasting Corporation.

The idea for the name Eddystone was contrived by the owner and his son, because of the strength and reliability of the lighthouse of the same name.

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Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way

Wills are often voluminous documents – they appear to be ream after ream of dry legalese, bequeathing long fallowed slices of pasture to the fifth cousin removed of the dearly departed. Yet, they’re also fascinating documents which can assist your family history research and help colour in empty spaces which other genealogical resources cannot enhance.

In this blog, we will take a closer look at wills and explore :

  • What is a will.
  • Some historic context to help provide understanding of who could leave a will and when.
  • Their uses as a genealogical resource.
  • What’s available online.

What is a Will

A will is a document expressing the wishes of a Testator (the person making the will) as to the distribution of their property and effects to persons named in the will after they die. Originally, the transfer of land and building ownership took place in a will, and personal effects such as furniture in a testament. Hence the phrase – Will & Testament.

Here are a few legal terms you may stray across in connection with a will –

Testator/Testatrix –  The person who makes the will.
Beneficiary – The person who is bequeathed a benefit or gift from the person who made the will when they die.
Executor/Executrix – The person named in the document by the Testator to authorise the administration of the terms of the will.
Intestate – Not having made a will before one dies.
Administration (Admon) –  A grant to the next of kin of the intestate to administer the contents of the will.
Codicil – An addition made to a will after the first edition was signed. Reasons for additions include the Testator wishes to make provision for another person, a beneficiary has passed away or relationships may have soured.
Probate – A legal process whereby the contents of a will are proved in court and accepted as a public document. For those who die intestate, the next of kin can apply for a letter of administration to dispense the deceased’s estate according to inheritance laws. Continue reading “Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way”

Digital Preservation at the Library of Birmingham – a journey down the bitstream

Introducing the bitstream

In my last post I (hopefully) provided a succinct introduction to digital preservation, what it is and why it’s important. This post looks at an activity fundamental to digital preservation– Bitstream Preservation. To understand its importance, it’s useful to think about your own experiences of using digital files, particularly something awful that occurred which brought these issues sharply into focus.

Data loss – risks and solutions

A long time back an external hard drive with all my digital photos became corrupted, the data irretrievably lost! The laptop was old with very limited storage – I moved (rather than copied) my photos onto a clunky external hard drive to free up space. I had no cloud storage then – I naively thought having one copy on external drive would be enough!

Photography is a hobby of mine. Losing all my work was highly annoying, and I resolved this would never happen again. To mitigate against future disasters, I took the following steps:

  • Upgraded my laptop to a higher spec model with 500 GB of memory – not much nowadays days (the laptop is a decade old) but way better than what I had before!
  • Purchased cloud storage, regularly copying new and updated digital files across
  • Regularly copy digital files across onto new 1 TB external storage drive
  • Retain all SD cards once full, storing them in a water-resistant storage case – a tip suggested to us by a tutor on a photography course I attended two years ago.
  • Check external storage media to make sure it hasn’t been corrupted – if so, I replace it, copying lost files across from another storage device

This of course required expenditure, but I now have FOUR copies of my files on live and static storage media, kept in different locations should one of the above methods fail.

Digital preservation at home. Clockwise, top left…laptop with Dropbox, external drive, Canon DSLR camera, 32 GB memory card.

Bitstream Preservation explained

Without realising, I was in fact doing a form of digital preservation at its most basic level. Practitioners refer to this as Bitstream or Passive Preservation. The Bodleian Library website defines it as ‘literally preservation of the bits of a digital object’ – in other words, the 1’s and 0’s (or Bytes) described in my last post.

The process entails ‘maintaining onsite and offsite backup copies, as well as virus checking, fixity-checking, and periodic refreshment to new storage media’, and denotes a relatively low intervention approach. Files are stored and regularly backed up across geographic locations, checked every so often to make sure the files have not become corrupted, storage media regularly refreshed. Corrupted or damaged files are replaced with (hopefully) uncorrupted master copies from another storage location, as identified.

Many of these things you may already do – except possibly Fixity Checking which I’ll look at in a future post. Unfortunately, simply preserving copies of the original file unaltered is not enough to reduce the risk of it becoming unreadable. Hardware, software and file format obsolescence could still render a robust, perfectly preserved digital file inaccessible and unreadable on future generations of technology. Bitstream or passive preservation is best seen as a key building block underpinning the more integrated series of managed processes known as Active Preservation, which ensures that files can be managed, understood and accessed as a result of these technological changes.

Historical photos of Acocks Green with corresponding XML metadata files and documentation folder, prepared for test ingest into Preservica digital Repository System

Concluding remarks…and a quick word about file formats

Hopefully this helps demystify a fundamental aspect of digital preservation work – it may even reassure you to know you are in fact doing an elementary form of digital preservation, and managing your files robustly going into the future!

There is always a trade-off, storage requirements and the robustness and effectiveness of the various processes balanced against storage costs. Issues like these are magnified for larger organisations who require digital records to be retained for many decades for reasons of financial, statutory or legal accountability, or archive services preserving historical records in perpetuity in accordance to a predefined collecting policy.

On a related matter, you may want to also consider the file formats in which you create and store your digital information. Formats like RAW or TIFF are technically lossless and make ideal preservation copies – but at around three times the size of equivalent JPEGs, they eat up disk space! In terms of home use, file formats were not things I’d given much thought until more recently. I intend to look at these in more detail in the next post…

The technical buzzwords!

The various bits of terminology I’m gradually introducing in italics, hopefully explaining things as I go! The lingo is better explained in various technical glossaries online, some good places to look include:

Michael Hunkin, Digital Preservation Officer

How to start an archive project in lockdown

Portrait of a couple, n.d. [Ref. MS 2192-0160]

Starting any project during lockdown can be a daunting task but it can be even more complicated with an archive project such as the National Lottery Heritage Funded project; From City of Empire to City of Diversity: A Visual Journey. Part of this large project is to have an archivist catalogue the photography collection of Ernest Dyche whose two studios in Birmingham were used predominantly for portraits from the early 1890s – 1980s. I was hired to do this job and started work on over 10,000 photographs at the start of January, however, I started this remotely from Manchester with little access to the collection. For this blog I will write a guide on how to start and archive cataloguing project in lockdown based on my experience and the challenges I faced.

When starting out on a project without access to the materials it’s important to have a plan for getting access to at least some of the collection. This can take a lot of negotiation and planning from both the archivist and the team around them. For my project I was lucky that some of the archive staff that live in Birmingham were willing to take scans of photos for me, so that even though I couldn’t get an overall idea of the collection, I could start making some box lists and getting an idea of the range of photos I would be dealing with. Within a box list I can collect the vital information that will be used in the catalogue such as date and description of the photographs. With access to these photos I can start making steps towards the full cataloguing of this material as listing the items on excel in the first instance means I can upload the Excel spreadsheet to our cataloguing system, CALM, once I have created a catalogue structure.

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Make history with Census 2021

With Census Day looming on March 21st, 2021, Alison Brinkworth, Census Engagement Manager for South Birmingham, talks to us about both the historic and current value of the census.

Extract from the 1881 census showing the entry for Neville Chamberlain, aged 17, listed as a scholar

While many people will recognise the census from doing family trees or shows like BBC’s Who Do You Think You Are? and A House Through Time, this once-in-a-decade survey has a much more meaningful impact on everyday life.

It actually affects the life of every single person living in England and Wales. That’s because information received about every household provides a snapshot of our current society in Birmingham and beyond that will inform decisions on services that shape each community, whether it’s schools, doctors’ surgeries, bike lanes or more.

It’s also important to charities and voluntary organisations who use census data as evidence for funding applications.

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Birmingham’s First Ladies of the Abolition Movement

During the recent lockdown working from home, I have completed a transcript of a minute book from one of our collections to make it more easily accessible to researchers while preventing further deterioration to the volume from handling. The minute book is from the “Ladies Society for the Relief of Negro Slaves” (MS 3173/1/1), which was the original 19th century name (using language which reflects attitudes of the time) for a group of local women who campaigned for the abolition of slavery. In honour of International Women’s Day (March 8th), I thought I would spend some time focussing on this influential Society run by women.

In 1807, the Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade was passed in Parliament, many believing that this would lead to the complete abolition of the slave trade. However, in the years that followed, the slave trade flourished in many parts of the British Empire, despite the trade not being supported by British law. It was against this backdrop that the Society was formed in 1825 and it went on to become one of the most important abolitionist groups in the UK. The first meeting was held in West Bromwich on the 8th April 1825 and in that meeting 15 resolutions were agreed that would continue to guide the Society.

Resolutions agreed by the “Ladies Society for the Relief of Negro Slaves” in 1825 [MS 3173/1/1 p.1]
Continue reading “Birmingham’s First Ladies of the Abolition Movement”