Oral Histories

Reel to reel tape recorder, image by Khaosaming used under CC BY-SA 4.0

Recently we asked for your help to create a collection which records the experiences of Birmingham people living through the current global pandemic. One of the ways you may like to do this is by recording an oral history. This week I wanted to highlight the range and power of this type of record and to hopefully inspire you to make some of your own.

Telling stories, as a way of passing on family and community knowledge, is possibly one of the oldest activities that humans have undertaken. Academics began documenting this information more formally in the second half of the 20th Century. Folklore researchers started using field recordings of traditional song and lore, but the technique was soon adopted by others to include wider community history subjects. The resulting audio, video or written transcripts could then be stored and consulted for a variety of research interests. Recordings were also a way to bring the perspectives and experiences of people who were, and often still are, marginalised or invisible in the traditional written records into archival institutions. Developments in technology from the accessibility of tape recorders in the 1970s to modern smart phones have made it even easier to create these types of record, allowing a greater range of people beyond academia to become involved. The institute of Historical Research has a detailed account of the development of oral history on their website.

Continue reading “Oral Histories”

Literacy and Education in the Transatlantic Texts of Reverend Peter Thomas Stanford, Birmingham’s First Black Minister

Written to coincide with the publication of their book, The Magnificent Reverend Peter Thomas Stanford, Transatlantic Reformer and Race Man published on 15th June 2020, we’re pleased to host the following article by Barbara McCaskill who visited Archives & Collections last summer for her research, and Sidonia Serafini, both of the Department of English, University of Georgia, USA. You can view a selection of material from our collections relating to Reverend Peter Thomas Stanford here

Frontispiece photograph, The Tragedy of the Negro in America (1903), from the New York Public Library

The Reverend Peter Thomas Stanford (ca. 1858-May 20, 1909) was born enslaved in Hampton, Virginia. The Library of Birmingham’s Archives & Collections and Bibliothèque de Documentation Internationale Contemporaine hold the only extant copies of his second book-length work, From Bondage to Liberty (1889), though thousands allegedly were published. This and other writings by Stanford prioritized literacy and education for African Americans and England’s working classes. They also exemplify how nineteenth-century African American authors repurposed popular literature, as Daniel Hack’s Reaping Something New (2009) explains, to spark conversations about race and racial equality. Continue reading “Literacy and Education in the Transatlantic Texts of Reverend Peter Thomas Stanford, Birmingham’s First Black Minister”

Why can’t I see this object?!

You may have come into the Wolfson Centre and wondered ‘Why have I been told that this document has been closed because of its condition?’ You may have thought to yourselves ‘How bad can it be?!’ Sometimes when I look in a box, I am confronted with this…

Fig. 1 An object suffering from mould growth

Although I find it extremely tempting to put the lid back on as quickly as possible and hide it away for it never to be seen again, objects like this are kept, assessed and our catalogue is updated stating the object is now closed due to its condition. As you can see from the photo in Fig 1, this book is covered in mould. When confronted by objects such as these, I make sure that these objects are separated and stored separately from the rest of our collections. Storing mouldy objects separately makes sure that the mould is confined and cannot cross-contaminate other collections.

We cannot serve objects like this due to the health and safety hazards associated with them. Breathing in mould and mould spores as well as handling objects like this can cause irritation to your skin, eyes, nose, throat and lungs. Mould can be particularly harmful if you suffer from skin allergies, asthma or have a compromised immune system. Prolonged exposure to mould with no personal protective equipment (PPE) could potentially make you very sick indeed causing rashes to the skin, a cough, nasal congestion and breathing difficulties.

The best defence against outbreaks of mould in our collections is to make sure that the environmental conditions in our storage areas are kept stable, that areas are not damp, the temperatures do not fluctuate, and that stores are kept reasonable cool. Our main store is kept at 18⁰C, with a Relative Humidity (RH) of 45%. These conditions are maintained 24 hours a day and are monitored to make sure these conditions are consistent.

Mould germination and its growth is dependent on conditions which are warm and damp. Conditions over 60% RH at 20⁰C or above would be cause for concern. It would only take 48 hours for mould to grow in conditions such as these. A regular cleaning regime is important too. Loose surface dust can carry mould spores so if left uncleaned, could encourage mould growth if the correct conditions present themselves. Mould is more likely to develop in the present of starch and proteins such as gelatine and animal glue. These are found in sized papers and in books which is most of the collections which we hold!

Flooding is also a concern when looking after a collection and preventing mould growth. As well as potential damage to a building it can ruin collections. If any objects happen to get wet, it is important that wet objects are dried out within 48 hours or frozen in the same time frame. Freezing wet books halts any potential mould growth and buys valuable time so objects can be dried out once a more appropriate time presents itself.

Although it is not the nicest of jobs, we are able to treat objects that contain mould. When treating these objects, we must wear PPE. This includes wearing disposable nitrile gloves, disposable over sleeves, a disposable apron and in more extreme cases a FFP3 mask and goggles (used if exposed to very high levels of mould). Mouldy objects are cleaned within a fume cabinet using a museum vacuum, both must contain HEPA filters. HEPA means High Efficiency Particulate Air. A HEPA filter will trap 99.95% of dust particles which are 0.3 microns in diameter. To compare, a human hair is 50-150 microns in diameter, so if using a HEPA filter you are effectively trapping particles several hundred times smaller than the width of a human hair, so the particles the filter is trapping is very small indeed.

To remove mould from objects, the object must first be completely dry. Once dry we make sure the mould is not active. Mould which is not active is dry and powdery. Once mould is in this state, it is placed in the fume cabinet a using a soft brush attachment on the museum vacuum. All parts of an object are brushed gently with the vacuum on. Fragile items are vacuumed using a fine mesh to make sure the object is protected from the suction from the vacuum. As well as removing the powdery substance we are also able to remove the mould spores. No chemicals are used on archival objects when mould cleaning. Once objects have been cleaned, their condition status is updated, and these objects can return to our main stores and can potentially be served.

Approximately 40% of all conservation enquiries I receive are related to mould, so it is important to have procedures in place to minimise its occurrence, have active recording of objects containing mould so we can identify and isolate objects as well as organising treatment of the very worst cases. Hopefully by having preventative measures in place and being reactive to risks, our collections will be safe from mould from many years to come!

Lucy Angus, Conservator

Tracing Family and Friends online

In these unusual times when we have greater opportunity to contemplate things, we may have been giving more thought to those we have lost touch with or not seen in a while – be it because we are curious to find out what an old pal, work colleague or relative is doing now or we want to make sure they are doing well.

We consequently will have been considering just how we can get reacquainted. Thankfully, more resources are now available to view online although, please note not everything is and where it it, there may be a charge for accessing details. Where this is the case, the following check list will identify the website as being subscriber based.

The Library of Birmingham neither endorses nor can be held responsible for information provided by any of the external websites listed.

To make things easier, we’re going to divide what’s out there into five easy to follow categories:

  • Telephone Directories
  • Marriage, Death & Burial Indexes
  • Electoral registers
  • Message Posting services
  • Tracing services

Telephone Directories

There are several websites providing access to current UK telephone directories but you will need to have the name(forename and surname) of the person you are looking for as well as a location – town or city.

BT Phone Book – www.thephonebook.bt.com – Free to access.

UK Phone Book – www.ukphonebook.com – Subscriber based.

There are also websites providing access to overseas telephone directories:

Cyndislist – www.cyndislist.com – Hotlinks to online telephone, email and postal directories. Go to the Categories section on the Home Page and then select Finding Living People.

Numberway – www.thisnumber.com – Free guide to international online telephone directories including white and yellow books.

Marriage, Death & Burial Records

The GRO (General Register Office) index of marriages may be helpful in locating a relatively recent marriage – as well as knowing the name of the person you are looking for, it will help your search if you have a good idea of when the marriage took place and where. You will not be able to see the certificate online but you can purchase a copy from the GRO website – www.gro.gov.uk. The certificate will provide addresses for both parties. Please note the indexes cover marriages recorded in England & Wales only. Scotland and Northern Ireland have their own indexes. See here for our guide to using the GRO website.

Various websites provide access to the indexes but it is not possible to list them all here. They also vary in the availability of date ranges for the indexes:

www.freebmd.org.uk -1837 – 1992. Free to access.

www.bmdindex.co.uk -1837 – 2005. Subscriber based.

www.ancestry.co.uk – 1837 – 2005. Subscriber based.

It’s sad to say but as a consequence of our research, we may have to consider the person we are searching for may no longer be alive. In such cases, you may want to consider searching through the GRO index of deaths. The three websites listed for access to marriage indexes above also provide access to death indexes for the same date ranges although coverage on Ancestry runs to 2007.

The GRO website provides access to more recent death indexes up to 2019. To access these, please click Register/ Log In, join up free of charge and then select GRO Online Index.

Burial records & Death Notices

Tracing the last resting place of a friend or relative isn’t the easiest of tasks as there has never been a comprehensive register of this kind. If you believe your relative or friend may be buried in one of Birmingham’s council-run cemeteries or crematoriums, you can search www.birminghamburialrecords.co.uk which holds over 1.5 million entries up to 2014. A free search of indexes is possible but payment is required to access details of the date of burial and plot reference number.

You can also search for obituary notices free of charge at www.iannounce.co.uk.

Electoral Registers

The electoral register or voters’ list will provide access to details of all those occupants of a property eligible to vote. The current legal age is 18. There are various websites providing access to relatively up to date UK registers. It will be assumed you have the forename and surname of the person you are looking for as well as a town or city where they live:

www.ancestry.co.uk – 2003 – 2010. Subscriber based.

www.ukelectoralroll.co.uk – Subscriber based.

www.searchukelectoralroll.com – 1980 – 2020. Subscriber based.

www.192.com – Subscriber based.

www.findmypast.co.uk – 2002 – 2014. Subscriber based.

Message Posting services

A number of websites allow you to leave or view messages left on a virtual notice board:



Tracing Services

There are also a selection of charities and organisations who may be able to assist your search although they will have conditions for the types of enquiry they can assist with:

www.forcesreunited.co.uk – For military personnel.

www.look4them.org.uk – A listing of six organisations to assist and advise.

www.salvationarmy.org.uk/uki/familytracing – For close family members.

Finally, you may wish to hire a professional private investigator to carry out a search for you. The following two bodies should be able to supply you with details of bone fide investigators in your area:

Association of British Investigators – www.theabi.org.uk

Institute of Professional Investigators – www.ipi.org.uk

All the best with your search and good luck!

Paul Taylor, Archives & Collections Co-ordinator

Tribes: How our need to belong can make or break the good society by David Lammy – A review


Although I had heard of David Lammy, it wasn’t until I heard him speak so powerfully about the Grenfell Tower fire on Channel 4 news in June 2017, that I really began to take notice of him and heard someone in power echo some thoughts I was thinking about this tragedy. You may have been aware of him throughout his political career whilst in government with the Labour party, through his Twitter persona, or when Lammy speaks out about the injustices of the Windrush scandal, giving a voice to members of society who we rarely hear from. When I saw that Lammy had recently written a book called ‘Tribes’ I was intrigued by what he had to say about what has certainly been a more turbulent period in society than I have seen in my life, where people seem more divided and tribal than ever. Continue reading “Tribes: How our need to belong can make or break the good society by David Lammy – A review”

Guess Watt? We have news…

James Watt’s Experiment Book showing the famous kettle drawing [Finding number: MS 3219/4/170]
The UNESCO (United Nations Scientific and Cultural Organisation) Memory of the World Programme aims to preserve ‘significant documentary heritage’ across the world and is the documentary heritage equivalent of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The UK Memory of the World Register “honours documentary heritage of national and regional significance and includes documents such as the Death Warrant of King Charles I. This invaluable archive is a remarkable and rich insight into a small island’s past and mark on the world. This is Britain’s collective memory.”  

To coincide with International Archives Day (9th June 2020), Archives & Collections at the Library of Birmingham is delighted to announce James Watt’s papers relating to the invention of the separate condenser have been ‘inscribed’ on the UNESCO UK Memory of the World Register.

James Watt is well known for inventing the separate condenser and revolutionising the use of steam engines in industry. The documents that are now inscribed on the UK Memory of the World Register are two experiment notebooks (Finding number MS 3219/4/167,170) and a series of letters from James Watt to Dr. John Roebuck (Finding number MS 3219/4/58/Bundle A/1 – 40) in which he describes his experiments and developments of the separate condenser, over a number of years. The experiments began in the early 1760s and on 5 January 1769, Watt was granted Letters Patent ‘For a Method of Lessening the Consumption of Steam and Fuel in Fire Engines’. Continue reading “Guess Watt? We have news…”

From our Library colleagues…

Following on from our recent call out for records relating to your experiences of living in lockdown in Birmingham, our library colleagues are launching a Covid-19 Time Capsule Project which aims to gather a digital and physical collection of responses to the current situation to add to the collections. You can find out more below:

2020 is certainly set to change our lives and the world around us.

This Covid-19 Time Capsule Project is aimed at helping us all, young and old, process the interesting times we find ourselves in.

We would love to know how you and your family have been spending lockdown. We are hoping to gather a digital and physical collection so that in years to come, we can all reflect on how we were feeling, what we were doing to cope and of course our hopes for the future.

This project is our way of helping to support our local community. Creative activities are a fantastic way to improve our well-being. Why not create some lockdown-related artwork, take up amateur photography or simply share how you are feeling?

If you’re looking for ways to keep your little ones occupied, this could be just the project for your little family. You could…

  • Get hand printing
  • Write some poetry
  • Fill in our handy template available via the links below (optional)
  • Take photos of your lockdown artwork or home projects

Continue reading “From our Library colleagues…”