Digital Preservation at the Library of Birmingham – active digital preservation

What is ‘active’ digital preservation?

In my second digital preservation post I discussed “bitstream” preservation – the minimum level of activity necessary to ensure survival of the bits (or bytes) of a digital object. Maintaining digital collections this way may help ensure the assets survive unchanged but does not guarantee long-term access and use.

Storage media may become corrupted, and some formats or software may become unreadable as tech moves on. Archivists need to take an interventionist approach and adopt technological approaches to ensure information can be accessed in future. The two main approaches, emulation and migration, are discussed below.


Emulation involves mimicking an obsolete computer environment to read software or applications that cannot be read on newer hardware. It first became popular within the video gaming community during the 1990s, nostalgic enthusiasts developing emulators to resurrect classic games.

A cursory YouTube search will bring up links where you can watch emulator demos or walk-throughs of a title, and websites exist where you can play these online. From the early 2000s, emulation became increasingly popular in the digital preservation world, particularly amongst practitioners dealing with complex multi-part resources.

Classic video game tech, from
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Sam: Timmins (1826 – 1902)

On Tuesday 28 February, I unveiled a Birmingham Civic Society Blue Plaque to Sam: Timmins. Professor Ewan Fernie unveiled one to George Dawson at the same time. Timmins was a very close friend of George Dawson; they both loved Shakespeare. Timmins read and re-read the plays and could quote from them at length, and did. ‘The more he studied’, he noted, ‘the more he found to study…’. Shakespeare was ‘a poet of the people…he saw more clearly and expressed more vividly than any other poet what related to the life and character and happiness of men and women.’

Portrait of Sam: Timmins [MS 4340 ‘Portraits’ Collection]

Timmins was not born into a literary family. He signed his name Sam: to distinguish himself from his father, also Samuel, who, with his two brothers, manufactured heavy steel tools at premises in Hurst Street, in a business founded by Sam:’s grandfather Richard in 1790. In 1838, Sam: was sent to Edgbaston Proprietary School where he studied commerce, Greek, Latin, French, mathematics, drawing, singing and dancing. In his free time he studied literature, particularly Burns, Byron and Shakespeare. He spent 1847-1848 travelling in Italy and Greece, an intellectually curious young man.

He worked in the family business until it was sold in 1887, and it gave him money to indulge in his purchase of antiquarian books. He was a talented speaker and gave lectures to the Polytechnic Institute in Steelhouse Lane, and many other places, and refused payment for talks he gave.  From 1856 – 1866, he and Dawson taught classes on English Literature at the Birmingham and Midland Institute, and contributed to the lecture series there. They hosted a Shakespeare Club, and in 1862, it was decided to mark the tercentenary of Shakespeare’s death in 1865, with the foundation of a Shakespeare Library for the citizens of Birmingham.  This is now the largest public Shakespeare Library in the world, and is held in Archives and Collections, in the Library of Birmingham.

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Making connections

From the 10th-19th March 2023 it’s British Science Week, a celebration of science, technology, engineering and maths run by the British Science Association. This year’s theme is ‘connections’ and so we thought we’d look at the connections between the scientist, James Watt and the chemists, James Keir and Joseph Black and the connections between their work with synthetic alkali and water chlorination, public health and the passing of one of the first environmental pollution acts.

James Keir F.R.S by L. de Longastre (Ref. Lunar Society Photo Box)

Britain has a well-deserved place in the history of scientific innovation and one such area was the field of chemistry which flourished in the 18th and 19th centuries. Birmingham played a prominent role in many of these discoveries, with members of the Lunar Society responsible for a significant amount of innovation. One of the most well-known members of the Society was James Watt, whose contributions were many. Of these, the improvement of the steam engine is perhaps his best-known achievement, but he was also instrumental as a catalyst between other members of the Lunar Society. Two such people were the chemists, James Keir and Joseph Black.

Engraving of Joseph Black, by J. Posselthwaite ‘From a Print by Ja[me]s Heath, after a Picture by Raeburn’, 18th cent., published by Charles Knight & Co. Ludgate Street, London [Ref. MS 3782/21/21/1]
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On This Day… Navigating the 18th Century

For this week’s blog I decided to return to an ‘On this day….’ format. With this in mind I searched our catalogue for an interesting event occurring on the 6th March at some point in the past. During my search I stumbled across an entry for a copy of an Act (dated 6th March 1793) for the creation of the Birmingham and Warwick Canal.

The Act is entitled:

An Act for making and maintaining a navigable Canal from or nearly from a Place called The Saltisford in the Parish of St Mary, in the Borough Of Warwick, into or near to the Parish of Birmingham, in the County of Warwick, and to terminate at or near to a certain navigable canal in or near to the Town of Birmingham called the Digbeth Branch of the Birmingham and Birmingham and Fazeley Canal Navigations

Built during the ‘Golden Age’ of Canals (1760 – 1830), this canal was proposed in order to supply Warwick and surrounding areas with coal, iron, stone, flour and grain, and to allow supplies between Birmingham and Warwick to pass unhindered. One of the first canals, the Bridgewater Canal, was built for much the same reason. The Bridgewater Canal, completed in 1761, was supervised by James Brindley and funded by the Duke of Bridgewater. This canal, affectionately known as the “Duke’s Cut”, was built to carry coal from Bridgewater’s mines in Worseley to Manchester. Often known as the first truly man-made canal in Britain, now this canal extends from Worseley to Runcorn and connects to the Trent & Mersey Canal and the Manchester Ship Canal among others. For more information about the Bridgewater Canal, please click here.

The Act authorized the building of a canal from Saltisford, Warwick for 22 miles to the Digbeth Branch of the Birmingham Canal. It became known as the Warwick and Birmingham Canal. The Act states that the Canal would pass through many areas including Hatton, Kingswood, Knowle, Yardley and Aston-juxta-Birmingham. There is some suggestion on p 52 of the Act that the canal company had to pay rent to the owners of the land they would cut through to build the canal, and this financial agreement would have to be reached, either rent agreed or the land purchased etc, before any work could be started. Once the agreement was reached, work could begin immediately. There is also a suggestion that those living on the banks of the canal, or close by, were able to use the canal for free for certain activities.

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Birmingham Gay Liberation Front

Birmingham GLF marching in Kings Heath/Moseley, Birmingham, 1975. Image sourced from Wikipedia, used under Creative Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0), without changes.

To mark LGBTQ+ History Month, this week’s blog post looks at the history of the Birmingham Gay Liberation Front (GLF). It had its origins in the Campaign for Homosexual Equality (CHE) which fought for legal and social equality for lesbian, gay and bisexual people. Following the Stonewall Riots in New York in October 1969, younger members of CHE called for a different approach to gay rights and in 1970 the London Gay Liberation Front was started, with the first meeting taking place at the London School of Economics. The Birmingham Gay Liberation Front soon followed in 1971, and other groups were set up in Manchester, Bristol, Leeds, Edinburgh and Cardiff.

During the first couple of years, the Birmingham GLF held their meetings at the Quaker Meeting House on Bull Street, later moving to the CND Peace Centre on Moor Street. Meetings were held on Sundays, attended by 20-30 members of a range of ages from the gay, lesbian and trans-sexual communities and aimed to provide a safe space for people to meet, plan campaign action, organise social activities and discuss topics affecting the LGBTQ+ community and the GLF. The organisation functioned on a non-hierarchical basis, meaning that there were no positions of office within the group, no formal membership, agendas were negotiated during the meetings and everyone was free to speak. Sub-groups were developed which focused on specific issues.

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Want to visit Birmingham in the 1960s?

Unfortunately, the library’s time machine has been out of order for some months and is proving difficult to repair, so at the moment we can’t actually arrange a real visit to 1960s Birmingham for you. However, thanks to a recent donation, we can do the next best thing. The donation includes over a hundred 3D pictures taken by local man Frank Easton during the late 1960s when the city was undergoing major reconstruction. Look at the pictures using a simple hand viewer and you get a much greater feeling of ‘actually being there’ than you do when you look at an ordinary flat photograph. If you like, it’s an early form of virtual reality!

Let’s provide a bit of background. Virtual reality may seem very new and modern but 3D photography – one of the main ingredients of virtual reality systems even today – has been around since Victorian times. In the late 19th Century, 3D pictures were popular as a way for people to ‘visit’ places they couldn’t afford to travel to. After the First World War, 3D photography fell out of favour but, when colour film became readily available in the 1950s, there was another surge of interest and many companies produced stereoscopic (3D) cameras like the one in the picture.

Example of a stereoscopic camera (not held by Archives & Collections). Reproduced with kind permission of Tim Goldsmith

Frank Easton, who lived in Acocks Green, bought one of these cameras and used it to produce a 3D record of the fast changing city. He was well placed to do this as he worked for British Rail and was based in Birmingham. Judging by his pictures, he used his lunch breaks and evenings to good effect and, of course, his railway connections meant he had excellent opportunities to take 3D pictures of the dramatic changes being made to New Street Station.

Unfortunately, due to copyright restrictions, we can’t show you any of Frank’s pictures here but if you visit the Wolfson Centre at the Library of Birmingham you can enjoy them all in full colour 3D.

What can you expect to see? As has already been suggested, there’s an extensive sequence of pictures showing work at New Street Station. Marvel at the seeming total lack of health and safety measures; huge girders are being craned into place while children watch just a few feet away! You can also take a peek into Rackham’s Christmas window, see real jet aircraft in the old (1960s) Bull Ring, admire King Kong in the Manzoni Gardens, check out the Christmas lights in Smallbrook Ringway, watch the progress of the Rotunda as it’s being built, and much, much more.

Sadly, Frank Easton died in 1984 but his family had the foresight to realise that his 3D record of Birmingham’s post-war transformation was probably unique, and certainly worth preserving. As a result, you can now enjoy his 3D photographs simply by making an appointment in the Wolfson Centre and requesting MS 5079.

Keith Wilson

Excavation in the Archives

16th February 2023 marks 100 years since the opening of the burial chamber of King Tutankhamen. We’ve been doing some digging and it’s amazing what you can find buried in the archives.

Photographic prints showing the interior of Tutankhamen’s tomb, Egypt. [MS 2501]

Surviving in our collections is a curious deposit of 3 small photographs of the  interior of Tutankhamun’s tomb, Egypt, taken by an anonymous photographer on active service with the RAF in the 1930s.

The widely documented discovery of King Tut’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings was in 1922. The excavation team, led by Howard Carter, went on to open the final burial chamber in February the following year. Meaningful exploration of the Valley of the Kings began as early as the 18th century. The first modern map of the area was published in 1743, and an expedition by Napoleon in 1799 recorded tombs in the Western Valley. European explorations continued throughout the 19th century, despite Giovanni Belzoni reportedly declaring around 1817 that all the tombs had been found.

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