Category Archives: User Advice

Where we share hints and advice that will hopefully make our heritage resources easier to access and use.

Plastics and their effects on archival documents

You may have noticed that plastic packaging has been hitting the headlines lately. Having watched the BBC’s Blue Planet II series recently, it would be hard for anyone to ignore the devastating effects that plastics are having on our marine life and the environment. However, did you know that plastics (amongst other common office stationery!) also cause long term damage to archival collections?

Common products such as Sellotape®, plastic wallets, plastic covers, comb bindings and ring binders as well as paperclips, bulldog clips, pins, staples, post-it notes, glassine paper and rubber bands have poor aging properties with plastic and rubber based products deteriorating rapidly causing damage to paper and other materials that come in contact with them.

Typical problems I see with documents we hold and accessions that come into the archives are:

Adhesive tape-Sellotape®

Adhesive tape- Sellotape® can quickly degrade, with the plastic part of the tape becoming discoloured and separating from the adhesive, leaving the sticky adhesive on the document. This in turn can cause damage to the document itself and other documents within the same enclosure. The picture above is adhesive tape which has deteriorated and caused yellow staining to the paper support. Continue reading


His Bloody Project, by Graeme Macrae Burnet

Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2016, ‘His Bloody Project: Documents relating to the case of Roderick Macrae’, is set in a remote village in the Scottish Highlands, and tells the story, through contemporary ‘documents’ (archives), of the young Roddy Macrae, who in 1869 is arrested for a brutal triple murder.

I chose to review this book as, being an archivist working with historical documents every day, I was intrigued by the telling of a story through the use of archives (even if fictional!).

Through a variety of ‘archival’ documents (that we see in full) relating to the case we are invited to scrutinise and interpret the source material of the crime, piecing together the motivations of the protagonist and the actions of others that lead to a terrible chain of events.

The documents used in the telling of the story include: witness statements taken by police, a map, a lengthy account of events by the accused Roderick Macrae, medical reports on the victims by a doctor and a surgeon, a publication “Travels in the Border-lands of Lunacy”, and newspaper coverage of the eventual trial.

Aside from the preface where the author, Graeme Macrae Burnet, provides us with some context, we are left with the documents themselves to spread the tale before us, with the conflicting views of the accused along with Roddy’s own articulate account (written like a memoir) detailing his life of hardships and injustices at the hands of those abusing their positions of power that ultimately lead him to commit these crimes. We know from the start that he did it!

Continue reading

Behind the scenes at the Shakespeare pop-up exhibition: How to make your very own book cradle- An instructable!

As part of the preparation for the Shakespeare pop-up exhibition book cradles were especially made for a selection of volumes exhibited. This was done to make sure that the books that were displayed were fully supported and not to put undue strain on the open volumes and bindings. Improper display and handling of books can cause irreparable damage! To avoid causing damage to the open volumes each book has a cradle especially made to fit each individual book on the specific page it is opened on!

How to make your very own book cradle

1. Decide what page you want to display your book on.

2. Using a large sheet of paper (bigger than your book!) draw a horizontal line towards the bottom of your sheet of paper.

3. Open your book up to the appropriate page. Stand your book up on your piece of paper with the spine on the horizontal line.

4. Mark on the paper the edges of the boards and the spine.

5. Like dot to dot join up your marks!

6. Measure the lines you have drawn.


7. Pick up your card, mark one end of it to indicate the starting point. Starting a couple of cm along the baseline from the bottom left hand corner, mark on the strip all the points where the line changes direction.

Continue reading

Birmingham Archives & Collections: New Opening Hours

First of all I want to say thank you to everyone who took part in the consultation we ran during September and October about the opening hours of the Wolfson Centre for Archival Research here in the Library of Birmingham.

We had an amazing response, with so many of you getting in touch via email, in person, and via social media, with responses from a wide range of customers from our weekly visiting local, subject, and family historians, from those who travel a distance, from depositors, from academics, from community groups, and from students, and we are very grateful, too, to those who ensured that our consultation was seen by as many people as possible through their re-posting of the blog piece and the flurries of retweeting that went on. What’s more, we understand from your comments that this change in opening hours is not what many of you would wish for the service, but your understanding of the challenges we are presently encountering, and your sincere concerns for the service and the collections, was evident in the many supportive comments that accompanied the responses you sent in.

From this positive and constructive feedback there was a clear preference in terms of which opening hours option to go for – with 70% of you going for option 3. You can see what these options were here.

Below is a breakdown of the preferences for the three options:

Option 1 Option 2 Option 3 No option selected
17% 12% 70% 1%

56% of you responded via our online consultation, and 44% of you responded using the paper copy version.

So, the new opening hours will come into effect on the week beginning the 16th November, from which point we will be open 3 days per week, with one late night per week, and one Saturday every 4 weeks (so open 4 days on those weeks), as follows:

Tuesday:  11am – 7pm
Wednesday: 11am – 4:30pm
Thursday:  11am – 4:30pm
Saturday (1 in 4): 11am – 4pm

Our Saturday openings will be:

12th December 2015Wolfon Centre
9th January 2016
6th February 2016
5th March 2016
2nd April 2016
30th April 2016
28th May 2016
18th June 2016
23rd July 2016
20th August 2016
17th September 2016
15th October 2016
12th November 2016
10th December 2016

The one caveat to these opening hours, is that on Tuesday the 17th November we’re having our Explore Archives pop-up exhibition, so appointment bookings will be taken until 4pm in the Wolfson Centre, with the event starting at 4:30 – please do come a long and take a look! You can read more about it here.

I know I promised that my second blog would be an interesting one involving something from the collections, and this isn’t it! So, I’ll aim for something in my 3rd blog!

Thanks again for all your support.

Corinna Rayner
Archives & Collections Manager

Birmingham Archives, Heritage & Photography Public Consultation

Well my first blog for the Iron Room has certainly been a long time coming! And what am I doing? Asking for your help! I will endeavour to do another blog very soon, and make it one that talks about something very special in the collections… you’ll just have to wait and see!

As many of you will know, the Library of Birmingham has undergone some significant changes over the last few months, and in response to those changes we have had to address the way we offer our services because we can no longer do everything we used to do in the way we used to do it.

As such we in the Archives, Heritage & Photography department have been working hard to review what we have offered, and to develop a future service offer that takes into account the challenges facing the Library of Birmingham as a whole. As part of this we are looking at how we deliver services, and at the moment we want to consult with you, our customers and stakeholders, to get your views and achieve the best possible outcome with one particular aspect.

As part of our response to the challenges, the Archives, Heritage & Photography service has, through the recent staffing restructure, been consolidated into one service area operating two public counters on level 4 of the Library of Birmingham: the open access counter in the Heritage Research Area (HRA) and the supervised research room (the Wolfson Centre for Archival Research) where original and rare documents and publications are served.

Just some examples of items from the Early & Fine Printing Colletion that we look after in AHP.

Just some examples of items from the Early & Fine Printing Collection that we look after in AHP.

Since our focus is on developing a long-term sustainable service for our customers and stakeholders that is both fit for the future and is feasible with our present resources, the Archives, Heritage & Photography service area as a whole will remain open for the same opening hours as the rest of the Library of Birmingham.  However, we do not have the capacity to operate both the HRA counter and the Wolfson Centre counter for all of those opening hours, or indeed the opening hours we have had for the Wolfson Centre until now, and this consultation is about which Wolfson Centre opening hours best suit our customers.

Please download the consultation document here and return it to us with your views to the address at the bottom of the page.

You can also complete our online survey to have your say.

Continue reading

A thousand trades, a thousand stories

William Westley, 1731

William Westley, 1731

Birmingham is well known as a city of 1,000 trades but it might also be a city of 1,000 nations.  Trade has brought people from far and wide to live and work in the city and a look at the censuses from the nineteenth century reveal people coming from across Europe and the “East Indies” (South Asia) and the “West Indies” (the Caribbean).  In 1871 we find Paul Paulson and his wife Eliza, both singers, living in Coleshill Street near Dale End.  Paul was born in the East Indies – we can only guess as to his heritage.  Meanwhile over in Lichfield Street at the same time John Patnapally, a hawker and his wife Mary Ann,  was born in Mumbai and we can suppose his heritage was probably in part at least  South Asian.  There are equally large numbers of people from the West Indies – sometimes the census gives us a place, as in the case of Matthew, a clerk, and Matilda Hyman who were living with their daughter Lizzie, a teacher, in Albion Street.   He and his family were born in Kingston, Jamaica, part of a large Jewish community in Jamaica where they had settled, felling persecution in Europe from the 1530’s onwards.

The Hyman family shared the house with a boarder, Julius Scott, who was from Prussia, probably part of the Scottish Prussian Community established through trading links in the Middle Ages.  We know that Matthew Hyman was Jewish, as his burial at Balls Pond Road Jewish Cemetery in London is recorded in 1882.

Birmingham has always been a city of vibrant diversity with thousands of stories waiting to be told.

Rachel MacGregor

The Coroner

The role of coroner has existed from around the 12th century.  The position of Birmingham Coroner is a relatively new one, having been in existence from around 1838, when the newly created Birmingham Corporation sought to establish their own quarter sessions and as a result of this, the position of Coroner.  Note that prior to around 1838, inquests for deaths in Birmingham would have been held in Warwickshire, as Birmingham reported to the Warwickshire Quarter Sessions.  The role of the coroner’s court is:

  • to investigate sudden or suspicious deaths which are reported to him/her,
  •  to deal with applications to transport a body to another country for burial or cremation
  • to investigate cases of Treasure Trove (the discovery of buried coin or other valuables)

It is the coroner’s work relating to deaths that we will investigate in this post.

What records do we have?

Birmingham Archives, Heritage and Photography are lucky in having an almost complete holding of the inquests held in Birmingham over the whole period there has been a Birmingham Coroner.  We hold a microfilm of the “roll of the inquests” in the Heritage Research Area.  The roll records very little detail on the cases, giving names, address cause of death and verdict.  There are no further details relating to the death and on the whole, the entries do not tell you any more than you would find on a death certificate.

A scan from the microfilm of “roll of the inquests” available in the Heritage Research Area on Floor 4 of Library of Birmingham.

A scan from the microfilm of “roll of the inquests” available in the Heritage Research Area on Floor 4 of Library of Birmingham.

As you can see, the microfilm isn’t the best quality (this isn’t just an excuse for my poor photography).

The eagle-eyed amongst you may have spotted the verdict ‘visitation of God’ for some of the deaths on the coroner’s roll.  This verdict applies to deaths that would now be labelled ‘natural causes’.

From 1875, we hold the individual files relating to deaths investigated by the Coroner.  Unlike the earlier Coroner’s roll, the files are very rich in detail and content.  These files contain all manner of statements from witnesses alongside the medical information about the autopsy.  The information in the file can allow the researcher to not only build up a very vivid picture of the person and the circumstances relating to their death but also their life and conditions in the period prior to their death.  See the following parts of a typical file below:

An inquest file picked at random from 1907. Note that the verdict is “N[atural] C[auses]” but the “V” on the top still marks it as being ‘visitation of God’.

An inquest file picked at random from 1907. Note that the verdict is “N[atural] C[auses]” but the “V” on the top still marks it as being ‘visitation of God’.

[part of witness statement from stepdaughter of the deceased]

Part of witness statement from stepdaughter of the deceased

[part of the post mortem report on the body of the deceased]

How do I view an inquest file?

First, establish if an inquest was held – this will be on the death certificate of the deceased.  If the death and subsequent inquest occurred pre July 1875, then you will need to consult the Coroner’s Roll on microfilm in the Heritage Research Area.

For any deaths post July 1875, the inquests are stored in our archival strong rooms in chronological order, so we need to be given the exact date of inquest in order to find the file.  As the files are original archival material, the inquests can only be seen by making an appointment to view them in the Wolfson Centre for Archival Research (e-mail to make an appointment).

A card index for inquests between 1875 – 1877 can be found in the Wolfson Centre for Archival Research.  We also hold volumes of news cuttings for coroner’s court cases from 1876 onwards.  These are indexed alphabetically.  Viewing these can be useful if you know a rough year of death but not an exact date. Note we only have inquests for the Birmingham Coroner, not for the Warwickshire Coroner.

Some things to note

Researchers should keep in mind that, by their nature, inquest files can be very graphic and distressing: photographs of the deceased and the scene of death are often present (even in some of the late Victorian inquests); inquest files for suicides frequently contain the actual suicide note of the deceased; all descriptions of deaths will be graphic.

Note that any inquest held more than 75 years ago is open to the public (i.e. 1939 and earlier at the time of writing).  For inquests more recent than 75 years ago, researchers will need to visit or contact the coroner’s office and request the file.

Contact the coroner:

Mrs Louise Hunt

Senior Coroner for the City of Birmingham and the Borough of Solihull
Coroner’s Court
50 Newton Street
B4 6NE

Tel No: 0121 303 3228 or 0121 303 3920

The coroner will then decide what information can be released from the file to the researcher.

Peter Doré, Archivist