Friday, 28 August 2015

From student to aspiring archivist: part 2

In my first blog for LHSA I talked about the journey from my time there as a student to my current role as a trainee. In this follow-up piece I will cover some of the exciting opportunities and valuable experience which my time here has provided me with.

Firstly, I would like to thank the LHSA team for having made me feel so welcome during the time which I have spent here so far. From allowing me to take part in the weekly team meetings to involving me in the renewal accreditation process (of which I will speak a little more of later in this blog) I truly have felt like an equal member of the team from the outset. Something which I feel that the CRC as a whole excels at and I know that everyone I have spoken to who has worked there, both past and present, feels the same.

Secondly, I would like to apologise in advance if this blog seems a little dryer than the last. The reason for my literate paranoia is that one of my duties as a Skills for the Future trainee is to keep a monthly learning log listing what I have been doing, experience gained and how I will put this into practice. It sometimes feels like I am making a hand-list of my own activities, which indeed I am, I guess, for future reference an ease of access. However, I promise to try my hardest not to fall into log mode and put you into sleep mode!

One of my main duties at LHSA has been working on the Norman Dott project cataloguing his case notes. I won’t go into great detail here about his ground breaking neurological work in Scotland and other elements of his distinguished career as this has been covered in other blogs. For me, however, it has given me the opportunity to work with LHSA’s unique methodology of cataloguing case notes using Encoded Archival Description (EAD), made me more experienced in writing XML and helped me to understand of the issues and precautions which must be considered when cataloguing more sensitive archives. Another benefit of this has been the massive boost to my medical knowledge and vocabulary as well as discovering some rather unusual conditions such as clawfoot and Paget’s disease (the former I had the pleasure of googling just before lunch). Some of the human stories to be found within the collection are fascinating and at times deeply moving: even when trying to remain objective and professional it would take a heart of stone not to be touched by them. There have also been some rather “out-there” cases, such as the travelling businessman who suffered from sore feet the moment he arrived back in Edinburgh yet was effected by this in no other place which he visited – one wonders if there was another reason behind this, of which I will say no more! Overall, I feel highly privileged to have played a small role in this project and I feel that it will make a great addition to my CV.

Patient with an Edinburgh allergy! (LHB1 CC/22/PR4.40)

I have also had the good fortune to receive conservation training for half a day each week with the very talented Emily Hick, whose work on LHSA's HIV/AIDS collections has been a real eye-opener for me in terms of developing new ways of housing and preserving non-traditional archival materials - from condoms to watches. My duties have been a bit less creative, but have introduced me to the fundamentals of surface cleaning and rehousing materials in preparation for long term preservation within the archive. I have also removed more staples in the last two months than I have in my entire life – and the strange thing is that I find this very therapeutic!
The CRC conservation studio
Lastly, as mentioned above, I have been trusted enough to be involved in LHSA’s accreditation renewal process for which I feel truly honoured. Not only has this introduced me to the Archive Service Accreditation Standard and its benefits, it has also allowed me to develop my knowledge of how an archive is managed from the top to the bottom, from the store to the search-room and everything in-between. I have enjoyed being a part of this so much that I have asked to continue working on it even after my time at LHSA comes to an end. So to wrap up I would like to thank Ruth, who had the idea to include me after I showed an interest in the accreditation process, and Louise for all her help and advice.

Friday, 21 August 2015

Frozen Storage for X-rays

In my last blog, I wrote about the deterioration of X-rays in the LHSA collections. This week, I will talk about how we intend to store them to slow down the rate of degradation.

The best way to store X-rays, and most photographic material, is to freeze them. Chemical reactions increase as the temperature rises, and colder conditions slow them down. So, by placing the X-rays in to temperatures lower than 0°C, the rate of deterioration will decrease.
A conventional freezer can be used to freeze small collections, but the items need to be properly packaged first to avoid any moisture coming into contact with film. We have decided to use a method recommended by the National Park Service, which uses two barrier layers to protect the photographic material. First the X-rays, which are already packed into inert plastic packages and labelled according to their reference number, will be placed into an archival box. Any empty space in the box will be filled with layers of conservation grade mount board and acid free tissue paper to help absorb any moisture inside the package.

X-rays sealed in inert plastic packages
The box will then be inserted into a tube of Marvelseal® (an aluminised polyethylene and nylon barrier film which resists the transmission of water vapour and other atmospheric gases), and sealed with a strong tape. A humidity indicator will be attached to the outside of this package, so that any moisture ingress can be easily spotted.

This package will then be inserted into a polythene bag which is again sealed with a strong tape. The box is then clearly labelled with its contents and placed into the freezer. A map of the contents in the freezer will also be made, so that the X-rays will be easy to find when needed.

If the X-rays need to be consulted at any point they can be removed from freezer, but will need to be slowly acclimatised to the warmer temperature, to avoid the formation of condensation on the film. To do this the X-rays can be placed into a study box and left in a stable environment overnight to gradually adjust to the new temperature.

This new storage method will increase the lifetime of the X-rays significantly. I hope you think of them next time you open the freezer door!

Have a look at the Media Storage Guide by the Image Permanence Institute for more information on the storage of photographic materials.

Friday, 14 August 2015

LHSA's Wellcome Trust funded collections

This week’s blog about our Wellcome Trust funded projects comes from Project Cataloguing Archivist, Clair.
As we welcome our new Project Cataloguing Archivist, Rebecca, to LHSA to start on our next Wellcome Trust (WT) funded project, in this week’s blog I wanted to reflect on all of LHSA’s collections that have benefited from the Wellcome Trust Research Resources awards thus far.  The Wellcome Trust offer support through these grants to repositories that hold significant primary source collections within the interdisciplinary field of medical humanities and social sciences. Naturally the rich variety of medical related records that we hold at LHSA can greatly benefit from these awards, which have enabled us to catalogue and preserve collections that hold huge research potential to the scholarly community and beyond.

Whilst working as Project Cataloguing Archivist I have been lucky enough to work on two of LHSA’s WT funded projects, including cataloguing Norman Dott’s neurosurgical case notes and cataloguing our UNESCO-awarded HIV/AIDS collections. Just last week I also got a taster for the project that Rebecca will be working on to catalogue LHSA’s TB and diseases of the chest cases notes and registers.

But before much of the cataloguing work could begin on projects such as these, conservation work was needed. Therefore, since 2002 LHSA has also utilised WT grants to conserve many of the collections that would previously have been inaccessible for major research due to their poor condition. Between 2002 and 2009, LHSA received five separate WT awards to preserve twentieth-century folder-based clinical case notes, including:

·       Case notes of University of Edinburgh clinical professors: Edwin Bramwell and Norman Dott.

·       Case notes of University of Edinburgh clinical professors: James Learmonth and Derrick Dunlop.

·       Case notes of the Royal Edinburgh Hospital.

·       Edinburgh's reproductive and sexual health case notes.

·      Edinburgh's case notes relating to tuberculosis and World War Two injuries.

From a cataloguing perspective it has not only been a luxury working with collections that have already gone through conservation treatment, but it is also integral to the output of cataloguing large collections. For example, case notes that have already been surface-cleaned and had staples and paper clips removed, as well as being re-housed in custom-made acid-free folders, means that the process of cataloguing at item level can be done at a faster rate – the quicker the output the quicker the collections can be used by our researchers.

Preserving these twentieth-century folder-based clinical case notes has enabled LHSA to open up scarce resources with unique insights into many medical specialisms and historically important medical pioneers. This project-based funding has also facilitated the development of methodologies and built on experience that has contributed towards quality catalogues and conservation techniques that can be shared widely. Over my time with LHSA, and within the University’s Centre for Research Collections, I have been struck by the transparency between various different projects and skill sets. There is a willingness to share information on best practice and adaptable methodologies, with advice being disseminated though publications and presentations.

Since 2011 LHSA has had three successful WT Research Resources applications - one complete and two on-going which will take us into 2017, including:

·        Policies, Postcards and Prophylactics: a project to catalogue and conserve LHSA’s UNESCO-awarded HIV/AIDS collections(1983-2010). Attached to this project WT funding also supported a one-day symposium entitled "Conserving Condoms: Modern Materials in Medical Archives" and a public engagement project with the creation of our online educational resource (link).

I am really enjoying contributing to the completion of our own projects. Working across such varied collections has been an exciting challenge but is also very rewarding. The training that I have received has particularly improved my cataloguing skills, which I will take forward in  future projects. I now have a deeper understanding of how an archivist can deal with voluminous, complex and sensitive materials in order to provide an intellectual way into the records, for the potential user base. Further opportunities and events have also been enabled me to connect with other WT funded projects across the UK. It is great to see how WT grants for medical humanities can be utilised through many different types of archive and library institutions. Some of my personal highlights have included:

·         Towards Dolly: Edinburgh, Roslin and the Birth of Modern Genetics, based at the University of Edinburgh (UoE). Attached to this project an exciting exhibition has opened at the UoE Main Library 'Towards Dolly: a century of animal genetics in Edinburgh' with a chance to see Dolly the sheep on display!

·       Care Not Confinement: cataloguing and preserving the Archives of the Crichton Royal Hospital, based at Dumfries and Galloway Archive Centre.

·        A Catalogue of Rare Syphilis Books, based at the University of Glasgow.

·        Cataloguing and Preservation of the HIV/AIDS Collections of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

Friday, 7 August 2015


This week we welcome a new Project Cataloguing Archivist. Rebecca Nielsen introduces herself and the project...

I’m now at the end of my first week working on a new Wellcome Trust funded project, ‘RVH v TB’. On this project we’re setting out to catalogue LHSA’s holdings from the Royal Victoria Hospital’s tuberculosis and diseases of the chest case notes and registers. I’ll be working on this project for 18 months, alongside Clair, and between us we will be cataloguing over 17500 case notes for patients treated for tuberculosis or other chest diseases at the Royal Victoria Hospital. There are four series of case notes and an accession of administrative materials, using a similar methodology to the one used on the Dott project. The records are:

·         Royal Victoria TB Trust, Southfield Sanatorium case files: LHB41/CC1

·         Royal Victoria Dispensary for Diseases of the Chest case files: LHB41/CC2

·         Regional Hospital Board National X-Ray Campaign case files and volumes: LHB41/CC3 and CC3A

·         Royal Victoria Dispensary for Diseases of the Chest case files: LHB41/CC4

·         RVH Patient and Administrative Records: Acc 10/030

Diagram of the Edinburgh Scheme. (LHSA Slide Collection)

The Royal Victoria Hospital was a cornerstone of the Edinburgh Scheme, which I will describe in more detail in a future post, but essentially it was the first point of contact for people with tuberculosis to receive treatment and advice on preventing the spread of the disease to others throughout the first half of the twentieth century. These records also cover the period of mass X-ray screening in the 1950-1960s, which was an important way to identify and treat diseases of the chest. These records are a valuable source of information for researchers, covering several important developments in the history of treating tuberculosis in Edinburgh, and by cataloguing these case notes we will be able to support researchers who wish to study this area.

A fundraising appeal for the Royal Victoria Hospital Sanatorium. (LHSA Slide Collection)
I’ve only been here for a few days, but I’ve already managed to squeeze in a bit of time to take a quick look at the records, in between meeting my new colleagues and trying not to get lost in the corridors! I’ve come to the project with a slight advantage, as my last post was working on a project at the Royal London Hospital Archives called “The Fight Against Tuberculosis” (here’s the blog I wrote for that project). I’m therefore already familiar with the basic information needed before tackling a project like this, such as the history of treatment and the significance of particular details, as well as the terminology and abbreviations which can be so intimidating when approaching medical archives from a non-medical background. From what I’ve seen so far, the records provide a great insight into several aspects of tuberculosis treatment, and I’m looking forward to properly getting my teeth into cataloguing them.
Advice on preventing the spread of tuberculosis, from the Royal Victoria Hospital Tuberculosis Trust. (LHSA Slide Collection)

Friday, 31 July 2015

From student to trainee at LHSA...

If you follow social media from our colleagues in the Centre for Research Collections (CRC), you may know Skills for the Future trainee, Paul Fleming, who’s with the CRC until mid-autumn on a programme to expand his experience and knowledge of roles in heritage institutions. Well, Paul is currently spending some time at LHSA working with medical collections and in this week’s blog, he tells us about himself, how he first came into contact with LHSA and tells us about the Skills for the Future programme:

My first experience with LHSA  came in the form of a series of practical seminars during my third year as a history student at the University of Edinburgh. I did not stumble onto this course by accident, or just because I had to pick something: I had been taking a one year course called Madness and Society which I found highly interesting and fascinating and through this I developed a passion for medical history and the richness of the original sources which the field had to offer. So naturally, when the chance came up to work with LHSA’s archival materials and one of their archivists it was my first choice for the third year course History in Practice.
However, at the time I was simply excited about getting to see some of LHSA’s vast collection and did not foresee the impact that this would have on my life and future career. I became truly inspired by the archive and the role of the archivist. When studying history there is one question you are frequently asked by friends, family and people you meet – “what are you going to do with a history degree, become a teacher?” To be fair, I had no real idea what I was going to do to start with as I was simply enjoying learning and developing the set of skills needed for history. But that changed after my seminars with LHSA: I now found myself responding to that almost rhythmically frequent question – “I quite fancy a career in archives”.

Now… this stared to throw up all sorts of different assumptions as friends pictured me as some sort of Gandalfesque figure stalking some deep dark cavernous basement, battling through giant cobwebs with lantern in hand – coughing and spluttering as dust is disrupted from its slumber on some ancient scroll. As appealing as that actually sounds to me, I knew from my time at university that the perception of archives doesn’t always match the reality. The Centre for Research Collections (CRC), where LHSA is based, is a refreshingly bright space with spectacular views of the city of Edinburgh and the surrounding hills, as it sits not in the basement but on the top two floors of the University’s main library.


CRC offices on the top floors of the George Square library.

My time as a student with LHSA also gave me ammunition to fight the perception of the archivist as some sort of solitary figure, cut off from the rest of the world with nothing but old manuscripts to turn to for companionship. Nothing could be further from the truth in the modern age. If it wasn’t for the archivists willingness to engage, (be it with students, researchers, or the wider public) then I would not have been inspired to travel the path which I now find myself on. Outreach, advocacy and education are becoming just as important as cataloguing and dealing with enquiries. Not only do they challenge some of the assumptions mentioned above, such programmes are also highly valuable for demonstrating the importance and value of archives for our cultures and societies – especially during times like these when funding is a rare beast to find. Fundamentally, for me anyway, I feel that archives are about stories and what good is a story if it is never shared?
So what happened next? Well… after graduating last year I found out about the brilliant Skills for the Future project (courtesy of a lovely archivist I met whilst camping in the Highlands) which is run by the Scottish Council on Archives (SCA). This gives six trainees each year, for three years, the chance to work and gain valuable experience in archives throughout Scotland. This on its own seemed like a brilliant opportunity for someone like me to break into the sector. However, the fact that there was a traineeship positon at the CRC, where my passion for archives was born, I knew it was the one I had to go for. When I was told that I was the successful candidate I literally jumped for joy, but still found it hard to believe that I would be working in the same place that I had been a student.

Paul working on the Laing collection in the CRC stores. Not a cobweb in sight...

I am now almost nine months into my traineeship and I have had some wonderful experiences. These include being involved in the Explore your Archive social media campaign; planning and running school workshops for the Widening Participation project; and cataloguing some of the University of Edinburgh’s David Laing collection (in which you can discover absolute treasures every time you open a box). However, on a more personal level, getting the chance to spend two months working for LHSA cataloguing the neurosurgeon Norman Dott’s case notes has been truly remarkable – and pretty surreal to be sitting on the other side of the wall to the seminar room where my old workshops were held. I always did wonder what it looked like on the other side - well now I know.

(To be continued...)
Paul hard at work at LHSA with Norman Dott's case notes...

Friday, 24 July 2015

Recording oral histories (part 2) and the end of Iain's secondment...

On 12th August Iain Phillips’ secondment at LHSA comes to an end. He updates us on what he has been up to since his last blog post.

Recording oral histories – Part 2

My last post detailed the preparations for my first oral history recording with a nurse whose work had relevance to our HIV/AIDS collections. I also mentioned that have been inspired to run a short oral history project in the John Lewis Edinburgh store where I work

The two oral history projects
I have started recording for both projects in LHSA and John Lewis Edinburgh and, although they require the same skills, the final use of the recordings will be quite different. This highlights the many uses that oral histories have.
The recordings stored with LHSA will be under strict control of the archivist, where access will be limited to allow research and, if requested by the interviewee, some may have their access restricted for a requested length of time. This is understandable due to the subject being discussed - you may get a more frank discussion if the interviewee knows there is a time limit before the recording will be released.
In contrast, the intention for the project in John Lewis Edinburgh is to share the Partners’ stories immediately through a website so both current working Partners and the general public can listen to these. The recordings will also be deposited with the John Lewis Heritage Centre.

My first LHSA recording
In formulating the questions for my first oral history recording I did a little research. I accessed documents from the Lothian Regional AIDS Team (GD24) collection which had correspondence, meeting notes and various drafts of the proposal for the project my interviewee was involved in. I felt this provided me with more confidence to talk about a project that I originally knew very little about and also inspired questions that I would not necessarily have thought of. As this was successful for my first interview, I will be doing similar research for my second interview with someone who has experience with providing pastoral care for those affected by HIV.
Before booking a room, I consulted with Clare Button, Project Archivist on the Towards Dolly project, who had some experience with oral histories. One of her tips was to use the sound-proofed video conference room in the George Square Library. This, partnered with the background noise reduction feature on the voice recorder, meant the recording was clear and required no post recording editing to remove background noise.

When it came to recording the interview, the time flew by. To set the scene, the interviewee and I were sitting at a table, face to face, with the sound recorder sitting between us. I had a page full of questions and topics to cover sitting in front of me and I went through the agreement and copyright form with the interviewee. I then pressed record and introduced the recording - this helps an archivist and any listeners understand what the recording is. My page of questions and topics were spent after about 20 minutes. It went a lot quicker than I expected but everything I wanted to discuss was covered in the recording. The interviewee then signed the agreement after the recording. It was then time to catalogue and transcribe the recording.

Cataloguing and Transcription

Following some further training from Louise on creating catalogue entries and transcription I got started on creating two documents: a catalogue entry that summarises the important points and timings of the recording and a transcription which records the interview word for word.

The catalogue entry was relatively straightforward since I adapted a template that Louise provided. I listened to the recording the whole way through, marking the time and the general topic discussed at these points. Important information about the whole length of the recording and the format it is held in was also added.

The transcription document was a lot more time-consuming. In my training, Louise had shared the fact that some oral histories may take seven times the length of the recording to transcribe them, and there does not appear to be a piece of software that can do it accurately enough yet! Essential, for me, was the software package Express Scribe by NCH. This allowed me to slow the speed of the recording to half the normal speed, and also used the function buttons on my keyboard to pause and play. The big advantage of using the function buttons was that I did not need to exit the Microsoft Word document I was typing in, saving me a lot of time. The transcription took about a day to complete and I think I will get faster as I do more.
Iain transcribing his first oral history interview...

The next LHSA recording
Listening to my first recording there are a few other things that I have learnt to take to the next one. There were a huge number of ‘ums’ in my first recordings when I was asking questions. That should be easy to fix, I just need to understand that pausing is natural and try not to fill it with ‘ums’!
Keep an ear out for jargon and acronyms. There was one acronym that slipped by me during the first interview and without clarifying it during the interview I needed to add a key on the transcription.
Leaving a legacy

The first two recordings I am doing for LHSA is creating a framework to allow the LHSA team to continue adding recordings of personal stories to add context to existing HIV/AIDS paper and object collections held at LHSA. The intention is to continue to interview retired policy makers, retired healthcare personnel, staff working in charities to support those affected by HIV in Edinburgh and the Lothians and possibly service-users of those charities. This project is ongoing and would have been much more difficult to get off the ground without the support the John Lewis Golden Jubilee Trust secondment paying for me to work at LHSA for two days a week for 24 weeks.

Thank you

I would like to thank all of those within LHSA and the Centre for Research Collections who have welcomed me and made me feel part of the team. Thank you also to my team back in John Lewis who have supported me in this. I particularly would like to thank my supervisor Louise at LHSA who has taken a lot of time to support me in this secondment and has given me the opportunity to make an important contribution to preserving the history of a city I both love to live and work in. Finally, this secondment would not have been possible without the enthusiastic support from the John Lewis Edinburgh Communities Liaison Coordinator, Judith.

Friday, 17 July 2015

Deterioration of X-rays

X-rays were originally produced on glass plates using a photographic emulsion. X-ray sheet film was first developed by Kodak in 1913 and used a thick nitrate base. This was followed with film made with two sides coated in nitrate in 1918. Nitrate film was found to be flammable, which led to the development of “safety” film, made from an acetate base, by Kodak in 1924. From the 1950s onwards polyester was mainly used to make X-rays as it is a more stable material. Today, X-rays are made and stored in a digital format and can be printed out on film or paper if needed. 

X-ray of a pair of feet
The X-rays found in LHSA’s collections are a valuable source of information, however, the nature of their material composition means that they will, inevitably, degrade over time. As cellulose nitrate deteriorates it emits a strong odour, discolours to an amber colour, and becomes sticky and brittle.
Degraded X-ray on Cellulose Nitrate
As acetate film degrades it emits a vinegar smell caused by the release of acetic acid. This is known as "vinegar syndrome", which also has the potential to cause damage to paper-based collections held in close proximity. Once deterioration begins, the chemical process becomes autocatalytic, meaning that degradation will take place at a faster and faster rate. When the film degrades, the base shrinks, and the emulsion starts to separate from the base and begins to crack. The film becomes brittle and eventually shrivels or buckles distorting the image beyond use. 
Degraded X-ray on Cellulose Acetate
Due to these problems, it was decided to separate the X-rays from the rest of the collection. A comprehensive digitisation programme was carried out to capture the information held, and these images were cross-referenced with case histories that accompany them. Because of the risk cellulose nitrate film poses in an emergency situation such as fire, the limited number of originals on this type of film base will be safely destroyed. The X-rays on cellulose acetate will be placed in to frozen storage to slow down the rate of deterioration. Read all about how we do this in the next LHSA conservation blog!