Friday, 24 October 2014

Seeing our History: Edinburgh's Register of the Outdoor Blind

Over the last few months I have been helping as a LHSA volunteer on the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) Scotland project ‘Seeing our History - Living with Sight Loss in Edwardian Edinburgh and the Lothians’.  With the backing of Heritage Lottery Funding, this project brings expertise and volunteers together from many different backgrounds to help to unlock the history of what life was like for blind and partially-sighted people in Edinburgh and other parts of Scotland during the Edwardian period.

According to RNIB, the experiences of blind and partially sighted people have been largely neglected in areas of social and cultural history, but by bringing to life a resource from the RNIB Scotland/Edinburgh and Lothians Archive, now held at LHSA, teams of experts and volunteers are about to take on this gap in history.  Therefore the project is based around an excellent source within the archive collection, the Register of the Outdoor Blind for Edinburgh and Lothians from around 1903 to 1910.  This Register was used to document the lives of 1170 blind or partially-sighted individuals. The period in which it covers was a time before major development and support for sight-related disability was available and so often these individuals had to depend on minimum support.  The Register enables us to trace details about these individuals including: name; address; place of birth; age when sight was lost; cause of blindness; marital status; how employed; weekly earnings before losing sight and weekly income after; and date of death.  This raw data, alongside records held within the National Records of Scotland (NRS) such as Census and Parish Registers, will be used in a research collaboration between partnerships of sighted and partially sighted volunteers.  Between them the aim is to collect life stories about those individuals recorded in the Register and hopefully contribute to a better understanding about the lives of blind and partially-sighted people years ago.  Once life stories have been compiled, a series will be broadcast on the RNIB Insight Radio and other resources made available about the projects findings.      

This project has created an exciting opportunity for many different people to get involved at its different stages.  As was one of the aims, certainly from my experience at the pre-research stage, the project has also provided an opportunity for those involved to develop skills useful within the heritage and information profession.  I have only very recently finished my degree in Information Management and Preservation from the University of Glasgow. Working on a project such as this has not only allowed me to gain new practical skills, but it has also allowed me to tackle issues surrounding the best ways to make archival resources accessible. 

The Register is a single bound volume in handwritten format, often difficult to read, and therefore had to be transcribed for the researchers to use for preservation needs as well as on account of the difficulties that interpreting handwriting can bring to those with limited experience.  As a volunteer with LHSA I was asked to create an Access database and produce a set of guidelines for another volunteer, alongside some very helpful LHSA staff, to use in order to input the data from the Register.  Transcribing the information into an Access database was the most effective way to ensure that the data from the original document identified each individual in a coherent and organised format, and could best assist the needs of the researchers. 
Clair hard at work with the Register

This has been a really interesting process because it has made me think about the role of the archivist and accessibility, dealing with issues such as avoiding personal interpretation of archival materials, whilst at the same time making a rich resource easier to use.  It was really important to get this balance right and to emphasise within the guidelines the importance of getting as accurate and as authentic transcription of the Register as possible.  Working with the original document flared up many issues that were important to address to ensure that those transcribing the Register were consistent throughout the whole transcription.  For example, as the Register was filled in between around 1903 and 1910, different people have used different abbreviations to describe details, such as the cause of blindness or people's marital status or religious denomination.  It was important that every variation of the abbreviation was transcribed and accounted for. To solve the issue of what they all denoted, a key was created in order to provide meaning to each and every abbreviation that was used.  The guidelines emphasised the ‘golden rule’ for transcribing – the importance of transcribing exactly what you see, rather than what you think it should say, so as to avoid personal interpretation.  This was often harder than it sounds especially when the handwriting was difficult to read.  I think the key to ensuring this level of accuracy was to remind ourselves that each entry within the Register captures certain aspects of a person’s life and, therefore, each person deserves the same amount of attention to detail and accuracy.    These issues were also important for the researchers to be aware of in order to increase usability of the resource.  Therefore a separate set of guidelines was produced for the researchers and I also had the pleasure of explaining these guidelines to the research group when I met them at the NRS.     

I have thoroughly enjoyed being part of this project and the exciting prospect of helping to make such a rich resource more accessible.  Hopefully once the research stage is complete many other different types of researchers as well as the general public will be able to learn about another interesting part in our society’s history.

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