Friday, 27 November 2015

Threats to Openness in the Digital World

This week our Project Cataloguing Archivist, Rebecca, has been in Newcastle to learn about one of the challenges facing records professionals in the digital era…

Earlier this week I attended a fascinating conference on ‘Threats to Openness in the Digital World’ at Northumbria University. The conference aimed to “consider and debate issues surrounding growing threats to citizens’ rights to access public archives in the digital world.” As a body that holds public records there were some interesting points raised that may affect LHSA in the future.

The move towards digital recordkeeping poses many issues for archivists not least because of the hugely increased and fragmented volumes of data, and this was the subject of the first session and a theme which ran through the whole event. Instead of coherent and carefully filed units of paper records, it was reiterated that digital records are often stored with multiple versions in non-standardised shared folders, or in email chains which are stored in multiple locations and not filed anywhere. The ease of creating digital records means that the number of records has increased massively, and this makes the job of the archivist much more difficult.

Potentially sensitive materials, such as those which contain sensitive personal data such as medical information or information regarding political affiliations, are usually reviewed prior to being made publicly available so that the record can be closed or sections redacted, and some of the panellists spoke of their experiences with these sensitivity reviews. With public records, which are open under Freedom of Information legislation unless specific exemptions apply, being able to process records is vital to determine if they meet those exemptions or to judge if their release would breach the Data Protection Act. Reviewing paper records can be time consuming and resource heavy, and the challenge of scaling up the sensitivity reviewing process to cover the massive volumes of unorganised digital records of all types that are being produced is going to be a major challenge for records professionals in the years to come.

Although information which could aid this process could theoretically be embedded in digital materials from creation, it was noted that in reality it can be difficult to persuade record creators to go through this process. The nature of the digital environment also poses a problem for records professionals: Determining the sensitivity of records relies heavily on understanding the context of a record, meaning that it is not suited to automation in the current computing context, but conversely it was highlighted that the use of search tools hugely increases the risk of sensitive material coming to light when it shouldn’t. Ultimately, the volume of materials and the requirement for access could mean that blanket destruction of digital records is carried out, if they are kept at all – a huge problem for governmental accountability, as illustrated in a fascinating talk by Mary Daly, President of the Royal Irish Academy, and for the archives of the future.

This is only a small part of what was covered at the conference, which you can read more about on the Threats 2 Openness blog: Overall it was a great event which generated lots of discussion and, after the final session, practical action points to take forward. It is clear that a strong recordkeeping culture is needed if we are to tackle these challenges, but we ended on a note of optimism that we should have faith in future technology to support our work as archivists.

Friday, 20 November 2015


It's Explore Your Archive week, a national campaign to raise awareness of archives and their collections (for more information please see In today’s blog Ruth talks about what we've been doing to celebrate archives this week and a bit of exploring of her own…

We’ve been taking part in Explore Your Archive week on social media, and today Louise and I have set up camp at the UK Clinical Research Collaboration Conference 2015 (held at the John McIntyre Conference Centre here in Edinburgh) – we’re talking to delegates about our collections and their research potential, and Louise has been tweeting as @lhsaeul. In honour of this year’s campaign theme of ‘democracy’, we’ve also put some relevant collection items on display alongside some fantastic material from the University’s archive. The mini exhibition, on the sixth floor of the Main Library, will continue beyond Explore Your Archive week, so do take a look if you're passing. 

Our display at the conference today, complete with hovering campaign badge!

And talking of taking a look while you're passing, I was in Aberdeen last week to see the Glucksman Conservation Centre at the University’s Library and popped in to see Fiona Musk, the Archivist for NHS Grampian, who is also based there. We meet fairly regularly as fellow custodians of NHS archive material, but I'd not had the chance to see her collections in person before. Fiona gave me a tour of the store and it was great fun to see all the similarities between our collections. Lots of familiar looking book bindings and types of record, just for hospitals that are a bit further north than ours! If you'd like to find out more about NHS Grampian’s collections see or follow Fiona on Facebook at

Visiting the fabulous conservation facilities in the Library mirrored the quality of the stores Fiona showed me. The four conservators there work on Aberdeen University’s collections of rare books and archives within their own particular paper, book and collections care specialisms. I took a few photos to try and capture the scale and high spec of their conservation studio - the first is of the main studio (with their no-adhesive book cradles in foreground), and the second is of the area dedicated to photographic documentation.

I wasn't the only one on the tour – there were about 15 other conservators who were shown around the relatively new Library, which also included the exhibition gallery, the Special Collections reading room and the education spaces, and we had lunch in a room on the seventh floor with great views out over Aberdeen until the clouds and rain came in! With such a concentrated group of conservators in one place, it was also a good opportunity to swap ideas and find out about new treatment options that I can bring back to our collection.

One of the architectural features of the Library
The conservators admiring the view shown in the image above this one
All in all an interesting and useful day spending time with archive collections and learning from those that look after them - exactly what #explorearchives is all about!

Friday, 13 November 2015

Building pride and fighting prejudice

Glasgow University student Samantha Smart has been with LHSA for the past two weeks as part of her MSc in Information Management and Preservation. The course is one of a handful across the country offering an accredited qualification in archives and records management (with which you can become a professional archivist!) We've handed over the blog to Sam this week so she can share her work with us, which will turn into an assessed component of her degree:

For the last two weeks, I have been working on cataloguing and repackaging the papers of Waverley Care Trust, an Edinburgh-based organisation set up in 1989 to provide support to those affected by HIV and AIDS. Their remit later broadened to include work with individuals diagnosed with Hepatitis C, while their geographical reach has expanded beyond the Lothians to cover the whole of Scotland. Regular blog readers might remember the post from earlier this year introducing Waverley Care and its key services, and showcasing a selection of collection items.

Besides key administrative records like business plans and annual reports, the collection includes a great deal of visual and ephemeral material that adds additional detail to the picture of the charity’s day-to-day work. Items like flyers and invitations, for example, provide a tangible connection to events recorded officially elsewhere; they suggest particular moments or interactions. Posters and postcards demonstrate the outward-facing work of Waverley Care: raising awareness, contributing to the public understanding of HIV and developing links to the larger community.
Invitation to ‘Pride & Prejudice’ exhibition (1999). GD36/4/1/7.
Taken together, all of the records within this collection document the extraordinary range of services, initiatives and activities facilitated by staff and volunteers. While working my way through the material, I found references to tai chi, sculpture, quilting, mask-making, line dancing, poetry writing, walking, reflexology, papermaking, video editing, singing and stained glass design (a non-comprehensive list!). Many of these activities were run as part of the Arts Project, an ambitious programme which began in the early nineties, administered jointly through the SOLAS Centre and Milestone House. The Waverley Care collection includes snapshots and samples of some of the end-products of this project - two printed booklets of participants’ writing, posters for public exhibitions of artwork, photographs of a completed stained glass window in situ at Milestone House - but also goes some way towards recording the equally (or more) valuable process of creation. 

Papermaking workshop in progress, and completed sheets of handmade paper (1996). GD36/3/3/2/4/22.

Looking at the changing types of services offered by Waverley Care over the 1990s and 2000s reveals the organisation’s responsiveness to both the needs expressed by their users and to developments in HIV treatment and care. From its establishment, the Information Centre at SOLAS allowed users to carry out their own research into treatment options, a particularly important function in the years before widespread internet access. Waverley Care’s annual review for 1995 notes excitedly that ‘the Information Centre is about to join the Worldwide Internet’ (capitals original!), while the report for 1997 contains the news that they are ‘looking forward to the installation of a second Internet terminal’, possibly reflecting increased demand for up-to-date information about drug treatments in the early years of combination therapy.
Information leaflet for World Aids Day. GD36/4/1/4.
Having examined and described each of the records within the Waverley Care Trust collection, I was left with a clear sense of the organisational ethos and of the ways in which staff, volunteers, service users, families, carers and others involved with the work of the charity were able to form a network of mutual support. They tell of imagination and encouragement, of enthusiasm and vitality. Equally, these records tell only partial stories, and there will have been many encounters and experiences on which they are silent - narratives that rely on the memories of those with a personal connection to the charity and its work. Cataloguing, though, represents a step towards initiating these potential conversations and towards putting the Waverley Care records into dialogue with items from LHSA’s related collections, which will in turn allow further aspects of the collective response to HIV and AIDS in Edinburgh and the Lothians to be brought to light.

Friday, 6 November 2015

Treating bone and joint tuberculosis at Southfield Sanatorium

In this weeks blog we hear from Rebecca, who will be sharing some of what she has learnt so far from cataloguing tuberculosis case notes...

Work on the Tuberculosis Case notes project is progressing well, with well over 1000 records catalogued. The bulk of the records so far have been from Southfield Sanatorium, covering patients admitted between 1921 and 1953. It’s been really interesting in these case notes to see the range of diseases that people would be admitted with, as the sanatorium would treat patients with non-tuberculous chest diseases as well as extra-pulmonary tuberculosis (that is, tuberculosis of organs other than the lungs). One of the most frequent types of extra-pulmonary tuberculosis in these case notes is osteoarticular tuberculosis, or tuberculosis of the bones and joints.

A front view of Southfield Sanatorium (P/PL41/TB/022)

Osteoarticular tuberculosis can affect virtually any bone or joint in the body, including the vertebrae of the spine. It is caused by a spread of the disease from the lungs, though it can take a while to develop so in about half of cases it appears after the disease has ceased to be active in the lung. Spinal tuberculosis occurs when tuberculosis bacteria spread through the blood and into the vertebrae. If the disease spreads through the vertebrae to affect an entire disc, the disc can collapse. In some cases of osteoarticular tuberculosis, “cold” abscesses can form, which would have been aspirated in order to try to remove the infection.

Treatment of this condition at Southfield Sanatorium was chiefly through rest and immobilisation. The affected limb would be set in a plaster cast or a “shell”, and the patient’s position would be manipulated in order to provide the greatest advantage. Patients would be immobilised in this way for months at a time to give the treatment time to work. For patients who needed to remain mobile, braces and plaster jackets were used so that they could move around whilst still receiving some of the benefits of immobilisation.
Examples of braces used to treat spinal tuberculosis.
By Internet Archive Book Images [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons
Immobilisation worked on the basis that the affected area would heal through a process of increased resistance due to prolonged rest. This would enable the formation of fibrous tissue which could diminish the supply of blood to the diseased area, meaning that the disease would not be able to spread. Immobilisation also assisted the patient by preventing inflamed areas from rubbing together, which could lead to pain and erosion. Immobilisation was widely regarded at the time as the best cure for this type of tuberculosis, particularly in children, and whilst surgical treatments such as bone grafts were available for adults, this was not used at Southfield Sanatorium, which tended towards the more conservative treatments.
Sir Henry Gauvain, ‘Treatment of bone and joint tuberculosis’, Tubercle, 17, 8, 1936, pp. 360-363
C. Lee Pattison, ‘The local treatment of acute tuberculous disease of the hip joint and vertebr√¶’, Tubercle, 5, 4, 1924, pp. 162-167
McDonald and Sexton, ‘Skeletal tuberculosis’,