Friday, 16 December 2016

The 'pointing finger'...

In this week’s blog, Archivist Louise has been…. cataloguing!

Cataloguing – describing the holdings that we have and ‘numbering’ items – is vital to users of archives and those caring for them. It sounds obvious, but without knowing what we have, users won’t learn about the fascinating records that we hold, and we won’t have the knowledge of LHSA material that is vital to our jobs.

Uncatalogued collections are particularly frustrating to readers, particularly when there’s a tantalising set of records which is not described in detail, as is the case for GD16: documents, artwork and photographs amassed by the heads of the Royal Edinburgh Hospital (the ‘Physician Superintendents’)  from the 1850s to the 1980s.

Having a collection without a detailed description makes the archivist’s job more difficult as well. We love people contacting us and wanting to use our material, but the nature of what we hold means that we have to abide by certain access restrictions. With uncatalogued records that date well into the twentieth century (as many in GD16 do), we cannot give access to readers without detailed checking to make sure we’re not breaking the Data Protection Act (1998) or Scottish Government guidelines on protecting patient information. And that takes up the valuable time of both archive users and archivists. 

Uncatalogued collections are often housed to sit safely on store shelves until further intervention can take place rather than being ready and robust enough for regular handling in the reading room – and this is certainly the case for the hundreds of letters from patients in GD16 collected by the Physician Superintendents, which could risk getting damaged or disordered if consulted often.

From my first volunteer experience in archives (actually here at LHSA!), I’ve always loved cataloguing – you gain a privileged insight into what you’re working with, and usually come out with a new ‘specialist subject’ because you’ve delved into the life of a person or institution in so much detail. So I was delighted when the expansion of our team meant that I had a chance to get up close and personal with one of our collections – and GD16 seemed the most obvious place to start. 

Although the Royal Edinburgh Hospital (REH) institutional collection (LHB7) is our most in-demand group of records, we often recommend some of the material in GD16 to readers interested in the history of psychiatry. Whilst hospital records in LHB7 tell a clinician’s view of psychiatric care, many items in GD16 were created by psychiatric patients themselves, such as artwork:

Artwork by psychiatric patients John Willis Mason (top) and Andrew Kennedy (bottom) in GD16
We also have some images of patients in GD16 (sometimes from institutions outside Edinburgh), which are not represented anywhere else in LHSA:

Photograph of brothers and sisters in Hallcross Asylum, Musselburgh (1860s) from GD16 
GD16 begins with draft texts and lecture notes by the second Physician Superintendent of the REH, David Skae (1814 - 1873), who headed the hospital from 1846 to 1872:

David Skae (1814 - 1873), PH8/43
Skae was keen to turn the REH into a centre of excellence for the study of psychiatry (or ‘alienism’, as it was then known), and began a series of lectures around the study and treatment of mental illness. These were eventually published in the Edinburgh Medical Journal (which we have in our REH Physicians' Library collection), but the handwritten versions allow us to see the development of Skae’s thought as his lectures developed and were adapted year after year:

Skae's handwritten lecture notes (GD16/1)

The first page of Skae's introductory lecture text, showing revisions (GD16/1)
Skae was primarily remembered for his ideas on the classification of mental illness (in his definition, a ‘disease of the brain affecting the mind’), which divided ailments into main categories, often linking psychological factors to physical ones. This system was not widely adopted outside the REH, but a space to record ‘Skae’s classification’ still appeared in REH casebooks years after Skae had died.

Skae was remembered as an amiable and kind man, and the touches that I’ve seen in his manuscript bring his personality closer than reading his work in print in nineteenth century journals. On more than one occasion, for example, I’ve seen Skae’s illustration of a small hand, prompting him to show a visual aid:
Skae's 'pointing finger' symbol (GD16/1)
These small interventions bring his text off the page, making you imagine yourself as a nervous lecture presenter or keen observer. Written prompts to himself (such as to ‘bring [a] table’ of statistics) also bring him closer, in a way that I might set a computer reminder to put a back-up memory stick in my bag before a setting off to give a public talk!

As I delve further into the lives of the patients and physicians of the Royal Edinburgh Hospital in 2017, I hope to bring some more personalities out from GD16’s boxes and into the world!

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