Friday, 14 May 2021

Introducing our new digital resource list on the history of nursing

In this blog we hear from Lauren McKay who joined the CRC last year as a Modern Apprentice. Lauren will be telling us all about the fantastic new resource list on the history of nursing that she created. 

You can find the list on our website:

Nurses on a balcony at the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh

My name is Lauren McKay and since September 2020 I’ve been working at the CRC’s user services as their current modern apprentice.

During the last January lockdown, the majority of our services moved to ‘remote only’ which meant I was working almost solely from home. Tasked with creating an online resource list for LHSA, I was sent a list of topics to choose from and found myself gravitating towards one topic in particular- the history of nursing.

Before starting this project, my knowledge of nursing history had only one portrait within its hall of fame and that was Florence Nightingale’s. At present, that same hall of fame has been embellished with the addition of many more portraits of proud pioneers and fearless women.

One of the women I was particularly captivated with was the nurse turned explorer Kate Marsden. She went to Siberia in the 1890s to investigate an alleged herb which was said could be used as a cure for leprosy and wrote the wonderfully titled book about her travels: On Sledge and Horseback to Outcast Siberian Lepers which I managed to find online through internet archive. The journey took her 11 months in total! Unfortunately, she did not find the cure she was looking for but instead set up a hospital for lepers in a town called Vilyuysk. She faced criticism, however, from people who did not believe the veracity of her exploits but worse still, her reputation was thrown in to ruin when rumours started to spread claiming that Marsden was only doing these good deeds as a means to cover up for her homosexuality and financial schemes. This scandal erupted around the same time as the doomed Oscar Wilde libel trail, a time in which ignorance and hysteria surrounding sexuality and gender roles was particularly rife.

One highlight in terms of a visual resource was the nurse Ethel Miller’s digitised scrapbook which contains autographs, poems and sketches done by the patients at Craigleith Military Hospital. It’s a truly precious item as there is something very moving about virtually flicking through the sketchbook, reading the often humorous poems and admiring the cartoons:


You can find a digital copy of the scrapbook here:

 The history of nursing in the British Empire By Sarah Tooley (1906), which is digitised and available on internet archive, was also one of my favourite resources. I was consulting it to better understand district nursing in the 19th century when I came across this passage:

The auld lichts of the " profession " sniffed the air in disdain at " them Bloomsbury nurses," to whom they probably added the epithet " bloomin' " not in a complimentary sense. " If I was you, I wouldn't send for the parish doctor," counselled one of the fraternity to a poor woman with a wound in her leg ; " because the first thing he'll do will be to send for one of them district nurses from Bloomsbury Square, and if they come here you'll have to keep your room clean and open your winder, clear out the things from under your bed, and they'll turn the whole place topsy-turvey so as you won't know your own home ; and you'll feel just as if you was in a horspital

The irony is that the individual is describing with contempt what we would now perceive as basic good cleanliness practices. It’s quite interesting to note that such practices were not always considered welcome, or even good for that matter.

Nursing, as I now know, played a huge role in the improvement of medical practices, progresses in public health, and individual nurses even played a substantial part in advancing recognition of women’s rights. Sophia Duleep Singh, daughter of the last Maharaja of the Sikh empire, godchild to Queen Victoria, was a VAD nurse during WW1 while also an incredibly outspoken suffragette and activist. Or Gertrude Townend and Catherine Pine, who both helped set up a nursing home for suffragettes recovering from force feeding and imprisonment. I was expecting to discover a lot of incredible women, for a profession largely championed by women, but I found myself in complete awe while uncovering their stories. Their sheer intelligence, skill, resilience, bravery, and their collective drive to improve the world and care for its people was simply put: breath-taking.

I could go on writing about the resource list all day, but I hope that what I have highlighted gives an idea of the variety of resources which are included. I was surprised by the wealth of information available online and I believe that the list will be a useful tool to consult as starting off point to anyone researching nursing history remotely.

While fully immersed in exploring resources for the list I began to understand its purpose as being threefold:

·       To debunk the many myths surrounding nursing, such as the common held misconception that nursing has always been a vocation rather than a profession which required the traditional ‘feminine touch’ and the self- sacrifice that is believed to accompany it (especially harmful when in popular culture male nurses are portrayed as emasculated). Nurses fought for decades before their educational needs were met and it is because of this that today they are trained to be highly skilled and resourceful individuals.

·       To discover history’s incredible pioneering nurses and the diverse roots of the profession and how it evolved (the resource list covers UK nursing predominantly).

·       To disseminate knowledge remotely in times of COVID-19, when research is made particularly difficult as in person visits have decreased due to safety measures.

I am so thankful to LHSA for this opportunity which has enriched my knowledge, respect and appreciation for this profession- I’ve found a new passion!


Friday, 26 February 2021

An Ode to Archivists- Access to Archives Internship Jan-Feb 2021

I’m Farhana Islam, Access to Archives Intern with Lothian Health Services Archive. I have one week left of my one-month placement and I’d like to start off this blog by saying thank you to everyone at LHSA and the CRC team for being so welcoming and supportive, including Laura Beattie, Louise Neilson and Ruth Honeybone. A special thanks to Louise Williams, my mentor/ supervisor over the past month; she was so patient with me while I got used to the new software, and extremely helpful in answering all the questions and queries I had. Before beginning the internship however, I questioned the potential of engagement with a team who lived and operated in another country, but Louise and Laura made Scotland feel like a ten-minute drive (from London); and the wider team through their various talks and presentations have made me really excited to visit the CRC and LHSA to meet everyone and explore the facilities in person (once things go back to normal).

My two main tasks were to input existing catalogues onto the ArchivesSpace software, and create catalogues and transcriptions for oral history recordings relating to Edinburgh’s HIV and AIDs epidemic in the late 1980s. During my first two weeks, I enjoyed developing my skills on the ArchivesSpace software and had the satisfaction of watching roots develop in to trees, and noticing myself become more fluent on the site. Listening to, cataloguing and transcribing oral histories was definitely my favourite, I feel as though I’ve found my calling! As an avid listener of podcasts and audio-books, It was like listening to a really interesting historical podcast, and then being able to contribute towards its preservation; simply magical!

In addition to learning a lot from these tasks, I learnt an immense amount from merely speaking and listening to members of CRC who are all so enthusiastic about what they do. In particular Emily Hick’s Sacred Objects project and the ‘Meet the Conservator’ livestream which was so informative and interesting. [I believe a recorded version can be found online].

Oral History

The work I have contributed towards has made me appreciate the strenuous nature of archiving and preservation so much more. From the attention to detail required during cataloguing, to the patience and methodical approach to recording and then transcribing oral histories and of course making it accessible to the public. It is so easy to overlook the several hours of effort behind the preservation of photos, historical documents, images, artefacts, oral history recordings and archives in general.

The image on the right is an example of one of the applications which can be used to make cataloguing and transcribing oral history easier. ExpressScribe, in its most basic form, is a transcription software which allows users to upload recordings and adjust audio clips and provides a space for transcribing as you listen.


In the oral history interview with Jacqui Mok, Helen Zealley describes creating books for children who were affected by HIV. ‘It’s Clinic Day’ (GD22/14/1/62) aimed to normalise the experiences of the children who might have been distressed by regular hospital appointments, home visits, and all sorts of medical examinations. As much as this information moved me, it was so refreshing to learn of the efforts made on the part of healthcare professionals in the 1980s in helping not only treat those clinically affected by the virus, but taking time out to care for the children’s emotional wellbeing. LHSA’s preservation of the historical fight against HIV and AIDS has definitely put things in to perspective about the effort that goes in to caring for people with a virus which, to this day, carries the burden of societal stigma.

Working from Home

I’ve seen quite a few (pre-Covid) blogs posting picturesque images of the view from the University of Edinburgh/CRC, so here’s my attempt at displaying my internship workspace. One of the perks of working from home is, you get to have spontaneous mini snowmen competitions with your siblings at lunchtime.

Virtually exploring the Qit’at- i- Khushkhatt....

As it was a virtual internship, I explored the archives and special collections online. Cameras are notorious for not being able to capture the real beauty of things in front of us, but these scriptures, calligraphy and art pieces were absolutely breath-taking, even on a screen. I thought I’d include them in my blog because seeing them made me really excited and I admittedly spent way too long staring at each of them, trying to read the Arabic.


You can view images of the Qit’at- i- Khushkhatt here:

Family History Preservation

My mum recently discovered my grandad’s passport and immigration document, which was so exciting for my family, but the pages were wearing away. Luckily, I had the help of Ruth, who suggested the best methods of preservation for these specific documents. I am really excited to begin my own preservation project for the future generations of my family. It was such a privilege to have the expert opinions of archivists, conservators and curators at my finger-tips.


All in all… 

I’ve come away from the internship, excited for a career in archives. I’ve been exposed to several different avenues within the heritage sector, and look forward to continuing my journey in preservation. I have enrolled as a volunteer onto an oral history project (which I begin next week), called the ‘Tape Letters Project’; looking at the unusual method of communication used by working class Pakistani migrants, who recorded cassettes for their families to listen to in Pakistan. Oral history, here I come! I feel truly grateful to have had the chance to work with such crucial, historical information and would like to thank everyone at LHSA for making me feel so welcome and included in the preservation of Lothian’s history.


-Farhana Islam

Friday, 19 February 2021

Tessa talks about her experience as one of our very first remote Interns!


Hello! I’m Tessa, and for the last four weeks I’ve been the Web Accessibility and Resource List Intern here at LHSA – well not exactly ‘here’, as like all of us I’ve been working remotely, which for me is from my flat in Glasgow. Despite this I’ve had a wonderful experience, and keen to share what I’ve been working on…

My internship was formed of two main parts; firstly, I tested the LHSA’s website against the UK Government’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.1). It was surprising to find out this is a mandatory list of criteria that a website must meet in order to enable access to users with disabilities such as visual, hearing, cognitive and mobility.  

WCAG 2.1 is based on the following 4 design principles:

·         Perceivable

·         Operable

·         Understandable

·         Robust

Essentially these principles encompass everything that makes a website accessible for all users, from ease of navigation to appropriate colour contrast. With the daunting thought of over 500 pages making up the LHSA website, I started by testing the main index pages (of which there are 16) as these are likely to receive the highest user traffic. I then further tested internal pages, which contain elements like tables, video and audio sections which I thought would be beneficial to assess. I ended up exceeding my expectations, testing just shy of 80 pages, which I hope will provide a good representation on the types of future improvements to be made. As there could often be many elements to test within one page, the application WAVE (Web Accessibility Evaluation Tool) proved invaluable by cleverly highlighting areas that needed attention and also translating web code into human language!

WAVE in action, testing the LHSA Home page

After about a week of running tests, the second part of my internship was a complete contrast! As the reading room is currently closed, my task was to compile a list of digital resources from the University of Edinburgh and beyond on the history of psychiatry in the UK, to aid research and teaching. Records relating to this subject are often highly requested at the LHSA, and fortunately for me, there was so much to be found online! Among the range of resources I’ve included on the list are three podcast series from the University of St Andrews, and an entire playlist of talks on mental health, recorded at the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh. Also, it was interesting to see the different and innovative ways institutions are enabling and facilitating remote access to their collections while access is currently limited, and I definitely found myself falling down a few rabbit-holes during my research…

The feeling when you stumble across a page of online exhibitions 

The Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh's online exhibition 'Moonstruck: 500 Years of Mental Health'

As well as these two tasks, I was able to learn about the history and daily operations of the LHSA – talking to Ruth Honeybone about her conservation work, finding out more about Louise Neilson’s role as Access Officer and Louise Williams' work as archivist. These chats have been great for keeping myself and fellow Intern Farhana connected, along with attending the CRC Staff meeting – not least the weekly virtual coffee breaks!

It is clear to me that I have learnt a tremendous amount in the last four weeks, which I somewhat feel is a result of remote working, rather than in spite of the current restrictions. With this, I’ve had to learn to adapt to new challenges, but I’ve felt incredibly supported throughout (a testament to Louise N and the rest of the wonderful LHSA team!) and would certainly recommend any new professionals like myself pursuing a remote internship in the future. I look forward to when I’m able to visit the LHSA in person in the not-so-distant future!

Tuesday, 1 December 2020

Enjoy Your Sexuality - Safely

On World AIDS Day 2020, we're fortunate enough to be hosting a guest blog from Dr Hannah J Elizabeth. Hannah's a great champion of LHSA, having first worked with us in 2018 during their research on the impact of HIV on women, children and young people in Edinburgh.

Currently, Hannah is a Research Fellow for the Wellcome Trust Senior Investigator Award 'The Cultural History of the NHS' in the Centre for the History of Medicine at the University of Warwick, researching late twentieth century lesbian health activism in the Midlands. Alongside their research on lesbian health, they are writing a monograph based on their PhD research on representations of HIV to children and adolescents. In January, they will begin a Wellcome Research Fellowship based at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and the University of Edinburgh titled: ‘What’s love got to do with it? Building and maintaining HIV-affected families through love, care, and activism in Edinburgh 1981-2016’.

‘Enjoy your sexuality - safely’ – learning caution and hope from 1990s lesbian HIV materials

This World AIDS Day there are reasons to be cautiously hopeful. Rates of new HIV infections are dropping across the UK, with testing, PreP and successful treatment regimens lowering transmission risks and improving clinical outcomes. This trend, as has been widely reported, has been accelerated by the social distancing measures required to combat Covid. If we dig down into the statistics though, we come across reasons for caution.

Access to PreP is by no means universal. While improving, many people who are vulnerable still find access to PreP difficult. Successful treatment for those already living with HIV remains dependant on testing and sticking with treatment, something which isn’t always easy. Indeed, the proportion of people diagnosed late remains stubbornly high at 42% according to latest figures. Globally Covid may cause serious disruption to treatment regimes. So evidently, more needs to be done to continue to combat HIV and to lessen health inequalities nationally and globally. We need more money for HIV prevention, testing, treatment, and education!

HIV education has taken many forms over the years. Here I’m focusing on information targeted at lesbians (a fairly rare primary source) because the hopeful-but-cautious tone adopted mirrors how I feel about HIV in the UK today. We shouldn’t be complacent, but we should be optimistic! 

LHB45/2/5/1: Lesbian Sex: Are you as safe as you think? leaflet from Lothian Lesbian Line

‘We want you to be aware of the facts, not the scare stories.’

This leaflet, created by Lesbian Line, part of Lothian Gay and Lesbian Switchboard, captures an interesting moment in HIV’s history. In its pages we can see a turn in messaging from describing people as ‘at risk’ towards describing activities – rather than identities – as risky. It addresses women who have sex with women, telling them: ‘Like anybody else, it’s what we do that determines how much we place ourselves at risk.’ Women who had sex with women played an important role in the history of AIDS activism: advocating for change, working to produce education materials, and supporting people who became sick. But they also produced material like this to address their own needs directly in the face of government silence and ongoing stigma.

Overall the leaflet is frank, admitting when the medical research was unclear and risks uncertain, while offering practical solutions on how to have sex as safely as possible. Indeed, on the final page of the leaflet it explains:

‘We want you to be aware of the facts, not the scare stories: our sexual activities are generally low risk, so enjoy your sexuality – safely!’

This message, about enjoying ourselves, still resonates today. Much of the sexual health messaging we are used to seeing still insists on a risk first, pleasure second (or not at all) narrative, but in the 1990s this kind of intervention was even more powerful. When we think about public health messaging around HIV it is usually the ‘tombstone campaign’ that we think of. We remember John Hurt’s sombre voice telling us that ‘if you ignore AIDS it could be the death of you: So don’t die of ignorance!’ A scary campaign is a memorable campaign, but as I’ve argued elsewhere, that doesn’t mean it worked brilliantly. As the leaflet above explains, not all sexual acts are as risky as one another, and there are many ways to make sex safer without forgetting about pleasure in the process!

Another important element of the leaflet is its emphasis on personal choice and communication around risk. While the methods available in the 1990s were fewer, and perhaps less technologically advanced than those available to us today, there were always more ways to have safer-sex than using condoms. While PreP is game changer, and condoms, lube, and sex toys have also increased in variety and type, safer-sex has always meant different things to different people.

People found ways to have fun safely in the 1990s. By leaving space for different activities while emphasising communication, the Lesbian Line leaflet strikes an inclusive tone. Indeed, part of this leaflet’s important intervention was debunking the myth that lesbians as a group were not at risk of HIV, while carefully leaving space for pleasure in the process of managing that risk. Which I suppose brings us back to World AIDS Day 2020. Today we still need to know the facts so we can, as far as possible, manage our risk. We also should work hard not to lose sight of pleasure. But we also need to acknowledge that the burden of risk is not distributed equally. And so we must fight on for better education, funding, and treatment for all. 

You can find out more about Dr Hannah J Elizabeth's work here:

Love Carefully and Without ‘Over-bearing Fears’: The Persuasive Power of Authenticity in Late 1980s British AIDS Education Material for Adolescents 

‘Private Things Affect Other People’: Grange Hill’s Critique of British Sex Education Policy in the Age of AIDS 

The Slippery History of the Dental Dam 

Superman vs. Nick O’Teen: anti-smoking campaigns and children in 1980s Britain 

‘Injections-While-You-Dance’: Press Advertisement and Poster Promotion of the Polio Vaccine to British Publics, 1956–1962 

Getting around the rules of sex education 

Selected LHSA material relevant to lesbian health and well-being includes:

Acc09/021, Acc09/027: Lothian Gay and Lesbian Switchboard. Includes information on the Lesbian Line service, and publications for and by lesbian communities, including Dykenosis, and newsletters from the International Lesbian Information Service. The collection features runs of the magazine Gay Scotland. Until January 2022, students and staff from the University of Edinburgh can access Gay Scotland (along with 24 other LGBT publications) online through the LGBT Magazine Archive through a link in this list.

LHB45/2/5/1: Lothian Health Board HIV/AIDS Team and Health Promotion Department. Information produced by lesbian, gay and transgender groups.

LHB45/1/2/2/5: Lothian Health Board HIV/AIDS Team and Health Promotion Department. Terrance Higgins Trust. THT leaflet on lesbian safe sex.

But please contact us for more information: and don't forget our LGBT source list!

Wednesday, 15 April 2020

Marlena signing off!

Although this year has undoubtedly been an extraordinary one (for all the wrong reasons), one of its highlights has definitely been the successful completion of our internship programme last month. Without these short, paid programmes, a lot of valuable work would go undone, and we wouldn't have the pleasure of meeting so many aspiring young archivists - a hope for the future that we all need at the moment! These are the reflections of Marlena, our Archive Cataloguing Intern, written in the middle of March 2020, as she finished her internship:

Hello everyone, and Goodbye! This week is my last as an intern with LHSA and I thought I would share my thoughts on the last eight weeks here.

As you will have read in my last two posts on the blog, I have been cataloguing a collection on bio-engineering research in Edinburgh donated by David Gow. The collection contains all kinds of fascinating material; there are journal articles, diaries, photograph albums, newspaper clippings, and correspondence, on anything you could think of in terms of bioengineering prosthetics, as well as many wonderful surprises. You might expect the collection to have meeting minutes and technical diagrams (and it does) but we also have records on Russian electric prosthetic hand development in the 1960s, material samples for inflatable mattresses, and some really cute baby pictures. My job has been to organise the material in a way that users can understand the context of its creation, and can easily find records within the collection.

'Russian hand' documents from 1965
The majority of my time here has been spent reviewing the material and drafting hierarchical structures by which to sort the records. In the archives world, this is called arrangement. You may already be familiar with the term from my first blog post. It’s important to remember that cataloguing isn’t just database input (although I did that as well!), it’s about expressing how things are connected, why the records were made and stored, and how they can be used. Arrangement therefore is possibly the most important part of creating a catalogue, and I spent over three weeks reviewing arrangement ideas before settling on my final structure.

Final structure

I had kept a list of the material I viewed during the scoping process, with titles, descriptions, and dates of items, so the actual ‘cataloguing’ (that is, the database input) was fairly straightforward, and, dare I say it, a good bit of fun. I had some previous experience with cataloguing with other collection management systems such as CALM, Vernon, and of course Excel, but this was my first time using ArchivesSpace, which I consider to be very user-friendly.

Due to the limited time frame of my internship, a key concern over the past eight weeks has been ‘scalability’. There is simply too much material to squeeze into the time available, so I had to prioritise what made it into ArchivesSpace. If you look at the structure above, you will see the subfonds (term used for different work areas or activities of the record creator) LHB71/1 (Administration), LHB71/2 (Research and Development), and LHB71/3 (Photographic Material). This is what I prioritised. All three of the first subfonds are now in ArchivesSpace, and searchable at item level. That means that if you are looking for a particular item within this group, you can find it by searching the database, which looks something like this:

Subfonds LHB71/4 (Internal Publications) and LHB71/5 l(Publicity Material) are searchable at series level. A series is a group of records that essentially have the same function. That means you’ll be able to find an entry on the content of the groups of these records, but you won’t be able to search for individual items.

My last two weeks have been rehousing the collection, putting everything into acid-free folders and melinex sleeves, numbering and labelling items so they’re easily identified and arranging the items in acid-free boxes with related items (for example, other items in the same series) so they are easy to find.

My greatest lesson learnt in this internship is that everyone, and every archive, is different. I know this sounds clichéd. I realise it’s glaringly self-evident, and it’s something I thought I already knew. There is a difference, however, in knowing something and really understanding it. One of the reasons it took so long to finalise the arrangement was because I had some expectations on what ‘should’ be in the collection, and how the arrangement ‘should’ look. From my studies and my previous cataloguing work, I had come to expect that the first two subfonds would be administrative and financial in nature, but there were few records relating to finance in the collection, and those that did, did not conform to my ideas of what financial records look like. Instead of ledgers, waste books, or accounts, there were grant proposals and a few material quotes as well as some budget estimates and fundraising correspondence—these were all records of what might have been spent or gained but not actually evident of a financial transaction. In hindsight, I was blindly naïve to expect these records to exist and to continue drafting structures that gave them great prominence. The centre didn’t keep those records, as many of the financial transactions would have happened via the NHS and the Princess Margaret Rose Hospital.

My mistake is especially unfortunate considering the subject matter of so much of the collection, which focuses on fitting prosthetics to individual patients. No one person has quite the same disability, and the patients seen at the centre each had a prosthetic fitted to them individually. Some patients had partial hands and needed fingers, others didn’t just need a hand but an arm as well. Some patients needed cosmetic prosthetics (called cosmesis) for important functions like weddings and funerals, others needed a more functional hand for work. And a hand that was made for a teenage boy wouldn’t fit a five-year-old girl. All kinds of things needed to be considered when fitting a patient with a prosthetic. Just like no person has the same fingerprint, no person has the same hand, or the same hand prosthetic! And no archive has the same arrangement, either.

After this week, I will be continuing my studies with the University of Dundee and volunteering with the archive at Glasgow Trades Hall. I have learned so much here that I hope to use in my future career. The past eight weeks have flown by and I have enjoyed every minute of it. Everyone at LHSA and the CRC here at the University of Edinburgh has been so encouraging, supportive, and helpful. I only have one more thing to say, and that is a big THANK YOU to Louise Williams,  Louise Neilson, and Ruth Honeybone, who have made this internship such a wonderful experience.

So long, farewell, Auf Wiedersehen and thank you!

Friday, 28 February 2020

Catching up with Alice

Hi this is Alice again, one of the LHSA archive interns. I’m halfway through the internship, and it is going super quickly!

It feels like there’s a lot still to get through, but my work is progressing well. I’ve now got lots and lots of lists and am working through creating the source list. This will be both as a source list in a conventional format and as a supplementary online resource. I’ll have to thank one of last year’s interns who had previously used the online platform prezi – it’s been an incredibly helpful format to display my findings and ensure they are presented in an accessible way.

For the content I’ve been focusing on different hospitals, different campaigns, and female staff. After consulting lots of records, activism within all of these focuses has been a recurring theme.

I’ve been struck by how current and relevant a lot of the women’s health records feel. A good example being some of the Head On mental health campaign records. Head On was set up as part of the Scottish Women’s Health Fair in May 1983, the poster below illustrates the concerns women at the time were facing. The pressures and concerns on these women in the 1980’s are indeed strikingly similar to concerns many face today.


As I’m studying for my Archives qualification alongside work I also enjoyed reading the probation nurses’ timetable. Nurses had to complete a preliminary training school and work as probationers before qualifying – I’m definitely grateful my archival training doesn’t include learning how to make gruel or a fish soufflé! There’s an insight into the cooking element of their training here, as you can see nurses were also learning how to make food for specific conditions such as diabetes. However, the timetable equally shows how the role of nurses has changed over time. There are dieticians who would assist patients with their diets now, and cooking isn’t a part of medical staff’s duties anymore.


I’ve also sat in on, and then conducted, some oral history interviews. These have been really interesting, particularly getting women’s first hand memories of working in hospitals in Edinburgh in the past. It really helps illuminate some of the records I have been consulting.

For International Women’s Day there will be an exhibit here at LHSA with some of the records relating to women in the collections. This will be an informal drop in exhibit so do pop along. To book your place visit here:

Some of the records from the health campaigns have a definite modern feel/aesthetic, and made me think of placards from the recent women’s marches which we have seen around the world.  

Indeed, I’ve been looking at women in the HIV/AIDS collection which is really interesting, and is similarly visual.


Consulting with a variety of records also helps me understand how a variety of researchers use LHSA’s records. You can really see from the HIV/AIDS collection how it would be helpful for ECA students too – nice to be reminded of archives’ different uses! Hopefully the resource I am creating will similarly have multiple uses for different users.

Monday, 24 February 2020

This is getting out of hand!

In the blog today, we have an update from Marlena, our archive cataloguing intern working on our collection from the Astley Ainslie SMART Centre, which focuses on the development of artificial limbs in Edinburgh:

Hello again from Marlena! I am now halfway through my cataloguing internship, which has been a wonderful way to get some hands-on archive experience alongside my studies with the University of Dundee. I make no apologies for the ‘heavy-handed’ use of word play in the following post!

As you may have seen in my previous post, I am currently cataloguing a collection donated by David Gow, inventor of the first ‘bionic’ prosthetic hand. Over the past few weeks, I have reviewed the material, trying to figure out how records relate to one another and how I can group these items to make them easier to find for future users. Now that I have a better grasp on what we hold, and how I want to arrange things, I am putting the records into the University's collections management system, ArchivesSpace.

I think the most exciting revelation to me is the ways in which engineering and archives offer a similar way of looking at things. For both, you need to understand how the things you create will be used by others. When you are drafting a structure with which to arrange archives, it is important to think about who will be using your collection, as well as who created the records and for what purpose. A patient might be photographed in order to work out the kind of prosthetic needed, but that photograph might later be valuable to them for constructing a personal narrative or supporting past memories. Similarly, bio-engineering is not just about figuring out how to build something, but also about how that object is going to be used once it is built. In short, both archives and engineering are about problem solving, and about connecting seemingly unconnected things in order to make a useful whole. For example, when I was cataloguing, I had to ask myself: "What is the connection between airplanes, puppets, and motorcycle helmets?"

One of David Gow's diaries, Acc10/001

A real treasure within the collection are some diaries David Gow wrote while working at the Bioengineering Centre during the years of 1981 to 1984. The diaries contain some fascinating information about Gow's day to day work, patients he saw, and results of tests and experiments. It is interesting to see how projects progressed through time. In August of 1983, Gow was working on a hand using double acting hydraulic links when he decided to try using Bowden cables instead, ‘just so we can say we tried it’.  By mid-September, the results from the Bowden cable hand were so impressive that the model using hydraulic links was shelved.

As someone coming from a humanities background, I am embarrassed to admit that I had no idea what a Bowden cable was prior to this internship, and I didn’t want to catalogue something I didn’t understand. Was this something exotic and unusual? The short answer is no. A Bowden cable transmits mechanical force by the movement of an inner cable which is guided by an outer protective sleeve. For those without a technical background, this might sound vaguely esoteric, but it is actually quite simple. If you’ve ever ridden a bicycle, chances are you’re familiar with the concept. Bowden cables originate with late 19th century innovations to bicycle brakes and are still used as bicycle brake cables today. When force is exerted on the inner cable (for example by pulling the brake), the cable carries the force from one end to another, with the outer housing guiding the inner cable’s movement. You can take advantage of that principle for the movement of fingers.
Notes on 'the Airplane Hand', presented at a Dundee conference in 1967, Acc10/001
Once you wrap your head around how Bowden cables work on a bicycle, you can begin to understand how they work within prosthetic hands, and you can start to see how airplanes and motorcycle helmets relate to the rest of the collection: as ways of understanding how things work, and how you can use the solution for one problem to solve another. For example, in 1967, engineers of prosthetics had difficulties with creating a hand with six ‘necessary’ independent functions. They found inspiration in airplane controls, as pilots could ‘reach any given point, at any given altitude’, using only four movements. Forty years later, a major concern was making the prosthetic durable enough to handle the demands of everyday life without breaking. When looking at materials for the I-limb, Gow considered Honeywells Spectra Fiber, a polyethylene fiber that is 15 times stronger than steel. Spectra Fiber is used in many different kinds of products—including the Spectra R motorcyle helmet shown below. 
Example of Spectra Fiber, Acc10/001
When used in prosthetics, the fiber is woven into a fabric that is then laminated with resin, and left to harden on a mould of the patient’s residual limb. Ultimately, Spectra Fiber wasn’t used for the I-Limb, which instead was made of a tough nylon resin called Zytel. Zytel is used in many different industries including automotive parts, pistol frames, and roller skates. These records of what wasn’t used and what didn’t work are sometimes just as important as the records showing what succeeded, because they are evidence of a process over time. Most people don’t get things right on the first try— it takes trial and error to figure out what works.

In some ways, a letter from a puppet workshop is less of a stretch to connect than motorcycle helmets and airplanes. The envelope shown above is from Mark Hunter, a puppet maker with the Jim Henson workshop, which most people will know for its pioneering animatronics in classics such as the Dark Crystal and the Labyrinth in the 1980s. 

Letter to David Gow in Henson studio envelope, Acc10/001
In 2001, Mark Hunter had a friend in need of a prosthetic, and so decided to offer a helping hand (literally) to Gow and the team at the Bioengineering Centre. While the hand made by Hunter was never used, this letter was a wonderful surprise for me and it illustrates just how seemingly unrelated fields can connect with one another.

The way things are related is important for me because I want to create a resource that easily shows connections in order to find relevant and related material. I need to know how and why records were created, while still being aware of how people will use my catalogue entries to find things in the future. 

So far, this blog post has shown you the thought processes behind creating prosthetics, and I am sure that this will be of interest to researchers in the future. Then again, there might be better resources for researchers to learn about the hydraulic and mechanical linkage systems. A very common use of archives is as a way to support personal identity and memory, and especially in establishing a family history and narrative. The Bioengineering Centre didn’t just exist to make prosthetics. Those prosthetics were meant for people, and the archive has records of the patients the Centre supported. These records will in time be (and are already!) a valuable resource for patients to reflect on their experiences, or for family historians wanting to learn more about where they came from. The records also challenge some existing ideas about disabilities, showing patients and their prosthetics at a time when disability awareness was still in its early stages, and how prosthetics were used to successfully navigate daily challenges. 

The collection contains many photo albums from Helen Scott, an occupational therapist at the Centre, who worked with patients so that they could develop motor skills and achieve independence in a myriad of forms, from dressing and feeding one’s self to more elaborate tasks like writing, knitting and baking. The pictures in these albums are wonderful not just for previous patients of the bioengineering centre or family historians, but also for academics and activists looking for resources to show life with disabilities from the 1960’s onwards:

Because of data legislation protecting patient information, we restrict access as appropriate to safeguard individual privacy. For that reason, parts of the collection won’t be publicly accessible unless you have a legitimate reason to work with items, and have special permission from NHS Lothian, who own all our records. However, other collection items are less sensitive and there won’t be any restrictions in place for access. That said, I can scarcely wait for this collection to be fully catalogued so that users can get their hands on these records!
Images above show occupational therapy activities with children at the Bio-engineering Centre at the Princess Margaret Rose Orthopaedic Hospital. Images have been edited to protect the identities of individuals pictures, Acc10/001