Survival Of Archives; Archives Of Survival

In a previous job, I glimpsed the Laycock military papers, among them documents created by Capt. Evelyn Waugh somewhere in the Mediterranean during the Second World War. There was no time to pore over them, as I was just processing a copy order – but it struck me that their survival (complete with scorch marks and water damage) was miraculous, and that so was their creation. In the melee of conflict, there was Waugh armed with a typewriter, setting down the information that others would need.

Whether it’s a literal battle or the current battle against coronavirus, there’s nothing like crisis for putting pressure on those charged with setting down information.  A crisis also reveals starkly how important a resource information is, and how much we rely on its being accurate and available.

One criterion that defines an archive is authenticity. A document in an archive collection was created for reasons that had everything to do with the situation at the time and nothing much to do with us. We are not the intended audience. The primary reader is the writer’s contemporary – a busy person who needs evidence of what has been done and what remains to be done; what has been agreed and what is still up in the air. Succeeding generations may be able to peer over the shoulder of their ancestors, like a rail passenger reading their neighbour’s paper, but this is a happy accident.

It’s an accident so happy, in fact, that we need to make it happen. At Derbyshire Record Office, we try to make it happen by committing ourselves to a management policy which says: “We will respond positively to opportunities for expanding the scope of our collections, to make them more representative of the diverse range of human activity in our county’s history”. There’s quite a range of human activity just now, even in the midst of forced inactivity.

An acquisition strategy is not a new idea. Just look at this 1918 advertisement printed on a ration book in the Ogden Family papers.

D331 1 49_0003

Please note: it’s 1918 and this is on a ration book – the appeal to preserve evidence of the Great War had started, even as war still raged.

Information grows in importance during a crisis, and so does community – even a socially distanced one. Again, this is nothing new. Another episode in Archives I Have Glimpsed While Doing Copying Orders: papers reflecting the efforts of Women’s Institutes to find billets for evacuees during Operation Pied Piper, because there was no government presence large enough or connected enough to do it.

Novels will be written by people quarantined by this outbreak, some of them good.  There will be poems and sculptures and great works of art. Whether good, bad or indifferent, these will be part of an archive of human survival, and we will have to find ways to preserve it. Will there be an archive of the spontaneously-generated COVID-19 community support groups, whose members bring essential supplies to people with a duty to self-isolate? How will we preserve the activities of a neighbourhood interacting over social media? Two key words for a future post: Digital Preservation.

The evidence we leave behind will be the product of people acting under pressure in a rush, like Waugh at his typewriter. But it won’t be structured in the same way as a military archive, or a company archive, or a local authority archive. And we can’t save it all. Some history, perhaps the overwhelming majority of it, will slip through our fingers.

This will be ameliorated by forward-thinking people setting out to document today for the readers of tomorrow – not a happy accident of authenticity, but an act of conscious creation, authentic in its own way. Two examples:

Earlier this month our Local Studies Librarian, Lisa, gave a talk delving into Derbyshire’s past by peering over the shoulder of long-departed residents and visitors, and into their personal diaries. Last week we were contacted by a member of the audience who has been inspired by diaries kept during the war to record her own experience of the current coronavirus situation. Mass Observation, as it is known, was first developed in 1937 and ran until the 1950s and it was restarted in 1981 – the Archive is held at The Keep at the University of Sussex. If you would like to take part in Mass Observation and contribute to the archive, whether in relation to coronavirus or in the future, find out how to Become a Mass Observer online.

An idea that began in Arizona but is going global – a web resource called Journal Of A Plague Year: An Archive of COVID-19. The title, as you spotted, is a nod to Daniel Defoe. Here we find stories, photographs, video files, sound files and, yes, Facebook and Snapchat memes, all selected to help preserve a collective memory. Take, just as a for instance, the snapshot of a New Orleans pizzeria which has hurriedly altered its business model so that boxed food may be passed through an improvised service hatch.  At the time of writing, there are 323 items in the archive, which can be browsed, searched, or picked from a map.  And the map tells me there are no UK contributions yet. How long until that changes, I wonder? Yes, you may take that as a challenge.

Wishing you all good health.

Historical recipes – both good and bad

I was interviewed by Andy Twigge for BBC Radio Derby today and we discussed a few recipes from our many historical recipe books.  I made a couple of things for him to try: one was the gluten-free rice cake which I’ve blogged about before, and the other was Jumbles from Mary Swanwick’s 1740s recipe.

The one I didn’t make, but rather tickled me, was from a seventeenth century book.  It’s from the archive of the Gell family of Hopton Hall and like all such home recipe books, it contains a mix of medicinal and cookery recipes.   I would strongly recommend that you don’t try this one at home.

Recipe for convulsion fits

Reference no: D258/32/15/1

Here’s my transcription with modernised spelling and punctuation:

Mrs Evelyn’s excellent powder for Convulsion Fits

Take a dozen young moles, flay them, draw them and quarter them, lay them abroad in a dish and dry them in an oven until they will powder. Take elecampane root, cleanse, slit and dry them in an oven to powder. Take red peony roots and Jews ears [a kind of mushroom], powdered after the same manner.  Take also a little of the                      of a healthy woman when it is burnt to powder.  Beat them severally and take of each powder a like quantity by weight.  Mix them well together and keep them close tied up for use.

Take of it 3 mornings before and after the full and change, in a spoonful of black cherry water as much as will lie on a shilling, fasting, and drink 2 or 3 spoonful of black cherry water after it.

The black cherry water definitely sounds like the best bit!  I’m not entirely sure about ‘the full and change’ but I think that is referring to the moon, the full moon often being seen as the culprit for fits of insanity.  As for what you should be powdering from a healthy woman, if you have any suggestions, let us know in the comments.

You can hear snippets of my conversation with Andy Twigge by listening to his lunchtime radio programme every day this week at around 2.15pm – or catch up with it on the BBC Radio iPlayer.  I’ll post the Jumbles recipe later this week, for those that would like to give it a try.  I promise that it’s much more palatable than the recipe above!

Treasure 48: Erasmus Darwin’s prescription notebooks

These notebooks are a series of medical practice records, covering the 1740s to 1780s.  Each entry deals with an individual patient, recording symptoms and treatment. It’s clear that there is more than one style of handwriting in the books, but we believe the later entries to be the work of Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802) who moved to Derby in 1783.

They are nominated by our Assistant Conservator, Clare, who repaired them over the course of a year – all 1316 pages!  Clare says: “It was an extremely satisfying project to do even if there were occasions when I was still repairing them in my sleep…”

Here’s what was prescribed for Thomas Bamford of Ticknall, who was suffering from cramps:

d2375-thomas-bamford

Two drachms of Gammoniacum To ss. pint of penny royal water.  Two spoonfulls occasionally repeated.  January the 15th.  When the pains return to loose some blood, and then take at one dose a Quarter of a Pint of common Sallad oil, after an hour or two if the pain continues.  Take one Pill, and repeat it every hour till the pain ceases or till he has taken four.

At the intervals of his pain he should take one of the 2nd Box Pills every nights.

Small beer posset drink made by mixing equal parts of beer and milk warm, then taking off the Curd and 15 Drops of Laudanum in it every night.  Jan[uary] 27th Six powders Rhubarb 15 grs. Ginger.  19. Infusion. z ii Marshmallow root boild to one

Treasure 41: “Several Surgical Treatises” by Richard Wiseman (d.1676)

This treasure dates from 1676, the year of its author’s death. You might imagine that a book on early modern surgery would be a bit gruesome.  You would be right.

It is nominated by Local Studies Librarian, Sue Peach:
“Gaze in fascinated horror at an account of medicine before the era of antibiotics and anaesthetics. No known local connection, but it gives us a glimpse of how Derbyshire folk would have been bled, purged and clystered in the seventeenth century”.

Read more about Richard Wiseman and his work on the History of Surgery website.  His entry on the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography is also very good.

Adverts for medicines

This post is from Abi, who has been here all this week on a work experience placement.  Thanks Abi!

As part of my history GCSE course is studying Medicine Through Time, on my work experience it was interesting to have a look through old newspapers to see the type of treatments that were used in the past couple of hundred years. It was amazing to see how the types of treatments people used varied over this period of time; A supposed cure for blindness was definitely an interesting one to find.

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