My Website

Saturday, 19 December 2020

Introductory post

Decided that it might be a good idea to have a blog linking to my website. People have asked me whether there's any way to find out when pages on my site are updated, so this can be a place where I note changes and updates to Lesley Hall's Web Pages. It's also a place where I could post updates on my academic activities - publications, forthcoming conferences etc I'm attending, media appearances, etc (NB the media don't always tell me when my 30 seconds of fame is going to go out).

Over the course of time this blog has got a bit more discursive than the above might suggest, and now includes occasional book reports, impressions of conferences, seminars  and other events attended, and thoughts more generally on archives, history, and other matters within the general remit.

Monday, 14 April 2014

A foundational myth?

The story was going around some years ago that sanitary towels were invented during the First World War, and this is reiterated in an article today about inventions that owe their success to World War One. I daresay that Kotex  - a US Brand - may have owed its development to the series of events therein described, and maybe the story about the Red Cross nurses repurposing absorbent surgical dressings for their own hours of need is even true. But while this may be a compelling foundational story for Kotex, it's not actually true of sanitary towels as a product in general.

Even the Wikipedia article for Kotex concurs on this -'modern, commercial, disposable pads seem to have started in the late nineteenth century with the Hartmann company in Germany and Johnson & Johnson in the United States'.

Unmentioned there is the Southall Company in the UK, which was advertising in Family Doctor and Home Medical Adviser, c. 1893:

The greatest invention of the century for Woman's Comfort, at the cost of washing only.*
May be obtained from Ladies' Outfitters, Drapers and Chemists throughout the world
A Free Parcel of SOUTHALL'S "SANITARY TOWELS" will be sent Carriage Paid to the first Lady Stall Holder of every Bazaar who applies to THE LADY MANAGER... mentioning this paper, and enclosing circular with list of stall-holders.

FREE SAMPLES could also be sent for.

The primacy of Southalls features in the main Wikipedia article  on the history of sanpro and there is yet further information, including scans of ads, on the Museum of Menstruation website

*Possibly not disposables, then.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

New Directions: Gender, Sex, and Sexuality in C20th Britain

This was an excellent small and focused conference that took place today at University College London.

It reflected several things currently happening in history of sexuality - the spatial turn, from postwar planning of domestic spaces to produce new forms of masculinity to the very specific space of Cardiff's Butetown associated with prostitution and cross-race sexuality; the recognition of the continuing significance of religion, both in the panel dedicated to it and in Sean Brady's compelling paper on the role of sectarianism in attitudes towards on homosexuality in Northern Ireland; the importance of popular media (in this case the tabloid press) as a means of circulating sexual knowledge, not necessarily in the way the editors intended. Material culture also made an appearance in the form of the repositioning of the condom in the 1970s.

There was a very welcome attention to differing regional experiences. Besides Brady on Northern Ireland, and Simon Jenkins on transgressive sex in Cardiff, we had a taster of Helen Smith's impressive work on working-class men in South Yorkshire who related sexually to other men in the pre-Wolfenden era, and Jane O'Neill's work on Scottish young peoples' negotiations around sexuality since World War II.

There were also plenty of opportunity for informal interactions over lunch, coffee, and eventually wine.

The organisers can be congratulated on a very successful day.

Sunday, 30 March 2014

A chance to see Sir Henry's sexual objects

Since my post on Sir Henry Wellcome's sexual objects is the most popular post ever on this blog, I am delighted to be able to mention this forthcoming exhibition, Intimate Worlds: Exploring Sexuality through the Sir Henry Wellcome Collection​,  at the  Royal Albert Memorial Museum, Exeter, from 5 April-29 June 2014, at which there will be the chance to view these artefacts.

Friday, 28 March 2014

Forthcoming appearance

On 14th May at 6.30 pm,  I shall be giving the Roy Porter Lecture for 2014, 'Healthy Lives/Healthy World: the utopian visions of interwar British progressives'. This is free by ticket: booking opens on 25th April.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Further thoughts on historians vs popular marketplace

I like this article by Paula Michaels a lot, because she makes the significant point that
the path of popular history is closed to most historians because of the very subjects of their investigation. No amount of finesse with the written word would have put my first book, on the history of medicine and public health in Soviet Kazakhstan, on the shelves of Dymock’s. The publishing of popular history is driven not by how scholars write, but by what readers are willing to buy.
Speaking from my own experience, if I'd wanted to top the Amazon rankings in C20th biography, I wouldn't have written about a radical and penurious social activist who, towards the end of her life, saw the battles she had fought for continuing but not yet won. I'd have chosen some glamorous aristo or already well-known literary or artistic figure, or at the very least someone who had affairs with men of note or can be posited to be 'the original' for some literary character. However, that wasn't the research I wanted to do or the book I wanted to write.  Finding oneself gripped by a particular individual or group of individuals, rather than scanning the bestseller lists to see what's going well, drives a lot of people to create biography.

If one is thinking beyond the individual and about broader thematic topics, again, the bestselling areas are (at a guess) war, historical crimes especially involving horrible murders, and royalty. I don't deny that there are people doing work that is both popular and academically respectable on all of those topics, but those are not the only subjects of historical investigation and they don't light every historian's fire. I daresay, properly pitched, and given a sexy title like Subterranean Passions, Muck, and Brass a book on C19th municipal sewage reform might catch the public eye, given a few well-placed reviews and possibly interviews with the author (though one sometimes cynically thinks that being young and conventionally attractive is a significant asset for the latter).

Similar points are made in this powerful essay by Ludmilla Jordanova about heroic narratives in the history of science and the tensions that perhaps particularly affects museums between creating 'accessible ties with the fields they represent, while drawing on scholarship that is rooted in critical distance, in scepticism, even cynicism.'

We want to get our work across, but how far do we want it to be at the expense of complexity and nuance?

Sunday, 23 March 2014

We need both

Spotted just now via Twitter, an article which claims that 'academic historians' compose 'brief analyses or micro-histories - finely hewn articles for scholarly journals that their peers are obliged to review as an occupational duty, and make you wonder: what is academic history for?'

But these, after all, constitute the necessary building blocks of more wide-ranging syntheses (which one does hope are written in a way to be pleasing and accessible, certainly). Otherwise, the historian is just making stuff up and guessing.

Most historians are engaged both in undertaking what are often very micro-studies (here I would evidence my own short essay '"The Reserved Occupation"? Prostitution in the Second World War', which appeared in Women's History Magazine, no 41, June 2002. This was an investigation into the basis for what turned out to be the urban legend of the 1940s that prostitutes were exempt from direction of labour and that women could get out of conscription by claiming that they were members of the oldest profession. Pretty micro, really.), and also much larger studies which bring together the fruits of their own and others' researches.

I would claim (well, I would, wouldn't I?) that the revised second edition of my own Sex, Gender and Social Change in Britain since 1880 (2012) is a good deal stronger and more nuanced than the first edition (2000), both because I had myself investigated a number of outstanding loose ends (that prostitution urban myth, a good deal more detail on sex education in the UK) and because a lot of other scholars had been producing work in the area, much of which was in the form of articles in scholarly journals as well as major monographs such as Matt Houlbrook's Queer London, Alison Oram's Her Husband Was A Woman! and Laura Doan's Fashioning Sapphism, Hera Cook's The Long Sexual Revolution and many more.

One of my own very micro-micro, even nano, -studies, on the alleged fashionability of nipple rings in late Victorian/Edwardian high society, was undertaken when a friend who had been reading a popular work of history on the pre-Great War era asked me whether the author's claim that this was so, could possibly have been true. I like to think that I have done a little towards clearing up a misapprehension based on Iwan Bloch's somewhat uncritical attitude towards his sources. But a microstudy of this nature was also fueled by a sense of the wider social context of sexual mores and body practices.

The practice of history perhaps requires continual shifting of perspective from the narrow to the broad to the middle range. An analogy I always like is George Eliot's metaphor in Middlemarch of microscopical examination of a drop of water:
Even with a microscope directed on a water-drop we find ourselves making interpretations which turn out to be rather coarse: for whereas under a weak lens you may seem to see a creature exhibiting an active voracity into which other smaller creatures actively play... a stronger lens reveals to you certain tiniest hairlets which make vortices for these victims while the swallower waits passively at his receipt of custom.

Thursday, 20 February 2014

Credit where it's due

I'm riffing off an impassioned post by Matt Houlbrook on the exploitation of historians and the invisibilisation of their labours by, for example, the media (as well as unattributed citation in the blogosphere). And like him, I could rant for a considerable time about 'media researchers' (and as an archivist I possibly encounter even more of these) who expect what is often a substantial amount of free labour which may not even come to anything ('we're thinking of developing a programme...').

But what this made me think about was the failure to give due credit even within our actual profession, by senior figures in the field who should know better. This is a rather different matter from the people who write novels or plays based on an incident or theme in history that they have discovered in some historical monograph, though one does feel that acknowledgements to source are due in an afterword, if not a preface.

Some years ago I went above and beyond any responsibility I might have as archivist looking after a particular collection of papers, by identifying for a well-known historian, who had only a short time to pursue research into what is a very extensive collection of correspondence, not thematically organised, a selection of  letters within it dealing with a particular topic, as I had published on this myself and was able to retrieve the information from my notes. When the work of which this formed an admittedly minor part was published, there was no citation to my work, a very strong implication that the author had found this collection all on their own, and interpretations applied which I felt possibly unjustified by spending a few hours consulting what was, after all, a small if hopefully representative selection. This was, looking at other references, not the only place where the existing historiography of the subject was glossed over; the impression the work in question gave was that the author had made startling new findings - which anyone who knew the literature of the subject would have known were already well-established.

Books by well-known names, published by trade presses, tend to get reviewed in the general press, not merely the scholarly journals, usually (in my experience) by people who lack any background in the field and thus take as revelation matters which are hardly new to the historian.

I could think of other instances of lack of collegiality in failure to acknowledge assistance given, or indeed to make due attribution to precursors in the field. I don't think this kind of bad behaviour is universal, in fact it is sufficiently contrary to usual good practice that it is perhaps the more shocking when it occurs, but I wonder if the media-isation (as it were) of history puts pressure on historians (or their publishers) to claim that their work is sui generis and a wholly new revelation about some historical matter, rather than part of the ongoing collective process that history actually is.

Friday, 14 February 2014

Social media, old and new

I have recently been given to think about certain things which Twitter is not very useful for, one of which is asking research questions to which a simple answer cannot be given. Sometimes it's just not possible to give a snap 140 character response, or refer to an online resource or even a published work. There are questions which, however straightforward they may look, need unpacking in order to tease out the problems, and the suggestion of an array of possibilities for finding out the required information.

This sort of thing was much better served by the email-based listserv, but I'm not sure that younger scholars, used to Web 2.0 social media, engage with listservs any more? I was certainly quite surprised to come across a blog post by a younger scholar talking about the benefits of forms of social media I associate with the 2010s for engaging with the wider field of the discipline, making contacts, getting one's work known about; because I found that listservs also did this, back in the Upper Palaeolithic (in internet terms) of the 1990s.

They even had archives that were searchable: though the constant recurrence of certain questions which had already been addressed on-list led me to produce the first version of the Victorian Sex Factoids Page and to compile a bibliography of recent work on Victorian Psychiatry beyond the one work published nearly 30 years that everybody still keeps citing so that I could just link to these rather than reiterating the same message.

New technology and new media do not necessarily drive out the old, which may still have their uses. The major nexus for humanities listservs, H-Net is currently undergoing a massive upgrade to bring it more into line with modern web-use practices, but there remains a value in having the potential to respond to research queries in a more discursive and nuanced fashion than 140 characters permits.

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Talk to the nice archivist *first*

Something that always forcefully reminds me of the lack of communication between researchers and archivists is being apprised of some research proposal - in more than one instance, a research proposal that has gained funding - where the researchers have done a lot of homework and put a lot of thought and effort into constructing their proposal, in some cases have even already invested in intercontinental travel -

But at no point have they found it necessary or desirable to contact the archivist i/c the material they intend to use in the project.

Which - and again, this is more than a unique experience - is not actually available for research, either because it has not yet been processed (and I don't think it is entirely breaking news that pretty well all archive repositories have a cataloguing backlog, even if these aren't as monster as the secret Foreign Office archive lately in the news) or because there are other issues such as Data Protection or the wishes of the donor affecting access. In one case, though the acquisition of an individual's papers had been announced, actual physical transfer to the repository in question had not in fact occurred.

A catalogued archive has robust referencing that means it can be effectively cited (though another of my archival moans is the failure of researchers to use the unique identifying references archivists have created) and one that it's possible to find things in without starting at box 1 and sorting through until reaching the last box - a process that is not considered best practice from the point of view of long-term physical preservation.

If you let the archivist/s know in advance that you are interested in putting forward a research proposal that depends on a specific archive, this will feed into their management decisions about cataloguing priorities and they may, in fact, get that archive processed. Whereas it is fairly unlikely that they will be able to just drop everything and process a collection because a researcher has turned up wanting to consult it.

I also consider that funding bodies could be a bit more au fait with this issue and spend some modicum of time when assessing proposals to ensure that the archives in question a) actually exist and b) are available to researchers.

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Friday, 10 January 2014

You say that like it's a bad thing...

Looking at this post, on the new History of Sexuality Seminar at the Institute of Historical research, inaugurated this week at an almost impossibly overcrowded roundtable session, with people sitting on the floor and outside the door, I wonder whether the question posited is so either/or.

Possibly incoherence indicates a state of invigoration, rather than a One True Way accepted orthodoxy? Might it not be a sign of the health of the field that it is hard to get one's head around, that people are looking at different things and taking different methodological approaches and some are doing micro-studies and others are doing Big History?

Is it not a reflection of the fact that the topic under consideration - and given the debates over questions of definition, and what we call it, and the sex/sexuality distinction - is itself large and contains multitudes and contradictions? Coherence is too often an artefact of perspective.

I am all for people being aware that there is other work going on and that the issues are often intricately related in ways that may not be apparent on the surface, and that occasionally long-term continuities are overlooked in favour of what may look like change, but I don't think any one person or any one group owns the history of sex/sexuality and all its ramifications.

Some while ago there was an H-Net list on Psychohistory: unfortunately at the time (and I may be wrong about this) my perception was that it was being run by a small 'inner circle' of people who considered themselves the custodians of the Only Right Approach to Psychohistory and were quite heavyhanded about this. The list is now defunct.

I don't think it is entirely down to me setting up the first embryonic Histsex list in the late 1990s on a free listserv provider, and having a 'let 100 flowers bloom' approach to what its remit was, that H-Histsex still flourishes a decade after the move to H-Net, even if we seldom have the dingdongs heated discussions vibrant debates that I remember from those early days. I think it is probably far more to do with the wide-ranging and diverse nature of the subject.

Sunday, 5 January 2014

Interesting thoughts on cataloguing, digitisation, activist records, and other issues

I am very taken indeed by this interview with Kate Eichhorn, Author of The Archival Turn in Feminism although it seems to me to be coming very much from a US perspective and not all her insights are applicable to the UK situation (the distinction between public and private universities, e.g., and no mention of the UK archival tradition in feminism embodied in The Women's Library, previously the Fawcett Library).

I particularly liked her paean of praise to the importance of cataloguing and the creation of metadata:
When you catalog a document, you’re giving the document a tag – you’re creating another layer of text that is attached to the document – a layer that makes it visible and retrievable in a larger system. I suggest here that this has more potential for social change than digitization of individual documents, because rendering a document visible in a meta-catalog means that that single document now has the potential to become visible in a myriad of different contexts. By contrast, one can digitize a document and make it available online, but as we all know, if the document is not properly tagged, it will never be retrieved, no one will see it. If archival and library-based activism is at least partly about access, then the tagging of materials – be it a material document or born-digital item – is critical.
Something that people who go 'why don't you just digitise everything' tend to overlook (but I am old enough to remember the 'why don't you just microfilm everything' earlier iteration of the same mindset): 'if these materials can’t be retrieved, they are as accessible as a box of photographs or documents locked in a personal storage unit'.

A lot of really good thoughts and perspectives there.

The discussion of preserving archives of activism also resonates for me with a discussion at the Hirschfeld conference in Berlin last May, when somebody raised the question of whether the records of activist bodies were not better left in situ as part of an organic whole.  To which my own response was that activist bodies often did not have secure permanent premises (not to mention concerns that might take priority over record-keeping) and that not all activists were always aware of the importance of preserving their records - my blood ran cold when I read an interview with a central figure in various campaigns of the 60s and 70s who talked about shredding the files, locking up the office, and moving on to the next campaign as each one achieved its aim. These kinds of archives are thus often particularly at risk.

And on the subject of Hirschfeld and his legacy, a blog for the AHRC-funded project on A Violent World of Difference: Magnus Hirschfeld and the Shaping of Queer Modernity has just been inaugurated.

Thursday, 2 January 2014

But I thought historians...

I've been brooding over something somebody said during a conversation at a party before Christmas in the context of the relationship between historians and science fiction, where somebody mentioned that history is one of the humanities which involves looking at/for evidence, and I suggested that historians are interested in the factors leading to change within societies, and then somebody said

'I thought history was about assessing which was the most reliable account'

Which is, when I came to reflect upon it - party conversations not being great for pursuing intricate trains of thought - a rather naive view of What Historians Do. Even if historians do have to have a nose for the reliability of the evidence they consult.

As an archivist, of course, one of the things in which we are interested is making sure the record is an authentic record and not letting people either remove things, or insert things that compromise the integrity of the record - e.g. The 29 fakes behind a rewriting of history or the insertion into the Tate Archives of documents creating false provenance for forged artworks

But as a historian there are still issues of interpretation to the documents, and it's not necessarily that one will be 'more reliable' than another: it's more about 'what does this mean?', 'how much weight should we give to this?' and piecing together an array of different materials rather than having The One True Account.

Also, what does reliability mean? A document which is entirely unreliable in one respect may be extremely reliable in another, if only as an exemplar of the kinds of stories that were being told.

Documents and other evidence also exist within a context, and sometimes people who are focusing on these traces lose sight of the bigger picture of which they are part, and thus miss important points.

History is rather less about establishing The Real Truth and more about discussions and debate on the meaning of the evidence and how we interpret it.

Though what is history and how do we do it is pretty much an endless discussion.

Thursday, 19 December 2013

Forthcoming appearances

From deviance to diversity? Finding sexuality and sexual science in the archives  
The National Archives, Kew, 29 Jan, 14:00
‘A night with Venus, a lifetime with Mercury’: sexually-transmitted diseases and their history?
Barts Pathology Museum, in Matters of the Heart month series, 18 Feb, 6.30 pm
The Florence Nightingale Museum, 27 Feb, 6.30 pm

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Unglamorous but necessary

Yet another thing that archivists suspect is under-appreciated by, if not completely unknown to, the general public, is the central importance of cataloguing to what they do. (Even if is also the activity that tends, frustratingly, to be the one that gets pushed down the priority list by more immediate demands.)

One still finds people who make an initial contact, or just come in, and think that the way to engage with an archive is to start with the first box and go until they reach the last file in the last box.

A good catalogue performs the function of the London Tube map in providing an overview and showing how the items within the collection are related to one another. It will probably also include helpful background information on the person or institution and a general account of the collection, what it contains, notable gaps, state of order when found, etc.

A recent post by a colleague on the Wellcome Library blog draws attention to the importance of the contextual information about the individual item that the classic archive catalogue provides, and the impact of new online approaches, their advantages and disadvantages.

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Another message of caution pertaining to archives

Organisations usually already have archives, and the priority, if they are worried about the preservation of their history, is to do something about those archives that they are sitting on. It's a nice flourish to run around collecting oral histories from aging individuals who have been associated with the organisation from the outset, or at least for a very long time, or to ingather bits of memorabilia. But it's not the most vital thing.

The core action point should be to talk to an archivist about the existing archives. It doesn't necessarily have to be an archivist whose repository might take the archives, just somebody who can give the essential advice about physical storage, what to keep and what to throw away, and someone who can advise on what repositories might be interested,  from either local or thematic collecting policies.

The next thing is to get those archives into decent storage (and preferably not one of the more expensive commercial storage firms) rather than the coal cellar or the loft where pigeons have started roosting and to which entry is restricted to able-bodied persons who can manoeuvre up the rickety drop-down ladder and through the hatchway.

It is always possible that it is quite feasible for the archives to be retained in a secure and safe manner on site, catalogued on the premises (preferably by a qualified archivist, or at least with professional input), and made available for ongoing research by interested parties. In most cases this is likely to present problems (archives take up space which may well be at a premium, who is going to deal with researchers, etc) , and negotiations should be opened with an archival repository.

If an organisation wants its history to be reliably preserved, its records need to be in a secure store with appropriate environmental controls, and the intellectual control over what's there needs to be gained via cataloguing, or at least, an adequate inventory identifying what's there and where it is located.

Once this end has been attained, it provides a sound basis for all those other activities.

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Possibly I am in unduly pedantic mood

Over the past few hours on Twitter I have irked by some simplistic or unthought-through invocations of history.

Just because something has not happened before during one particular (youngish) person's lifetime, doesn't make it a unique phenomenon in history. It is one that can probably even be discernable with other people's living memory (what about the 'New Poor' between the wars or the Great Depression?)

The 1890s/1910s were not a period of uncomplicated British Imperialistic confidence and triumphalism.

Just because a method of contraception exists, doesn't mean that everybody, everywhere, will have access to it, particularly if it's a pharmaceutical product, which will a) be subject to national or regional regulatory licensing systems as to whether it may be prescribed b) is under the control of the medical profession.

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Possibly more than six and sixty ways

Thinking about a conversation I had last week, I wonder how many times I have been asked whether I have some appropriate qualification relevant to the subject matter of the archives I catalogue. To which I think any archivist would respond that there are basic principles of archival practice and it doesn't really matter what you deploy them upon, providing it's an archive of some sort. Actually, I think this has mostly arisen in the context of am I a proper medical doctor (no, my PhD is in fact in history of medicine, so perhaps I am licensed to apply leeches when needful...). I don't think anyone assumed, when I was at the India Office Records, that everybody there was an Old India Hand or had even visited it in the days when it was at the end of the Hippy Trail. (It does help to have some knowledge rather than a completely blank slate to work with.)

That having been clarified, people may want to know if there are rules for cataloguing a particular archive, to which the response is usually, it depends. Just because a particular arrangement was appropriate for one archive, doesn't mean that it can be generalisable to all archives, because every archive is unique, and probably idiosyncratic, outside of certain bureaucracies which stick to protocols laid down in the heyday of public administration. Individual repositories may have local conventions, and certain kinds of records may fall into recognisable structures. But particularly when dealing with personal papers, anything goes, or can go.

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

There is no secret handshake

It irks archivists when people talk about 'hidden gems' in the archives, because this lazy cliche tends to mean items which are in fact in the catalogue and may well have been publicised, but have not previously come to the attention of the individual who invokes this expression.

I am not entirely sure whether it is the same people who talk about hidden gems who think that in order to access the riches of an archival collection they need to speak to an archivist, preferably in person. That's actually what catalogues are for. An archivist can probably give you a general sense of what is in a collection, and possibly even more important, what isn't. But on the whole, the information on what we know about any given collection will be included in the catalogue description. I have processed many collections of archives during my career, and not all of them are entirely fresh in my memory by now, should you ring up and ask me about them.

On the whole, and doubtless with some exceptions, what archivists like to do is get the usable information about their holdings out there where people can look at it themselves. It should not be necessary, given a well-run archive, to need to know a specific name and possibly have a secret handshake ready in order to find out what they've got.

Or maybe this is just a version of 'do my research for me': the hope that talking to the archivist will obviate the need to actually look at the archives.