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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.

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

A couple of interesting events in the near future

Interdisciplinary Workshop on Reproduction (IWR9)

15 November 2013, 09:30 - 17:30

CRASSH, Seminar room SG1, Ground Floor
Limited places,  Online registration required 
Deadline to Register Online is: Friday 8 November at 3.00pm
Student fee £10.00
Full fee £12.00

CIRF’s 9th annual Interdisciplinary Workshop on Reproduction will focus on the theme ‘Communicating Reproduction’, with the aim of considering how reproduction is constructed and communicated within academic institutions and broader society. The workshop will explore this theme and promote contact and exchange among researchers working on various aspects of reproduction in different disciplines. The purpose of the workshop is to provide opportunities for productive interdisciplinary discussion and evaluation, and give speakers and audience members the opportunity to make interdisciplinary research connections, to share ideas, and to begin new collaborations.

Open to all, but places are limited. Please book online.
Fee include lunch, refreshments, and conference material.

London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine
Keppel Street, London WC1E 7HT

Professor Simon Szreter (Cambridge University) , 'How much Venereal Disease was there in Georgian London? Can we estimate the population prevalence of STIs before the twentieth century?'

The venereal diseases feature strongly in Boswell's diary and consequently Georgian London has passed into literature and popular history as a byword for sexual licence. But is this at all justified as a general description of the capital and its population? Can we hope to know anything about the population prevalence of STIs in Britain before the twentieth century?

Simon Szreter presents new research undertaken in collaboration with Kevin Siena (author of Venereal Disease, Hospitals and the Urban Poor. London's Foul Wards 1600-1800)

The lecture will be chaired by Professor Kaye Wellings, LSHTM and the vote of thanks will be given by Professor Dame Anne Johnson, UCL.

Tuesday, 19th November 2013, 5.30 pm - 6.45 pm John Snow Lecture Theatre B, Keppel Street Building  (Followed by a reception in the Atrium)

ALL WELCOME!  RSVP to Ingrid James: Tel: 020 7927 2434  or email

Funded by the Wellcome Trust 

An undesirable practice

Just had occasion to look something up in a recent work of popular, yet scholarly, history based on a great deal of archival research, since I remembered that when I read it the author mentioned consulting a certain archive at a particular repository.

However, in the 'List of Archives' at the end, all we get are the names of the various repositories, and absolutely no indication of what actual collections in any given repository had been consulted. This is something that strikes me as extremely bad practice. Most of the repositories listed (except where the onsite records of a particular organisation had been consulted) hold very large numbers of archival collections, and in many instances several which the author of this work might have consulted.

I did, in the end, manage to find the information I was seeking through trawling through the footnotes of the chapter in which the archive was most likely to have been referenced. But this should not be necessary.

At least, however, the information had been footnoted in reasonable detail. It is extremely annoying to archivists when scholars cite some item - sometimes not even the actual file, but a single letter within a file or volume - with no reference, except perhaps to the very large collection within which it might be found, or with no indication at all as to the specific collection, only to the repository as a whole. Furthermore, if scholars have been given access to uncatalogued or partially-catalogued material, it behooves them to be particularly meticulous in contextualising any material they cite so that in due course it can be located by other researchers.