Moving to pastures…old, by Ally McConnell

I started organising the blog rota back in April this year, keen to re-introduce some form of consistency for the blogs that would re-invigorate the blog site and also encourage as many staff as possible to contribute to what is a key way of letting people know the sorts of things we get up to as the Gloucestershire Heritage Hub. As part of this, whenever someone left I asked them to do a “round-up” blog detailing the sort of work they’d been doing. We heard from Sally Middleton on her retirement, and we heard more recently from Laura Cassidy, our graduate trainee, as she went off to do her postgraduate course to be an archivist. I knew Sally was retiring when I set up the blog, so got her in quickly for a round-up. I knew when Laura was leaving her fixed term contract, so I pencilled her in for when she left in August. Little did I know that I’d be writing my own for November! Still, this is what has happened, so here goes – what have I done since September 2017?

Read more: Moving to pastures…old, by Ally McConnell

Maybe I should really look further back, when in July 2011 aged 23, I nervously journeyed to Gloucester from Exeter, stayed with a (since sadly departed) cousin before a 9am interview, gave some answers to some questions asked of me by that well-known harsh interviewer (jokes) Kate Maisey, and was offered the chance to be one of two graduate trainees at Gloucestershire Archives that year. I had a sprinkling of distant family members in the area, as well as some family connections – more on that later – but didn’t know it at all. I moved myself into a lovely little flat overlooking the Severn in Gloucester, and decided that I might as well throw myself into making this new city home for the next twelve months, as I was only here for a year. And during that year I met so many wonderful people, and had so much fun, that it was almost impossible not to call Gloucester home. I had joined a choir thanks to our former colleague Becky (now Gloucester Cathedral Archivist, and my very greatest friend), joined a wind band (the first rehearsal of which, in walked Kate Maisey too, which was a complete surprise but was the beginning of another great friendship), attended pub quizzes (must name-drop Paul Evans here as well as Sarah Aitken, another now former colleague), and was generally encouraged to be as sociable and welcomed as I wished to be. That is and has always been the essence of Gloucestershire Archives for me: friendly, welcoming, supportive.

After a year away in London doing my postgraduate degree in Archives and Records Management, I was still with the partner I had met during those twelve months in Gloucester, so I moved back. I looked for an archives job within commuting distance, and ended up almost as far away as I wanted to be, in Chippenham working for the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre as a project archivist. Whilst I travelled to Chippenham almost every day – working from home was virtually impossible as an archivist working constantly on original documents and supervising volunteers every day – living in Gloucester made me rejoin the band, rejoin the choir, re-attend the quizzes, go to the birthday and Christmas meals. I basically had the best of both worlds – due to the location of the Wiltshire office, more people commuted and so were less likely to want to get together after work, so there was no FOMO [fear of missing out]. In 2015 we moved to within sight of Gloucestershire Archives and I watched over the next two years – with two feline security guards from 2016 – as it made the initial preparations to become the Gloucestershire Heritage Hub. I was only meant to be in Chippenham for eighteen months, but a permanent contract became available and everyone in heritage knows not to pass those over! But then in 2017, a role was advertised back at Gloucestershire Archives. Project Archivist for the Dowty project? Let’s go for it. A 2.5 year contract was long enough to justify leaving a permanent post, and the commute would be severed to about 1% of the time it took to drive to Chippenham. I got the job, returned to some much treasured old colleagues and quite a few now-much-treasured new ones, and settled in to what became 5 years (not full-time) of trying to work out aerospace engineering jargon.

The Dowty project was in many ways quite out of my comfort zone, because of the nature of the archive, but I always say that as an archivist you don’t HAVE to understand everything in the records, just enough to be able to make sense of them and arrange them. It was exciting to be involved in something that was quite to close to the hearts of practically everyone in Gloucestershire. There is a fantastic community of ex-colleagues, one of whom set up a Facebook group and some of whom helped Paul and I set up a community heritage website. There is still so much chat and momentum around the Dowty community, aided in many ways by the accessibility of the now-catalogued archive. I even ended up editing a book of Sir George Dowty’s memoirs – editing is something I’ve always wanted to try, and getting involved in this was a privilege. I was doing countless talks, which after the start of the pandemic became online and then ended up reaching people internationally. Promoting and taking pride in the project was never difficult to do, and I enjoyed watching the momentum continue.

But the Dowty project, whilst it was all I was employed to work on after my first six months of helping the Collections Management team with their backlog, ended up being only part of what took up my time in my second incarnation at Gloucestershire Archives. I am a bit of a “yes” person, and have been fortunate to be allowed to try my hand at various things that are more than accessioning and cataloguing. I was also fortunate to be made a permanent member of staff, so I was able to become more involved with other things, such as leading the social media team, maintaining and developing the Heritage Hub website and later helping overhaul the Gloucestershire Archives website, co-leading fundraising and decision making for the Heritage Hub community garden, becoming more involved with marketing and outreach, becoming the membership secretary of the Friends of Gloucestershire Archives, getting involved with our professional association (the ARA) and latterly, being seconded to work at the Soldiers of Gloucestershire Museum. All this meant that I had a wonderfully busy but balanced work life, enabling me to confidently achieve my ARA Registered membership.

Two things stand out from my time here, although there have been so many wonderful moments. Firstly, in October 2017 I treated myself to a tattoo of a bee on my hand, for my 30th birthday. In the pub a day or so later with a few colleagues, and a couple of ales down, I showed everyone my tattoo and Heather, our wonderful head of service who has provided me with so many of the opportunities mentioned above, suggested I might like to voluntarily keep bees in the community garden that we were in the process of planning the fundraising for. Obviously I jumped at the chance – I always wanted to keep bees, but saw it very much as a retirement hobby due to time and cost. Now we have three Heritage Hub beehives (at the time of writing!) and make Heritage Hub honey. I have a wonderful team of fellow beekeepers, all volunteers, gathered over the years. I also appreciate gardens and gardening much more than I did, and it is so wonderful to have seen our garden take shape since 2019.

The other thing I wanted to mention is rather niche and personal. A few months after I arrived at the Hub, my colleague Andrew was responding to an enquiry about a possible gravestone at a church in Gloucester. It just so happened that he was living in the former vicarage at the time, and had already found that this vicarage was where my grandfather lived when he was a priest in Gloucester – family connections to the area are mostly based around my grandfather who I never met, and the fact that his eldest son, my father, grew up in the various vicarages he was given, played the organ at the parish church in Slad, and fondly remembered Gloucestershire as home. The people enquiring shared my surname, so he alerted me to their enquiry. They were staying in a flat near Ross on Wye and were coming in to the archives to pursue this. Within 90 minutes I had two new family members. Complicated cousins of my father, they were distant enough geographically (living in Yorkshire) to not have been much on my parents’ radar whilst I was growing up. Occasionally they come back to the area and we always meet. Sometimes they bring another distant relative from his home near Cheltenham. One of the times we met, we found the gravestone they had been looking for. I would never have become close to that part of my family were it not for my time at Gloucestershire Archives.

It has been five interesting, challenging, busy years. I have worked with some amazing people – staff, volunteers, people from the community. I’ve always wanted a job where I want to go to work when I wake up, and it has always been so here.

I am to get the best of both worlds again. Still living round the corner, still seeing colleagues as much as possible, but returning to Chippenham, a place I still hold so dear. It is time to bounce back to Wiltshire and see what I can do there as their Principal Archivist. And the opportunity to do that is solely down to opportunities and encouragement from the team at Gloucester.

Pause for Reflection, by Claire Collins

In the autumn, colleagues from Gloucestershire Archives have been showcasing our digital preservation work at a couple of conferences. The first the Archives and Records Association conference was about ‘Facing Forward: Post-pandemic recordkeeping – change, challenge, choice’ and the second was the international conference on digital preservation (iPres) focusing on ‘Data for all, for good, for ever: Let Digits Flourish’

Read more: Pause for Reflection, by Claire Collins

For both conferences we presented papers focusing on the recent work we have been doing designing a long term digital storage solution for our born digital records and curiously enough (or perhaps not!) this very forward facing topic served to highlight the basic principles that underpin the work we do here.

So first, what are archives?

Archives are the record of everyday activities of governments, organisations, businesses and individuals. Archives may take many different forms – handwritten, typed, printed, photographic or electronic – and include audio-visual material such as video and sound recordings. As authentic and reliable records, they are preserved permanently because of their evidential and historical value.

What does Gloucestershire Archives do?

We gather archive collections and local and family history resources to ensure they are kept secure and made accessible.

We can see the foundations of the Archive are provenance (that is understanding where something has come from) and authenticity. So an Archive’s worth is that it preserves both provenance and authentic content.

Historically then we expect that the documents we offer to customers are precisely the documents that crossed the Archive’s threshold and are what we have ever since kept safe. Archival authenticity does not mean that a document’s content is “true” rather it means that the document produced is the document that was received by the Archive, possibly many decades earlier.

Therefore successful Archival preservation requires more than just having access to a document. We must also know where the document is from and how it relates to other documents. And in particular we must know that our document is authentic and be able to prove this claim.

All then that we need to do for our digital records is translate these principles into the digital world.

We have been working on tools that will ensure that we not only know that our digital documents have been preserved but that we can prove it.

Provenance is captured in our hierarchical catalogue that is compliant with international cataloguing standards (ISAD(G)). This digital application is supported by our normal business continuity plans, and our “disorderly exit” plan – which protects us in case of incidents such as supplier failure.

Authenticity is based on the custody of the fixity digests of the archival information packages (AIPs) or digital objects that are held by us in our storage.

You can read more about fixity and fixity digests on the Digital Preservation Coalition’s website https://www.dpconline.org/handbook/technical-solutions-and-tools/fixity-and-checksums, but essentially you can think of a fixity digest as a digital fingerprint or unique value that can be generated from a digital object. Knowing, maintaining and comparing the fixity of a digital object allows us to prove that a digital object is authentic.

In practical terms we use a packaging tool to create Archival Information Packages or AIPs from the digital documents transferred to us. (Think of this a bit like putting some paper records into a box). As part of this process we calculate the fixity digests of the AIPs.

We are then able to deposit AIPs in a remote cloud based store. We use a storage fixity tool to calculate the fixity digests of the deposited AIP that it has received. It reports these digests back to the packager tool. The packager tool knows what the fixity digests of the AIP should be since it calculated them when the AIP was first created. So it can verify what the storage fixity manager tool is reporting and confirm that the service is reporting the expected fixity digests.

Finally, the packager tool includes the fixity digests that it created earlier in a fixity digest database which is maintained by the Archive.

Similarly when a user wants to consult a particular digital object we can request an AIP from the store using the packager tool.

The archivist identifies the AIP that is being requested. The packager tool receives the downloaded AIP. It confirms that it has located the expected fixity digests in the fixity digest database maintained by the Archive. It calculates the fixity digests of the deposited AIP that it has received so that these can be compared. Since the digests agree with the expected fixities that have remained in the Archive’s custody the Archive can prove that the requested AIP is authentically identical to the deposited AIP.

Gloucestershire Archives has been working in this field now for almost 20 years. Our approach of learning by doing has allowed us to develop our thinking and learning by actively taking discrete steps to preserve our digital collections. Our existing AIPs are stored securely within Gloucestershire County Council’s network, but now that we have defined our requirements we can explore the opportunities that new technologies offer.

Claire Collins, Collections Development Manager

Things That Go Bump In The Night

Rachel Wales ACR gets into the Halloween spirit…

As we approach Hallowe’en, we see lots of decorations featuring massive hairy spiders.  As I fished yet another beefy specimen of Tegenaria domestica out of my bathtub the other morning, I wonder if this is because late summer and autumn are the times when we humans start spotting, and screaming at, house spiders as they roam about our kitchens, bathrooms and sitting rooms in search of mates.  Autumn and spiders go hand in hand. 

Read more: Things That Go Bump In The Night

I am not especially fond of spiders, because unexpected encounters with them do make me shriek, but I also hate finding them stuck in my pest traps here at Gloucestershire Archives*.  I put down sticky pest traps throughout our building, in offices, hallways and in our many strongrooms, and check them every three months.  But the purpose of these traps is not to manage creepy crawly populations by trapping and killing them; the purpose of the traps is to give me an idea of what types of invertebrates are in the building, and in what numbers.  And I am particularly concerned with finding species that pose a threat to our archival collections. 

A sticky trap in the archives

So, what creatures really do send shivers down my spine?  Here are two – spotted recently in a sticky trap in our Collections Care room. 

Varied carpet beetle larva and silverfish

This picture shows a larva of the varied carpet beetle Anthrenus verbasci (the larvae are commonly known as “woolly bears”), feasting on the corpse of a common silverfish Lepisma saccharina.  Super gruesome, right? 

Why are these insects considered to be pests?  It’s because they can potentially damage some of the materials found in archives.  In the case of the woolly bear, they are known to eat animal skins (such as parchment) and woollen textiles (such as the sample books from various woollen mills in Stroud, held here at the Archives).  Silverfish have broad culinary tastes, happily eating microscopic moulds, animal glue (used in bookbinding, and as a general adhesive) sugars and starches (such as adhesives used on old labels).  So you can understand why it would be alarming to find significant populations of either of these creatures in sticky traps. 

Any building is going to have insects and other invertebrates living in it – this is just a fact of life.  But part of our job here as Collections Care conservators is to establish what the “base line” for pest activity is in the building, monitor this base line for any upsurges in the population, and then to take action to control pest populations if we feel that our collections are in danger. 

And what about your home?  Are wool moths, silverfish or cluster flies making you break out in a cold sweat of rage and loathing?  If so, there are good resources out there to help.  You can try searching using the term “integrated pest management”.  This is the approach we take here at the Archives.  It’s about using a combination of cleaning, monitoring, and management of temperature and humidity to make our site as inhospitable to pests as we can manage.  I can also recommend a fairly new publication by UK pest experts David Pinniger and Dee Lauder, called Pests in Houses Great and Small.  It’s a great little book, with good photos and descriptions, useful case studies and practical advice on how to spot and deal with pests. 

Good luck with your pests, if you have any, and please wish me luck too as I undertake the autumn trap inspection routine and find out what has been going bump in the night at the Archives! 

Is your family collection a monster? Are you scared of meeting your forebears face to face? By Ann Attwood, Collections Care Development Officer

‘Forebears’ it seems to me is the perfect word!! I have experienced first-hand the terror they can strike into your heart! I’ve helped look after archive collections for over 30 years now, but when it came to my own family collection, it was a whole new ball game  A daunting prospect!

The responsibility for preserving the evidence of past generations of my family for the benefit of current and future generations weighed on my shoulders more heavily than all of Gloucestershire’s Archives ever had! Suddenly it was personal!!

Read more: Is your family collection a monster? Are you scared of meeting your forebears face to face? By Ann Attwood, Collections Care Development Officer

A whole new set of emotions that I hadn’t experienced in the day job came with the task – anxiety, and a huge sense of personal obligation – it was down to me and me alone! How would I handle this? I felt despair even at the prospect of sorting it all! So many photos and papers of different types, what would be the best way to look after them using my own resources? Housed in different bags and boxes and albums – not all of archival quality – some of it sorted by my father before, using whatever he thought a logical order at the time, and some in a complete muddle. Some things damaged, some in poor condition having been rescued from a flood 20 years ago, and new bits being added to it all the time by my mother who kept finding more! The sense of overwhelm was seriously overwhelming! 

I was surprised to find I felt quite resentful of it. That I was worrying about it, getting cross with others for not doing their bit. It started to feel like this lurking presence at the back of the cupboard, was almost threatening me. Challenging me as someone who has spent their whole career in the heritage sector looking after library, archive, and photo collections, to square up and take it on – to prove myself! So, I decided I had to act – how could I not!! I needed to tame the monster and put it on a lead so to speak, so it would obediently and happily become my friend and ally!   

And then I realised, this was actually a huge opportunity for me, not only to tame the beast and get it off my back, to get rid of all those negative emotions, all the built-up resentment and all the anxiety, but to tap into a whole new world of possibilities as well. It was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to access my past, my people, my family stories and important places, in a way that involved my mother too, giving us the chance for some meaningful time together, strengthening and building our relationship (not always the easiest with mum!), and at the same time adding value to the collection through her knowledge of people and events, and her memories of the last 90 years. I had to do it, and I had to do it now before it was too late.

The exciting thing is that not only is it a window into the past, but also solid evidence that I can touch and hold in the here and now, of the actuality of it. A new understanding of what I emerged from, what shaped my existence before I was born, what influenced my mother’s life, my father’s life and massively impacted mine – and I could explore all that right now, with my mother as a guide, making a much better relationship for us than we have had for years. What therapy, what new perspectives, what healing might come with that too? And at no extra cost!!

And my mum and I, we have a new purpose together, a shared mission. It’s amazing and quite unexpected. Fascinating, full of discovery, wonder, appreciation, and inspiration – on so many levels. I have been discovering (still am – it’s an ongoing journey!) new perspectives on what has shaped my thought processes, my unconscious beliefs – the family philosophy and culture, the ‘truths’ passed down through the generations, the characters and the individuals who shaped their worlds and mine as a result. Really fascinating – and it’s becoming quite addictive! Rather than not wanting to do it – I now want to do it more!

So, build a new relationship with your forebears and you will get so much out of it, I promise! If you have a monster in your cupboard that needs taming, don’t waste another moment, cos you know what? This is a gift, a super valuable, unique asset that you have, all there waiting for you. And there are even more things it makes possible that you may not see when you start out – like the curiosity it inspires, it could set you off finding out more about something or someone, exploring your family history further, using it to inspire some creative writing – who knows where it might take you. 

For me, I can use what I have learned along the way to help and inspire others on their journey of discovery, I can help other people to care for their collections better too, and to access all the other benefits that they might get from it. And you know what? We have a FREE training day on preserving family photographs (or any other photograph collection) on 8 September at the Heritage Hub in Gloucester. We will be sharing top tips for handling photographs and preventing damage, on how to identify different types, how to recognise deterioration, and what to do to keep things in good condition. How to be sure to source good archival storage products, and how to work out what is best for your situation. We’d love to see you there, and to share and swap notes with you. It could be the beginning of so much. This is such a great opportunity isn’t it?

You could sign up here https://voicesgloucester.org.uk/events/hands-on-history/ but be quick if you want to be sure of a place – the training day is limited to 12 people because there will be lots of things laid out to see and it includes ‘hands-on’ activities.

An old photograph of a woman holding a baby

The British Way of Spice

Kate O’Keefe, Community Heritage Officer at Gloucestershire Archives, explores the UK’s changing eating habits and growth of new cuisines.

Read more: The British Way of Spice

I can still remember my mum’s first attempt at a chilli con carne – I must have been about 11 or 12 years old, so this would be in the early 1970s. Chilli powder was definitely new in our household and mum measured it in tablespoons instead of teaspoons – so we couldn’t actually eat the results. It put us all off for years.

British people have long had a reputation for extreme conservatism and caution when it comes to food, and certainly when I was growing up in the 1970s, our diet could best be described as ‘bland’. Shepherd’s pie, fish fingers – that type of thing. What people today might shudderingly call ‘beige food’. My dad worked for Bird’s, so we had a lot of Angel Delight as well.

An image of a packet of Angel Delight

We did have home-made mince pies and Christmas cake and I’m pretty sure mum had a little cannister of mixed spice for this purpose, which lasted for many, many years. I recently started looking for references to spices here in Gloucestershire Archives – and I must admit I was amazed to see several references to cinnamon, cumin and ginger being used to pay rent in Mediaeval times. The earliest record I found was this one from 1225:

William de Pudiford to Phillip Bonseriaunt.
Bargain and sale of ground on which his granary stood in the village of Fromtun. Rent- 1 root of ginger at Christmas, consideration 7 shillings.
Witnesses: Henry de Clifford, Walter de Salle, Hel de Cantle, Reginald de Wudhend, Ruard de Hereford.

Image of a Latin deed from before 1250
D2957/224/70

But there may well be even earlier examples.

I suppose I knew a (very) little bit about the Spice Routes, but I’d never really thought about spices being traded and valued in this way quite so far back in time. And not just in London, but here in Gloucestershire too.

People back then (those who could afford them, of course), must have loved the warmth and complexity which spices bring as much as we do today. I’ve read that some uses were medicinal and some for the preservation of food – or at least to hide the taste if it wasn’t too fresh – but even so there’s plenty of evidence for culinary use.

Spicy food is now of course available to everyone, and there can’t be too many modern households which have never had an Indian or a Chinese takeaway. Spices were effectively democratised around the 1960s – and our appetite for them grew so fast that Chicken Tikka Masala (spiced, if not actually spicy) was named as one of our favourite national dishes in 2001.

A screenshot of survey results for takeaways
YouGov survey results showing the UK’s favourite takeaways

Most towns now boast a wide array of food outlets, and my hometown of Newent is certainly no exception: with a population of around 10,000 people we have 2 Chinese takeaways, 2 Indian takeaways and a kebab shop, in addition to our original ‘Tudor’ (ahem) Fish and Chip shop. Not to mention the pizzas, Japanese and Mexican foods which can be delivered to anyone within minutes.

It’s odd to think that even though spices were bought and traded here for hundreds of years, new arrivals to the UK from Asian and African countries and from the Caribbean in the 50s 60s and 70s often struggled to source the familiar flavours they loved. They began to open shops, originally to serve their own communities. Then restaurants and takeaways, which we cautious, conservative types gradually started to frequent and then quickly to love. Perhaps this is fanciful, but I like to think that love of spice was always lying dormant, just waiting to be reawakened.

The first Indian Supermarket in Gloucestershire is probably Motala and Sons in Victoria Street – founded in 1966 and still going strong over 50 years later. You can find it here https://www.gloucesterhistoryfestival.co.uk/barton-and-tredworth-map/ on a specially commissioned interactive map from the 2020 Gloucester History Festival.

Some takeaway menus
Takeaway menus

People are sometimes surprised to find that we keep fliers and menus from restaurants and takeaways in our Local Studies collections, but they are a wonderful indicator of new communities arriving and, by offering exciting and unfamiliar food, broadening people’s food horizons.

I haven’t been able to find the date or name of the first Indian and Chinese restaurants in Gloucestershire – but I’d love to know…Anybody?

River Severn Flying Boats and Rockets!

In May 1942, six months before Churchill made his famous “This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.” speech at the Lord Mayor’s luncheon at Mansion House, officials in Gloucestershire County Council’s planning department were already thinking about post-WW2 reconstruction. 

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15 months at Gloucestershire Archives: Bridging the Digital Gap

My name is Natasha Young and I have recently completed the National Archives digital skills training program: Bridging the Digital Gap. This program was a 15 month hands-on placement at the Gloucestershire Archives, where I have had access to amazing people, and learned not only the skills of traditional archiving, but the challenges and needs of digital archiving.

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Vicarious Trauma – What Is It?, by Sally Middleton

You may have come across this term (we certainly have), and it’s worth exploring what it’s all about. Vicarious trauma is defined as the “emotional residue” from exposure to extremely upsetting records. You may not have been witness to those highly distressing events, but in reading about them you have an acute emotional response. So it’s all about the impact those records may have.

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