THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Endangered archives blog

3 posts from February 2017

09 February 2017

New collections online - February 2017

This month we have three new collections added to the EAP website: Buddhist manuscripts from Laos, and Tamil and Burmese studio photography.

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EAP737/4/4/31 - Studio Portrait Photo Prints [1955-1978]

EAP737: Representing Self and Family. Preserving early Tamil studio photography

Photography arrived in India in the 1840s with the first photographic society in South India being created in Madras in 1856. During the early decades of Indian photography, the constraints and costs of acquiring photographic equipment meant that photography was accessible almost exclusively to the colonial administration and Indian elite. However by the 1880s, commercial photography studios had found their way into the bazaars of the Presidency’s medium size towns, and family portraits started to appear inside Tamil households. In South India, prior to the arrival of commercial photography, there existed no local forms of popular portraiture aside from the representations of divinities. The early Tamil commercial studio photographers created their own visual language to represent south India selves and families, combining the uses of props, accessories, backdrops, over-painting, collage and montage.

There is a real urgency in preserving these photographs. Many of the earlier photographs produced by the commercial photo studios are showing signs of deterioration due to some of the chemical processes used for developing and printing during the first decades of photographic production. The climatic conditions of South India are extremely detrimental for photographic prints and negatives, even for those printed from the beginning of the 20th century onwards. With the advent of mechanised processing and printing followed by the digital revolution in photography, many of the old photo studios have closed down and their archives of glass-plate negatives and film negatives have been destroyed, either through lack of interest or space to conserve them.

The project team were able to conduct fieldwork in the eight target towns (Chennai, Coimbatore, Cuddalore, Karaikudi, Kumbakonam, Madurai, Pondicherry, Tirunelveli), and were also able to carry out surveys in an additional six towns (Chidambaram, Jayamkundan, Meencuruti, Pollachi, Tindivanam, Villupuram). In each locality, the oldest photo studios where sought out and in total 100 photo studios were approached over the course of the pilot project. In many instances, but not all, the owners of the photo collections have given their consent for future digitisation of their archives. Also, family members of studios which have closed down over the last 30 years were also sought out as some of them still hold the archives of the old family business.

This survey has confirmed that these unique photographic productions are severely endangered by chemical, climatic and human factors and their digitisation is urgent. The team members have noted that in most of the cases, either the owners had destroyed whole collections for lack of interest or lack of space, or the remaining photographic material is in a state of severe degradation due to poor conservation conditions.

The project team were able to digitise a sample of around 1000 photographs from some of the studios surveyed, from private family collections, and from those purchased by the team in local second-hand shops.

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EAP737/4/3/8 - Events Negatives Box 30 [1962]

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EAP737/4/4/31 - Studio Portrait Photo Prints [1955-1978]

EAP691: Rare manuscripts of great Buddhist thinkers of Laos: digitisation, translation and relocation at the 'Buddhist Archive of Luang Prabang'

The project was able to describe and digitise the personal collections of manuscripts used by several great Buddhist abbots of Luang Prabang in Laos. The manuscripts present valuable insight into the diverse intellectual interests of leading Theravada thinkers of the 20th century in one of the least known Buddhist cultures in the world. Notwithstanding its rich culture, deeply influenced by Theravada Buddhism, Laos is still one of the least researched countries of Southeast Asia. During the second half of the 20th century, significant parts of the country’s cultural heritage have been destroyed, or seriously damaged, due to foreign interventions, civil war, and revolution. As a great surprise to international researchers, Buddhist monks of Luang Prabang, the ancient Royal capital, managed to preserve important parts of Lao heritage.

The project was able to describe and digitise the personal collections of manuscripts used by Pha Khamchan Virachitto (Vat Saen Sukharam), Pha Khamfan Silasangvara (Vat Suvannakhili), and Pha Bunchankeo Phothichitto (Vat Xiang Muan). Colophons and other paratexts (such as prefaces and titles) were transcribed into modern Lao. Roughly half of the manuscripts have such colophons which in most cases mention not only the date when the writing of the manuscript was finished, but also the names of sponsors and donors of the manuscripts and, more rarely, the name of the scribes. Preservation work has also been carried out on the original manuscripts which are now stored under safer and more accessible conditions

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EAP691/3/2/18 - Thanakhan Ban Pai ( fascicle no.5) (ທານະຂັນບັ້ນປາຍຜູກ 5) (1674)

EAP898: Myanmar negative record

This project aimed to set out to investigate the remaining negative archives and collections of local Burmese photographers. The project was able to identify two studios in Yangon that agreed to have some of the negatives in their archives digitised. The majority of the negatives come from the Bellay Photo Studio, with a smaller collection digitised from Asia Studio.

The owner of the Bellay Photo Studio, Tun Tun Lay, agreed to the digitisation of some of the negatives taken by his father, Har Si Yoi, starting in 1963, only one year after General Ne Win’s coup d’état. The images taken in the studio capture life during the so-called ‘lost decades’ and present a unique insight into this time period, as there are no archives in Myanmar or abroad that hold a comprehensive collection of images from those decades. Bellay Photo Studio is run by an ethnically Chinese family and many of the clients were Chinese-Burmese as well. A community that suffered greatly during Ne Win’s Burmese Way of Socialism; they were persecuted, their properties were nationalised, and finally a ban on Chinese-language education was issued, which forced a major exodus of Burmese-Chinese to other countries. The negatives at the studio used to be stored in two large wooden cabinets which were destroyed by termites and humidity along with more than 50% of the negatives. The loose negatives, which had been kept in envelopes, have been stored in plastic bags since 2012.

Another small but important archive of 134 negatives, including glass plates, was archived on the outskirts of Yangon. The grandson of the famed Asia Studio proprietor, U Kyawt, allowed the project to digitise a small section of his collection. The negatives and plates are stored in a wooden box without any kind of protection. The images include press photography capturing Aung San who is considered to be the Father of the Nation of modern-day Myanmar and a hero for his struggle for independence. He is also the father of politician and current Minister of Foreign affairs, Aung San Suu Kyi. The images were taken in the 1940s; Aung San was assassinated in 1947. The Asia Studio archive holds many more valuable images that are at risk due to the storage environment.

The digitised negatives form a very important record from after Myanmar’s independence and will allow not only researchers in the West but also Burmese to access the unique photographic culture of their past that documented everyday life and how Burmese citizens wanted to be portrayed. This is especially true for the images from Bellay Photo Studio, as they represent various communities of Yangon in the late 1960s and 70s.

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EAP898/1/1 - Asia Studio [1940s-1950s]

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EAP898/1/1 - Asia Studio [1940s-1950s]

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EAP898/2/1 - Bellay Studio [1969-1982]

08 February 2017

Tracking the past – the preservation of the railway archives of Sierra Leone

It seems a long time since the Curator of Archive & Library Collections at the National Railway Museum (NRM) wrote to me flagging the Endangered Archives Programme, wondering if it might be of interest to the Sierra Leone National Railway Museum (SLNRM).

The NRM had been involved with SLNRM since 2005, when its founder, Col Steve Davies MBE invited the Director, Andrew Scott CBE to attend the official opening that March. At the time, we were fortunate to get a grant from the British Council, under Tony Blair’s Africa Programme, to cover the cost of a small number of advisory visits and a UK based training programme for the newly appointed staff there, who had never seen a train in action, let alone a steam engine!

As the history of Sierra Leone is one of British slavery and colonialism, much of it is shared across our two nations, including the story of the railways – built during the colonial period in the 1890s and closing in 1975 after only fourteen years of independence. This means that the museum is equally relevant to us in the UK as it is in Sierra Leone.

It was somewhat miraculous that the collection of locomotives and rolling stock which form the core of the SLNRM collection had survived more than ten years of bloody civil war, housed in the heart of the former National Railway Workshops, which had become a refugee camp for some 10,000 displaced persons.

Several documents and images had been found in the pits of the building and inside some of the vehicles at the time when the museum was being developed. They included, tickets, files, notebooks, wagon labels and operating manuals, stores receipts, postcards, stamps. On setting up the museum, Colonel Davies and the Museum Coordinator (and former Workshop Manager) Mohamed Bangura, managed to gather a small number of photographs, postcards, tickets and other ephemera from former railwaymen and other sources in Sierra Leone and the UK.

Image 1

This material was piled in the corner of a showcase in the museum, not properly stored and there was no proper provision for its care or access. It was kept in heaps in unsuitably hot and humid conditions and was vulnerable to damage from movement, light exposure and dust. It was un-catalogued, with the exception of a small number of tickets and wagon labels, so inaccessible to visitors or researchers, and vulnerable to loss or theft.

The material known at the time dated largely from the 1930s through to the official closure of the railway in 1975, which seemed somewhat unusual in terms of EAP projects. However, we felt that, whilst this may not be recognised in the UK as pre-industrial, in Sierra Leonean terms it was pre-modern, since we would argue that the modern era began in 2001, with the end of the war in which much material evidence had been destroyed, and the beginning of a new era of peace and democracy.

Image 2Photographs found in the museum, faded and embrittled by the harsh climate.

We managed to put together a preliminary EAP application in October 2012 and were delighted when we received a letter from Cathy Collins that December, to say that the International Advisory Panel would like us to submit a full application for the project. We were advised to apply for a pilot project, as there was clearly much work to be done to identify what, if any, further material existed.

As there are few people left in the country who remember the railway in operation, it was essential that any surviving archives were located, preserved and catalogued as quickly as possible and that storage and access facilities created. We also wanted to ensure that proper training was given to the museum staff so that they could properly care for the collection.

We had until February 2013 to make the full application and this was the tricky part. Sierra Leone’s postal service was largely dysfunctional and connectivity limited and rather sporadic which meant that communication with the museum was not easy. However, through the good offices of a well connect ex-pat friend in Freetown we did manage to get agreement from the museum that they wished to undertake the project in partnership with us and that they would provide the necessary information, references and electronic signatures.

A formal application was eventually submitted on time and then all we had to do was sit back and chew our nails. We were delighted when we received a further letter from Cathy Collins in July 2013 agreeing to a grant of up to £15,266 over 10 months to complete our project.

We got started as soon as the paperwork was completed – purchasing the necessary materials and equipment needed, arranging shipping to Sierra Leone and planning our visit. In November 2013, we made the first visit to set up the equipment, test photograph the material held at the museum and to research what other material we might find. I’m not going to talk about the detail of all that here, as Archivist Tim Proctor can tell that story better than me [in a future EAP blog post].

One thing that is worth highlighting is the gratitude of the Sierra Leone people, who were delighted that a British public body was prepared to support Sierra Leone heritage and we were feted by the Ministry of Tourism & Cultural Affairs for making it happen, with a grand reception at the SLNRM and a police escort to get there through the horrendous Freetown Traffic! Tourism and culture had recently been listed as part of Pillar One in the Agenda for Prosperity – the new Sierra Leone strategic plan and so museums and other attractions were sharing a spot of the limelight.

Image 3Press Conference at the Ministry of Tourism & Cultural Affairs, widespread media coverage for launch of EAP626 in Sierra Leone

A second visit to complete the photography was planned for spring 2014.

We were glad that we had planned two visits rather than one, as the first set of photographs were not as good quality as we had hoped, and needed to be repeated. However, we were amazingly lucky to meet a fellow at the National Archives who had already been doing some work for another EAP project and understood the requirements. That was a godsend given what happened before we got out there for the second visit. When Ebola broke out it very quickly became clear that our 2014 visit would not be able to take place.

The EAP team were extremely supportive and agreed that project completion would be delayed until the Ebola crisis ended and Foreign Office advice permitted travel to Freetown.

In the event, we had to wait until March 2015 before we could safely travel. During this visit, we were able to see real growth in the museum, following the appointment of a new Chair of the Monuments & Relics Commission – the governing agency for heritage and the appointment of a new Coordinator for the SLNRM. A restructuring of the museum team had also taken place and an Education & Outreach Officer appointed, along with a Museum Clerk. This is great news, as it means that the work we have done to catalogue and digitise the collection will be used to good effect in country as well as through the online resources developed under EAP.

A little goes a long way in Sierra Leone and the impact of this project will be significant and far-reaching.

Many thanks to everyone who made it possible both in the UK and in Sierra Leone.

 

Written by Helen Ashby, Chair of the Friends of Sierra Leone National Railway Museum, formerly Head of Knowledge & Collections, National Railway Museum, York and grant holder for EAP626

02 February 2017

New collections online - January 2017

Four new collections are now available to view on the EAP website. The teams involved have helped to preserve a wide variety of records including Peruvian parish registers, Romani archives, Russian Old Believers’ textual heritage, and Nyasaland African Congress records.

EAP699: Safeguarding of the intangible Romani heritage in the Republic of Moldova threatened by the volatilisation of the individual unexplored collections

Over the past few years, researchers from the "Roma Ethnology" working group, in the Ethnic Minorities Department of the Institute of Cultural Heritage, undertook a series of field trips to Roma communities. They located 11 ethnographic Romani groups in Moldova, each with its specific pre-modern culture. The best known of these are: Layesh (ex-nomads Roma group), Lautari (Roma musicians), Lingurari (Roma spoon makers), Chokanary (Roma blacksmiths), Churary (Roma sieve makers), Curteni (Roma servants to local noble courts). During these field research trips among the Roma community the researchers became aware of the existence of valuable archival materials kept in a state of neglect. Most of these sources (photographs, documents, and manuscripts) are kept in family archives. They are endangered for a variety of reasons. For example, when the owners of personal archives die, their descendants are not interested in preserving them, and there is little funding within the country for collecting and archiving them. These archives are gradually disappearing.

This project aimed to discover these collections of Romani archive material to preserve, digitise and make them publicly available for research. The project team were able to discover and digitise material from the families of some well-known Roma personalities from the past, as well as material from ordinary Roma families. The digitised material is now publicly available in the Moldovan National Archive, as well as the British Library, and is an important source of information for Romani studies. The project digitised 2557 images from 36 individual collections dating from between 1925-2013.

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EAP699/16/2 - Preida Iacov Collection - Roma Family-Military Album [1955-2010]

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EAP699/7/2 - Muzeu Ciocilteni Collection - Papers [1942-1986]

EAP834: Living or leaving tradition: textual heritage of the taiga Old Believers' skit

The aim of this project was to preserve the hand-written book collections of the taiga community of Pilgrims, one of the most radical denominations among Old Believers: confident in the coming of the Antichrist and who regard the authorities as his servants, and also believe that a skit (a small-secluded monastery or convent) is a perfect place where the Orthodox faith can be observed. They prefer to live a reclusive life with other believers as they think this protects the Christian faith and the soul. The Russian monarchy and Soviet power regarded them as irreconcilable enemies and repeatedly destroyed Taiga religious settlements.

The manuscripts of the 15th, 17th and 18th centuries represent the Russian Orthodox and Early Old Believers’ traditions, and their digitisation will help researchers to reconstruct the reading habits of the Siberian peasants-skitniks and the ways of ‘book migrations’. The manuscripts of the 19th and 20th centuries reflect late Old Believers’ traditions and they are interesting as examples of the Russian peasant religious literature. It is believed that approximately 66% of the books were written or rewritten by the skitniks.

The preserved texts contain unique historical and linguistic information and reflect the process and results of assimilation of the culture of Cyrillic writing and reading by Siberian peasants in the 19th and 20th centuries. The manuscripts were stored in poor conditions, exposed to moisture and temperature changes, and were being damaged by mould and migration of ink. In addition, the Skit monks were often forced to write using home-made ink or pencil on paper of poor quality.

The project digitised 144 manuscripts with over 22,000 pages copied. The manuscripts selected for digitisation are those that most adequately reflect the confessional strategy, preferences and history of the taiga community since its formation in the 1830s. These include 1. Liturgy and religious rites: Prayer texts, church calendars and descriptions of rituals and festivals; 2. Canon law and monastic rules; 3. Writings on Christian/Old Believers’ ethics and morals; 4. Religious polemics; 5. Religious poetry; 6. Community history.

You can read more about this project on the project homepage, as well as project holder Professor Elena Dutchak’s Libri journal article: Breathing Life into Rare Book Collections: The Digitization of the Taiga Skit Old Believers Library (Libri. Volume 66, Issue 4, Pages 313–326). We have also funded a similar project - EAP556: Book heritage of Ural Old Believers, which also has its own blog post with more information. EAP834_1_1_56-B-27666_001_L EAP834/1/1/56 - Theoktistos the Stoudite. The service for Jesus Christ [1950s-1960s]

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EAP834/1/1/41 - The Dominical letter // Вруцелето // Vrutseleto [1941]

EAP783: Digitisation, preservation and dissemination of parochial books and matrimonial records prior to the establishment of the Civil Registry in Peru

This project digitised parish registers detailing baptisms, marriages and deaths in the Diocese of Huacho, Peru. Six parish collections were digitised: Parish of San Miguel Arcangel of Acos; Parish of Nuestra Señora of the Asunción of Ámbar; Parish of Santa María Magdalena of Cajatambo; Parish of Inmaculada Concepción of Canta; Parish of San Juan Bautista of Churín; Parish of San Juan Bautista of Huaral.

These documents are of great value as in the majority of cases they are the only records of birth, death and marriage that exist for citizens of Peru. In 1852 the Civil status records were created but this function was first entrusted to Governors, and then to the municipalities under the supervision of the Supreme Court of Justice of the Republic. Consequently, the records of the Civil State in Peru lacked a hierarchical organisation as their offices and files were dispersed in more than 2,500 locations, with no national or regional registers of births, deaths or marriages. For this reason the majority of citizens born before 1940 have great difficulty locating their records.

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EAP942: Preserving Nyasaland African Congress historical records

The pilot project surveyed Nyasaland African Congress (NAC) records in selected districts in Malawi in order to assess the state of records, their storage conditions, and determine the extent as well as the preservation needs. The project created an inventory of the records and digitised a small selection of the identified records including minutes of meetings of the NAC; the NAC constitution; editorial comments of Malawi News pertaining to the Malawi Congress Party (MCP - successor organisation to NAC); photographs of the late Hon. Aleke Banda, a prominent nationalist and politician.

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EAP942/1/3 - Photos of Aleke Banda

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EAP942/1/1 - Nyasaland African Congress Constitution of Organisation [1943]