Carcanet Project shortlisted for international award


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Our Carcanet Press Email Preservation Project has been selected as one of the finalists for the prestigious Digital Preservation Awards. Administered by the Digital Preservation Coalition, the awards celebrate people and organisations across the world who have made significant and innovative contributions to ensuring our digital memory is accessible tomorrow. We have been shortlisted for the Award for Safeguarding the Digital Legacy, which rewards projects focused on protecting ‘at-risk’ digital objects.

In our case, these objects were the emails of staff at premier poetry publishing house, Carcanet Press, which were languishing on hard drives and local networks at the Carcanet office. Carcanet’s hard copy archive – held at the Library – fills around 1,300 boxes, but the correspondence files have been dwindling in size with the shift to digital communication. Our project has rescued over 200,000 emails and 65,000 attachments, and we will be adding to this huge archive on an annual basis.

Carcanet publishes many established, award-winning poets from around the world – but also up and coming young writers. Only last week four of their authors appeared in the once-in-a-decade list of 20 Next Generation Poets announced by the Poetry Book Society. Our project means that the emails of these great writers of tomorrow have been saved for posterity. Michael Schmidt, founder and Editorial and Managing Director of Carcanet Press, said of our email archiving work, ‘The Rylands was among the first British archives in the field to recognise and address the challenge, and Carcanet is a proud guinea-pig and beneficiary’.

One of our visualisation experiments based on the email of Michael Schmidt, Carcanet's Managing and Editorial Director

One of our visualisation experiments based on the email of Michael Schmidt, Carcanet’s Managing and Editorial Director

You can read more about the work we have been doing in a previous blog post, as well as related post containing our reconstruction of Elizabeth Gaskell’s inbox!

We are up against extremely stiff competition, and we find out who has won at a ceremony on 17 November.

Magical Amulets and other Marvels – From Egypt to Manchester

Originally posted on kateantiquity:

Robeta, Campell, and RYlands add 1166

Robeta Mazza explaining the so-called ‘last supper amulet’ (P Rylands Greek Add. 1166) to Campbell Price

Scholars from Sydney to Cairo converged on Manchester this week-end for heady talk about papyrus fragments. Following on the announcement earlier in the week of the newly discovered ‘last supper amulet‘, the atmosphere of the John Rylands Research Institute’s symposium, From Egypt to Manchester, Unravelling the John Rylands Papyrus Collection, was always going to be exciting.


P Rylands Greek Add. 1166

The scholarly contributions of the conference itself were themselves spectacular, ranging from early Greece to the rise of Islam. Particularly interesting to me, of course, were the papers on early Christianity and later paganism. Roberta Mazza’s  breaking-news talk about the new Christian amulet (P.Ryl. Greek Add. 1166 verso) offered a marvellous mix of technical know-how (how do changing laboratory dating techniques change what we can know?) to reflections on the sociology of ‘magical thinking’ in…

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UMIST Archives Cataloguing Project


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We have recently completed a project to survey and partly catalogue the important archives of the Principal and Registrar of the former University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology (UMIST). The project has been supported by the John Rylands Research Institute, and one of its objectives is to encourage greater academic and public engagement with the history of UMIST through these collections.

In 2004 Special Collections took over responsibility for UMIST’s institutional archives, which included records of its administrative and academic departments. The records of the former Principal’s Office are considered to have particular importance because of the wealth of detail they provide on the inner workings of the institution.

Project archivist Clare Connolly writes:

“The cataloguing of the UMIST Principal’s archive has focused on the period of the Institute’s rapid expansion into one of the country’s foremost technological universities from the early 1950s to the late 1970s. It was felt that this era offers huge potential for research, and the archive’s contents provide ample source material to do this.

Until 1955, UMIST had been the Manchester Municipal College of Technology which provided both vocational and university-level education in technological subjects (since 1905 the College had been the Faculty of Technology of the University of Manchester). In 1955 the Manchester College of Science and Technology succeeded the College of Technology, and was later renamed as UMIST.

The Principal during this transformative period was Vivian Bowden (1910-89). Bowden was a passionate advocate of technological higher education, which he believed had been under-valued by both government and industry. When appointed in 1953, he set about building a new type of technological university, one which could hold its own with the German Technische Hochshulen or the American Institutes of Technology. In his Proposals for the development of the Manchester College of Science and Technology (1956), he set out his vision for the College, proclaiming “we must become industry’s university”. This would mean not just raising funds from industry, but designing courses and undertaking research which had direct relevance to industry’s and the country’s needs.

Vivian Bowden (1910-89), Principal of UMIST

Vivian Bowden (1910-89), Principal of UMIST

Under Bowden’s leadership, student and staff numbers grew, and new courses were introduced. Some departments achieved national and international reputations in research, and students were introduced to new types of learning, such as the industrial placements required by many courses.

The campus expanded rapidly with a series of new buildings in a characteristically modernist style. These included new buildings for mechanical and civil engineering, chemistry, physics, and maths. The Renold Building, which opened in 1962, provided space for lectures, conferences and exhibitions, and exemplified the new outward-looking spirit of the institution.

UMIST's Renold Building, opened in 1962

UMIST’s Renold Building, opened in 1962

By the 1970s this pace of expansion inevitably slowed. But renewed concern about British economic performance also focussed attention on UMIST’s innovative approaches to education. Within UMIST, there was both an eagerness to work with new industries like microelectronics, but also a concern that declining industries such as machine tools and textiles could no longer absorb its skilled graduates. Despite these setbacks UMIST continued to explore the opportunities for collaborative research and attracted a significant amount of external funding in the form of research contracts and grants.

The catalogued files in the Principal’s Archive help tell the story of this major period of change at UMIST. Given the institution’s innovative approaches to education and research, the Principal’s archive is of more than local significance. The Principal’s files capture some of the major debates of the time on the purpose of higher education, relations with government and business, and the ‘politics’ of promoting research in innovative areas.

Currently the catalogued portion of the Principal’s archive focuses on the 1950s to the 1970s, the period of optimistic expansion and covers most of the major issues of the time – campus development, the development of new disciplines, staff-student relations, and relations with external bodies. The archive is not however merely of interest to historians of universities, but provides some raw material for wider University and public interest in the history of UMIST, something which is currently being promoted by the University’s History and Heritage Programme.”


Annual Conference of the American Theological Library Association


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American Theological Library Association Conference, New Orleans, 2014

American Theological Library Association Conference, New Orleans, 2014

Earlier this year, Dr Gareth Lloyd, curator of Christian religious archives, was honoured to accept an invitation to present a paper at the prestigious annual conference of The American Theological Library Association (ATLA), held in New Orleans, 17-21 June 2014.

The theme of the presentation was “New Audiences, Challenges and Opportunities: A Victorian library transformed”. The paper examined the response of the John Rylands Library to a rapidly changing special collections environment and how this has fundamentally transformed the institution in positive yet sometimes challenging ways. The presentation was well-received and will be published in the conference proceedings.

ATLA is a very appropriate forum for such a discussion. With over 800 members, it is the world’s largest professional association providing support to theological/religious studies libraries, including special collections. The membership is centred in North America, although there is some international participation. The focus is Christian, but there is representation from other major religious traditions, including Judaism and Islam. The association engages in a wide range of activities including provision of a wide range of electronic resources such as the ATLA Religion Database® (ATLA RDB®), ATLASerials® (ATLAS®) and ATLA Catholic Periodical and Literature Index® (ATLA CPLI®).

The John Rylands Library has world-class special collections across the field of religious studies, but it has had little previous involvement with ATLA, so this was an ideal opportunity to showcase our collections and facilities and to engage with colleagues from around the world in one of America’s most exciting and culturally diverse cities.


Elizabeth Gaskell’s Inbox


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We recently entered our Carcanet Press Email Preservation Project for one of this year’s Digital Preservation Awards.

Each institution was asked to supply up to three images to accompany their entry. We chose to submit one of the beautiful network graphs featured in a previous blog post about the project, and a photograph of the project team (which I won’t inflict on the readers of this blog), but we struggled to come up with a third.

Carcanet Press’s email was created using Microsoft Outlook, so a straightforward screenshot of an Outlook inbox seemed to be the obvious choice. However, issues of data protection and privacy prevented us from submitting a shot of a live, current mailbox from one of the Carcanet staff.

The solution: with kind permission from Microsoft to use a screenshot of Outlook, and the Photoshop skills of Carl Jeffreys from the Library’s Marketing and Communications team, we produced a snapshot of what the writer Elizabeth Gaskell’s inbox might have looked like in September 1854.

Click on the image above to view the contents of Elizabeth Gaskell's inbox

Click on the image above to view the contents of Elizabeth Gaskell’s inbox

The archive of Carcanet Press is our most important literary collection dating from the recent and contemporary period, but Gaskell’s is our most significant nineteenth-century literary archive. The editors of her published letters call her ‘one of the great letter-writers of the Victorian period’, and as a prolific correspondent there is no doubt that Gaskell would be fully engaged with email communication were she alive today. In fact, her email account would certainly have looked much busier than the one shown here. Around 1,500 of her letters survive, and this is only a tiny fraction of the total she would have written. She took full advantage of the Victorian postal reforms, which from 1840 guaranteed a very fast nationwide service. It is probably only with the advent of email that our correspondence has begun to far exceed that of Gaskell’s day in quantity and frequency.

The editors of her letters also comment on how most of Gaskell’s letters were very hastily written, only a minority being formal, deliberately composed epistles – so her preferred style of correspondence would have been well-suited to the medium of email. She also had few scruples about sharing letters written by other people who interested her, and little respect for privacy; for instance, on one occasion she forwarded a highly personal letter from her friend Charlotte Brontë (in which she announced her engagement) to the biographer and critic John Forster in order to make up for her own ‘dull letter’ which contained little news. The ability to forward emails to one or many correspondents would have been greatly appreciated by Gaskell – although the ease with which this can be done (and the scope for accidentally sending messages to unintended recipients) could well have landed her in hot water.

First page of a letter of introduction sent by Gaskell to her friend, the American writer and art historican Charles Eliot Norton. She introduces the journalist Edward Dicey, and quotes extensively from a letter Dicey sent to her.  Today she could simply have forwarded Dicey’s email and added her own comments.

First page of a letter of introduction sent by Gaskell to her friend, the American writer and art historican Charles Eliot Norton. She introduces the journalist Edward Dicey, and quotes extensively from a letter Dicey sent to her. Today she could simply have forwarded Dicey’s email and added her own comments.

If email had existed in Gaskell’s day, it is likely that her surviving archive would be much fuller. The way that most email clients retain strings of exchanges – with original messages included in replies – means that we might now have greater access to both sides of her correspondence. Charles Dickens was a key figure in her writing career, and while over 20 of the letters he sent to her survive, frustratingly only three of her replies are extant today. We might also have more of her literary manuscripts: the Rylands holds the holograph manuscript of Wives and Daughters, but this is the only one of her novels for which a manuscript survives. Similarly, we have no proof copies of her work, and it was on the proofs that Dickens tended to make his (sometimes extensive) editorial changes. If manuscripts and proofs had been exchanged as email attachments (and Dickens had made use of the ‘track changes’ facility), those interested in the textual history of Gaskell’s works would have a wealth of additional material to work with.

On the other hand, it is hard at this point in time to imagine that an email will ever have the same magical aura of a letter written in the hand of a famous writer. Gaskell herself was an avid autograph collector, and would no doubt have regretted the demise of the hand-inscribed signature, which can be so revealing about a person’s character.

Dickens autograph

Charles Dickens’s signature from a letter to Gaskell dated 16 June 1854

Centenary of the Destruction of the University of Leuven Library


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Next month marks the centenary of one of the most notorious incidents of the First World War, the destruction of the University of Leuven (Louvain) Library on the night of 25 August 1914.

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In the first few days of hostilities, German troops occupied and ravaged the historic Belgian city of Leuven. The university library was burnt to the ground; around three hundred thousand books and a thousand manuscripts were destroyed. This gross assault upon learning and culture caused world-wide indignation, and appeals were soon launched in Britain, the United States and elsewhere to make good the losses.

Henry Guppy, Rylands Librarian, ref. JRL 4/1/4/16.

Henry Guppy, Rylands Librarian, ref. JRL 4/1/4/16.

Henry Guppy, the visionary Librarian of the John Rylands Library, spearheaded the campaign to collect books for Leuven. He and the Library’s governors ‘wished to give some practical expression to their deep feelings of sympathy with the authorities of the University of Louvain, in the irreparable loss which they have suffered, through the barbarous destruction of the University buildings and the famous library.’

Guppy put out an appeal in the Bulletin of the John Rylands Library, ‘which met with an immediate and encouraging response from all classes of the community, not only in this country, but in many parts of the world’.

By the end of 1915 some 6,000 volumes had been collected or promised. Books continued to flood into the John Rylands Library, which acted as a clearing house for donations from individuals and institutions throughout Britain. The first consignment of books was sent over to Belgium in December 1919. When the appeal closed in 1925, 55,782 volumes had been donated.

Guppy was invited to the ceremonial laying of the foundation stone of the new library on 28 July 1921, which was built largely with American funding. He was assured by one of the professors: ‘You cannot fancy what it is to have been deprived of such an indespensible tool as a library, and then to see streaming in the choice and valuable books that make it possible for us to resume our work.’

As a token of thanks, in 1924 Guppy was presented with a few charred fragments of 13th-century manuscripts recovered from the ruins of the library. They stand as sad testimony to this act of wanton destruction.

Fragments of manuscripts from Leuven Library, presented to Henry Guppy. Latin MS 447.

Fragments of manuscripts from Louvain Library, presented to Henry Guppy, ‘the great Restorer of the Louvain University Library’, in 1924. Rylands Latin MS 447.

Sadly, Guppy’s and others’ efforts were in vain: the library was destroyed for a second time by German forces in 1940.

You can read more about this poignant story in an excellent article by David Atkinson in the Daily Telegraph online.

A digitised version of Henry Guppy’s account of the reconstruction of the Leuven Library, in the Bulletin of the John Rylands Library, is available to download at

Museum Leuven is commemorating the centenary of the First World War with an exhibition, ‘Ravaged’, which continues until 1 September.


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