Rediscovered: George Hugh Gough and Anglo-Egyptian War


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James Peters writes:

This is the first in an occasional series of Special Collections Blog posts describing some of our less well-known archives and manuscripts. Some of these have been with the Library for many years, but have not been catalogued or otherwise publicised. We want these collections to be better known, so we will be publishing a series of posts about these ‘rediscovered’ collections.

The Journal of Captain G. H. Gough  (English MS 1375)

The Hon. George Hugh Gough (1852-1900) was a well-connected career soldier. He served in the Anglo-Egyptian War of 1882, where he kept a detailed journal of his experiences. The Library purchased this journal from a  book dealer in 1970, but it has only now been catalogued, forty-seven years later (oops), as English MS 1375.

The Anglo-Egyptian War of 1882 saw the beginning of what has been described as the “veiled protectorate”, as the Britain slowly came to dominate the government of Egypt, a process which arguably only ended with the Suez Crisis in 1956.

The War was fought between followers of Ahmed Urabi [Arabi] Pasha (1841-1911), an Egyptian soldier and politician, and a British-Indian expeditionary force led by General Sir Garnet Wolseley. Urabi had effectively sidelined Egypt’s ruler, the Khedive, Tawfiq Pasha, who was supported by the British, and his insurgency was considered a grave threat to British financial and strategic interests in the country.

In the summer of 1882, a British naval force bombarded the port of Alexandria, following riots against its European population. William Gladstone’s government then dispatched an expeditionary force, which was charged with defeating Urabi and restoring the Khedive’s authority. Gough served in this force as the aide-de-camp to Lt General Edward Hamley, who was commanding the force’s Second Division.

Gough describes his arrival in Alexandria, where he observes the damaged forts, and a city largely under curfew. The British had originally planned to make a direct attack on Cairo from Alexandria. However, in a bold change of plan, Wolseley moved the main force to the Suez Canal zone, from where he planned to advance along the main rail line and canal to Cairo.

On arriving at Ismailia on the Canal, Gough witnessed at first-hand the  logistical problems, which threatened the British plan. The British able to move quickly by water, but a lack of rail transport slowed the advance to Cairo. Urabi then regrouped his forces at Tel-el-Kebir, twenty five miles from the Canal, where they dug in, and threatened to cut the water-supply to Ismailia. To counter this, Wolseley determined on a bold but risky frontal attack on Urabi’s army (which outnumbered the British), which required a complex night march to meet the enemy.


G. H. Gough’s map of the British advance from Ismailia

Gough’s description of the battle of Tel-el-Kebir on 13 September is the most dramatic part of the journal. The British advanced across the desert at night, guided by the stars. They marched in formation and in silence, and Gough describes the “strange creaking noises” their boots made on the sand. The soldiers got to within 150 yards of the Egyptian lines before they were seen and fired at. The British then launched a bayonet charge. Gough was in the thick of ferocious fighting: “From every side… sheets of flame show, and the air hisses with bullets”. Facing stiff Egyptian resistance, Gough was ordered to fetch reinforcements, but as he rode away his horse was shot from under him. Help eventually arrived, and within hours Urabi’s army had been routed and put to flight.

de Neuville, Alphonse-Marie-Adolphe, 1835-1885; The Storming of Tel el Kebir

Alphonse-Marie-Adolphe de Neuville, ‘The Storming of Tel el Kebir’, National Museums Scotland. Wikimedia Commons public domain image.

The British forces then advanced rapidly to Cairo, capturing Urabi, and restoring the Khedive. Gough spent several weeks in Cairo, mainly sight-seeing. He received a medal, the Order of Mejidie (4th class), personally from the Khedive and left Egypt in a state of relief: “What a lucky fellow I’ve been; how much I have to be thankful for.” He reached Britain in early November, to find he had been promoted to major. Gough continued in the Army until his death on active service during the South African War in 1900.

Although the journal is mainly concerned with the practicalities of war, Gough makes some interesting political observations, noting Urabi’s popularity with ordinary Egyptians: “this is a national movement, that rightly or wrongly the Egyptians hate us, and that [Urabi] is a representative of their sentiments”. Gough was also critical of the Khedive, whom he met on several occasions, and commented on his poor grasp of political realities.

Surviving first-hand accounts of the Anglo-Egyptian war seem to be quite rare, so Gough’s journal provides an interesting viewpoint from the British side of this largely forgotten war.

Visual Material in Medical Records


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The patient case files of neurosurgeon Sir Geoffrey Jefferson (JCN) are rich in visual materials which enriches the textual information given in the notes. The visual material comes in the form of clinical, operative, and pathological photographs, x-rays and positive copies of x-rays, and medical illustrations (which have been mentioned in a previous blog post).  They help to give a multifaceted view of the patient giving as much information as possible to the practitioner over the course of a patient’s treatment. This is particularly true of x-rays in which a further insight not visible to the naked eye is made possible.

JCN/9/276 – positive copy of an x-ray of a patient with a meningioma of the left middle fossa & JCN/10/248 – a positive copy of a x-ray resulting from air ventriculography

As well as assisting in diagnostics and treatment such images were and are integral to engaging medical students, and Jefferson comments on certain cases how he has used them time and time again to teach his students. Additionally they support academic research and we can see how the material in these files would have supported Jefferson’s own research interests. The study of pituitary tumours was one of Jefferson’s interests on which he published a number of papers and there are a great number of these cases within the collection. A common symptom of some pituitary tumours is acromegaly (the increased production of growth hormone) which Jefferson documents in his patients by photographing their hands to demonstrate the increase in size.

JCN/14/86 & JCN/14/202 – photographs of the hands of two different patients diagnosed with pituitary neoplasms and acromegaly, 1939

Medical photography also exists as a useful tool in documenting unusual or rare cases, and there a number of images of young children suffering from spina bifida and large meningocele. The importance of recording the progress of certain cases can often go beyond the life of the patient to include post mortem images and pathological specimens which often reveal things not evident when the patient was alive.

JCN/14/238 – pathological specimen of a meningioma removed at operation, 1939

All in all the visual material in the collection and associated collections (VFA.7 – Medical Illustrations of Dorothy Davison) add much greater depth to a patient’s medical history as well as raising questions of how the patient was viewed and the ethical concerns surrounding the creation of such exposing images, the way the patients were posed, and consideration of the impact it would have had on them.

The Uses of History: Pit Prop and Radical Theatre


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Dr Phil O’Brien writes:

On October 15 1979, Pit Prop Theatre Company staged its first production: Secret Society of 1812. It wasn’t on a particularly conventional theme for a fledgling group; it was about a Luddite incident in Westhoughton, a town a few miles from Pit Prop’s base in Leigh, Lancashire. The story gives some indication of the company’s approach to theatre: mining (pardon the pun) working-class and local history for political and radical stories. Additionally, the target audience for Secret Society wasn’t especially conventional: it was aimed at nine-year-olds. The production, according to the group’s promotional material, was ‘based on a local Luddite incident in which a magistrate incited an attack on a local textile mill by planting agent provocateurs’. The approach taken in this first play (or programme as the group preferred to describe the work) would inform much of what Pit Prop did over the next 15 years as professional theatre practitioners engaged in pioneering cultural work.

PP One rev

Cyril Craythorpe (James Quinn), Martha (Flo Wilson), and Morgan (Ray Meredith) in Brand of Freedom by the Pit Prop Theatre, 1984.

The company’s history is traceable through its fascinating archive held at The John Rylands Library, where I recently spent time working through the 76 uncatalogued boxes. There’s information pertaining to productions on female coal workers, 1970s rent strikes, Moss Side, Nicaragua, the British Raj, and the Anglo-Irish agreement. Many of the productions contain the same four ingredients as the first: 1) a local working-class historical event; 2) a small group of characters often centring on the experience of women; 3) the involvement and collaboration of the audience directly within the performance; 4) a link to wider global and political issues.

Pit Prop was part of the Theatre-in-Education (TIE) movement and one of the company’s starting points is the work of Coventry’s Belgrade Theatre. TIE was first conceived here in the 1960s as a new form of theatre which brought together actors and teachers and worked with schools over a sustained period. Pit Prop’s artistic director Cora Williams started at Belgrade in 1968 as an actor-teacher before moving to Bolton Octagon. She and others from Pit Prop were then involved in Burnley’s Theatre Mobile which collapsed in 1978.

PP Two rev

A Pit Prop Brand of Freedom project work-book for schoolchildren.

That first Pit Prop performance in October 1979 sees the company emerge in the opening months of Thatcherism. Crucially, here are a group of cultural workers developing a response from within the working-class communities most vulnerable to the effects of deindustrialization, privatization, and state reduction: all features of Britain under Thatcher. Pit Prop took a broad socialist and feminist approach, one which, up until subsidies were withdrawn in 1994, challenged stereotypes predicated on class, race, gender, sexuality, and ethnicity alongside addressing issues around discrimination pertaining to age, physical disability, and mental health.

It is clear from the archive that internal issues also contributed to the pressures placed on the company but, as the Times Educational Supplement reported in 1994, external forces resulted in the closure of Pit Prop: ‘It is the victim of circumstances: local authority cuts forced by six years of Government capping on central funding, the consequences of the 1988 and 1992 Education Acts, and the market forces philosophy of the local arts council.’

So the timing of Pit Prop’s emergence is fascinating, the types of active participation work the group did are compelling, and its funding challenges offer many interesting insights into the role of the arts in Britain. On a more personal level, the geographical area in which it worked is also significant, Wigan being my hometown. And I was in for a surprise when I viewed a film of one of the company’s most successful TIE programmes. Brand of Freedom consists of three parts: a play performed on site in schools, a project book completed by pupils, and a second impromptu visit by Pit Prop. It is set in 1862 during the Lancashire cotton famine and, like Cotton Panic! currently on as part of Manchester International Festival, explores the effect of the cotton blockade on the mills and people of Lancashire. In Brand of Freedom, which features escaped black slave Martha alongside mill workers Morgan and Lucy, the dilemma of supporting either the blockade (with the economic hardship it brings) or the south (and slavery and its expansion) becomes the central focus.

PP Four rev

The Pit Prop Theatre Company logo.

Manchester University Television filmed a performance of the production in which the children, after initially being duped by a southern plantation owner, decide overwhelming to support the north and Abraham Lincoln – a statue of Lincoln across the road from the Rylands is evidence of Manchester’s support for the blockade. On the film is my brother Jim, now 43, then 10. He looks into the camera as the actors, in character, enter the classroom. Jim and the rest of his class soon forget the film crew; they are immersed in a story of which they become a central part. The recording makes for fascinating viewing, not only because my brother and his friends are in it – first as nervous, curious 10 and 11-year-olds and then, within moments, as engaged historical actors – but also because it serves as a demonstration of what were new theatre forms emerging out of a direct engagement with culture, class, history, politics, and education.

Phil O’Brien completed his PhD on class, neoliberalism, and contemporary British fiction at the University of Manchester in 2016. He was recently awarded seedcorn funding from the John Rylands Research Institute to work on the Pit Prop Theatre Company Archive at The John Rylands Library. Email:

Radical Surgery: The Frontal Lobectomy


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Neurosurgeon Sir Geoffrey Jefferson was a great exponent of the frontal lobectomy in the treatment of brain tumours, a procedure now considered to be somewhat controversial. Jefferson published a number of articles on the procedure between the 1930s and the 1950s expressing the success he had with the procedure. Stating that the procedure should only be carried out when absolutely necessary he was firmly of the opinion that it gave patient the best chance of long survival and did not have any great detrimental effects on cognitive function, memory, or emotion and in fact improved a patient’s condition in comparison to their condition with the tumour. In his 1937 article however Jefferson gives this somewhat dismissive remark on the effects on intellectual capacity observed in his patients:

“The patients in this series were not of any considerable mental stature; their occupations were not such as would easily bring to light faults in the higher synthesis of ideas.”


VFA.7.203 – ink drawing at operation after the right frontal lobe has been removed, n.d.

Within the collection of Jefferson’s Patient Files (JCN) there are at least twenty examples of the procedure being performed between the years 1932 and 1939 along with examples of temporal, occipital, and cerebellar lobectomies. Of these twenty examples, twelve are known for certain to have died.  A number of these patient files link directly to descriptions he gives in published works as well as to items of medical art produced by the artist Dorothy Davison. However, the existence of a number of patient files which contain descriptions of the procedure that are not referenced in his published works give a greater insight into the overall success and efficacy of the procedure.


VFA.7.201 – frontal lobectomy performed on patient 1935/82

Patient 1935/82 is one patient for whom we hold their patient file and a medical illustration and who also features in Jefferson’s 1937 article. A 44 year-old male clerk from Withington, he was operated on in April 1935 with uncertain results. Although stable after his 5 ¼ hour surgery, showing no signs of memory loss, and able to hold a conversation he did however display other signs of agitation including a tremor in the hands and feet, continuation of his seizures (although less often), and coldness in his feet. He died not long after the procedure was performed from uncertain causes preventing the further monitoring of his condition.



Jefferson, ‘Removal of right or left frontal lobes in man’, BMJ, 1937, 2(3995), pp.199-206

Jefferson, ‘Tumours of the frontal lobe’, Postgraduate Medical Journal, 1939, 15(163), pp.170-8

Jefferson, ‘Tumours of the frontal lobe’,  Postgraduate Medical Journal, 1950, 26(293), pp.133-40

Renegade, rogue, radical


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500 years on, our autumn exhibition will explore the story of three men who changed the course of history in the early 16th century as religious extremism and violence spread across Europe.

Luther memorialised in stone in the John Rylands Library Reading Room

On 31 October 1517 a German monk named Martin Luther posted ninety five short statements in Wittenberg about what he considered the scandal of indulgences sold by the Catholic Church. This was the catalyst for upheaval within the established powers in Europe, particularly the Church, which held both spiritual and political power.

In England, inspired by Luther’s work and the religious turbulence spreading through Europe, William Tyndale started translating the Bible into English, the first time this had been attempted in print. Advances in printing technology meant that ideas could be published and shared far more easily than ever before, and the spread of God’s word in English offered a threat to the established Church and State.

Title page of Henry’s argument against Luther

Henry VIII, crowned in 1509, was a staunch Catholic who resisted the spread of radical ideas. In 1521, Henry published an argument against Luther’s reforming ideas and was granted the title ‘Defender of the Faith’ by Pope Leo IX, a title which British monarchs hold to this day. But less than 15 years later, Henry had gone rogue, declaring himself Supreme Head of the Church in England.

The Reformation will explore the early years of the upheaval and the roles of these three men, considering the war in print which had a lasting effect on the history of Europe through propaganda, words and ideas.

The Reformation exhibition will run from 7 September 2017 to 4 March 2018 in the John Rylands Library, Deansgate. It is free and open to all.

Methodist Ministers at War: Wesleyan Chaplains of World War I


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Dr Gareth Lloyd writes:

On 4 August 1914 Britain declared war on Germany starting the countries involvement in what became known as the Great War.

Chaplain writing letter

Army chaplain writing a letter home for a casualty. Wikimedia Commons image.

Every aspect of British life was affected by the sudden descent into global conflict. The response of the Wesleyan Church, the largest of the several Methodist denominations, was sharply divided. In the days after the outbreak of hostilities, there was profound shock and dismay – the official Church newspaper referred to the crisis as “the horrible nightmare of a restless sleeper”.

Some ministers and laymen became conscientious objectors, but the majority opinion regarded the war as a just cause and Methodists volunteered in their thousands for military service. By the summer of 1917 more than 200,000 Wesleyans and tens of thousands more from other Methodist denominations were serving in the armed forces.

Owen Spencer Watkins

Methodist Chaplain Reverend Owen Spencer Watkins. From Methodist Magazine, March 1915, page 160.

The Wesleyan ministry was quick to answer the call to duty. Approximately 330 ministers served as army and navy chaplains for the duration of the conflict. Most were volunteers from the civilian circuit ministry, who were appointed honorary chaplains to the forces to distinguish them from the small number of regular serving chaplains. Other ministers and candidates for ordination waived exemption from conscription to serve in the ranks as ordinary soldiers and sailors.


Meeting of the synod of Australian Imperial Forces held on 7 August 1918 at Wesley’s Chapel, London. From Minutes of Two Methodist Synods: Methodist Church of Australasia, 1918, page 4 (reference MAW Pa 1918).

While classified as non-combatants, chaplains shared the dangers and privations of the battlefield. They lived under daily shellfire and accompanied the infantry as they launched or defended against attacks. Often employed in dressing stations and field ambulances, the chaplains provided comfort to the seriously wounded and dying as well as their comrades in the trenches. Many chaplains were decorated for bravery, typically for trying to help others. Reverend Spencer-Watkins, for example, whose photograph and service record is featured in this blog, was mentioned in despatches five times. By the war’s end in 1918, thirty Methodist ministers had been killed and many more wounded.

“When I reached my billet, I sat down and, putting my aching head between my hands – bedaubed with trench mud, iodine and human blood – I wept.”
“Stories from the Front by United Methodist Chaplains” (London: 1917), p.21

“Mine’s a pretty bad job at times, but I’m damned glad I haven’t yours. The best of luck to you”
The commanding officer of a front-line unit to a Wesleyan chaplain, quoted in “Reflections on the battlefield: from infantryman to chaplain, 1914-1919” Robert. J. Rider, ed. Robinson and Hair (Liverpool University Press: 2001)

Chaplain preaching

Army chaplain preaching from the cockpit of a plane. National Library of Scotland image licensed for reuse CC-BY.

To commemorate the centenary of the end of the Great War, the Methodist Church in Britain and the John Rylands Library have collaborated to digitise a volume containing the service records of Wesleyan chaplains who served between 1914 and 1919.   Details typically include the individual’s pre-war and post-war ministry, commissioning and promotions, unit attachments, decorations, wounds, dates and location of frontline service and additional comments. Some of the names have no record attached and it appears that the details recorded in the volume are exclusively for attachments to the army, including the Royal Flying Corp, the predecessor of the Royal Air Force. Similarly, the document only appears to cover service in a theatre of war or supporting UK base establishment as opposed to a peacetime garrison.

This unique document provides a vivid and moving insight into the faith, courage and self-sacrifice displayed by Methodist chaplains who ministered to and served alongside the soldiers, sailors and airmen of World War I.

Service Record of O S Watkins

Service record of Reverend Owen Spencer Watkins. Ref. MA 1999/1, p. 309 of the volume of service records.

The Methodist Armed Forces Board services records are available online via Luna at The above images and digitised chaplaincy records are reproduced with the permission of the Trustees for Methodist Church Purposes and the John Rylands Library. They are made freely available to the public for non-commercial usage under the terms of a creative commons licence held by The University of Manchester Creative Commons Licence Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0).


A Travelling Life: Dorothy Richardson’s Eighteenth-Century Manuscript Travel Journals


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Dan Eltringham, John Rylands Research Institute Visiting Research Fellow, writes:

In February and March of this year, I spent an extremely enjoyable two months reading through the manuscript travel journals of the eighteenth-century picturesque tourist and antiquarian Dorothy Richardson, held at the John Rylands Research Institute. As an early career researcher just out of the PhD, I loved the chance to spend so much time inside Richardson’s head, and to see through her acutely observational mind’s eye. There is a freshness to the characters she encounters and the landscapes she describes that brought famous landmarks such as Fountains Abbey newly to life for me, as I traced her journeys using Google Maps.

That quality of precise observation is in evidence from early in her life. When Richardson began keeping her journal she was 13 years old. Even then formidably observant, she noted in the grounds of Wentworth House, South Yorkshire, ‘a Bull & Cow […] no larger than a mastiff Dog, & had a Bunch of Hair upon their Backs like a Camel.’ As an adult, no travelling companion can keep up with her curiosity and stamina, which only seemed to grow in the later journals. On several occasions on her 1801 tour of the East Riding she is frustrated by lax or timid companions who don’t want to walk a few extra miles to inspect a lighthouse, are always trying to get back in time for a card party, or refuse to get up before dawn to watch the sun rise over the North Sea.

Richardson’s handsomely bound and marbled, conveniently portable notebooks are penned in the elaborate but – after a few hours of getting one’s eye in – perfectly legible educated hand of the day. Going through these pages, with text crammed right up to the margins (paper was a relatively scarce commodity even for the well-off) has been, among other things, a rare opportunity to read a woman’s account of eighteenth-century landscape, history, economy and culture, from the 1760s up until the turn of the nineteenth century. By the time of her final tour in 1801, Richardson was an extremely experienced traveller by the standards of the day. She had traversed virtually the whole of her native Yorkshire, much of Lancashire, the Derbyshire Peak and Nottinghamshire, not to mention forays south to Oxford and Bath. Aged 53, she would live another 18 years, until 1819.

Dorothy Richardson travel journal.jpg

Sample page from Dorothy Richardson’s travel journal.

That Richardson was able to travel so much was underwritten by her family’s wealth and local importance in the West Riding, which, aside from disposable income, also gave her a network of contacts on which to call across the near north. Her grandfather, Dr Richard Richardson (1663-1741), was a famous botanist and antiquary, whose biography Richardson published in her only excursion into print. Her interests, then, found their roots in the scholarly ambience of her family home. While her texts were never intended for sale, they were nonetheless prepared for a circulatory reading audience by following the protocols of print.

But it’s the details and the moments that make these journals so characterful. Richardson twice pays a visit to Mother Shipton’s Well (in 1771 and again in 1801), a famed petrifying cave in Knaresborough that turns all it touches to stone. On her second visit she has great fun watching ‘Birds nests with eggs in them &c’ being dipped in the well, which are then transferred to ‘a small hut where the petrifications are kept for sale.’ One of the oldest tourist attractions in Britain, in 1801 it sounds a good deal more commercialised than when she first passed through in 1771. Being able to trace such changes is one of the intriguing virtues of reading Richardson’s account straight through, across four decades in which the landscape was transformed by enclosure, early industry and tourism – of which she is a part.

Petrifying Spring

Colour etching by Francois Alvarez after Thomas Smith of Derby, ‘A View of the Petrifying Spring, Commonly called the Dropping Well, at Knaresborough, in Yorkshire’, 1746.

These journals contain such a huge amount of information and observation: so much is packed in it makes one’s head spin after a couple of hours. But a lot of the expected upheavals of this uncommonly turbulent time are missing. Where is mention of the American Revolution of 1776, or the French, in 1789? Part of the answer to this is that the travel journals are restricted to recording local facts as she finds them, and do not often concern themselves with global or even national political events.

Indeed, Richardson is so concerned with local histories, names and landscape that we might be tempted to see her as uniformed and provincial. But that is far from true: she kept her newspaper cuttings elsewhere, in a series of scrapbook volumes. In the century of Linnaeus, different kinds of knowledge are kept in different places, and Richardson’s orderly division of local from international reflects that. At the same time, her historical scholarship draws on the vogue for antiquarian knowledge in the eighteenth century. Increasingly, though, she comes to garner her information not from the dusty tomes of past scholarly endeavour, but from the mouths of the people.

This tendency to talk with the common people she had all along employed as guides, drivers and cooks comes through most clearly in her final 1801 tour to the North Yorkshire coast, perhaps not coincidentally when she is for the most part unaccompanied by family. There, she chats amiably with fisherwives and their husbands, who guide her along treacherous littoral stretches. Just as she was in the Peak District caverns of Castleton back in 1771, she is still seeking underground thrills and their attached human stories and legends. In this case, trekking around the beaches of Flamborough Head, she is looking for ‘Robin Syths Hole’: either, she says, the refuge of someone shipwrecked during a tempest, or ‘the secret residence of a noted Smuggler or Pirate of that name’.

This sense of adventure and mystery, and of interest in the world and how it works at ground-level, never leaves Richardson. She was a woman traveller in an age of famous male domestic tourists, and a serious antiquarian when nearly all who pursued local knowledge were gentlemen of leisure. These facts alone make her interesting. But her lively tone, her unremitting observational capacity, and the depth of her learning, make her travel manuscripts the most fun you can have touring the country without leaving your seat. Time for an edited selection that can be carried about in the pocket!



Call for Papers: ‘After the Digital Revolution’ Workshop


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Print to Digital Image (3)

How can we improve the preservation and access to born-digital records in literary and publishers’ archives?

“there lie in his hoards many records that few now can read, even of the lore-masters, for their scripts and tongues have become dark to later men.”
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

While we still have letters, manuscripts and other physical documents from the past centuries, we are in danger of losing digital documents created in the last decade. Literary scholars rely on the traces left by writers – from correspondence to drafts – which now take the form of born-digital records. Publishing historians also need access to the records left by publishing companies. Emails and other digital forms of communication have largely replaced letters and memos, and yet, safeguarding digital archives remains an enduring challenge for archivists. Electronic records risk becoming unreadable due to rapidly changing formats and technologies. Even when digital archives are actively preserved, they are often closed to researchers due to data protection and other issues. To paraphrase Tolkien, the scripts and tongues of our digital age risk becoming dark to later men.

As late as 2010, a report from the American library community OCLC declared: “Management of born-digital archival materials is still in its infancy.”

What progress has been made to preserve digital archives? How can we improve access to born-digital collections? How can archivists and scholars collaborate to create a better future for digital collections?

This workshop at the John Rylands Library (14-15 September 2017) is the first of two “After the Digital Revolution” events funded by a British Academy Rising Star Engagement Award awarded to Dr Lise Jaillant. It will bring together 30 participants, including 15 early-career researchers to discuss and find solutions to the issue of preservation and access to born-digital archives.

Contributions are invited from archivists, literary scholars, historians, policy makers and anyone with an interest in digital archives. Each participant will be asked to prepare a 10-minute contribution addressing the specific theme of each workshop. Contributions can take the form of a short paper on current project(s) or a lightning talk to share a specific tool/ method in relation to the workshop theme. In addition, early-career researchers (within ten years of their PhD) will be asked to prepare a poster summarizing their contribution to the workshop.

Workshop Highlights:

  • Internationally-recognised experts, including David McKnight (Director of Special Collections, University of Pennsylvania)
  • Skype talk by Matthew Kirschenbaum (University of Maryland)
  • Networking opportunities, including reception in the sumptuous John Rylands Library

This workshop will lead to the publication of an edited collection that will leave a lasting legacy and contribute to a better future for born-digital collections and their users.

If you would like to participate, please send a CV and 300-word description of your planned contribution to: l.jaillant [at] by 17 July 2017.

A limited number of travel grants will be available. Please indicate if you would like to be considered for a travel grant.

Conservation of a Renaissance Masterpiece: Prolianus’s Astronomia


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One of our most beautiful Renaissance manuscripts is a copy of Christianus Prolianus’s scientific treatise, Astronomia, produced in Naples in 1478. Many of its pages are decorated with exquisite white-vine borders, featuring putti, birds and butterflies. It has appeared in this blog before, when it was fully digitised in 2012.

Latin MS 53, f.1r (detail)

Christianus Prolianus’s Astronomia, Latin MS 53, folio 1r (detail).

We are planning to include it in an exhibition at the John Rylands Library on ‘Colour’ next year. However, a routine condition report revealed significant problems, with many areas of flaking pigment or gold leaf. To prepare the manuscript for display, our Collection Care team therefore recently undertook a project to consolidate these areas. This technique involves applying tiny drops of isinglass solution beneath the loose fragments, using a very fine artist’s brush.

Isinglass comes from the swim bladder of the sturgeon fish. Dried isinglass is dissolved in warm water to create a 2% solution, which acts as a very mild adhesive, without affecting the visual properties of the manuscript.


Latin MS 53 003 (2)

Steve Mooney treats Latin MS 53, Prolianus’s Astronomia.

Conservator Steve Mooney carried out the painstaking work with the aid of a microscope. He perfected this technique on the famous Rylands Haggadah in 2011, before it travelled to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

In advance of the exhibition, you can whet your appetite with the online version, available on Luna.

Latin MS 53 001 (2)

Coat of arms Cardinal Giovanni of Aragon, son of Ferdinand II of Naples, fol. 1r.