Photos of Women’s War Work 1914 – 1919


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Hot on the heels of the Bedford Lemere and Roger Fenton photograph albums becoming available via The Library Catalogue (and Luna) we are pleased to announce that an album of photographs by Arthur Reavil detailing Women’s War Work 1914 – 1919 will now be accessible on Library Search too.

This album contains 164 photographs which portray a significant and detailed account of women’s working lives during the First World War.  The images show women fulfilling roles traditionally associated with men, such as Signal Lamp Cleaners, Bus Mechanics, Police Women and Oxy-acetylene welders.  The outfits and uniforms are meticulously recorded, sometimes with surprising detail.  For example the London Bridge Porter who is smartly dressed in a uniform resembling that of a housemaid, but quite strangely, she is wearing small heels in spite of the physical nature the job!

Bill Posters at the Metropolitan Railway, VPH.5.50

Bill Posters at the Metropolitan Railway, VPH.5.50

There is a sequence of images from rural settings showing The Women’s Land Army. These photos show women working on farms hay baling, feeding calves, milking, hop picking and working as foresters.  In more urban surrounds there are a group of photographs where women are shown delivering cakes, driving and maintaining the fleet of vehicles for J.Lyons Catering Company.

Women's Forestry Section - Handling Pit Props VPH.5.148

Women’s Forestry Section – Handling Pit Props VPH.5.148

A large proportion of the album is dedicated to those women working on the Railways in a variety of roles. These included ticket collectors, porters and my favourite a ‘travelling library attendant’.  The index details the specific location and Railway Company, so it is clear to see that women were utilised in these rail roles across the country.

Shell Makers from North Cheshire VPH.5.104

Shell Makers from North Cheshire VPH.5.104

There is limited information about Arthur Reavil, the photographer, to be found.  It is known that his photographic subject of choice was locomotives, he gave a lecture to the Royal Photographic Society in November 1926 entitled ‘The Photography of locomotives and trains in motion’,  so maybe it is unsurprising that so many of these images are based around trains and railways.  We can only surmise what his views would have been on having women taking on these railway roles.  The National Railway Museum holds a significant collection of Reavil’s negatives, featuring French, German, Dutch and Swiss locomotives from the 1920s.

Additional blog posts will announce when further material from the Visual Collections photography collection is available, including photographs by Francis Frith of Manchester, but meanwhile, follow Library Tammy on IG for updates on what goes on in the Visual Collections office here are The John Rylands Library.

Reader Services Curious Finds -Moxon’s Mechanick Exercises


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Today’s Curious Find comes from one of our regular readers, Mr Michael Gilligan, who has brought Joseph Moxon’s Mechanik Exercises to our attention.


He says that this book, which was first published in a series of small volumes, has remained the definitive work on the printing process.

curiousmechanik6On Page 15 Moxon enthuses over the letter design and cutting of Christoffel Van Dijck of Amsterdam, and plates 11-17 are Moxon’s analysis of the font.


“…and indeed all the accomplishments that can render letter regular and beautiful, do more visibly appear in them than in any letters cut by any other people”

Mr Gilligan notes that many modern font designers decry Moxon’s attempt to reduce their art to lines and circles and analysis, but that it was, and remains, an important exercise.

Included is a frontispiece portrait of Gutenberg which puts Moxon’s ‘Mechanick Exercises’ project into context.


Today’s Curious Find is Joseph Moxon, Mechanick exercises: or, the doctrine of handy-works, applied to the art of printing (London, 1683). Available at the John Rylands Library (21081.1).

If you would like to consult any items in the Special Collections reading room, please contact the team at or +44 (0)161 275 3764.

The Reformation – Luther and the lamp


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Scroll awarding the Freedom of the City of Manchester to Enriqueta Rylands, 1899.

Freedom of the City of Manchester, scroll awarded to Enriqueta Rylands, 1899. English MS 1139.

The Reformation exhibition at the John Rylands Library marks 500 years since Luther declared his famous 95 theses (see Renegade, rogue, radical). Today we celebrate a more recent anniversary, that of the formal opening of the John Rylands Library on 6 October 1899, which itself marked twenty four years since the marriage of John and Enriqueta Rylands. On the same day, the City of Manchester gave Enriqueta the Freedom of the City.

This beautifully illuminated scroll given to Rylands to mark the occasion includes a number of symbolic images, from the Lancashire red rose and the Manchester bee, to coats of arms and feather pens. Near the top right hand corner of the scroll is a lit oil lamp.


Oil lamp, detail of scroll.

This is not the lamp Aladdin rubbed to call up the genie, but a symbol of enlightenment. A lit lamp, or candle, has often been used as a symbol for education and learning. This is certainly appropriate for the John Rylands Library, especially as it now forms part of The University of Manchester. However, the lamp also symbolises the Reformation. Indeed, the symbol of the lit oil lamp appears in the first object displayed in our Reformation exhibition. In this engraving, based on a portrait painted during his lifetime, Luther is shown sitting at a table holding a book. The scene is lit by an oil lamp on the table.


Engraved portrait of Martin Luther, copied from a painting by Lucas Cranach, 1597.


Statue of Martin Luther in the John Rylands Library, sculpted by Robert Bridgeman

The statues ranged along the walls of the Library’s historic Reading Room represent a Nonconformist perspective on ‘the history of human thought.’ Enriqueta Rylands chose Calvin and Luther to represent the Protestant Reformation. She wanted the statues to be as historically accurate as possible and sent a copy of this engraving to the sculptors – the face of the resulting statue is quite recognisable. However, the statue in the Reading Room (see image) leaves out the objects on the table. These are more important than they might first appear; the oil lamp does not simply give Luther light to read by. The lit lamp became a Protestant symbol for the enlightenment gained by reading the  Bible. Luther was closely associated with the symbol because of his efforts to make the Bible available for people to read in their own language.

The lamp on the Freedom scroll represents Enriqueta Rylands’s contribution to education and enlightenment through the founding of the John Rylands Library, and to Protestant Nonconformity through her provision of access to the Bible in both the vernacular (local) and ‘original’ languages. The autumn exhibition shines a light on the Library’s exceptional Reformation collections and the enduring legacy of Enriqueta Rylands.


Finally, the little Manchester bee seen buzzing below the lamp in the scroll has recently appeared at Longford Park – where John and Enriqueta Rylands lived. A Manchester bee and a lit candle together form the subject of a poignant tree sculpture carved by Keith Macauley in remembrance of the Manchester Arena attack on 22 May.

History at your fingertips: celebrating the 180th anniversary of Henshaws


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This year marks the 180th anniversary of Henshaws – a charity founded in Manchester which supports individuals, families and their carers who live with sight loss and other disabilities. The Henshaws archive is held at the Library, and we are delighted to be joining Henshaws to celebrate their birthday through two collection encounters in the Historic Reading Room: the first took place on Thursday 21 September, and another session is scheduled for Saturday 14 October.

Thomas Henshaw (1731-1810) was a businessman who founded a large and successful hatting business in Oldham. Also a philanthropist, he left a considerable sum to charitable causes in his will. This included £20,000 (equivalent to roughly £1.4 million today) to be dedicated to the foundation of a ‘Blind Asylum’ in Manchester. He stipulated that his legacy should not be spent on the purchase of land and buildings for the new institution; the money for this was to be raised by public donation, and a committee was duly established in 1833 to oversee this.

This original committee comprised 30 men – amongst them the Liberal MPs Joseph Brotherton and Richard Potter. The fundraising campaign and subscription scheme were a great success, and Henshaw’s Blind Asylum was opened, with a grand procession, in June 1837. The term ‘asylum’ was used in the sense of a place of safety, and Henshaw’s provided sheltered accommodation for elderly blind residents. It also opened a school offering education for blind children from the age of six – over 50 years before legislation made this compulsory.


This medical report from 1841 shows that smallpox was the leading cause of blindness for people registered at Henshaws. Smallpox vaccination wasn’t made compulsory in the UK until 1853.

Blind people could also take up occupational training as well as paid employment in the organisation’s workshops. Those with musical ability became musicians and piano-tuners. Other occupations included basket weaving, mat making, brush making, handloom weaving, boot making and repairing, and – later – braille shorthand and typewriting. Many people and institutions across Manchester purchased items manufactured by Henshaws’ workers. Training in massage was introduced in 1895, with Henshaws’ pupils being the first in the country to take up this profession.


The University of Manchester was founded as Owens College in 1851. This receipt shows that it was purchasing coir matting from Henshaws for its new laboratory building in 1852.

Henshaws was always awake to innovation and new technologies which could help blind people. Braille – which revolutionised education and communication for the blind – wasn’t widely adopted in the UK until after 1870; Henshaws introduced it in 1881. Before that, children were taught to read using embossed alphabets – raised letters which were readable by touch. The first governor of Henshaw’s, William Hughes, patented the ‘Hughes Typograph’, a machine which could produce both embossed and visible letters – legible by blind and sighted alike. This was widely used in schools for the blind during the 1850s, and won a gold medal at the Great Exhibition of 1851. You can see an image of a Hughes Typograph here.


William Hughes was appointed as the first governor of Henshaws after responding to this advertisement.

One of Henshaws’ most famous alumni was Ben Purse. Born in Salford in 1874, Purse lost his sight in childhood, attended Henshaw’s Asylum and became a piano tuner. He served as General Secretary for the National League of the Blind, a trade union founded in 1894 which campaigned for statutory rights for blind people. In 1920, to bring pressure on the Government, a protest march was organised, with blind people from three locations – including Manchester – marching on foot to a rally in Trafalgar Square. Purse and others addressed Prime Minister Lloyd George, and in 1920 the Blind Persons’ Act was passed; this enshrined certain rights for blind people in law, and for the first time required the compulsory registration of all blind people. It was passed at a time when people’s awareness of blindness had been heightened by the return of so many blinded soldiers from the First World War trenches. Purse was later awarded an OBE for his services to the blind.


This snippet from a minute book of March 1918 is the first record in the archive of a blind soldier being admitted to one of Henshaws’ residential homes.

Through various name changes, Henshaws continued to flourish throughout the twentieth century. Today the charity employs over 300 staff and many volunteers, working in three regions across the north of England. You can find out more about their work on their own website, along with information about the anniversary exhibition which is currently being hosted by Archives+ in Manchester’s Central Library.


Henshaws schoolboys in 1959 using a tactile globe for a geography lesson.

The Henshaws archive held at the Rylands contains minute books documenting the establishment and running of the organisation from its foundation in 1833 through to 1976. It also includes minute books of the Manchester Salford and Blind Aid Society which was founded in 1900 by Isabel Heywood and merged with Henshaws in 1980. As well as its value for charting the history of blindness in Greater Manchester, it provides an insight into changing attitudes towards blindness over the years, and evolving approaches towards supporting blind and visually impaired people.

Visit the Historic Reading Room at 11.00 on Saturday 14 October to see a selection of archive material held both at the Library and at Henshaws, and to find out more about the history of the charity.

Sputnik and Jodrell Bank Radio Telescope


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Dr James Peters writes:

Sixty years ago this week, the Jodrell Bank radio telescope was involved in one of the most dramatic events of the Space Race.

On 4th October 1957, the Soviet Union launched the first artificial satellite, Sputnik I. The public was immediately captivated by this small, metallic sphere which circulated the Earth every 98 minutes. For Western governments, however, Sputnik was worrying evidence of Soviet technological superiority, and the US government responded by committing huge resources to space research.


Sputnik I satellite

Somewhat unexpectedly, Sputnik also proved to be the making of Jodrell Bank. Although the radio-telescope became operational in the summer of 1957, the year had been a difficult one for Jodrell Bank’s director, Bernard Lovell. He had fallen out with H. C. Husband, whose firm had built the telescope, following a highly critical Parliamentary Public Accounts Committee report on the project’s delays and cost overruns. This had been accompanied by a good deal of negative media coverage.

The launch of Sputnik helped restore the Observatory’s reputation. The Jodrell Bank telescope was the only facility in the West which could track Sputnik’s launch rocket. The authorities, unlike the public, were more interested in this than the satellite; Sputnik had been launched by an inter-continental ballistic missile, and this had obvious implications for Cold War nuclear strategy.

Improvising with great ingenuity, Lovell’s team attached the necessary radar equipment to the telescope and on the 11th October they picked up definite signals from Sputnik’s rocket as it flew over northern England. The media presented this as an heroic triumph for British science, and this public relations victory took some of the heat off Lovell (the USSR even sent him a telegram of thanks).

Sputnik tracking record

Jodrell Bank Observatory’s tracking record of the Sputnik I rocket.

The Jodrell Bank Observatory archive contains a wealth of material on the Sputnik episode. The documents which relate to the prehistory of the satellite’s launch are particularly interesting. Lovell had been working with government agencies since 1956 to ensure that Jodrell Bank could track human-made objects, including missiles and satellites.

Far from Sputnik being a shock, Lovell had been told by a confidential source in Moscow that a Soviet satellite might be launched as early as August 1957. Lovell’s main concern was whether the telescope was properly configured to track it. The Ministry of Supply had refused to fund the equipment which Lovell needed to do this, forcing the Observatory to make frenetic improvisations once Sputnik had launched.

The archives are also interesting on the public’s reaction to Sputnik. The satellite caught the public imagination in a quite unexpected way. Jodrell Bank was deluged with letters from the public reporting sightings (many of which were inaccurate). In what could be seen as an early exercise in “citizen science”, people took great trouble to communicate to the Observatory what they had seen in the night sky.


Letter reporting a sighting of Sputnik I.

Many correspondents also expressed their pride in what Jodrell Bank had achieved, and criticisms about the cost of the telescope were forgotten (temporarily, at least). As a result of Sputnik, the Jodrell Bank telescope, with its distinctive physical appearance, fixed itself in the public consciousness as proof of Britain’s continuing scientific prowess.

Changing the Landscape: the Art of Roger Fenton


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We are pleased to announce that another wonderful album of Victorian photography is now fully catalogued and available through Library Search and fully digitised and available to view in LUNA, our online image collection as part of the ‘Out of the Ether’ project, supported by the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art.


View of Central Beach, Blackpool, c.1860s.

English architecture and landscapes is an album that contains twelve albumen prints by the esteemed photographer Roger Fenton.  Each print is around 20.3 x 28 cm and is mounted to the album leaf rectos with ink captions beneath. They date from around 1859 but were probably actually printed in the 1860s. A further twenty-five (later and smaller) prints have been added to the album, a mix of albumen and photomechanical prints by Francis Bedford, George Washington Wilson and others, which are mounted to the endpapers and album leaf versos.


Self-Portrait of Roger Fenton in Zouave uniform, seated, facing front and holding rifle. Albumen silver print. 1850s

Roger Fenton, 1819-1869, was a pioneer of British photography and one of the first war photographers. Born into an affluent family in Crimble Hall, Rochdale, originally Fenton studied law and painting before turning his attention to photography.   Fenton excelled in the medium and travelled widely over Britain to record landscapes and still-life images in what is now considered to be photography’s ‘golden age’ [1].

Fenton is perhaps most famous for his images of the Crimean War, and despite the tribulations of photographing the event (Fenton contracted cholera and became depressed at the carnage he witnessed at Sevastopol) he still managed to make over 350 usable large format negatives of the conflict. In 1862 Fenton sold up all his photographic equipment and negatives, resigned from the Royal Photographic Society, and returned to practising law. However brief his activity, his contribution to the history of photography as an art form was pivotal.

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The album English architecture and landscapes showcases Fenton’s skill as a master of landscape photography.  It also demonstrates how he and others like him were inspired by and celebrated the world around them through the art of photography, creating a wonderful record for us all to enjoy.

Additional blog posts will announce when further material is available, including some of Fenton’s Crimean War prints, but meanwhile, follow Library Tammy on IG for updates on what goes on in the Visual Collections office here are The John Rylands Library.


[1] Malcolm Daniel. Department of Photographs, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2004

All images unless otherwise stated are copyright of the University of Manchester and can be used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Non Commercial-Share Alike Licence. With thanks to the Heritage Imaging team.


Reader Services Curious Finds – Comic Figures


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Comic Figures

Today’s Curious Find comes from Reader David Fletcher, who was consulting the Stamford Papers, specifically George Harry Grey’s letter to his sister Jane.

Whilst researching the letter, David found 2 delightful comic decoupage figures – very neatly cut from the same paper as the letters. He suggests that they were included to amuse Grey’s sister, as these letters were very affectionate and informal.

David compared the letter to those written to their father, the 6th Earl – but sadly he found no direct reference in the text to explain the figures.

We can assume that the figures are two of the people gossiped about by George and Jane in the letter (there are plenty of examples) and we can infer from the one figure’s bulbous buttocks that they were very much presented in jest, if not outright mockery.

Comic Figures 2

Today’s Curious Find’s reference is GB 133 EGR 4/10/9 No 3. If you would like to consult material in the Special Collections Reading Room please contact the team at 0161 275 3764 or 

Rediscovered: Letter from America – Stratford Canning, Our Man in Washington DC


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Occasionally items from archives go astray; very occasionally we are able to reunite them with their parent collections. This happy circumstance occurred recently, when we came upon a rather grubby nineteenth-century letter within a file of miscellaneous material which appears to have been sent for repair in the 1950s or ’60s.

This particular letter, dated 31 August 1821 and extending to eight pages, was sent by Stratford Canning (1786–1880), British minister-plenipotentiary in Washington DC, to ‘My dear Raikes’. A quick search of our archive catalogue revealed this to be Rev. Henry Raikes (1782–1854), whose correspondence was acquired by the John Rylands Library in 1948 (English MS 1121). A faintly pencilled ‘178’ confirmed that the letter had indeed escaped from Raikes’s papers.

Stratford Canning Letter

Letter from Stratford Canning to Rev. Henry Raikes, 21 August 1821. English MS 1121/178.

The back-story of this letter is tinged with tragedy. Canning had married Henry’s sister Harriet in 1816. Less than a year later she died in childbirth in Switzerland, where Canning was serving as minister plenipotentiary.

In September 1819 Canning accepted a three-year posting to Washington DC. The United States capital was then an unsophisticated place, still recovering from the British attack upon the city five years earlier; Canning describes it as ‘this half-settled seat of Government’. Understandably, relations between Canning and his American hosts were often strained. John Quincy Adams described him as ‘a proud, high-tempered Englishman … of all the foreign ministers with whom I have had occasion to treat, the man who has most tried my temper’ (ODNB, quoting Stanley Lane-Poole, The Life of the Rt Hon. Stratford Canning (London, 1888), vol. 1, p. 308).

The letter offers detailed observations on various aspects of life in Washington DC. Canning was particularly impressed with the religious diversity and devotion of the capital’s inhabitants:

“We have sects of every description, and all have their places of worship, not indeed very brilliant in point of architecture or internal decoration, but, with some few exceptions, decent, and by no means betraying any particular backwardness on the part of the inhabitants. Of an evening one frequently hears prayers or psalm singing not only in the churches but also in private houses. The people of Georgetown seem to be more devout than their neighbours, in so much so that many families will not frequent any mixed society, and I am informed that even some of the episcopal clergymen preach against dancing & evening assemblies.”

While such ‘holier than thou’ attitudes clearly amused him, Canning was appalled by the racial segregation practised by the churches:

“I have been somewhat disgusted at finding that the principles of equality, whether Christian or political, are not extended to the unfortunate negroes. These unhappy men are indeed admitted into church, but a separate place is allotted to them; and in taking the sacrament they are not allowed to approach the table till after the whites. They are therefore with good reason anxious to have a chapel to themselves; and it is not long since I chanced to hear a sermon preached by a sable reverence, and that in very creditable terms, by an audience as deeply coloured as himself.”

Canning was also alive to the development of literature in America, presciently anticipating that it would challenge Britain’s cultural hegemony:

“Within the last year an Academy of Literature and Belles lettres, particularly with a view to the purification of our mother tongue, has been established at New York by the Learned & Illustrious of this Country. A feverish anxiety prevails to rival Great Britain in Letters as in arms, and I should not be much surprized if Books were some day to be classed amongst domestic manufactory & protected by the exclusion of their British Rivals.”

The letter has now been reunited with the Raikes papers. As for Stratford Canning, after his return from Washington he was appointed British ambassador in Constantinople and played an important role in the ‘Eastern Question’, which dominated British foreign policy in the middle decades of the nineteenth century.

Truth in translation


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How do you define truth? In medieval Europe, it was often thought that truth came from ancient texts in Latin or Greek, passed down through generations and only accessible to those who could read them. The truth in these texts could then be spoken to others who couldn’t read, or didn’t understand ancient languages. And few texts were more important in European society than the Bible.

Since the 5th century, most European churches had been using a version of the Bible known as the ‘Vulgate’, translated from Hebrew into Latin by St. Jerome. Around 1000 years later, new scholarship and access to more Biblical texts gave European scholars fresh insight and revealed a number of errors in the established Vulgate. The truth, it seemed, was in the translation: scholars began to realise how a slight mistake, or the decision to use a particular word, could change the meaning of a whole passage.

Woodcut depicting the Foure Horsemen of the Apocalypse in Martin Luther's 1522 September Testament.

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse depicted in Cranach’s woodcut for the New Testament (R28664).

Martin Luther, who was professor of theology at the University of Wittenberg, had read these newly accessible texts with interest. Luther felt strongly that the Bible, as the Word of God, should be available to everyone in a way they could understand. Translation of God’s Word was naturally a challenging task, to make sure that the truth of the message was not distorted as words were changed. Luther believed that he had been called to spread this truth and was eager to create a new German translation of the Bible. Unlike earlier translators, he used a new Greek version of the original texts edited by the scholar Erasmus (c.1469–1536), rather than the Vulgate, since he believed it held more truth.

In three months, during his period of hiding at Wartburg castle, Luther completed his translation of the New Testament into the everyday language of the German people. This became one of the most influential translations, both because of its accessibility to ordinary people, but also because of the later rise of a sense of German nationality.

The text was published swiftly in September 1522 at Wittenberg and became known as the ‘September Testament’. Neither the printers nor the translator were mentioned on the titlepage: this was not unusual in Bible translations, but it may also have been to protect commercial sales from Luther’s infamy across Europe. One of the financial backers was the Protestant artist Lucas Cranach, whose workshop supplied the twenty one striking woodcuts included in the volume.

Illustrating the book of Revelation with apocalyptic scenes, these vivid images were an aid to the reader and perhaps more controversial than Luther’s translation. Three of the woodcuts depict monsters wearing the Papal Tiara, the crown of the popes, visualising Luther’s accusation that the pope was the antichrist. Perhaps the most provocative of these images is the Whore of Babylon, wearing the Triple Crown, surrounded by a crowd of worldly worshippers.

Woodcut showing the Whore of Babylon wearing the papl tiara in Luther's translation of the New Testament.

The Whore of Bablyon wearing the papal tiara in the ‘September Testament’ (R28664).

Woodcut from a later edition of Luther's New Testament, in which the papal tiara has been removed.

Later editions of Luther’s New Testament removed references to the papal crown.

It was these images, rather than the text, which were considered the most offensive. In November 1522, Duke Georg of Albertine Saxony banned the printing and dissemination of Luther’s New Testament citing the ridicule and insult they heaped on the pope. In spite of this, the translation was hugely popular, even though it was expensive (costing around 2 weeks’ wages for a baker). A second printing followed in December, but changes were made to the images, as well as the text. All traces of the triple, Papal crown were removed, leaving the Whore and other monsters with a single crown to mark them out.

Some later editions were copied from the first and included the anti-papal propaganda, proving that Luther’s views and suspicions were still widely held. But it was the words which would prove decisive: spreading the Bible to all German speaking people who could read, or listen to literate preachers.

Woodcut showing fire raining down on a city, with people huddling in the foreground, from Luther's New Testament.

The vivid nature of Cranach’s apocalyptic images are still striking today (R28664).

Definitions of truth have grown fluid over the centuries since the Reformation, none more so than aspects of faith and belief. Luther’s September Testament represents what he and his fellow reformers believed to be the ultimate truth, in word and image, given directly by God and spread to ordinary people. This truth was influential, but only one of a number in the turbulent Europe of the early sixteenth century, inspiring complex conflict and debate which would last for centuries to come.

The early years of the Reformation demonstrate the questioning, curiosity and determination which would be swept away by violent persecution and fighting in the decades which followed. This autumn, The Reformation exhibition at John Rylands Library explores the battle of beliefs in print from 1517-1547, contrasting Luther, Henry VIII and William Tyndale as radical, rogue and renegade.

With thanks to Ester Camilla Peric, Università degli Studi di Udine.

Diversity in Archives: Growing Pains

Jasspreet Thethi, Special Collections Reader Services Assistant, writes:

This year I attended my first conference in the record-keeping sector with a bursary courtesy of Kevin Bolton. Among the varied sessions at the Archives and Records Association Conference in Manchester was an exceptionally thought-provoking talk from Kirsty Fife and Hannah Henthorn. They shared the findings from their unfunded and independently conducted survey, Marginalised in the UK Archives Sector, which recorded the experiences of under-represented groups in the Archives sector.

Fife and Henthorn

Kirsty Fife and Hannah Henthorn discussing their findings. You can find a link to their work here:

Many participants felt marginalised in ways I had not considered. For example, one participant did not feel comfortable attending conferences beneficial to their professional development due to fear of being miss-gendered or experiencing other transphobic micro-aggressions.[1] I began reflecting on how we could create a welcoming, supportive and safe space[2] where all under-represented individuals feel welcome.

I concluded that to achieve this, each person in the sector must be willing to engage with the topic of diversity with a sensitivity that will legitimise the feelings of the under-represented and result in a change behaviours and policies. To explain this fully I will use my experience as an example.

As a British Asian in the heritage sector, I work with a majority of white British or European colleagues and have repeatedly experienced being the only BAME person in an entire building. When micro-aggressions occur in these settings I have two options: speak out or let it go. Speaking out is an empowering option if I am confident I am in a safe and understanding environment. Letting it go is more preferable when I am unsure of my surroundings. The latter is more common in a workplace setting.

When these micro-aggressions occur, I am overcome with an array of feelings including hurt, vulnerability and belittlement. Often, I make a joke of what has happened as a protective way to discuss a sensitive topic. The more I learn to articulate myself during stressful situations in a clear concise and kind manner, the more I can discuss these transgressions with my colleagues. I expect my conversational partner to mirror my respectful and understanding approach but often their embarrassment and hurt leads to misdirected anger and/or a dismissive attitude.  This in turn causes me to feel invisible and upset.

If we intend to dismantle all barriers to under-represented groups and fully embrace diversity into the workplace we must be sensitive to those highlighting discriminatory behaviour: accepting our ignorance and discomfort and turning this into understanding and acceptance. This is a complex sensitive topic but we can begin with four steps.

  1. Understand there is mutual discomfort: challenging someone about micro aggressions is intimidating and uncomfortable.
  2. Accept the discomfort: do not immediately dismiss or defend micro-aggressions, because implicit bias is universal and no one has full understanding of other peoples’ life experience.
  3. Do research: learning about the life experiences of minority groups will increase understanding and inform positive interactions.
  4. Forgive yourself for making mistakes: if you are following these steps to create a more welcoming environment for everyone, you’re doing your best.

By doing this we can make a truly safe space for those under-represented groups. As the sector’s diversity grows, so will our discomfort when mistakes are inevitably made. However, this is not a negative prospect. Growing pains are necessary when changing the status quo and this is an exciting and important part of creating a fully diverse and integrated profession.

This article also appears in the November 2017 issue of the ARA magazine, ARC.

[1] Indirect, subtle, or unintentional discrimination against members of a marginalized group.

[2] A place or environment in which a person or category of people can feel confident that they will not be exposed to discrimination, criticism, harassment, or any other emotional or physical harm.