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Special Collections, Archives and Records



The Tiny Furniture Project

By Kathryn Hannan, on 3 January 2018

This is a guest blog post by one of our archive volunteers, Sara Abou El Ella, who was working in the IOE UCL Archive department with items from the collection of David and Mary Medd.


The Tiny Furniture Project

blog post by Sara Abou El Ella.

For a few weeks now, I have been busy cataloguing and sorting scale models of school furniture used by David and Mary Medd in 1976. They were at the forefront of public architecture and design and created an inextricable bond between architecture and social progress.

This archive project required particular attention and care since many of the furniture pieces were detaching from their main bodies. Despite this, I enjoyed unpacking all the objects and grouping them together, since many of them were spread in different boxes and they had never all been itemised. I would say that a particular challenge involving this project was comparing all objects to the furniture handbook. Some of them presented very similar characteristics and appearance making them hard to locate in the handbook and some of the objects were not listed therefore I had to catalogue them separately.

After this very rough introduction, I would like to give the readers a taste of a typical day volunteering at the UCL Archives. I arrive around 1.30pm and stay until 3.30pm or 4pm. This project required more attention and time to be dedicated to it. The first task is to gather the special conservation paper sheets to protect the objects. On my first day, I read a book written by Catherine Burke to become more acquainted with the project and with the architects. Secondly, I carefully read the index and catalogue in the handbook to compare the numbers, characteristics and type of every object which should be contained in the collection. The third task, the most crucial and important of the project, is to open all paper wrappings in the different boxes, group together all items of the same nature and write their number, short description and wrap them all individually for better conservation purposes. One of my favourite objects was the reproduction of a small piano and wardrobes which had little hangers attached to them. For this blog I tried to recreate a small classroom and include some of the most iconic pieces of furniture present in the collection.

Model school furniture

Because of the small damage and the rust which accumulated on the objects I hope to volunteer with the UCL Special Collections Senior Conservator to clean and conserve this collection. This is a very exciting opportunity to improve the access to this archival material and be able to present it to different researchers and for object handling sessions in schools.

Advent Definitions: Festive wishes from Special Collections

By Helen Biggs, on 24 December 2017

Contributed by Sarah Aitchison, Head of Special Collections


‘Festival & Festivity’ in R 221 DICTIONARIES ANNANDALE 1893 – UCL0135711: Annandale, A concise dictionary of the English language : etymological and pronouncing, literary, scientific, and technical (London, 1893) (London, 1893)

For the final definition in our seasonal list, it seemed appropriate to talk about festivals and feasts. The definition above has changed very little over the centuries and reflects the joyous, positive and entertaining nature of the word.

It was only a brief step from that warm feeling to a seasonal reflection on the work of Special Collections over the past year. The advent definitions project perfectly sums up the motivations of the Special Collections team – to take wonderful, rare or unique books and archives and shine a light on their importance and relevance to the modern day.

We do this through our collection managers, who have built and grown these wonderful collections; our cataloguers, who create the resources to make these rare items available; our conservation team, who mend and preserve our unique material; our reading room teams, who provide the space and expertise so that researchers can enquire about and consult the items; our digital curation team, who digitise the items for preservation and online access; and our outreach team, who work with academics and the general public to make everything available in a myriad of ways.

From the whole team, we wish you a very merry (and of course festive) Christmas.


Advent Definitions: Holiday fragments

By Helen Biggs, on 22 December 2017

Contributed by Katy Makin, UCL Archivist

R 221 DICTIONARIES ANON 1779 – A pocket dictionary : or, complete English expositor (London, 1779)

References to ecclesiastical festivals, or ‘holy-days’ feature strongly in our collection of manuscript fragments. These are around 150 pieces of medieval and early modern manuscripts, primarily leaves from liturgical texts such as missals, breviaries, psalters, and bibles, but also including biblical commentaries and key legal and philosophical texts of the medieval period.

They exist as fragments because they were recycled as decorative covers and endpapers or to reinforce the binding of printed books, which was common practice from the end of the medieval period onwards. Most of our fragments were probably ‘rescued’ from bindings in the 20th century.

Unsurprisingly, both the recycling and the rescuing caused a great deal of damage to the leaves. Helpfully, this damage now provides clues as to how the pieces were used. Here is a piece that was used as an outer cover:

MS FRAG/LAT/30 Fragment of a Missal, C13th

Note the shape – it has been cut so that the edges form tabs to wrap around wooden boards. The tabs are much cleaner than the rest of the page because they were protected by being inside the book.

MS FRAG/LAT/4 Fragment of a Breviary, C13th

Unfortunately, being on the inside hasn’t protected this piece, which was used as an end pastedown. The brown patches around the edges are remnants of leather binding from where it was glued to the inner surface of the board and some of the large decorated initial N has been lifted away by the adhesive.

MS FRAG/LAT/62 Fragment of a Missal, C14th?

This piece has a special relevance to this advent blog because it is a page from a missal (a book containing prayers, chants, readings and rubrics for the celebration of Mass) showing the text for the Mass on Christmas Eve.

The text for Christmas Eve begins at the red writing, or rubric, a little over half way down the first column, which says “In vigilia nativitatis. Intro[itus]” – i.e. “The Vigil of the Nativity. Introduction”

On the next line, and elsewhere on the page, you’ll notice a large gap where a decorated initial letter should be. This is because when manuscripts were made it was normal for the main text to be written first and the rubrics, initials and decoration to be added afterwards, sometimes by different people. In this example, the scribe has left a space for the capital H of “Hodie scietis” and other large initials but these were never completed.

This raises questions about the original manuscript. Why was it left unfinished? What would it have looked like if it had been completed? Was this page ever used by a religious community to celebrate Christmas Eve? Whatever the answer, the fact is that this page, intended for use during Advent and Christmas, may be the only surviving piece of the original manuscript. Whether Christmas is to you a “holy day” or a “holiday”, it’s a poignant link to the past and the traditions that we continue to celebrate centuries later.

The whole of the MS Fragments collection has been digitised and will be available online soon.

In the meantime, extended descriptions of all the fragments can be found in our catalogue

Advent Definitions: Why did the manuscript lose its tail?

By Helen Biggs, on 19 December 2017

Contributed by Angela Warren-Thomas, Senior Conservator.

Christmas is a long list of exciting stuff for most of us, and near the top of my list is wrapping paper and presents. Actually, wrapping is a complicated process of choosing a precious item for a special person and presenting it in a beautiful covering that keeps it cosseted and safe.

R 221 DICTIONARIES WORCESTER 1855 – Worcester, A universal critical and pronouncing dictionary of the English language (London, [1855])

There are many reasons for and ways of wrapping special or precious things.  At Special Collections, we have an amazing example of just such a thing. One of my absolute favourite items in our collection is a 15th Century Chemise or girdle binding.

This small volume, almost pocket size, has a soft pink binding of alum-tawed sheepskin.  Alum tawing was an ancient process of treating prepared animal hides with alum salts and other materials. This process made the skins very soft and flexible, rather like suede leather today. The production of alum leathers became very widespread during the Middle Ages, and was used for the production of not only bookbinding leathers, but amongst other things gloving leather, leather for belts or girdles and leather for women’s shoes.

This little book then, has an extra wrapping; its Chemise covering, also made from alum-tawed sheepskin. The Chemise cover traditionally continued loose below the cover of the book in a long tapered tail with a large knot at the end, which could then be tucked into someone’s girdle or belt keeping the precious book safe and close to hand. The knot was usually strips of leather woven together in some decorative manner. The book hung upside down and backwards so that when lifted it was ready for reading.

The Altar of the “Gertrudenbruderschaft der Träger”1509. St. Anne and the Holy Kinship. Two of St. Anne’s relatives are carrying a girdle book

These books were normally religious: a cleric’s daily Office, or for laypersons, especially women, a Book of Hours. Women particularly wore the girdle book; it was already fashionable, in the 15th century, to wear a girdle belt above the waistline and these books in their “wrapper” or Chemise binding became visible statements of social position, wealth and learning, intellectual curiosity or at the very least literacy.

MS GERM 20 at UCL Special Collections. Inside our Chemise binding is a manuscript, “The Passio Christi”. Written in beautiful Bavarian script, it has ornamental red ink initials throughout.

Our Chemise binding has unfortunately lost its tail at some time in the past. There are one or two theories as to why this could have happened.  Possibly, it survived the destruction of libraries and books during the Reformation of the Roman Catholic Church, which swept across Europe in the 16th Century. Cutting off the tail of the chemise binding, most of which were religious texts (which is not surprising, as it was churches, monasteries and convents that produced the majority of manuscripts), would have been an instant disguise for a religious manuscript. Perhaps the leather tail was removed to make it easier to store the volume on a shelf. It was only in the late 16th century that books began to be shelved upright with the spine outward, and the construction of a girdle book would have made it difficult to slip the volume onto a shelf between other books. On the other hand, possibly a nice piece of leather was needed for some other use, and the extension on a Chemise binding was a handy source of leather.

Whilst we may never know the reason why our manuscript lost its tail, we do know what it would have looked similar to in all its glory. Thankfully, wrapped in the remnants of its Chemise binding, our manuscript remains a precious gift for anyone fortunate enough to open it.

A model of a Chemise binding made by Fred Bearman

Advent Definitions: Archives, age, and the school nativity play

By Helen Biggs, on 14 December 2017

“Nativity”, in: R 221 DICTIONARIES DYC 1748: Dyche, A new general English dictionary (London, 1748)

A substantial amount of Special Collections’ work is in teaching and teaching support across a broad range of subjects: classics, law, library studies, architecture, history, maths – the list goes on. Sometimes this is a single class on using historical and primary materials, but this may also be a series of sessions, as with the Archival Research and Oral History in Education (AROHE) module, taught at UCL Institute of Education.

This year AROHE students have explored the topics of international education, special educational needs, progressive education and multi-racial education, using items from Newsam Archives, to focus on areas like visual sources, curriculum, biography and learners’ voices.

One of the visual sources picked out by students was this photo from the Amelia Fysh collection:

©UCL Institute of Education Archives [AF/1/3/A/25]

Although they weren’t given any contextual or identifying information about the photography, it was immediately recognised as a school nativity play. Mary, Joseph and chorus of angels were all correctly identified, and after some discussion, so were the Three Wise Men and the shepherds. (The shepherds are very well dressed; fortuitously, the Three Wise Men can be distinguished by their crowns.)

However, when it came to dating the photograph, the students came somewhat unstuck. The wearing of costumes make it impossible to use fashion to estimate when the photograph was taken, and likewise most of the children’s heads are covered, so nor can their hair styles be used as a guide. In the end, it was suggested that the photo was probably “old”, because it was black and white.

This gave me something of a shock. Not the assertion itself; it may have been a little misguided (black and white film is still in use today, not to mention the black and white or sepia filters of digital photography!) but learning how to draw on others’ research, context clues and our own personal knowledge to understand objects is at the very heart of using archive materials. No – what stunned me was the realisation that many of today’s students are too young to recognise the product of a 1990’s style black-and-white photocopier…

In case you’re wondering – the image is from a booklet from Beech Green Nursery School, featuring photos from 1956-1973 (the booklet itself was created in 2002). Whether you think this can be considered “old” or not is up to you – although colour photography was definitely around by the 1950’s!