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Innovating for online teaching, events and public engagement

Tabitha Tuckett12 August 2020

Parts of this blog also appear in a post on the UCL Teaching And Learning blog

 

How do you teach the materiality of rare books, manuscripts and archives without the materials themselves? That was the challenge facing Special Collections’ staff when, at just a few days’ notice, academic activities suddenly moved online two weeks before the end of Term Two, just when students’ deadlines were looming.

Special Collections ordinarily runs roughly 50 classes a year, embedded across the University’s curricula and involving up-close encounters with physical collection items for over 1,000 students. Add to those a further 50-odd events a year supporting academic research and public engagement, from conferences to workshops to festivals. With getting up-close to most things – collections or humans – suddenly cancelled, we faced an innovation challenge, and had a lot of collaborators and participants to contact very fast in those first few days.

Student coursework

Our immediate challenge was students’ assignments. Over the past eight years, the Academic Support Team at Special Collections has worked with academics to develop modules that require in-depth study of our unique collections. Now, students needed to finish their coursework at a distance.

Impressively, many were already well acquainted with the features that made their chosen items unique, such as this Early Modern hedgehog:

Hedgehog doodle under the printer's details on the title-page: 'Imprinted .. at the signe of the hedg-hogge'

Title-page from Castiglione, transl. Thomas Hoby, The Covrtyer (1561). UCL Special Collections, STRONG ROOM CASTIGLIONE 1561 (2)

But as enquiries arrived about items not yet digitised, we worked with students to re-frame their essay or dissertation questions so that work could be completed to a high standard despite our reading rooms being temporarily closed. For those working on printed material rather than archives, our rare-book cataloguers also searched for online images of similar features in other institutions’ collections – bindings, annotations, scripts, bookplates, printers’ marks – or images of other copies as close to the same imprint as possible – not an easy task for hand-printed books, which are each unique. This was a new area of collaboration between Special Collections’ Academic Support, Rare Books, and Retrospective Cataloguing teams, and sharing expertise greatly increased the speed at which we could get responses out to students who were working to coursework deadlines.

Digital images

In the process, we learnt a lot about the limitations of many institutions’ platforms for digitised special collections. It is often surprisingly difficult, for example, to discover which copy, and whose, you are looking at, let alone find your way to the full catalogue record for the physical original.

So our Digitisation Team, while waiting to be able to access the physical collections to photograph more items in full, have pulled together as many existing single images of our own collections as possible. Starting with rare books to supplement our existing Digital Collections, they are uploading more images every day to a new rare-books area of our Digital Collections, complete with collection descriptions lower down the page. We’re aiming, where we have them, to include images of features often omitted on other sites, such as bindings, annotations and provenance marks: anything that enhances the sense of the three-dimensional materiality of our items.

Meanwhile the cataloguers are checking that the metadata for our images matches that on our catalogues. Crucially, they are adding a link from the library catalogue record of the physical original through to the digital images. See, for example, four images from this book of maps and images of Shoreditch, now available from the catalogue record for UCL’s copy of the physical original.

map of Shoreditch

Map from Shoreditch And The East End by Walter Besant (1908) LONDON HISTORY 1908 BES

Preparing for Connected Learning

Next we needed to find ways of fitting our summer and autumn programmes into UCL’s plans for online learning. Most of our activities involve object-based learning, so to prepare asynchronous resources, we needed both digital images and ways of allowing students and participants to explore our collections in three dimensions. We also needed to develop online forms of live interaction. This is needed both to provide engaged learning for our taught-course students, and because our public audiences expect our online-events offering to match those of other institutions, including museums’ and other organisations’ public-workshop series.

After extensive software testing, we found ways for students to join events with a second camera in order to show books and archives live. We hope to use our own visualisers to teach with our collections, even if students are logging on remotely, and to confirm with researchers and academics which features of an item need high-quality digitisation for their work. I secured access to UCL-supported software for recording videos with a half-and-half split screen, to compare, for example, a manuscript and its transcript, or two similar printed title-pages. Our exhibitions staff has started creating videos to bring our physical exhibitions to life online.

To make all of these resources, tools and events available to our students and academic partners, I secured a Moodle site for Special Collections for which we can set an access key for each group of users. That means our future suite of resources can be re-used, in different combinations and with different contextualising information, across the many modules and courses we support, saving us time. It also means we can use UCL-supported software such as Blackboard Collaborate to run live events. We’ve developed online booking and feedback forms. Finally we’ve arranged training for the whole team, and access to courses on UCL’s Connected Learning strategy.

Launching our online teaching and events programmes

All that remains now is to work with our academic partners to agree how we can support each module and academic project, and begin to prepare and trial events and resources. It has been extremely hard work, and personally I’d like to thank the Academic Support Team and the rest of our colleagues for adopting new ways of working and achieving so much so quickly.

But it’s been worthwhile when we’ve experienced how incredibly resilient our students have been. They have had to think thoughtfully and creatively about research and coursework while trying to secure flights home, changing time zones, moving back in with parents they’d hoped to move on from, finding their home city changed in the grip of the pandemic, or coping with the illness of family and loved ones.

This is a generation of students that is facing more challenges than most, so we were all the more impressed by the online exhibitions created by our BASc students (‘Attention’, for example, showcasing our Brazilian process poetry) and the overwhelming 64 applications for the Anthony Davis Book Collecting Prize  from students at universities across London.

A hand unfolding a paper envelope from Virgula magazine

Special Collections’ copy of Virgula, as shown in the online exhibition ‘Attention’, created by UCL’s BASc students

Launching this year’s Rare-Books Club online, I have tried to programme as many student speakers as possible, before they face the challenge of job-hunting in a recession. Students and experienced researchers in the series have presented passionately on collecting Black British publishing, exploring fictitious publishers in the 17th century, developing the terminology that 19th-century book-bindings deserve, how our catalogue can provide context for the books of the Galton Laboratory Collection, and many other topics. We have been overwhelmed by the popularity of these sessions, with audiences reaching well over 100 at times – far greater than we could ordinarily accommodate in our physical reading room. Although chairing and moderating such large sessions online has been new and challenging for us, it has also enabled us unexpectedly to reach new audience members from Asia, Europe, the US, and Australia, and we look forward to engaging with them further in the future. We have recorded the sessions, and are rapidly learning how to caption and produce transcripts for the often specialist language used. I hope to make these publicly available as a series later in the year.

Meanwhile, here are even more ways to explore our collections from your armchair:

More online exhibitions by BASc students:

Further viewing, listening and reading:

Results announced for Anthony Davis Book Collecting Prize 2020

Tabitha Tuckett9 July 2020

Books on shelves

The winner – Alexandra Plane – and six other finalists have been announced for this year’s Anthony Davis Book Collecting Prize, which aims to encourage students at an early stage of collecting physical books, manuscripts and printed material.

The competition is open to any student studying for a degree at a London-based university, and this year received a record-breaking 64 applications – the largest number in the prize’s history. Universities represented included Birkbeck, Queen Mary University of London, Goldsmiths, SOAS, King’s College London, and UCL which hosted the prize for the first time this year.

Collectors under lockdown

Despite the pandemic, students applied from wherever they found themselves during lockdown, from Norway to Texas, Bulgaria to China, Vienna to North Wales, with many applicants unexpectedly reunited with, or separated from, their collections.

The range of collection themes was similarly wide, from Singaporean debut poets to Slovakian Beat poetry, Norfolk history to a 20th-century novelist who used eight different pseudonyms, photobooks and queer manga to bilingual parallel texts and women’s genealogical health.

Finding the collectors of the future

The guidelines of the competition specify that ‘the intention is to encourage collecting and we expect that applicants’ collections will be embryonic, so their size, age and value are irrelevant. What is much more important is the enthusiasm and commitment of the collector, the interest of the theme and the vision of how the collection will be developed’. But selecting a winner from so many applicants was a challenge.

After a process of longlisting, shortlisting and interviews, the judges have chosen Alexandra Plane for ‘Books that built a zoo’: her collection of works by Gerald Durrell. Alexandra is studying for an MA in Library And Information Studies at UCL.

The other finalists were:

  • Imogen Grubin for her collection of early 20th-century editions of Victorian literature
  • Blake Harrison who collects material on James Joyce’s Ulysses
  • Jiayue Liu for a collection of early 20th-century English Private Press editions
  • Naomi Oppenheim who collects editions produced by Black British publishers in the mid 20th century
  • Bori Papp for her collection of Hungarian translations of English literature illustrated by the artist Piroska Szántó
  • Kit Rooney for a collection of hand-written inscriptions in books.

See the finalists present their collections online

Join us for this summer’s UCL Rare-Books Club Online, every Tuesday lunchtime, to hear the winner and finalists discuss their collections and present some of their books, starting on 14 July with Alexandra Plane, introduced by Anthony Davis.

Judges

The judges included representatives of the UK’s Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association, the UK’s Bibliographical Society, and Senate House Library who hosted the prize last year, as well as UCL Special Collections.

For the Special Collections team, it was also a great pleasure to collaborate this year with the founder of the prize, Anthony Davis, and to share his inspiring enthusiasm for books and collecting with the students. We hope many of them will continue to develop and cherish their collections long into the future.

 

 

Conserving the UCL Islamic Treasures: Masnavi-I Akbar Sultan: MS Pers/1

Angela Warren-Thomas29 May 2020

UCL’s Special Collections contains UCL’s collection of historical, academic and culturally significant works.  It is one of the foremost university collections of manuscripts, archives and rare books in the UK. Included in its holdings is a collection of Islamıc manuscripts, Masnavi-i Akbar Sultan (“Romance of the Sultan Akbar”), (MS PERS/1), is one of the manuscripts in this collection.

The conservation of this manuscript was carried out by Fatma Aslanoglu, Project conservator 

Figure 1 UCL Special Collections The Masnavi-i Akbar Sultan

The Masnavi-i Akbar Sultan by Mír shams al-Dín Faqír Dihlavi originally written by Jalal al-Din Muhammad Rumi (1207-1273), is a copy of part of the Mesnevi poem collection.  Written in Persian using carbon ink and Ta’liq calligraphy, the manuscript contains a poem written for Sultan Akbar in 1749.  Bound in an Islamic style using the Lacquer technique, the book came to the conservation department because the binding was very tight, causing restricted opening and making access and handling for any purpose unsafe.

 

Figure 2 Opening limit due to tight binding

A preliminary examination of the manuscript determined that it had undergone previous repairs, the binding was now too tight compressing the textblock preventing free opening, causing distress and damage. It was decided to rebind the manuscript thus alleviating these problems, and ensure safe access to this important collection item. It appeared that during previous repairs, the original covers were reused but the leather on the spine had been replaced. Figure 2 shows the extent to which the manuscript opened without undue force.  In addition to the problems created by the spine repair, superficial dust, separation of the text block and cover, tears, and stains were noted, along with fragility of the end leaves due to the acidity present in their paper, these conditions contributed to different but significant deteriorations in the manuscript.

The first step was removing the cover from the text block.  The leather covering of the spine consisted of two pieces of leather, one attached to the left board and one attached to the right board. This is a typical characteristic of Islamic bindings and made it easier to separate the covers from the text block.  The spine leather removal was carried out using Methylcellulose to hydrate the adhesive, allowing easy mechanical removal.

Figure 3 Removing the cover and spine from the textblock

It became obvious as the removal of the binding progressed that the manuscript had not been fully disbound during the old repair. The original leather spine covering was still present under the new leather added during the repair. The sewing appeared untouched but the original primary endband sewing and endbands had been renewed.

Figure 4 Original spine residue (left) old repair primary endband thread (right)

The original leather and adhesive – probably ciris, a traditional paste made with the root of a yellow asphodel -were still preventing the manuscript from opening fully.  Using Methylcellulose, the spine was hydrated, and the residue removed.  The original spine lining, a typical characteristic of Islamic bindings, and adhesive was then removed from the text block.  After removing all the original leather adhesives and lining from the spine, the text block started to open fully.  This allowed the original sewing of the text block to be preserved.

Figure 5 Spine leather residue (left) textile lining (mid-left) residue cleaning process (mid-right) spine diagram (right)

Figure 6 Spine after residue clean

With spine cleaning complete, the tie-down sewing and endbands added during the repair were removed.  The text block had three sewing stations, in some of the gatherings; some threads were detached or broken.  New thread was attached to the existing thread and the sewing repaired using the original sewing holes.

Figure 7 textblock sewing consolidation

During the old repairs, new end papers were attached; the paper used for these is now known to be highly acidic therefore, a decision was taken to remove them from the textblock.  Fabriano paper was used to create new end leaf papers.

The original textile spine lining was not strong or wide enough to hold the text block because its width had been trimmed during the old repair.  A new textile lining was adhered to the text block with excess left along the front and back joints, for later reattachment of the boards.

Following the repair and stabilisation of the textblock spine, it was now possible to proceed with the dry cleaning of the textblock using a soft hake brush.

Paper repairs were carried out using re-moistenable Japanese tissue paper (Japico 0.02/3.8g – Using 4% (w,v) Methylcellulose).  These two processes were completed after the spine-lining repair because the spine and sewing were so sensitive to opening and closing.

Another form of paper repair undertaken was the removal of paper layers adhered to the folios from the adjacent pages.  The delaminated pieces were removed mechanically with local humidification and a spatula.  They were then reattached to their original places using 4% Methylcellulose.

Figure 8 Paper repair

The new spine lining was trimmed at the head and tail of the textblock.  An additional traditional leather core was added to the head and tail of the spine to further stabilise the structure.  The primary endbands were sewn through the spine lining.  It was decided to not re-use the endband created during the old repair.  An endband with a chevron pattern was added.

Figure 9 Primary endband (left) chevron patterned endband (right)

A barrier between the spine and the text block, using the hollow back method, was created using Japanese tissue and pasted with wheat starch paste (1:6).  This technique ensured that the manuscript would be able to open comfortably and therefore prevent any further damage to the gilded decorations present on all the pages.

 

After the textblock treatments, the boards were reattached to the text block.  The spine lining extensions were positioned within the original board layers using wheat starch paste.

Figure 11 Reattaching covers to the textblock

The spine leather was then pasted onto the hollow back present on the spine with wheat starch paste. Japanese tissue appropriately toned using Schmincke acrylics was added to the inner joint, the final process carried out to complete the conservation.

Figure 12 Attaching leather to spine (left) adding inner join with coloured Japanese tissue (right)

Working on The Masnavi-i Akbar Sultan manuscripts was a rare occasion to work on non-Western binding structures and a first-hand learning experience under the expert guidance of Fatma, for the conservators at the Conservation Department.

For more information about this manuscript please visit the UCL Special Collections page.  (https://ucldigitalpress.co.uk/Book/Article/2/9/48/)

NOTE: Due to the COVID-19 outbreak, we are unfortunately unable to provide an image of the final state of conservation.  We will update this article with a photograph as soon as possible.

 

London History Maps

Harriet S14 May 2020

The retrospective cataloguing team recently embarked on a project creating records for London History Maps, ca. 300 Special Collections maps, atlases and panoramas of London and the surrounding area.

The size of some of the maps was a little problematic (see images!), and finding appropriate locations to safely examine them was difficult in the busy Science Library. With a little planning, however, we were able to schedule map cataloguing time for when the office is at its emptiest, and at times (carefully) use floor space as well as any available desk space.

Finding London University in Cruchley’s New Plan of London, [1829?]

Maps also require extra fields in catalogue records, such as scale and coordinates, and there are elements of vocabulary that cataloguers are not usually accustomed to using, for example identifying whether gradient is marked by hachures or bathymetry.

Thankfully, there are a number of helpful internet tools out there (such as this one to discern scale), and we discovered the “Bounding Box,” a website by Klokan Technologies, a Swiss company specialising in online map publishing. The bounding box tool gives approximate coordinates when adjusted to contain the area of the individual map. This is particularly helpful when many of the older London History maps do not operate on coordinates at all, but rather have numbered or lettered grids for reference to that map alone. Those that do, often have St. Paul’s, the centre of historic London as the meridian, not Greenwich. In fact, it was not until the 1880s that maps had any consensus as to what meridian to refer to, and many chose the centre of their respective cities/countries rather than settling on an international standard.

Panorama of London

I think we’re going to need a bigger floor!

Finding their objective coordinates would have been a very arduous task if we had needed to relate to other maps, so the Bounding Box has been an invaluable resource to help us provide as much detail as possible. The site even helpfully provides coordinates formatted specifically for MARC cartographic fields 034 and 255.  Alongside these websites, we also shared expertise and created standard phrases for common occurrences, such as the way the maps have been cut and mounted, and cartographic detail extending beyond the neat line (border) of the map.

A sparsely populated Camberwell and Peckham in Cary’s New Plan of London, 1839

With the nitty gritty out of the way, we had space to focus on the content of the maps. Many are beautifully engraved and hand-coloured, with parks showing detail up to the individual tree or flowerbed and the individual docks labelled along the Thames. Some maps emphasise railways, hackney carriage routes or walking distances, some even show the network of sewers! What is most striking is how different London was, and how quickly its expansion occurred. Up to the late 19th century, the land North of Regent’s Park dissolves into fields and farms, and South of the River is even less urbanised. Some maps even split boroughs into landowners’ estates. On a personal level, seeing UCL campus slowly emerge on the maps was particularly interesting.

The retrospective team began cataloguing London History Maps in February 2020, and almost half the collection is now online. Further map-related posts to follow when we regain access to our physical collections.

The New Era journal 1921-1999, now available online

utnvwom27 April 2020

The WEF was founded in 1921 as the New Education Fellowship, later changing its name to the World Education Fellowship. The central focus of the organisation has been child-centred education, social reform through education, democracy, world citizenship, international understanding and the promulgation of world peace.

Its foundation can be traced back to 1915 with the establishment of the ‘Fraternity of Education’, led by a group of educators who believed the aim of education was to enable teachers to understand the factors involved in developing of human beings and their relationships to tackle the problems which were seen to be threatening civilisation.

The Fellowship’s work quickly spread around the world; with biannual international conferences and the publication of its journal ‘The New Era’, both of which continue to this day. The journal is now published online here http://www.newera.ijkie.org/

We have digitised our copies of the ‘The New Era’ from 1921-1999 (with some gaps in the collection). http://digital-collections.ucl.ac.uk/R/?func=collections-result&collection_id=8545

You can also view them at the Internet Archive https://archive.org/search.php?query=the+new+era+institute+of+education&sort=-date&and[]=mediatype%3A%22texts%22&and[]=collection%3A%22ucllibrary%22

The WEF published articles on a wide variety of subjects, and, covering almost the whole of the 20th century, we hope will be a useful resource for the study of education in this time period. Here is a sample index page from 1937;

Index page from the New Era journal, volume 18, 1937

Further resources on the WEF;

This digitisation project was funded by the Friends of the Newsam Library and Archives, we thank them for this generous contribution which will enable world wide access to this fascinating journal.