From papyrus to pixels

Welcome to the Modern Records Centre!

At the Modern Records Centre we spend our time caring for collections covering a wide range of topics such as trade unions and employers’ organisations, pressure groups, fringe political parties as well as records of cycling and the motor industry.  It’s a wide remit and the majority of our holdings date from the late 19th century onwards. “Late 19th century?” I hear you say “I thought you were the Modern Records Centre?” Well of course for archivists who often may spend their time with much older material this is relatively modern.  Our colleagues at Cambridge University Library for example have things like the Nash Papyrus in their care which was written in the second century BCE – now that really is old! So yes – we are talking about modern in a relative sense, but of course like most archives our collections include material created in the last few months – our most recent archives are records of the University dating from this year. It’s been a while since the University wrote its records on papyrus (I am joking – the University of Warwick is only 53 years old – although if you want to see a really old university have a look at this fantastic guide to Al Quaraouyine University in Fez, Morocco – I wish we had those tiles…) and of course it does now conduct its business digitally.  As archivists we are responsible for taking care of the university’s records both as part of the history of the institution and also to ensure that there is a permanent record of the outputs and achievements of the staff and students.

And it’s not just the University which has digital outputs – every individual and organisation to a greater or lesser extent does, whether it’s texts and emails or digital brochures, spreadsheets, photos or video – the rate at which content is being created is snowballing.  This is part of what has been referred to as the Information Explosion (or Digital Deluge) where we are surrounded by an ever increasing amount of data which becomes increasingly unmanageable.  And whilst there are technical challenges around ensuring that all of this digital output remains intelligible and readable in the years to come, a far harder challenge in some ways is coping with the sheer quantity of digital material that exists.  We want to ensure that we capture the relevant material in a way that that represents and bears witness to the individuals and organisations whose records we care for. We also want to make sure that these important records are kept safe but made available for people now and in the future to be able to access.  We are trying to improve access to our physical archive collections by a programme of digitisation, and these digitised files also need managing and preserving so they can also continue to be accessed long into the future.  I wonder what the men and women who were using LEO (the world’s first office computer) would have thought of all this!

LEO – the world’s first office computer. This is where it all started…. Ref: MSS.363/S4/14/1/13

So how are we tackling these challenges? Well, we are working with the people who create records to ensure those records have the maximum chance of being accessible and understandable for as long as possible.  This is to do with choosing the right format and capturing the right contextual information so that the record can still be retrieved and understood at a later date.  We are using a range of tools which can help us manage our digital content and we are also trying new ones to refine our practices so that we understand the material we are looking after and help to keep it accessible. We are looking to improve how you might search and access digital materials  and working hard to make sure that the background to these materials is captured as well so that they can be understood in context.

Student protest, University of Warwick ref: UWA/Photos/IV.B.3/1

And just as more traditional archives are not just letters, journals and reports so digital archives are not just “bit streams” or collections of bytes of storage, they are all the building blocks of stories about people, about their work and leisure and about their struggles and triumphs. Looking after and these records and making them available is a privilege and one which we are continually working at.

Rachel MacGregor

Digital Preservation Officer


It moves and talks!

Sound and motion at the MRC

You may be surprised to see a cartoon rat adorning a post from so august an institution as the MRC, but there’s more to our holdings than you might think.  Rather than being a star of children’s TV, the shifty-looking fellow above is one of the villains in an animated film about seafarers’ rights (whose hero is an albatross) in the archive of the International Transport Workers’ Federation.  The film is just one of many audio-visual recordings which have come to us along with the paper records which form the bulk of our holdings.   This post summarises what we have done to address the particular preservation and access challenges that such material can pose.

What sort of stuff?

Many of the items are sound recordings of interviews of trade unionists, employers and others conducted as part of academic research projects in the 1970s and 1980s. There are also recordings of meetings and discussions, films and videos made for campaigning, propaganda and historical purposes, and the odd (sometimes very odd) piece of music and drama.

Reminiscences, confessions, Acker Bilk and a boogie

The following items illustrate the diversity of the material:

Formats galore

The first stage in deciding what to do with all these treasures came in 2011 when we conducted a detailed survey to find out exactly what we had. This revealed that we then held 1403 sound recordings, 679 videos and 47 cine films (those numbers have since increased).  These were in 16 different formats, only four of which (audio cassette, compact disc, VHS and DVD video) were playable in house. As most of the material was also in the form of inherently unstable signals on magnetic tape, it was clear that digitisation was essential to enhance both preservation and access.

The digitisation process

Since the survey we have been sending annual batches of recordings to external audio-visual digitisation specialists. For each recording they have produced a preservation copy, in which all of the original information has been preserved, and an access copy in a compressed format.  Wherever possible we have of course obtained the copyright holders’ consent to this process and to the subsequent wider dissemination of the recordings.

What to digitise?

Because we can only make relatively slow progress with digitising such a large volume of material we have had to decide which items to prioritise. The criteria for this have naturally included the items’ potential research value and general interest, their uniqueness, the absence of transcripts (although these can themselves be digitised as a useful adjunct to the recordings) and whether the original is still easily usable.  Unfortunately in a few cases the original signals have been found to be beyond rescue even by technical wizardry, and there have been quite a few less serious examples of poor recording quality.  These seem to be mainly down to rudimentary and inexpertly-used recording equipment, but the passage of time may already have caused deterioration and in many cases it certainly will in the long run.  This underlines the importance of preserving the best of what we have as quickly as we can.

Getting it out there

One of the advantages of converting information into digital files is that access to it is no longer dependent on the use of its original carrier. We have exploited this by making all the digitised recordings available via their descriptions in our on-line catalogues and presenting selected films and videos and sound extracts, with supporting information, on our website.  Some of these have been added to the on-line resources we have produced for students studying particular undergraduate modules.

“Particularly poignant”

Most of these recordings can broadly be described as being of academic or general interest, but in 2014 we were reminded that some could also have personal value when the son of a trade unionist in the motor industry contacted us after hearing the digitised recording of his father. It was, he wrote, “particularly poignant for me, not just because my father died fourteen years ago, but because he had a tracheotomy in 1983 and was afterwards only able to speak with great difficulty. My children never heard his natural voice. Now we can all hear him.”

Martin Sanders, senior assistant archivist.

Digitising Firefighter

Rebecca Jones, one of the Modern Records Centre’s Digitisation Assistants, talks about her work: 

Digitising Firefighter magazine was an extensive task: when I joined the MRC in January 2017, my colleague Gareth had already started on the project, but even with two of us now working on it, it would still take the best part of a year to complete. With our combined efforts we finished the bulk of the work in September, and with October spent going back to catch up with the few issues that had somehow slipped through the net and deal with some last-minute additional materials and technical complications, we were able to go live in early November.

Figure 1: The cover of the first illustrated issue of Firefighter, published in June 1940 (our ref: 346/6/1/6).

The digitisation process itself involved a few steps that were repeated for every issue of Firefighter. We’d be given the physical copy of the issue (either in its original newspaper/magazine format or as part of a hard-bound collection covering one or two years). Digital images were taken using an overhead scanner, and a software program allowed us to edit out some of the minor physical flaws (aided by buttons with labels such as “book-fold correction” – preventing text from getting lost in the spine of tightly bound books – and the grim-sounding “thumb removal” tool, which is actually a highly useful feature that allows you to manually restrain a book that won’t stay open in order to scan it without your digits being digitised along with the page). The end product of this stage of the digitisation process was a digital image of the page, preserving the text and images from the original, physical copy. In a three-hour shift, I’d typically scan about a year’s worth of issues of Firefighter.

In the second stage of digitisation, these images were imported into an Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software program. This program allows us to mark out areas that contain pictures (making it easier for people reading the end product to single out and save an image they want), as well as areas containing text. The OCR software reads these text areas automatically, producing a digital version of the text that can be recognised and interacted with online: so that its contents can, for example, be searched on our website, copy and pasted by readers interested in just a section of the whole document, or converted into other formats like Word Documents for ease of reading. However, OCR software is not yet universally accurate, though highly useful for quickly generating a first draft transcript; and it was necessary to check the text ourselves to eradicate the more serious errors (misspelt names and incorrect dates would be particularly unhelpful to people attempting to search the text; and, on a quirkier note, my software’s unfortunate tendency to turn unrecognised words into profanities was not exactly reflective of the professional quality of document we aim to produce here at the MRC). Though the length of Firefighter issues has been widely variable over the course of its publication history, on average it would take about an hour to fully OCR an issue. Once everything had been checked, we saved the document as a PDF to be uploaded to the Warwick Digital Collections website.

Figure 2: One of the many header designs used by Firefighter over the years; this one is now the banner for the collection on our website. It was used for several issues dating between 1945-1948.

The project held a personal interest for me: as the daughter of a retired firefighter, I can remember reading issues of the magazine that were lying around the house (in fact, I still do on visits home – sadly my favourite feature, The Station Cat, a political review disguised as a gossip column, is too recent to be represented in our collection); it was interesting to me to look into the publication’s history, to see what changed over the 70-year period we were digitising and what has remained the same.

While reading every article in every issue I digitised would have caused the process to take well over the nine months I eventually spent working on it, it was of course impossible not to become side-tracked now and then by a headline or by-line that I found particularly interesting. A number of political figures in the Labour Party, which has historically shared close ties with the FBU, and whose influence has grown in recent years are represented earlier on in their careers: perhaps most notably, Jeremy Corbyn, MP, now the party leader, was featured on the letters page of the January/February 1998 issue, expressing his support for the Union and reminiscing about his memories of and involvement in the 1977 strike. Current London mayor Sadiq Khan was mentioned in Firefighter in March/April 2000 in connection with his role as a solicitor representing an anti-Nazi campaigner assaulted by police officers. The latter is an interesting example of the kinds of stories featured in Firefighter magazine increasingly throughout the twentieth century: those of political activism and social justice in ways sometimes only tangentially related to the firefighting profession. The development of Firefighter from a somewhat dry journal chronicling AGMs and pay scales in the 1930s and 1940s, to a magazine reflecting its readers’ interests more widely and encouraging them to become increasingly involved in political and social activism outside of the Fire Brigade’s direct sphere of interest by the 2000s, is a gradual but constant force of change that can be charted through the digital collection. To some it may seem out of place in a trade journal, but in my opinion it is wholly consistent with the underlying mission of the Fire and Rescue Service as I have always understood it: to give help and aid indiscriminately wherever it is needed, in the belief that everyone has an equal right to protection and safety.

Figure 3: The September 1990 issue of Firefighter (ref: 346/4/117/21) explains the FBU’s growing interest in social issues, both at home and internationally.

The collection of Firefighter issues held by the MRC dates from 1932 to 2001. I find it particularly poignant that the last issue we digitised is the September/October 2001 edition, which includes the FBU’s commentary on the aftermath of the September 11th attacks in New York, in which 343 of the 414 emergency workers who died were firefighters. (The death toll amongst first responders would later rise due to injuries and long-term health conditions developing as a result of their presence at the site.) On this terribly sad subject there is very little to add to what has already been written, except to appreciate again the extraordinary and selfless efforts taken by emergency responders every time they report to work.

Figure 4: A brief notice in the September/October 2001 issue (ref: 346/4/239/12/10) shows the international solidarity between UK and US firefighters in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on New York.

On the subject of our collection ending here, it feels somehow apt that this devastating turning point in 21st century history is accompanied by a reminder of some more positive changes in the realms of computing and technology that were taking place, gradually, at the same time. The Fire Brigades Union in the period 2000/2001 acquired the capacity to begin keeping digital copies of their own magazine, and this is the reason our online collection ends here: more current issues can be found in PDF format on the FBU’s own website. What we hold in our digital archive is a thorough and comprehensive history of the Fire Brigades Union in the twentieth century, chronicling everything from the biggest concerns of the day – annual meetings, major incidents, and watershed changes in policy – to the day-to-day concerns of the individual union members: injury claims, holiday clubs, training schools, and views and opinions that are deeply held and passionately expressed. It is a history that is still very much alive and very relevant today, because the modern Fire and Rescue Service is a direct continuity of everything written down and preserved in this collection.

Firefighter, 1932-2001, is available online as part of Warwick Digital Collections

“Britain’s greatest labour lawyer”: cataloguing the papers of Lord Wedderburn of Charlton


I joined the Modern Records Centre (MRC), University of Warwick, as Assistant Archivist in March 2016 on a year contract. My brief was to sort, arrange and catalogue the archive of Lord Kenneth William “Bill” Wedderburn, Baron Wedderburn of Charlton (1927-2012) QC, Cassel Professor of Commercial Law at LSE, British politician and member of the House of Lords. His papers were deposited at MRC during 2013-2014 by Dr Paul Smith, Honorary research fellow at Keele University, and former student at the University of Warwick. Funding for this post was provided through a successful grant application to the National Cataloguing Grants Programme, administered by The National Archives, and donations from both individuals and organisations, including the Trades Union Congress (TUC).

This significant and extensive collection (over 100 boxes) covers the period from the late 1950s to 2010, and reflects Lord Wedderburn’s role as one of the most important and respected European academic lawyers in Europe, advisor to the TUC, and advocate in many significant legal cases. The papers also complement MRC’s main collections which cover industrial relations, politics and labour history in the UK from the nineteenth century onwards, and include national records of trade unions, trade associations and related organisations.

Page of notes on developments in labour law in the UKPage of notes on developments in labour law in the UK

The Wedderburn archive offers an invaluable resource for students of politics, law, history and industrial relations, because of the detailed records on all the key issues in labour law and industrial relations since the early 1960’s. During this time the first edition of Lord Wedderburn’s ground-breaking work The Worker and the Law was published (Macgibbon & Kee, 1965). The papers cover his involvement with the Donovan Commission and the Bullock Committee on Industrial Democracy, legislation of both Conservative governments (1979-1997) and Labour governments (1997-2010), the European Community, legal cases, teaching papers, annotated books and published and unpublished papers. There are also papers and reports from the Social Science Research Council’s Industrial Relations Research Unit (IRRU), which has been based at the University of Warwick since 1970.

The Wedderburn papers were sorted into topics based on Lord Wedderburn’s filing system, and boxed at the family in London, prior to transfer to the MRC. Using Excel spreadsheets to list the papers offered a pragmatic approach for obtaining an overview of this large collection and its functional activities. The box listing phase also included sorting and appraising the papers, and weeding out duplicates. Given the size of the collection, I have concentrated on topics which I perceived to be the most important in terms of MRC’s own collections. The papers have been divided into five sections covering UK Political and Advisory, Legal, European and International, Teaching and Publications. The data has been imported into CALM and I have added biographical and description content to the catalogue. All the papers have been numbered as per the catalogue references.

Sketch entitled Common Law Liabilities - acts or threats, 1980 Sketch entitled Common Law Liabilities – acts or threats, 1980

I have enjoyed the challenges of arranging and cataloguing these important papers, and creating order out of “relative” chaos! It has been a fascinating insight into Lord Wedderburn’s career. His charming and somewhat satirical sketches scattered across the collection, are an unexpected highlight. Coming to the end of my year at MRC, the Wedderburn papers’ project has given me valuable experience in the cataloguing of labour and political history papers. One of the best things about being an archivist is the continual acquisition of knowledge in the day to day application of archival procedures.

The catalogue may be viewed at:

Helen Hargest, Assistant Archivist, MRC, has arranged and catalogued part of the Wedderburn collection of papers.


[i] “Britain’s greatest labour lawyer” quoted from: Professor Bob Hepple, “Obituary: Lord Wedderburn of Charlton QC”,  Industrial Law Journal (ILJ) vol.41, no. 2 July 2012 (133)


Explore Your Archive: The Wedderburn Papers

It’s Explore your Archive week across the UK and Ireland. The Modern Records Centre, University of Warwick, is tweeting and showcasing collection highlights of its 14km of archives during the campaign. So it’s the perfect time to bring you up to date with my progress on cataloguing the papers of Kenneth William (Bill) Wedderburn, Lord Wedderburn of Charlton QC (1927-2012), Cassel Professor of Commercial Law at London School of Economics and Political Science, and Labour Party spokesman on Employment between 1979 and 1992.

His working papers date from the late 1940s to 2011, and relate largely to labour law issues, industrial relations legislation, both in the UK and in Europe, and the Trades Union Congress. This material enhances the MRC’s main collections which focus on the national history of industrial relations, industrial politics and labour history, and also recognises the University of Warwick’s contribution to the study of industrial relations. Founded in 1965, the University of Warwick began teaching industrial relations in 1966 in the School of Industrial and Business Studies, and became the home of the Social Science Research Council’s Industrial Relations Research Unit (IRRU) in 1970. In 1972 the Warwick Studies in Industrial Relations’ series was established to publish the results of the unit’s projects. Today, Warwick Papers publishes the work of members of IRRU and people associated with it.


Extract from faxed covering note written by Mark Hall, IRRU, May 1994

I have spent the past eight months listing papers from this collection. To date, they fill 78 archive boxes (each measuring 0.02 cubic metres) and include the following topics: the European Economic Community and European Commission, European social policy, the European Court of Justice, the International Labour organisation (ILO), Bullock Committee papers, the Donovan Commission, Employment Act 2002, Conservative governments 1979-1997, Labour governments 1997-2010, the Rookes v Barnard case and the Trades Union Congress. I am now working on the arrangement of the papers and the creation of the catalogue record for searching the collection. The Wedderburn papers are a valuable resource for anyone with an interest in history and politics, and labour law and industrial relations in the UK and further afield.

The archive includes many drafts of papers on industrial relations, and legal opinions and advice for the TUC and its members, the Bullock Committee and the Donovan Commission. They conjure up an image of an expert in labour law whose deep passion and loyalty to the rights of workers and trade unions was such that in spite of his many commitments on different committees, he rarely turned down a request for advice or an invitation to speak at meetings. Exploring archives may reveal unexpected highlights too, such as Lord Wedderburn’s charming and ironic sketches relating to labour law and industrial relations drawn on whatever was at hand; even paper napkins.


Sketch on paper napkin found in House of Lords report on Dock Workers’ Bill, June 1989


Sketch made during Industrial Democracy Committee’s visit to West Germany, June-July 1976

Come and explore your archive soon! Check out #ExploreArchive too.

Helen Hargest, Assistant Archivist, MRC, is arranging and cataloguing the Wedderburn papers.

Lord Wedderburn and the European Question

The papers of Kenneth William (Bill) Wedderburn (1927-2012), Lord Wedderburn of Charlton, QC, were deposited in 2015 at the Modern Records Centre (MRC) by his widow, Lady Wedderburn, via Dr Paul Smith, Honorary research fellow at Keele University and former student at the University of Warwick. On arrival at MRC, the papers were allocated the Reference code “Acc 972” and described in the accessions caThe Independent-wedderburn obittalogue as “working papers rel[ating] to labour law, the Trades Union Congress [TUC] and industrial relations legislation”. The collection covers the period 1960- 2009 and highlights Lord Wedderburn’s role as adviser to the TUC, and an advocate in legal cases and national debates about workers’ rights. It includes papers relating to key industrial related issues of the 1970s and 1980s: government legislation, the miners’ strike and human rights legislation in the UK and the European Union. An appeal and a successful application to the National Cataloguing Grants Scheme (NCGS) managed by The National Archives have made possible the appointment of an Assistant Archivist to catalogue and index this collection.

Continue reading Lord Wedderburn and the European Question

The Railway Review, 1900 – 1948

The Railway Review, the weekly newspaper of the National Union of Railwaymen (NUR), is an integral source for my thesis investigating the idea of the ‘railway family’ between 1900 and 1948.[1] The NUR discussed the ‘railway family’ as encompassing all railway workers and used this idea to command the loyalty of railwaymen and their non-working wives and children. My thesis will explore how the Fightinglineathomerailway companies and trade unions maintained and extended the idea of the ‘railway family’ and how successful this idea was for meeting their aims.

The Railway Review published reports from NUR branches and other meetings around the country, which acted as a way to create a ‘community’ of union members. They may never have met each other in person, but members of the union celebrated the achievements of fellow union members, mourned their death and coordinated political activity through the pages of the newspaper. In this way, the idea of the ‘railway family’, as a community of railwaymen drawn together through their shared interests, was communicated through the pages of The Railway Review.

Continue reading The Railway Review, 1900 – 1948