Category Archives: Hidden Gems

A glimpse at the future of the past

Last week Digital Preservation Officer Rachel MacGregor was invited to speak at a seminar organised by the University of Sussex looking at Digital Forensics and the Born Digital. Here she explains what it was all about and how it relates to the collections at the Modern Records Centre.

Selection of the more traditional documents here at the Modern Records Centre

I was delighted to be invited to speak at a seminar organised by Thorsten Ries of the University of Sussex to a study day devoted to the topic of digital forensics and digital archives. Digital forensics are most familiar to people from reports of law enforcement agencies who will examine the contents of a criminal’s computer in order to reveal hidden and deleted files which can be used as evidence in criminal investigations.  These same techniques can be used by archivists to have a deep dive into the contents of hard drives, floppy disks or whatever format the archive collections have arrived at the archives.  The Modern Records Centre has archives deposited on floppy disk, CD, USB drive and hard drive so there is plenty of scope for this kind of work although it can be labour intensive and complicated.  However in some cases – especially when dealing with the archives of writers – there can be much valuable “hidden” information contained within the media.  In other cases there may be material which the donor did not intend to give to the archives, so a great deal of sensitivity is also required.

Tackling older media types can be challenging

The seminar was a great opportunity for me to share the work I have just started doing on the small part of the papers (if that’s the right word) of Eric Hobsbawm which are digital.  In total the collection contains fifteen 3.5 inch floppy disks dating from around 1997 which have not been examined since they were deposited in 2013.  For me it was a chance to use some new software, especially designed for the task, on a standalone workstation. It’s possible to find out things like exactly what time of day the file was created at (or at least the time the computer thought it was…) and what kind of software was used and so on.  For some scholars this kind of information is really crcuial.  Other people are more interested in the information which is contained within the files.  I also wanted to know how important the “look and feel” of the files was – does it matter if the files “look” like they would have done when they were created in 1997? Would we want to recreate the environment of the same home computer they were written on (although we don’t know what this was)? There are lots of possible approaches and it was good to be able to share them with people who have a wide range of interests in reading and analyzing text.

It was a great showcase for a lot of other interesting work that is going by archivists and researchers. We heard a great presentation from Professor Jane Winters of the School of Advanced Study at the University of London talking about the complexities of web archives which you can read more about in this recent interview.  The team from the British Library were also presenting on the email archives of Wendy Cope and how they were making them accessible – still something of a challenge eight years after they were received.  Fiona Courage from the Mass Observation Archive talked about the transition from the paper submissions to the collection through to the digital ones and how the perceptions of researchers using the collection changed once they were no longer dealing with the handwriting of individual diarists.

Some documents can become very difficult to access


Possibly the most intriguing presentation was from Kees Teszelszky from the National Library of the Netherlands sharing his detective work on the very first Dutch Online Literary Magazine called de Opkamer (“the upstairs room”) who tracked down the creator of this online magazine which can be glimpsed via the Internet Archive.  Teszelszky wanted to know what had happened to the content which you could buy via the online shop … and found he needed to talk to the website owner access it.

It was great to see the sort of work which is going on around the world on “older” digital files – still within my working life but now often being consigned to harder-to-access hard drives and floppy disks or even – as with Jenny Mitcham’s case study of the Marks and Gran (writers of Goodnight Sweetheart, Birds of a Feather and many other TV hits) Archive at the University of York, which she has previously written about here, in software that is not so easy to access.  It was a reminder that our cultural heritage and history is fragile and relies on work like that which we are doing here at the Modern Records Centre to preserve our more recent past.

So far I have only examined one disk from the Hobsbawm Collection and have found letter, notes, a fax and an interview. Hopefully further work will bring to light new and interesting material which could add to our understanding of Hobsbawm’s life and work and allow researchers to think about the way in which writers in the late twentieth century moved from handwriting to typewriters so computers.  It’s a little glimpse of the future of the past.

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.

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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.

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Discovering LEO at Cheltenham Science Festival

Last Saturday, we had the pleasure of hosting a session in the University of Warwick What If? Zone of Cheltenham Science Festival, where we asked ‘What does the past and future of computing look like?’…

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‘A Wheely Merry Christmas’ from the MRC’s Collections

To celebrate the 12 days of Christmas, we have selected 12 Christmas cards from the Cyclists Touring Club collection. Ranging from funny to sweet, classic to a little odd, they’ll definitely put you in the festive spirit! You certainly won’t see these in Clinton Cards!

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A Closer look at Acker Bilk’s ‘Marching Union’ Record

Acker Bilk, the legendary jazz musician passed away last weekend. In tribute, the Modern Records Centre will take a look at the ‘Marching Union’ single that it holds in its archives…

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