Student Newspapers, Section 28, and LGBTQ+ Life at Exeter – guest blog by Chloë Edwards

This year, in collaboration with the Section 28 and Its Afterlives project, Special Collections was pleased to welcome Chloë Edwards on an internship to explore student publications in the University Archive to find out what they can tell us about LGBTQ+ lives and the impact of Section 28 at the University. Below, Chloë shares her findings.

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The Background of the Project

I was delighted to be offered an archival internship with the Section 28 and Its Afterlives project team and the University Library’s Special Collections. Section 28 of the Local Government Act, in place from 1988 until 2000 in Scotland, and until 2003 in England and Wales, prohibited local authorities from “promoting homosexuality” as a “pretended family relationship”. This National Lottery Heritage funded project explores the impact of Section 28 and its consequences on local lives in the South West.

My role involved searching for articles and discussions pertaining to Section 28 in Exeter’s student publications, a task which had struck a chord with me for several reasons. Firstly, owing to its proximity to my ongoing PhD research for my thesis entitled Listen Without Prejudice: Queer Masculinities in the Popular Music Cultures of Thatcher’s Britain. Secondly, as a woman from Cardiff, I am always supportive of projects unearthing LGBTQ+ histories and experiences beyond the largest urban spaces across the nation. Lastly, I happened to write and edit articles for Exeter’s current student publication, Exeposé, for two years as an undergraduate. Collectively, as a result, I was eager to begin poring over back issues of Exeposé and its predecessors, as valued records of the lives and concerns of local undergraduates who have progressed through the university.

After discussion with the Section 28 and Its Afterlives team and Special Collections archivist Annie Price, I began my research into Exeter’s student newspapers. We had decided to begin my research at the point at which the Sexual Offences Act 1967 partially decriminalised sex between men over the age of 21 in England and Wales. This origin point meant that I could begin my research with a thorough overview of the documentation of attitudes and legislative changes to gay and queer lives in the UK leading up to the enactment of Section 28 in 1988.

The Early Thatcher Years & Gay Lives on Campus

The South Westerner was the chief campus paper at the time of the Sexual Offences Act’s passing in 1967. Running up until 1979, the year in which Margaret Thatcher was elected prime minister, several articles and excerpts reflect the atmosphere and attitudes of Exeter’s students to LGBTQ+ lives and rights in the years following the legislative change. Initially, letters and articles covered the tearing down of GaySoc posters around campus; gradually, there appears to be an ongoing shift in willingness to discuss and support gay students in Exeter. GaySoc, an ancestor to the current University of Exeter LGBTQ+ Society, was increasingly active in these years, organising events around the university and city in a move towards community building, seen in an advert for a former club near the Quay that hosted a bespoke disco night (fig. 1).

Figure 1: Routes Advert, The South Westerner, 22 February 1979, p. 3, Exeter University Special Collections, Exeter University/SOU, South Westerner 1978-1980 (accessed 21st February 2024).

Figure 2: Mark Hubbard, ‘Gay Pride in ‘85’, Signature, Summer 1985, p. 6, Exeter University Special Collections, Exeter University/SIG, Signature 1983-85 (accessed 27th February 2024).’

A few years after the last issue of The South Westerner was published, its successor Signature debuted on campus in 1983. As the Thatcher years progress, the paper includes more features with members of GaySoc, as well as features around London Pride in 1985 (fig. 2), and growing awareness surrounding the ongoing HIV/AIDS epidemic, including a cover feature from December 1986, which, notably, preceded the government’s own public information campaign in 1987.

Section 28 and Exeposé

Following the passing of Section 28 in 1988, the early issues of the university’s current student publication, Exeposé, reveal a pivotal decade in which LGBTQ+ visibility grows even as it is being legislated against. GaySoc evolves into Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Society, and the Guild comes to include both the elected position of Lesbian and Gay Rights Officer and an annual Lesbian and Gay Rights Week. For 1990’s Lesbian and Gay Rights Week, Exeposé listed the events planned by the Lesbian and Gay Officer as a cover feature. Alongside film screenings, the Week included a talk on Section 28 and education, highlighting the concern of students about the law and their university teaching (figs. 3 and 4). Notably, in figure 4, the placement of the week’s events also advertises a demonstration against the proposed Poll Tax of 1990, indicating the socio-political issues on the minds of Exeter’s students at this point.

Unknown, ‘Cover – It’s Lesbian and Gay Rights Week, Exeposé, 15th October 1990, p. 1, Exeter University Special Collections, Exeter University/EXEPOSE, Exeposé, 1990-1993 (accessed 19th March 2024).

Figure 4: Unknown, ‘Listings – Lesbian and Gay Rights Week’, Exeposé, 15th October 1990, p. 1, Exeter University Special Collections, Exeter University/EXEPOSE, Exeposé, 1990-1993 (accessed 19th March 2024).

The following year’s Lesbian and Gay Rights Awareness Week was covered in Exeposé with an article outlining its significance in the context of the restrictions of Section 28 and its impact (fig. 5). Throughout the 1990s, several recurring names within articles ensured that the frustration and inequality brought about by Section 28 was not forgotten. In 1993, lesbian, gay and bisexual students lobbied Parliament in a protest that made front-page news on the subsequent issue of Exeposé (fig. 6) and joined a candle-lit vigil in London urging the government to reduce the age of consent for gay men. A specific weekly Nightline evening for queer students also sought to provide a local helpline for Exeter’s students. By this point, too, it appears that the Safe Sex Ball was an event held on 1st December, World AIDS Day, with proceeds going to local charities such as the Devon HIV Association (fig. 7).

In the wider Exeter area, the 1997 General Election indicated a significant shift in attitudes evident in the articles published in student newspapers just a few decades prior. The election of the current Exeter Labour MP, Ben Bradshaw, was recorded as a victory over “bigotry”, and, as seen in figure 8, an Exeposé interview with Bradshaw offered a moment of reflection on the landscape of LGBTQ+ rights towards the end of the twentieth century.

Figure 5: Daron Oram, ‘Lesbian and Gay Awareness Week’, Exeposé, March 1991, n. pag., Exeter University Special Collections, Exeter University/EXEPOSE, Exeposé, 1990-1993 (accessed 20th March 2024).

Figure 6: Rob Dicken, ‘Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Students Lobby Parliament’, Exeposé, 1st March 1993, p. 1, Exeter University Special Collections, Exeter University/EXEPOSE, Exeposé, 1990-1993 (accessed 20th March 2024).

Figure 7: Unknown, ‘Sex, Drugs, and HIV’, Exeposé, 28th November 1994, p. 1, Exeter University Special Collections, Exeter University/EXEPOSE, Exeposé 1994-1996 (accessed 25th March 2024).

Figure 8: Susie West, ‘A triumph for reason over bigotry’, Exeposé,12th May – 25th May 1997, p. 3, Exeter University Special Collections, Exeter University/EXEPOSE, Exeposé 1996-1998 (accessed 26th March 2024).

Only in 2003 was Section 28 fully repealed, with its ripples palpable long after its scrapping. The student publications held in the Special Collections on campus offer a vivid, important record of the effects of the changing landscape of LGBTQ+ lives and rights in the local area, and those at the university who were campaigning for equality, acceptance, and action within some of the darkest moments of recent national queer history. The papers allow us to see changes within the community as well, as GaySoc grew into the Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Society by the 1990s, and ultimately into the LGBTQ+ Society that is with us today.

By Chloë Edwards (pronouns: she/her/hers)
Doctoral Researcher (Art History & Visual Culture)
Postgraduate Teaching Associate
Research Culture Assistant, HASS PGR Gender & Sexuality Research Network
Faculty of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences, University of Exeter

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The Section 28 and its afterlives project is co-led by Helen Birkett, Chris Sandal-Wilson, and Hannah Young in the Department of Archaeology and History at the University of Exeter. As well as supporting archival research into the South West’s LGBTQ+ history, the project team are conducting oral histories with LGBTQ+ people in the South West across 2024 with support from the National Lottery Heritage Fund. You can find out more about the project, including how to share your own stories of Section 28, here.

If you are interested in exploring LGBTQ+ history, you can find out more about resources in the University of Exeter’s Heritage Collections in the  LGBTQ+ Research Resources guide.

Sir Harold Harding’s Chunnel Vision: A new Special Collections exhibition

Case with four shelves displaying items from the Sir Harold Harding papersThis year marks the 30th anniversary of the opening of the Channel Tunnel and Special Collections is pleased to announce a new exhibition relating to investigations and studies in the 1950s-1960s for a channel crossing. The display case is located on Level 1 of the Forum Library, near the entrance from the staircase. This exhibition has been created by Special Collections staff with the assistance of student volunteer Vanessa Wong and features items from the papers of the civil engineer Sir Harold Harding, including reports, publications, articles and photographs. The exhibition is open to everyone and is expected to remain on display until summer 2024.

History of the Channel Tunnel

The tunnel, sometimes also referred to as the ‘Chunnel’ opened in May 1994, with the first freight train running in June and the first passenger service running in November 1994. It is the longest underwater rail tunnel in the world and is the only fixed link between the island of Great Britain and the European mainland.

A crossing between France and Great Britain was first proposed back in 1802. In the more than 150 years that followed, studies and plans for a crossing – including for a bridge, a railway tunnel, and combined rail and road tunnels – were regularly put forward, welcomed on both sides of the channel, but then abandoned due to disagreements.

In 1957, the Channel Tunnel Study Group was formed from English, French and American interest. Its purpose was to research the engineering and economic possibilities of a Channel Tunnel. The British civil engineer Sir Harold Harding was one of the key consultants to the Group. He and his French counterpart Rene Malcor led the investigations, which included boreholes on land, a geophysical survey, and pumping out and examining the experimental shaft at Sangatte in 1958, as well as an investigation of seabed conditions by Wimpey Central Laboratory in 1959. The Channel Tunnel Project was abandoned in 1975, but interest in a fixed cross channel link continued. The final deal was legally agreed in 1986, and the Channel Tunnel was officially opened in 1994.

Biography of Sir Harold Harding

Sir Harold John Boyer Harding was born in Wandsworth, London, on 06 January 1900. He qualified as a civil engineer and his early work concentrated on underground railway development in and around London, notably the reconstruction of Piccadilly Circus Station (1926-1929).

During the Second World War, he was responsible for defence works and emergency repairs to underground damage in London. From the late 1950s until 1978, he worked as a consultant and arbitrator, including to the Channel Tunnel Study Group (1958-1970), and he was a member of the Aberfan disaster tribunal (1966-1967).

Harding was an active fellow of the Institution of Civil Engineers, serving as president in 1963-1964. He was the founder chairman of the British Tunnelling Society (1971-1973). In 1981, his autobiography ‘Tunnelling History and my Own Involvement’ was published by Golder Associates.  He died in Topsham, Devon, on 27 March 1986.

The Sir Harold Harding papers

The Sir Harold Harding papers are thought to have been originally donated to the University of Exeter’s Engineering department by Harding in c 1980, and they are now looked after by the University Library’s Special Collections. The collection of papers includes reports, documents, lantern slides, photographs, and prints relating to exploratory works mainly concerning the Channel Tunnel and Piccadilly Circus. The Sir Harold Harding papers are available for everyone to access – for research, enjoyment, or interest – in the Ronald Duncan (Special Collections) Reading Room in the Old Library. Find out more about visiting the Reading Room in our online guide.

For more information about the Sir Harold Harding papers, see our online archives catalogue at EUL MS 337 and EUL MS 337 add. 1.

‘It was an amazing experience to handle books that have been used for centuries before me!’; Reflections on volunteering with Special Collections by Viktor Speredelozzi

Example of mirror writing in ‘Processionale’ [EUL MS 262/1, f. 128v]

Over the past year, student Viktor Speredelozzi has been volunteering with Special Collections. Viktor used his knowledge of Latin and the medieval period to analyse medieval manuscripts in the Syon Abbey Collection and identify details – such as historiated initials and marginalia – to add to the notes section of the already existing catalogue descriptions for each manuscript. Below Viktor shares some of his impressions and reflections on the experience. We would like to take this opportunity to thank Viktor for his excellent work and wish him every success for the future.

For the 2022-2023 school year I was privileged enough for the opportunity to volunteer at the University of Exeter’s special collections. My duty was cataloguing Syon Abbey’s mediaeval manuscripts. Syon Abbey belonged to the Bridgettine Order. It was the only Bridgettine house for women in England. It was really fascinating to work with these manuscripts, piece together how they were made, and how they might have been used by the nuns.

Historiated initial showing the Virgin Mary in ‘Horae’ [EUL MS 262/2, f. 69v]

I’ve been able to look at a lot of mediaeval manuscripts during my studies at Exeter. I’ve looked at manuscripts online and in person at the Exeter Cathedral, Oxford, Stockholm, and Munich. Manuscripts commonly have red rubrication to mark paragraphs. However, Syon Abbey is unique in its use of yellow ink for rubrication. This collection is also special in its use of charming little human profiles on some of the letters. It’s always a treat to find one!

EUL MS 262/1 is one of the manuscripts I catalogued. It is a processional and contains an example of mirror writing on folio 128v. No other catalogues mentioned that was in the manuscript, so it was really cool to find something that others had missed.

EUL MS 262/2 is small, but the art is still incredibly detailed. It contains many historiated initials of the Virgin Mary and an unidentified woman (possibly Mary Magdalen?), calling attention to the fact this manuscript was made for and used by nuns. The Virgin Mary and the other woman both wear beautiful clothes with gold embroidery. The colours are still incredibly vibrant despite being made centuries ago.

Obit of Sister Alice Langton in ‘Horae’ [EUL MS 262/2, f 3r]

The archives welcome classes of students to come see the manuscripts. During one class, Professor Catherine Rider pointed out Sister Alice’s obituary to me. On folio 3r, of EUL MS 262/2 the calendar documents Sister Alice Langton (one of the nuns) died in 1491. This is just one example of how the nuns used the manuscripts. Perhaps Sister Alice’s fellow nuns added her name in this manuscript because it was one of her favourites as a way to celebrate her life.

I really enjoyed cataloguing seven of Syon Abbey’s manuscripts this school year. It was an amazing experience to handle books that have been used for centuries before me!

 

‘It was almost like time-travelling…’: Reflections on a week of work experience in Special Collections

We were delighted to be joined last week by Year 12 student Jack for a week of work experience in Special Collections. Below Jack shares some of his impressions and reflections on the experience. We would like to take this opportunity to thank Jack for his excellent work and wish him every success for the future.

I began my work experience week in Special Collections with a tour of the Old Library, which is in some ways quite maze-like, but I found that around every corner there was something interesting to look at or read. I was pleasantly surprised at how huge some of the strongrooms were and the sheer amount of literature that was in each one. I also met some members of the Special Collections team who were all very welcoming and kind. In the afternoon I helped to set up a literary visit for the Exeter U3A (University of the Third Age) and then supervised the event with one of the Archivists, my Supervisor, Annie and one of the Special Collections Team Leaders, Sarah-Jayne. At first I found the event quite daunting as I did not know much about the source material they were showcasing. However, it was inspiring, in a way, to see so many people so enthusiastic about South-West writers and I found it easier to talk with the visitors about some aspects of the literature on display. 

Theatre Royal (Exeter) playbills collection (EUL MS 202)

On Tuesday, my day began with a tour of the Digital Humanities Lab who work closely with Special Collections. I was able to choose a model to be 3D Printed and even helped take some high quality photos of old Exeter Theatre Royal Playbills. It was interesting seeing the digital side of archiving, which is becoming more extensive as time goes on. In the afternoon I began my cataloguing task (which was introduced to me during my tour of the Old Library on Monday) in which I was typing up the index of Rowland Glave-Saunders’ ‘Book of Reminiscences’. As I went through the index and read some of the sections of his book, I gained quite an understanding of the type of person he was and his views on some subjects. He wrote of Exeter’s experience of the Blitz, evacuees and much more, reading it was almost like time-travelling. I took a break from the cataloguing task to take a look around the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum, which is in the same building as Special Collections. 

Books in the Syon Abbey Library

I was not able to go to work experience on Wednesday, but on Thursday, the day began with myself and Annie stocktaking in the strongroom. We were taking stock of the Syon Abbey Library, one of several collections on loan. This too was interesting as I noticed how the books changed overtime. In the afternoon I was given an introduction to managing the Reading Room and resumed my cataloguing task, which I was able to finish. I then talked with Annie (as I was able to with various members of the team throughout the entire week) about her role at Special Collections. 

On Friday morning, I talked to the other Special Collections Team Leader, Angela, about her role at Special Collections. She introduced me to box listing, which is a way that archivists break down what is in an archive they may receive. I was also able to look through various photos and letters connected to John Lloyd who was a Lecturer and Librarian at the University of Exeter and learnt about himself and some of his relatives through reading the university’s old registers. In the afternoon, I began a second cataloguing task involving letters by the writer Flora Thompson. There were nine letters and it was my task to type short descriptions of them as well as record their date. Even reading the short nine letters, I gained a small insight into the sort of person Flora Thompson was and some of the hardships she experienced. I took a break from this task to learn about the DAME project which stands for the Digital Archive of the Middle East. This involved digitising the Middle East archives held in Special Collections, which consist mostly of 20th Century works including diaries, letters and photos. It was interesting seeing a more modern side to the archives as oppose to the much older Syon Abbey library I had been stocktaking on Thursday. I ended the day by finishing cataloguing Flora Thompson’s letters. 

Collage of images from the University of Exeter Special Collections

This work experience has been extremely helpful and insightful. I was given tours and introductions to practically every side of Special Collections as well as the parts of the University that work with them. It has also been amazing knowing that the work I have been doing will actually be contributed towards various projects and archives. During the week, the Special Collections Team have also been extremely welcoming and ready to provide any help, either with the various tasks I have been doing or just finding my way around. The experience has definitely opened up a career which I previously knew very little about and made it one which I may want to pursue. 

Reflections on a week of work experience in Special Collections

We were delighted to be joined last week by Year 10 student Rosalia for a week of work experience in Special Collections. Below Rosalia shares some of her impressions and reflections on her experience. We would like to take this opportunity to thank Rosalia for her excellent work and wish her every success for the future.

Over this last week, I have been doing my work experience in Special Collections which I have found fascinating as it allowed me to learn more about rare books and manuscripts, as well as helping me broaden my experience and widen my knowledge of history, a subject I love.

Map of Devon from an atlas of the counties of England and Wales [Atlas of the counties of England and Wales]

On the first day, I arrived at 9:30 and was given a tour of Special Collections by Annie, where I saw the strong rooms and the office. Afterwards, I had the handling training, when I looked at several old books and manuscripts, including a a 1579 hand-painted Atlas of the counties of England and an medieval manuscript with beautiful illuminated letters and illustrations. Later the same day, I attended a presentation from the archivist for Middle Eastern studies, which was fascinating. Afterwards, I stayed in the reading room, where I learnt how the room operated and looked at an old manuscript from Syon Abbey, which detailed the history of the Abbey and the duties of the nuns. I had to transcribe the headings of the different sections in order to improve the cataloguing of the manuscript which was very enjoyable and the contents of the manuscript were a fascinating record of the abbey and the life of the nuns who lived there. I also had a talk with Caroline, the Head of Heritage Collections, about the role of Special Collections within the university and the wider community and the collections and archives held here.

On the second day, I was given the task of searching through the library catalogue to find books relevant to Crediton, as some of the Special Collections team are going to Crediton Local History Day to do a presentation. Within the collections is the Crediton Parish Library, which contains many old books and a wide range of 17th century pamphlets. When I had found all the books and pamphlets I was interested in on the catalogue, I filled out request slips for each of them (59 in total) and then the next day Annie and I retrieved them from the strongroom.

Crediton Parish Library

On the third day, I looked through the pamphlets and books and photographed any that would be relevant or interesting for Crediton Local History day. This took most of the day, although I also spent about an hour watching a display being put up in the Forum Library.

On the fourth day, I spent the morning in Digital Humanities with Hollie and Lisa from Special Collections, where we had a tour of the labs and a talk about what Digital Humanities do. We also had the chance to 3D print a Lewis chess piece each, which was very exciting and interesting. In the afternoon, I finished cataloguing the Syon Abbey manuscript and got some more of the books and pamphlets from the strong rooms. At the end of the afternoon, I had a talk with Jamie, the Middle East archivist, about his role in digitising and preserving manuscripts and books and also with Jon, the Digitisation Assistant, about how digitising the images and documents for the DAME project works.

On the final day, I photographed the remaining few pamphlets and books and had a look round the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum for about forty minutes, which is a fascinating insight into the history of cinema and film.

Overall, the week was very enjoyable and fascinating, and I learnt a lot about rare books and manuscripts and the general running of the Special Collections department.

Collage of images from the University of Exeter Special Collections

A new exhibition: Poirot in the Archive 

Agatha Christie exhibition in the Old Library

To mark Agatha Christie’s 132nd birthday, we are pleased to announce a new exhibition in the Old Library! The exhibition is open to everyone and can be viewed by entering the Old Library on Streatham Campus via the main entrance and walking straight ahead through the barriers. The display cases will be situated to your left. 

In this exhibition we delve into the archives to explore a range of responses to the character Poirot from individuals including Agatha Christie, Edmund Cork and Harold Ober (literary agents at Hughes Massie and Co. Ltd), publishers, film producers, and actors. 

This exhibition features items from the University of Exeter Heritage Collections. On display are letters and documents from the business papers of Agatha Christie’s literary agents; books from our Special Collections; and items from the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum collections. 

Agatha Mary Clarissa Mallowan (née Miller), the novelist known as Agatha Christie, was born in Torquay, Devon, on 15 September 1890. She became, and remains, the best-selling novelist of all time. She died on 12 January 1976 at her home in Winterbrook, Oxfordshire. 

Hercule Poirot, the famous fictional Belgian detective with the egg-shaped head, made his debut in Agatha Christie’s first published novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles in 1920. In total, he appeared in 33 novels, two plays, and more than 50 short stories. He made his final appearance in the novel Curtain, written in the early 1940s but not released until 1975, the last novel published by Agatha Christie before her death.

The exhibition is expected to remain on display until 06 March 2023.

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Library Champion Project Demystifying Archives and Manuscripts: A Journey Through the Special Collections

Written by Chloe Cicely Chandler (MA English Literature)

 

In March of 2019 I somehow found myself within the British Library’s Manuscripts Reading Room with my eyes delighting over the sprawling handwriting within Coleridge’s notebooks. Ever an inspirer of wonder in me, it was magical to see his mind come alive; the thoughts seeming to burst onto the page with frantic imagination. I was especially fixated by Coleridge’s sketches of the Lake District that recorded the walks he had adventured on with his fellow Romantic visionaries: William and Dorothy Wordsworth. I often reflect on the fact that I touched the paper upon which Coleridge had scribed over 200 years ago. Now, it seems as if it were a distant, hazy dream. This was the first ever encounter I had with physical archival research, and one I would never forget. The research was undertaken during my English undergraduate degree for my third-year dissertation on altered states of consciousness in Romantic literature. In addition to Coleridge, I also focused on the writings of Sir Humphry Davy and Thomas De Quincey. This led me to take a separate journey where I also travelled to the Morrab Library in Penzance to learn more about Davy’s poetical and chemical experimentations from the archives in his Cornish hometown.

Both of these experiences were incredibly rewarding and put into perspective what I most enjoyed about studying English literature: that ability to peer into history through the words that individuals have left behind; as if the gap in time between the past and the present has been momentarily suspended. Such opportunities for research were the highlight of my entire degree – they made me feel more connected to the research I was conducting, and encouraged me throughout the difficult process of writing and editing my dissertation – providing my work with a greater sense of purpose.

Out of these explorations, I became very interested in the ways in which I could make the most of being an English MA student at a research-focused university and partake in opportunities to delve into the archives. This academic year, I joined as one of the Library Champions for English. As part of this role, I act as a liaison between library staff and students, passing along feedback, suggestions, and making book requests on behalf of students within my subject area. I had the opportunity to develop a project of my choosing relating to library services. Consequently, I decided it would be valuable to concentrate my project on the Special Collections based at the University of Exeter. Specifically, I wanted to consider the ways in which students could be made more aware of the unique primary resources available to them in order to increase their engagement with the archives during their degree.

 

Surveying Student Feedback

It was important for me to first gather insight from my fellow peers, so I put together a survey that was open to students from across the disciplines. This survey aimed to get a sense of general student knowledge of the archival services that the university offers, whilst also offering a space to make suggestions for how the Special Collections could be more integrated into the student experience. Although the responses ended up being mainly from Humanities students – with a majority from English undergraduates – their experiential highlights and suggestions were immensely helpful in terms of evaluating the current dialogue between students and the Special Collections.

Of those who had used the archives, their memories were very positive. One student relayed their enthusiasm as such: “I have only accessed the archives as part of a workshop on accessing them and it was really interesting! [The] Staff [were] great and very informative, I will definitely be in touch if there is something I need to access.” Speaking of the online catalogue, a student mentioned how valuable it was for their research: “I loved it, I accessed it almost daily to complete my assignments.” Others recall their use of the archives as: “[an] Intriguing and … exciting experience”; additionally: “I found the archivist very helpful and friendly and enjoyed the experience.”

The main areas that could improve student engagement with the Special Collections, as suggested by those surveyed, related to the following:

– Accessibility: student responses highlighted how the process can appear daunting, whilst other students were less aware of where to begin researching.

– Visibility: students highlighted a need to increase overall awareness of the collections through visual displays and marketing throughout the university. As a fellow student expressed: “I’d love for more people to handle and see these manuscripts.”

Following this initial feedback collection from my student cohort, I wanted to get a more informed perspective of the process behind performing archival research: this required me to find archival works of interest from the catalogue and then arrange a viewing of them.

 

The Process

As a starting place, the Collection Highlights page is especially helpful as it presents intriguing items within the university’s collection which you can then search for on the Archives catalogue, or use as a springboard for other research ideas. My personal interests for my MA dissertation relate to Romantic and Gothic literature of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. I am also interested in kindred areas such as the supernatural and folkloric. From our discussions, the Special Collections team gave me some fantastic suggestions to consider based on these research topics.

Of particular interest to me was the Theo Brown Collection that comes with its own helpful collection guide. Brown was a renowned folklore researcher and Research Fellow within the Philosophy and History Departments at the University of Exeter. Her immense research collection has been in the university’s archive since her death in 1993. Brown had a particular focus on folklore rooted in the South West of England, and, as an individual born and raised here, this sparked my interest. From within the vast collection, I needed to specify particular items, each of which is given a name relating to the overarching topics they contain. I finally decided upon the boxes that covered ‘Fringe Lore and UFOs’, ‘Guising and Hobby Horse’, and ‘Devon and West Country witches and witchcraft’. In addition, there was a fascinating object under the Rare books and maps section that I felt compelled to see as a Gothic researcher: a 1st issue, 1st edition of Bram Stoker’s legendary Gothic novel Dracula from 1897 housed within the Lloyd Collection. This edition is renowned for its strikingly coloured cover. As one of my favourite literary works, I was delighted to hear that the university had such an item available for viewing.

When I went about making my request via the Visiting Heritage Collections webpage, I first had to find the necessary codes for the Collections, which you can search for on the archive database: archival works have a title and MS number; books have a title and call number; journals have a title and volume/issue number. After making my request, I received an email promptly confirming my reading room booking. Before attending my booking, I read up on the handling procedures laid out in the Special Collections handling guide which provided some really useful information about how different types of materials are to be treated. This was practically helpful when I was searching through Brown’s archive as it included an array of different materials, including many pictures, for which I needed gloves. One interesting piece of information which often surprises people is that, in most cases, when handling rare books, it is preferable for you to not wear gloves as this decreases your physical sensitivity to the material itself, making it more likely that you might damage it.

When I arrived at the Old Library on the day, I went over to the Special Collections desk to inform of my arrival. My selected items had already been prepared behind the desk for viewing and were promptly brought out. The items displayed within the Ronald Duncan Reading Room itself were instantly engaging. To one side was a writing desk that had belonged to the much-beloved author Daphne Du Maurier, which came as a wonderful surprise as I was able to sit near it whilst I researched. I had seen one of her writing desks only once before at the Jamaica Inn’s Smugglers Museum on Bodmin Moor. I was also particularly fond of the artworks on the back wall by the artist Leonard Baskin which depicted various birds, including a variety of crows – a favourite Gothic symbol of mine!

I first went about exploring Brown’s items: from memory, a news story she had collected that was immensely intriguing was about a so-called ‘witch bottle’ that had been discovered in a basement. The bottle, under examination, turned out to be filled with a concoction of items that suggested its use in a baneful, magical working, containing nails, human urine, and thorns, amongst other items. Although I had only engaged with a small part of the entire Theo Brown collection, I was amazed by how much was contained within each box and managed to spend the entire afternoon slot searching through an amalgam of pictures, newspaper clippings, and letters – how the time flew by! In light of this, I would suggest to potential Special Collection users to allow themselves ample time to view resources and not try to cram too much into one visit. Rather, take the time to enjoy researching and making notes. And, if needed, return for another visit.

Following this, I handled the 1st edition of Dracula, for which I was given a book snake weight and cushion to use, so that the spine and fragile pages would be supported. I was instantly amazed by the vivid yellow cover that adorned the book. The cover was made even more pronounced by the red lettering that spelt out the book’s title, as if written in blood; very befitting given the contents. There was something strangely modern about the book’s palette of colours that made it feel out of place for the time period in which it was written. The aesthetic choices made about the design seemed to highlight the very alluring nature of the work, presenting the book itself as a kind of fantastical object. I feel incredibly lucky to have been given the opportunity to handle these items from the Special Collection and shall remember the experience fondly.

 

Call For Archival Research

In recent years, I have found that research of both primary and secondary sources for assignments tends to be confined to online databases. And, although this is undeniably helpful in terms of providing greater access to works from other institutions and aiding in the search for specific terms, I find there is something inherently missing from this experience of research. When you are there in person, there is a certain magic and fascination that can be kindled, which is more difficult to attain through a digitised source. It puts you back in touch with the physical history of these sources – the feel and sensation of them – such things are often lost when searching purely within digitised collections. Whilst at university, we have the unique chance to use these resources which might otherwise be unavailable or more difficult to access were we not students.

I highly recommend my fellow students give the archives a go! You may not have a particular text or subject in mind for your research, which is completely fine; using the archives is actually a fantastic way to discover an area you might be interested in. It also incentivises you to produce more distinctly original research to present to your subject area. The archivists, with their expertise in the collection items, are also on hand to provide helpful suggestions, as they did in my case.

 

Future Prospects

In response to student feedback, the Special Collections team have been putting these suggestions into practice, such as, updating the website pages to make them more accessible and user-friendly. We are also planning some further collaborative projects to improve accessibility and visibility over the next academic year – so make sure to watch this space!

I would be delighted to hear from my peers: if you have any feedback or suggestions you would like to make with regards to the library services, including the Special Collections or book requests for English, please feel free to contact me at cc725@exeter.ac.uk. For more Library Champion information visit: Find your Library Champion – Library Champions – LibGuides at University of Exeter

 

Helpful Special Collection links

Main website: Special Collections | Special Collections | University of Exeter

Special Collection Highlights: Highlights | Special Collections | University of Exeter

LibGuides: Home – Archives and Special Collections – LibGuides at University of Exeter

Special Collections catalogue: Home Page (ex.ac.uk)

Handling Guide: Handling Materials – Archives and Special Collections – LibGuides at University of Exeter

Bill Douglas Cinema Museum: http://www.bdcmuseum.org.uk/

Digital Collections: http://specialcollectionsarchive.exeter.ac.uk/collections/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/UoEHeritageColl

 

Climate and Weather in the Middle East

The extremely high temperatures recorded in Britain at the start of this week have pushed the reality of climate change to the forefront of public debate, with many people making comparisons UK weather patterns and those in hotter regions such as the Mediterranean and the Middle East. People living in Britain have long been accustomed to a moderate climate, and therefore infrastructures and working conditions that are not designed for extremes of either hot or cold.

Photograph of man standing in desert surrounded by sand dune

A photograph taken in the Algerian desert by explorer and geographer W.J. Harding King. He undertook scientific experiments into the movement and formation of sand dunes, but his books ‘In Search of the Masked Tawareks’ (London: Smith, Elder, 1903) and ‘Mysteries of the Libyan Desert: a record of three years of exploration in the heart of that vast and waterless region’ (London: Seeley, Service, 1925) contain some intriguing descriptions of rainfall, water supply and unusual weather patterns in North Africa. (EUL MS 11/19)

For many of those living in the SWANA region – South West Asia and North Africa, or what has commonly been termed ‘The Middle East’ – temperatures of over 40°C, dry arid conditions and low rainfall have long been familiar.  Architectural styles – such as thick stone white-painted walls, covered courtyards and wind towers (used since at least 1300BC to provide a form of air conditioning) – are designed to keep the heat out of buildings, and working hours often incorporate time for a قَيْلُولَة (Qayloulah), or ‘siesta’, during the hottest hours in the middle of the day.  However, the region is looking extremely vulnerable to threats from climate change, with supplies of fresh water, agriculture and food production, all being affected, not to mention the growing frequency of extreme weather conditions – Iraq has been battered by a series of massive dust storms this year, large tracts of previously usable land are undergoing desertification, Oman was hit last year by the first tropical cyclones to be recorded in the Gulf, and – if current models are to believed – many of the cities in the UAE could become uninhabitable by the end of the 21st century due to increases in temperature and humidity.

While scientists continue to analyse these patterns, and politicians and public health officials continue to debate policy changes to mitigate the impact of global warming, they are able to draw on the latest meteorological data and other metrics compiled using cutting-edge technology such as isotope analysis, satellite imagery, salinity levels and microscopic study of minute changes in zooxanthellae algae living on coral reefs.

Colour photograph of camels and herdsmen walking in scrubland, while tall buildings and a burning oil well are visible in the distance

What does the future of fossil fuels mean for the landscape, environment and climate of the Gulf? Photograph of Kuwait in the early 1970s. John Wilton archive, EUL MS 264

What about the past, however? Although we may think of interest in this data as being a relatively recent development, our historic collections in both the archives and the Arab World Documentation Unit (AWDU) contain a considerable amount of information on weather patterns, rainfall and climate in the SWANA region. For merchants and travellers planning long journeys, a knowledge of water resources was literally a matter of life or death, and devising methods of storing and distributing large quantities of water became increasingly important during the decades of rapid urban growth during the 20th century. The falaj system of irrigation used in Oman was the subject of years of study by John Craven Wilkinson, whose archive (EUL MS 119) contains many papers on not only the falaj tradition, but also on climate and meteorology.

Handwritten weather notes

Handwritten notes on meteorological data from the archive of John Wilkinson (EUL MS 119/3/10)

Typed records of temperature changes in Oman. EUL MS 119/3/10

Going even further back in time, we have a book  in Special Collections (Reserve Collection 916.12 LYO/X) by Captain George Francis Lyon, A narrative of travels in northern Africa in the years 1818, 19, and 20 : accompanied by geographical notices of Soudan and of the course of the Niger (1821), which includes a few pages with daily climate data for 1819 – temperature, humidity and wind direction.

Printed page of meteorological data from a book printed in 1821

Meteorological statistics for Libya in 1819, from Captain George Francis Lyon, ‘A narrative of travels in northern Africa in the years 1818, 19, and 20’ (1821)

More recently, we have a three-volume work in AWDU on Meteorological data from the ‘Report on the Water Resources of the Trucial States (1969), compiled by the engineering firm of Sir William Halcrow. It includes a wealth of data on rainfall, climate, irrigation systems – including Omani aflaj – as well as maps and statistical tables on what was shortly after renamed the United Arab Emirates.

Rainfall table

Meteorological data from the ‘Report on the Water Resources of the Trucial States’ (1969)

Meteorological data from the ‘Report on the Water Resources of the Trucial States’ (1969)

The discovery of oil in the Gulf transformed the economy of the region and brought in massive amounts of foreign investments into geological exploration, drilling and infrastructure. Business on such a scale requires to monitor everything that might affect its activities, and in 1953 the Oil Companies Weather Coordination Scheme (OCWCS) was established as a network to share weather data being gathered by different oil companies working around the Gulf.  We have a small collection of OCWCS publications in AWDU that contain data and guidelines about weather conditions.

While meteorologists working for the OCWCS or other scientific bodies are studying the natural world around them, the contributions of human actions should also be taken into account. Much of the water shortages in Iraq have been caused by the construction in Turkey of dams on the rivers Tigris and Euphrates, which have greatly diminished the waterflow downstream in Syria and Iraq. Severe and widespread structural damage to water supplies caused by coalition forces during the Gulf Wars and then subsequently by ISIS forces, have only compounded the problem. Deforestation is another issue: Iraq was once famed for its 30 million date palms, which produced hundreds of varieties of the fruit and was a source of pride, particularly in southern Iraq around Basra and the banks of the Shatt al-Arab. The vast majority of these were cut down in the 1980s and 1990s, which – coupled with the reduction of freshwater flowing from the north, and the resultant encroachment of salt water coming upstream from the Gulf – has had a devastating effect on the environment. The lack of trees is a major factor in the dust storms, as the soil dries up and has no roots in its upper layers to hold it together.

Postcard showing thick plantations of date palms by the river in Basra

Dense plantations of date palms along the rivers of southern Iraq – sadly, only a fraction of these remain

(It is slightly beyond the scope of this post, but we have a huge amount of material on the history and development of Iraq’s irrigation network and dam-building projects both in AWDU and in the archives, especially in the Jonathan Crusoe archive, as well as publications by the Kurdish Human Rights Project on the Ilisu Dam Campaign and the effects this dam bin Turkey has had on the water supply in Iraq.)

Another example of environmental damage undertaken by the Ba’athist regime is the draining of Iraq’s southern marshes, which was mostly done for political reasons. Saddam Hussein believed the Maʻdān, or Marsh Arabs, had been disloyal during the war with Iran (1980-88), and began a campaign against them (there are some papers on this in the Crusoe archive.) After the failed uprising in 1991 in which the Maʻdān,  Shi’ites, Kurds and others had taken part, many of these groups joined military deserters in taking refuge in the marshes to escape the reprisals that followed. To punish the Maʻdān, render the marshes uninhabitable and deny a hiding place for the refugees, Saddam’s forces constructed embankments to divert the flow from the Tigris and Euphrates away from the marshes, while drainage channels – with ‘patriotic’ names such as the Mother of Battles Canal and the Loyalty to the Leader Channel, were opened up to drain water away to the south. This was not just a form of genocide, but also an ecological disaster on a massive scale, an ‘ecocide’, or destruction of an entire ecosystem. While there was a clear political motive for these actions, it was in fact building on suggestions made by British irrigation engineer Frank Haigh in 1949, reflecting previous attitudes towards marshlands that saw them as inconvenient, inaccessible and unproductive areas of water-logged land. Contemporary concern over the loss of the marshes of southern Iraq reveal how these attitudes have changed, now that so much more is known about the fragility of ecosystems, the delicate balance of biodiversity in these rare habitats, and the close relationship between vegetation, land use and climate. In addition to the environmental damage, changes in climate and weather patterns place heritage sites at risk due to the increased likelihood of natural disasters such as flooding and wildfires.

On the topic of the marshes, AWDU holds various publications, such as maps, environmental reports by AMAR (‘Assisting Marsh Arabs and Refugees’), humanitarian studies, material in the Gulf Information Project documenting the impact of the 1990-91 Gulf War on Iraq’s land and people, books on the Marsh Arabs, modern Iraqi history and pamphlets from the Ministry for Irrigation, as well as a number of documents in the Crusoe archive.

Two maps comparing water levels in the marshes of southern Iraq, showing the changes between 1972 and 1993

Two comparative maps of the marshes, showing the dramatic changes between 1972 and 1993. Gulf Information Project, Box 19

More generally, we have documents and reports published by organisations such as the Arab Center for the Studies of Arid Zone and Dry Lands (ASCAD), the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA). There are also various books in both Special Collections and AWDU that provide histories of specific regions or countries, and which often include descriptions of weather, climate at various times of year, and sometimes even meteorological data – such as the rainfall records for the years 1885-1920 found in the Naval Intelligence Handbook on Tunisia (1945) – as well as specific compilations of climactic data from Saudi Arabia, Oman and Kuwait from the 1970s and 80s.

AWDU also contains a large amount of material on water resources in Yemen, donated by Christopher Ward, author of The Water Crisis in Yemen: Managing Extreme Water Scarcity in the Middle East (2014), and including detailed reports and rare documentation on water resources. There is also some North African material relating to Tunisia and irrigation schemes at Sidi Bouzid and elsewhere. Many of these contain statistical data on precipitation, annual rainfall data and other relevant information.

Exeter University is at the forefront of climate change research, with over 250 researchers working across a range of disciplines.  It’s an exciting, dynamic and ever-evolving area of research, and one for which support might readily be found for new project exploring the historical geography of the Middle East, perhaps looking at changes in attitudes towards seasonal fluctuations, or the awareness of travellers about the importance of ecosystems and the connection between environment and weather.

‘This direct contact with history was unlike anything I had ever experienced before…’: Reflections on work experience in Special Collections by Alice Dunn

We were delighted to be joined last week by Year 12 student Alice Dunn for a week of work experience in Special Collections. Below Alice shares some of her impressions and reflections on her experience. We would like to take this opportunity to thank Alice for her excellent work and wish her every success for the future.

My name is Alice Dunn, and I have spent a week in a work experience placement with the special collections and archives department of the University of Exeter. I am a year 12 student at King Edward VI Community College in Totnes, and very luckily for me the special collections team have been kind enough to facilitate my fascination with literature and history, and by extension with the vast collections kept here! 

Map of Devon from an atlas of the counties of England and Wales [Rare books B 1590/SAX/XX]

My placement began on Monday with an introduction to the collections and the work done regarding them, including their preservation and conservation. I measured the temperature and humidity in each of the rooms archives were stored in, and recorded these daily observations to ensure these conditions were optimum; extremes of either temperature or humidity can damage the items. What was particularly exciting was learning to handle the materials – there were a number of different items with which I was able to practice, including a 1579 hand-coloured Atlas of the counties of England, produced by Christopher Saxton! I learned that the best way to handle these materials is not, in fact, with gloves (with the exception of photographs), as their role in reducing dexterity increases the risk of tearing pages, but instead with clean hands. This direct contact with history was unlike anything I had ever experienced before; while I have learned about these time periods in history, or read new editions of texts, to handle materials which are hundreds of years old brings a sense of connection with the past that I do not think I could have otherwise felt. Down to the very knowledge that the ink on that page was handwritten by someone who experienced the things I have learned about from books, or to read the annotation of readers, like me, who annotated books they read, but in the 16th century (not like me!), my experience with archival materials has allowed a cohesion of my knowledge, ensuring enrichment in my future learning. While looking around the collections, I was also fortunate enough to be shown materials such as a sheet from a 1478 Caxton print of Chaucer’s ‘The Canterbury Tales’, and Golding’s handwritten manuscript of the first draft of The Lord of the Flies, (though, due to its fragility, handling is avoided), both of which resulted in vast amounts of excitement on my part!  

Bills relating to elections in Devon, 1835, and to a concert in Exeter, 1858 [EUL MS 269]

Over the next few days, I was given a few projects to work on. On Tuesday, I sorted through letters to, from, and regarding, Agatha Christie, (some of which were handwritten by Christie herself!), selecting those that were relating to Poirot for an exhibition to go alongside a talk on him. After this experience I feel I am justified in stopping anyone from criticising my handwriting again, or else admitting that Christie, despite her literary genius, may not have been popular among teachers or A-Level examiners! I also looked at a collection of political bills from 1835 and researched the context behind these to aid the writing of a social media post about them, and the information I learned from this seems since to appear in my day-to-day life with astonishing frequency (namely in Middlemarch, which is active in its discussion of 19th century politics!). Throughout the week, I also accompanied team members in receiving and unpacking new materials that had arrived in the post, learning about the process of ‘accession’ before cataloging, and how to write titles and descriptions for these so that they can be best found by researchers. As part of this, I studied a recently received item which has not yet been cataloged, creating resources like a map on which all the places mentioned are flagged, as well as using university records to find out more about the individuals mentioned. This will ensure the item is better understood, so that when it comes to cataloging it can be organised in the collection more easily, and so that its description will be as accurate as possible, making it more accessible to researchers.  

Archives in the strongroom

In aiding retrievals to accommodate researchers’ requests, and reshelving after the resources have been used, I also came to learn about the organisation of the archives themselves. The breadth of the collections means the system in place is integral to ensuring they can be fully utilised by others, and thus learning about the system of cataloging here, and the differing one in the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum where I was fortunate enough to be able to get a tour and speak to staff, has given me a much deeper understanding of the day-to-day process of keeping archives.

On Thursday, the staff at special collections had arranged for me to visit the closely interlinked Digital Humanities Lab at the University. I was given a tour of the building, and was fascinated to learn the role technology can have in the study of humanities, both in relation to archival materials and not. Due to the fragility of many of the items, including wax figurines and skulls, many objects will have 3D printed copies made to enable hands-on interaction. The intersection between archives and photography was something I had never thought about, but constitutes much of the work done by the Digital Humanities Lab – they have two purpose-built photographic studios, enabling photos to be taken in such high-quality, flakes of paint can be seen on the surfaces of pages. The Exeter Book (a book of Old English riddles from the 10th century, some of the oldest surviving pieces of English literature today) is owned by Exeter Cathedral, and while it is not linked to the university nor their collections, it was recently photographed and digitised by staff at the Digital Humanities Lab using their specialist photographic equipment. Having attended seminars and lectures with universities on the poems and riddles in this book, the accessibility created by technology is of importance to me, and thus it was fascinating to discover the work that is done to aid this.  

While I was initially most attracted to this work experience placement from more of a researcher perspective – I’m always fascinated by materials which can tell me more about my areas of interest – it has resulted in a better understanding of what it means to be an archivist, and, as a consequence, an interest in the role for its own sake; whether or not the collections I have looked at in my placement have been relevant to what I want to study in the future, they are intriguing in themselves, and not because they relate to what I already have knowledge of. I have had the most enjoyable week learning new skills and information – I don’t think I could’ve found another placement that so well supported my interests, while expanding my knowledge of everything! A big thank you to the Special Collections and Archives team for being so accommodating! 

Collage of images from the University of Exeter Special Collections

New Resource: A transcript of the letters of John Jarmain (1942-1943)

EUL MS 413/1/147 – Aerogram dated 09 October 1943

The University of Exeter Special Collections is pleased to announce that a full transcript of the wartime letters of John Jarmain (EUL MS 413) to his wife, Beryl Jarmain, is now available to browse on our online Digital Collections platform. This transcript will enable enhanced access, including full-text search, to this collection of unique and deeply personal letters.

We would like to take this opportunity to express our thanks to our student interns, Ruby and Beth, who transcribed the letters; and to Janet Coward, the daughter of John Jarmain, for kindly granting permission for the transcriptions. We are committed to providing access to our collections in many different ways, and hope this new resource will faciliate discovery, use and enjoyment of this archival collection.

The transcript is free to access by everyone here on our Digital Collections platform.

Find out more about students interns Beth and Ruby’s experiences of transcribing the letters of John Jarmain in the blog post: Transcribing the Letters of John Jarmain: reflections on a remote internship project