Monday, May 31, 2010

Caution - House (storage) smaller than it appears: Challenges of Closet Archives

For public historians, the strangest things come in handy at times – the perfect map, that mini-voice recorder absentmindedly left in a bag. I personally have found myself giving thanks for tetanus vaccinations the last few weeks. As Katharine Thompson and I have worked to archive papers from Kiplin Hall’s board of trustees, we have removed hundreds of staples, rust falling off and coating our fingers at times. Though a tedious part of the conservation process, it is a vital one which serves to emphasize several of the challenges small institutions face in keeping and maintaining archives.

The typical image of an archive, popularized by documentary films, is that of a large library of identical boxes, each containing stacks of papers perfectly organized in color-coded folders. For small institutions, the reality can be much less glamorous: a few shelves in a back room or closet, an assortment of boxes with carefully hand-labeled manila folders. This is the case at Kiplin Hall, where a tiny bathroom has been renovated and filled with shelves. The challenges of preserving objects in historic houses, where climate control is difficult at best, are similar for fragile sheets of paper. We’ve removed rusted staples from documents produced as recently as 2002, proving that air, humidity, and metal can work destructive wonders on paper. Keeping archival storage areas cool, dry and dark is perhaps their most important physical component, so the decision of curator Dawn Webster to locate archival boxes in what is essentially an interior closet does accomplish this.

In an ideal archive, each large topic (known as a series) and sub-topic (subseries) has its own box, with ample shelf space available to add future boxes in each series. In small institutions like Kiplin, storage concerns simply do not make this feasible; space is at a premium, and no inch can afford to be ignored. Consequently, many different subseries are often located within one box, which is then carefully labeled and stacked on a shelf in spacing so tight boxes might be frequently shuffled. Placing so many different sets of papers so closely together has made me doubly conscious of organizing these records logically and coherently. Finding aids (comparable to a table of contents for each collection) will help future researchers and curators find what they need, but physical arrangement of the documents will also provide important clues.

One additional challenge seldom encountered by large museums and archives is the mixing of active and dead records. Just as individuals choose to keep their most recent and relevant business documents close at hand, museum staff in large institutions often have enough office space or on-site storage to keep significant files on several years’ worth of activity. Records might not be pronounced “dead” until several decades after their creation, at which time they can be integrated into an archive using the established archival system. But in smaller institutions, any documents dealing with matters that are more than a few years old may be removed from offices to make room for new material, with the understanding that this information might need to be quickly found again.

This is the case at Kiplin, where the board’s secretary occasionally drops by to consult his archived papers, rendering this a semi-active collection. This led past USC students to partially base their archiving system on the secretary’s active-filing scheme, including meticulously recording each archived folder’s relation to the old active file. Katharine and I chose to continue this pattern, and several of our conversations have centered on how to make these new documents accessible to someone who has previously used them yet manageable to future staff or researchers who may have little familiarity with the collection.

The Fine Art of Cataloging

Cataloging - the job that most librarians dislike, but the one that must be done for the library to function. Sarah Swinney and I are cataloging the books in the Kiplin Hall library as our England Field School project. We are continuing the inventory that was started in 1992 when Kiplin began a full catalog of their objects.

Admittedly, I do not have a lot of hands-on experience with cataloging, but I have done some work with MARC - the most widely used cataloging database. However, my experience comes with archive collections, not books, though they are similar to catalog. This project has me doing something different; cataloging books as objects.

There are of course several similarities between the cataloging databases. Title, author, and date of publication are included in both. Also, a brief summary of the book is required in both databases. With Kiplin specifically, the differences begin with the location of the book. The books in this library are not organized in any manner, so the location of the book is dependent upon what shelf it's on in what bay. This means that a French literature book could be next to a book on architecture by John Ruskin.

The major difference in cataloging books in a museum rather than a library is adding the condition of the book to the catalog record. Libraries do not include a description of the condition of the book to the database. For museums, this is an important part of the record. When describing a book, we take note of the cover - is it leather or bookcloth, are there any embossings or gilt designs that make it unique. We also note any markings such as inscriptions or signatures of the owners of the book, as well as bookplates that may be on the inside of the cover. Once this is all in the database, we take measurements and photographs of the books. Pictures are taken of the title page, cover, and any bookplates or markings in the books.

While this is different from the process that I know from the library, it has been great to see how books are cataloged from the museum side.

~Virginia W. Blake

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Refining the Wheel: Library Edition

Greetings from the library at Kiplin Hall! For our field school project, Virginia Noxon and I are working with Kiplin's large collection of books, most of which date to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The books have been documented several times in the past, but they are now being recataloged as part of the museum's collection in the database system Catalist. We are busy working at the neverending museum job of fixing problems created by our predecessors while doing things that will probably drive our successors batty.

 Because of the multiplicity of former cataloging systems and the complexity of the current one, each book is associated with a dizzying array of numbers. If the book was at hand in 1893 when the local vicar inventoried the collection, it has one simple numerical identifier. He wrote out a list of all the books he found and penciled a number inside each cover. In the twentieth century, new catalogers scrapped the first system as they uncovered more books that he had missed. A 1972 inventory undertaken in Kiplin's first years as a museum started from scratch with a new but similarly straightforward numerical system (though these numbers are not actually written in the books).

In 1992 Kiplin began a complete inventory of all their possessions. This used an accession number scheme more typical for modern museums, with a year, group number, and item number all included. This system has the advantage of being infinitely expandable without getting longer (if the collection somehow grew to ten million artifacts eighty years from now, an accession number could be 2090.1.1 rather than 10,000,000). It also incorporates identifying information about the item into its moniker. The books were not fully cataloged in 1992, but the current curator wishes to continue with that number pattern. In a slightly confusing twist, we are continuing to write "1992" in each book because they were in the house at that time and should have been included in that survey. So my favorite book so far, a 1693 Latin-English dictionary, has the number 1992.1020.280 (1020 refers to the library, and it was the 280th book or set of books cataloged).

There are also other numbers associated with the latest cataloging attempt. Each book has a location marker based on its bay, shelf, and position on the shelf in the library. In addition, each photograph of it has a unique number (which is related to, but not the same as, the accession number). The first photo of the dictionary mentioned above gets KL280-1 ("KL" for Kiplin Library, "280" from the accession number, and "1" for the first photo). To make things especially complicated, Catalist can only recognize six digits when attaching a photo file name, so if the book is part of a set with a long number the "KL" gets shortened to just "L" or left out all together, convoluting the list. It's working for now, but I'm afraid future employees will be scratching their heads (if not cursing us outright) for the complexity of the system.

Commemorating Richmond: The Impact of Markers on a Historical Landscape

While touring Richmond with the Town Manager from the Richmond Swale Valley Community Initiative (RSVCI), it became difficult not to notice the miscellaneous markers occupying both vertical and horizontal spaces. Some of these markers can be attributed to the RSVCI, while others surely point to individuals, the town counsel, and perhaps even English Heritage, the organization charged with caring for Richmond Castle.

Markers can be useful. When used considerately, they bring to life aspects of a past long forgotten and unconsidered by many visitors. This holds particularly true for foreign visitors to Britain, as many have a rather vague notion of history, often both supplemented and impeded by the various literary and cinematic vehicles via which they receive it. However, the misplacement or overabundance of commemorative markers can ultimately detract from the historical landscape.

In Richmond, Trinity Church is surrounded by twelve benches, each commemorating one century of the city. Here is the 13th century marker and bench.


(1258 The Friary was founded by Ralph Fitz Randulph, Lord of Middleham, for Franciscan or Grey friars.
The friars were intellectual scholars who went out on preaching missions to the inhabitants of Richmond and beyond.)

I understand RSVCI’s intentions in installing these benches around the church. Their placement provides a place to rest and enjoy the newly revitalized* outer bailey of Richmond Castle, and the corresponding markers attempt to provide glimpses into the history of Richmond. But when considering these markers from a historical perspective, they fall short of their purpose. They tend to commemorate either a site located elsewhere in Richmond, such as the one above, or an event wholly unrelated and subsequently more anachronistic. The markers do not inform visitors of much of anything; nor do they assist in creating continuity. Perhaps the above marker would have found more meaning by the Friary Tower, shown below. A different, more appropriate location would greater serve the public, by tying vanished or vanishing sites to what the visitor is experiencing now. Indeed, in looking forward, the fact that these markers serve no purpose in commemorating Trinity Church may only prove to be confusing to future generations.

I also tend to agree with Lowenthal’s assessment that, “if some signposts save history, others drown it in trivia.”[1] Some of Richmond’s markers tend to lean towards the latter. For example, here is another one of the twelve markers surrounding Trinity Church:

(1789 The ballad of the Sweet Lass of Richmond Hill was written by Leonard MacNally for his young wife, local girl Frances I'Anson.
The identity of the 'Lass' has been the subject of controversial claims for many years.)

In giving this event one of the 12 markers, Richmond is encouraging the assumption that this is the most important thing to happen in Richmond in the 18th century. Surely a more significant event occurred that is more worthy of commemoration.

Here is another example, a marker I came across on Frenchgate:


While this rather obscure bit of trivia is part of the historical fabric of Richmond, does this specific site need to be commemorated? Where should the guardians of the history of Richmond draw the line? Do these types of markers undermine attempts to recognize more important relics and sites in Richmond?

We use markers to commemorate many events and historical sites in America as well, and there are examples of their proliferation at certain historical places. As Public Historians, we should take care that these markers do not subsequently overreach their purpose, thereby turning a place into nothing more than a pile of miscellaneous facts, each one more historically impotent than the last.

-Katharine Thompson

*I used the word revitalized instead of restored, as I feel they are using the term “restoration” as a vehicle to promote a certain aesthetic not entirely in keeping with what is historically accurate, but rather what is economically advantageous.

1. David Lowenthal, The Past is a Foreign Country (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 268.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Introduction to Kiplin Hall's Architectural and Landscape History

“The attraction of English stately homes is more than just one of architectural appreciation. They mirror the same variety of form that endears the countryside to us, with no one house being the same as the next.”
Trevor Yorke, The Country House Explained

Kiplin Hall, located near Scorton in England’s beautiful North Yorkshire, was built around 1625 by the First Lord Baltimore, George Calvert. Kiplin Hall was built in the Jacobean style (Jacobean refers to King James I of England) and originally was a symmetrical box design featuring two towers on each side of the house. Jacobean styles, along with the preceding Elizabethan style, were influenced by the Renaissance. Built of brick and some stone, Kiplin’s original exterior was very grand for its time and location in the 17th century.

Above: Parts of the original brick diapering are evident on Kiplin Hall's facade today. Diapering is a diagonal pattern of dark bricks formed into a diamond pattern within an overall English or Flemish brick bond.

Typical details of Jacobean Homes are the use of a central hall, symmetrical outward appearance and a long hall. Kiplin originally contained all three. Presently, the long hall is the only detail that remains spatially unaltered with the exeception to paint and decor.
As with most historical homes, changing ownership has left its mark externally and internally. During the 18th century the house was altered to accomodate more residential needs. George Calvert had never lived at Kiplin—preferring to use it as a hunting box and local showcase instead. A central staicase was added during the 18th century and the renovations took out the south tower staircase, but left the north tower’s stairs for use by servants. Kiplin’s landscape was also changed by added acreage and the creation of a serpentine lake that wound in front of the west facade. During this period, the road that ran in front of the east facade was altered to wind its way around the estate and allowed the current owners a chance to build the estate wall that now remains (albeit altered materially in places). The 1818 total acreage for Kiplin Hall was at 4500 acres.
Parkland lime trees that once lined a grand drive to Kiplin Hall's main entrance.

During the 19th century a Gothic style sitting room was added to the south area of the house—completely demolishing the remnants of the south tower. Updated service buildings were added and by 1890, an extensive servant’s wing was built. During this time the Gothic sitting room was made more architecturally fashionable and turned into a library. The formal gardens were added, complete with a sunken tennis court and avenue of limes (not the citrus limes). During World War II, the serpentine lake was stopped. By the late 20th century, the Victorian era service wing was mostly demolished. However, remnants of the Victorian servants wing are still evident in the “shadows” of the torn down buildings on the existing exterior walls of the Warden’s cottage. A lake was added along the west facade and filled in the land where it had been quarried for gravel (seen at right). Currently, the estate retains only around 150 acres of its original lands.
Conservation of landscape and buildings is a key issue in places such as Kiplin where funds are always needed for proper upkeep and maintenance of objects. Kiplin underwent a ‘restoration’ in the late 1970s to 1990s that served as a means to stabalize the house and control temperatures and pests. Kiplin Hall now serves as a house museum and is open to the public for tours. The gardens and surrounding parkland are also available to the public.
-Haley Grant

For further reading:
Watkin, David. English Architecture: A Concise History. London: Thames and Hudson, 1997.
Webster, Dawn with the Kiplin Hall Trust. Kiplin Hall. Spain: Graficas Santamaria, 2005.
Yorke, Trevor. The Country House Explained. Newbury, England: Countryside Books, 2005.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Easby Abbey: A Historical Perspective on Salvage

The ruins of Easby Abbey, an English Heritage managed property in North Yorkshire, are what is left of a Premonstratensian abbey built in the 12th Century. The grounds contain the remnants of the refectory, cloister, kitchens and outbuildings of a typical medieval religious site. It once supported 18 canons who administered communion and supplies to the surrounding "wilderness" of Northern England, although the abbey did have a reciprocal relationship with its hinterlands, as Kiplin Hall was one of the abbey's granges and supplied Easby with foodstuff and income.

The abbey's setting remains virtually unscathed- lambs graze in verdant fields, a footpath that once brought beggars, visitors and pilgrims now hosts day trippers, and the River Swale continues in its meandering course below the abbey. The abbey itself has fared far worse. King Henry VIII dissolved it in 1536, and the buildings and land were sold to a local aristocrat, Sir Henry Scrope, who then allowed the abbey to be used as a virtual stone quarry over the seceding generations. Much of the village of Easby was constructed from the abbey's salvaged stone. The finest stone was long stripped from the facade, and the walls' rubble fill is what is most visible today (see image at left). The most prized pieces of furnishings and decoration were rescued from destruction, including intricately carved choir stalls that are now within St. Mary's Church in Richmond.

To distill the story of the rise and fall of the abbey into more modern parlance, a building that once served as the heart-center of a growing community was eventually seen as obsolete and
"became redundant," to adopt British terminology. The very materials whose sum parts produced a home for generations and served as a potent symbol for the spread of "civilization" into the medieval "wilderness" were removed to be used for seemingly more useful purposes. The abbey no longer was legally, socially or economically viable, thus its parts were dispersed across the countryside to fit a contemporary need, and its best pieces were hauled off to more important population centers.

Does this sound at all familiar to how old buildings are treated in some places today? Consider the derelict barns that form the quintessence of the American rural landscape. These venerable structures were the focal points of rural life and community. And now they are mostly obsolete. Their finest bits are hauled to antique stores while their patinaed wood is salvaged and used as flooring for chic kitchens and cabinetry for eco-conscious homes.
As seen in the examples of Easby Abbey and deconstructed structures in the US today, salvage is an historical pursuit, and it does have many benefits. However, in our eagerness to demolish and dismantle our built heritage when its function appears to have been eclipsed, we may be destroying what those in the future see as awe-inspiring architecture of distinctive vernacular structures. We need to reconsider the long term impacts of expedient decisions when we mine our built environment for currently desirable materials, and, in the process, turn historic structures into skeletons (as in the case of Easby) of their once proud selves.
When deciding the fate of a redundant building, consider rehabilitating the structure first, explore options for moving the building if retrofitting is not an option, and only finally consider salvaging the structures' materials. This way we can conserve our built and ecological environments.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Welcome to Kiplin

Bravely facing volcanic explosions and airline crew strikes, everyone has finally made it across the ocean and safely arrived at Kiplin Hall, our home for the next three weeks. After settling in to the feeling that we’ve all just walked into a Jane Austen novel, complete with the evening stroll around the lake, it is time to get down to business.

For 20 years Connie Schulz has been leading students from the University of South Carolina to Kiplin Hall in North Yorkshire to participate in the England Field School. Following Connie’s retirement, I have stepped in to fill her footsteps. This year I bring with me two museum studies students, two historic preservation students, an archives student, and a library science student. Together we will mark the next phase of the EFS.

The basic structure of the course is to alternate between site visits and project days. On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, we will be travelling the countryside visiting museums, archives, and historic attractions, meeting with the curators, librarians, and site managers who keep the places going. We will discover the challenges of preserving 9th century pilgrimage sites, as well as the challenges of keeping towns accessible for their 21st century inhabitants. Our visits will include a walk along Hadrian’s Wall with representatives from both the National Trust and English Heritage, comparing Rievaulx Abbey with a WWII star site in a discussion led by an Inspector of Ancient Monuments, a tour of Harewood House by the Head of House and Collections, and a walk through the Beamish Open Air Museum with the Keeper of Social History, just to name a few.

On Tuesdays and Thursdays, each of the students will work on a project designed by Dawn Webster, curator of Kiplin Hall. Haley Grant and Anjuli Grantham will be researching and writing a report on the newly uncovered foundations of the 19th century conservatory along the garden wall. Rebecca Bush and Katharine Thompson will be establishing an expandable archival system for the papers of Kiplin’s Board of Trustees. Virginia Blake and Sarah Swinney will continue cataloging Kiplin’s library, a project begun by EFS students two years ago – only 1500 or so more books to go!

Throughout the course, students will keep you posted on their progress through this blog. Enjoy the adventure.

--Allison Marsh