CityLIS Research Student Profile: Jerald Cavanagh


We are delighted to welcome three new research students to CityLIS for 16/17.

In this post, Jerald Cavanagh tells us a little about his background and shares his initial research plans.

Jerald will examine, explore and evaluate the different mechanisms currently (if any, what types, how are they used, are they the most effective etc.) used to evaluate European Union Erasmus + Capacity Building Projects. The aim is to review similarities and differences between methods used throughout sectors of the EU with a view to deriving a universal evaluation tool which can be used to measure the impact of EU projects.

Jerald will be working under the supervision of Dr Lyn Robinson and Professor David Bawden.

You can follow Jerald on Twitter: @jeraldcavanagh


I started my career in the Irish Navy (yes we actually do have a Navy) in 1981. Just over two years later I transferred to the Military College in the Irish Defence Forces Training Centre where I spent the best part of a very interesting and adventurous military career spanning over twenty years. This journey brought me from the Glens of Wicklow to the Wadies of South Lebanon and a few places in-between.

At some point, I decided to hand in my musket and to end the more active part of my military career to become a professional librarian in the Defence Forces Library. I earned an honours degree in Library and Information Studies after graduating from the University of Wales, Aberystwyth.

I enjoyed a fantastic and interesting career in the Military Library until I retired in 2002 when I started working as Deputy Librarian in the Institute of Technology Tallaght located in South County Dublin. I only spent one year in that role before I took up the position of Institute Librarian, in the Limerick Institute of Technology.

I am currently Head of the Library and I am part of the senior management team for over fourteen years. I also lead a number of multi-country European Union funded projects which requires intensive change management and project management skills and experience.

My work involves, strategic planning, financial management, human resource management and planning staff development and training.

At present I oversee thirty information professionals, on four library sites, who are enthusiastic, creative and work as a team with a common focus. Together we deliver our services to take advantage of technological and digital advancements to ensure resources of all types are available when our patrons require them. We strive to be creative and bring innovation to our services while maintaining our core principles as librarians.

My professional interests are the constant desire to create new opportunities, lead my teams by example, mentor and coach staff through change initiatives and delivering new and exciting developments.

As mentioned above, I hold a degree in Information and Library Studies from the University of Wales. I also received a post graduate degree in e-learning and an honours Master’s Degree in Learning Technologies, both from the National College of Ireland. In addition, I completed an honours Master’s Degree in Education Planning and Management with the International Institute for Educational Planning, UNESCO Paris. This MA course was focused on improving education systems in developing countries, and was very valuable to me personally and professionally. The knowledge and expertise I gained from this study has assisted me in my current role both in Ireland and overseas in providing high end, state of the art information and library services to staff and students and other stakeholders.

Following on from my experience in Paris, I became involved in European Union (EU) Tempus and Erasmus+ Capacity Building in the Field of Higher Education (CBHE) projects. Working on these projects has enlightened me to many things, in many countries and many places. To date I have been involved in nine projects, in counties such as Albania, Armenia, Belarus, Bosnia and Herzegovina, China, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kosovo, Moldova, Montenegro, Russia, Laos, Ukraine, and Vietnam. I’m also involved in a number of other EU Erasmus + International Credit Mobility projects in Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan. So I have been around a bit, and I love this quote from Hans Christian Andersen, in The Fairy Tale of My Life,

“To move, to breathe, to fly, to float,

To gain all while you give,

To roam the roads of lands remote,

To travel is to live.”

The projects which I’m involved with are varied and concentrated on delivering change and enhancing best practice to help improve current conditions. Projects range in subject matter from information literacy, to training for doctoral research students to university vocational teaching methodology’s. Other projects focus on modernising libraries through staff development and reforming libraries and promoting access to society for people with individual requirements and disabilities (more detailed descriptions of each project can be seen here:

For my research I hope to draw on my experience of Erasmus + Capacity Building projects, both as a project leader and as part of the EU project partnership teams. What I want to examine, explore and evaluate are the different mechanisms currently (if any, what types, how are they used, are they the most effective etc.) used to evaluate European Union Erasmus + Capacity Building Projects. I will be reviewing similarities and differences between methods used throughout sectors of the EU with a view to deriving a universal evaluation tool which can be used to measure the impact of EU projects.

I also want to examine collaboration and synergies between past and present projects in similar subject areas and within regions. The research will establish the level of awareness of these projects from a project partner or project leader perspective and explore how these effect or impact on capacity building in their regions. The EU spends tens of millions of euros on educational projects each year. Erasmus + Capacity Building projects are a large part of this spend. Throughout my time working on projects, I have always got a sense that more could be done to measure the effects of projects, to measure the impact and to examine what if anything has changed as a result of a particular project being undertaken. Establishing proof of impact of projects can be a challenging task. Measuring the impact of projects can be hampered by ambiguity and claims of the success of projects or otherwise often go unsubstantiated, because they focus mainly on outcomes, deliverables and budget spend over the duration of the projects. Little attention is given to measuring the impact of projects during their life cycle, nor to the short to medium term duration after a project has concluded. Key stakeholder input is essential to measure this so as to establish a more accurate picture of the true impact of projects. It is not my intention to look at the long term effects of projects such as this. However, it is intended that this research will aid future research in the area which may be used by upcoming researchers and students.

My journey in this research I imagine will be quite challenging and may at times be a bit like trying to pick up mercury with a fork. However, with some hard work, guidance from my supervisor Dr. Lyn Robinson and perseverance I hope to come up with an effective universal evaluation tool which can be used to measure the quality, effect and impact of Erasmus + Capacity Building projects.

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CityLIS Writes: Gregorian chant and the story of musical documentation by David Baker

***This essay was written by CityLIS student David Baker in December 2016. It is reproduced here with the author’s permission as part of our CityLIS Writes initiative.***

Gregorian chant is the name given to a large collection of monodic (i.e. single-line) melodies which were sung as part of the religious rituals of the medieval Christian Church in the Latin West, from around the eighth century onwards. Somewhat ironically, in recent years this type of music has found its way into a secular context, primarily in the form of ambient playlists for purposes of relaxation and reflection, or as part of the soundtrack for many a medieval-inspired film and television drama. Nevertheless, it has a deep-set history in the Roman Catholic liturgy[1] and is still used today around the world in the daily prayers of monastic and clerical communities and in the celebration of Mass according to the Roman rite.[2]

As with of all kinds of music which date from before the invention of sound recording devices in the mid-nineteenth century, our knowledge of Gregorian chant is entirely dependent upon written documents which survive from the Middle Ages, the earliest of which are dated to around the year 900 AD. The history of these documents and the forms they take can tell us a great deal about the transmission and reception of chant. What is more, they are also our main source for the sounds of Gregorian chant itself and for much of our information regarding the practices and modes of worship of the medieval Church. In this paper, I will investigate the ways in which the documentary forms given to this important repertoire of medieval music mirrors wider issues of changing musical documentation and notation.

First, it is worth examining a little more closely some of the concepts involved in the documentation of music. As a form of human communication, music is thought to be about as old as language itself. Yet, in some ways, music could be said to resist being recorded in abstract written symbols in a way language does not. Our aural experience of hearing a melody, on the one hand, relies upon the perception of successive combinations of pitch, tonality and rhythm, in the same way as speech does. On the other hand, the elements required to create an efficient transfer of information by means of the written word—that is, a recognised series of signs which, when combined, allow the user to encode the semantic content of the message—are at once fewer and less dependent upon a precise performative context than in the case of music. To put it another way, while the written word aims to give form to what is—or, rather, was—said, it does not for the most part need, and is not able, to offer an account of what it sounded like.

Music, by contrast, is the result of an ordered series of sounds normally produced by means of vibrations emanating from either the performer’s vocal chords or from some form of instrument. A large part of the essence of a melody resides in precisely how these sounds are experienced, in real time, by a listener or group of listeners. For this reason, forms of musical documentation can be said necessarily to involve the encoding of some sort of performance: [3] one which either occurred at some point in the past or is envisaged as being enacted in the future. Like a recipe book or play script, therefore, written musical notation can function as a record which points towards the successful reproduction of a certain aural experience—provided, that is, that enough information regarding the performative factors which characterise that experience (such as, in the case of music, pitch, note duration, rhythm, tempo, etc.) has been supplied. Modern sheet music, for example, includes a complex system of signs, markings and annotations, all of which enable the performer to interpret how the composer or arranger of the piece of music in question had intended it to sound, and then to reproduce the same effects (albeit with a certain amount of space left for artistic licence).

Earlier forms of musical document, situated as they are in a different context, can appear more simplistic in their approach to the representation of musical information. The earliest examples of musical notation from the Ancient Near East and the Greek world typically involve the substitution of letters or other signs for particular sounds.[4] This system is sufficient to encode the pitches of the melody, but the absence of elements suggesting factors such as rhythm or note duration can make it difficult for those familiar with modern methods of musical documentation—largely a product of the nineteenth century and the rise in the popular mass printing of music that occurred during this period—to interpret how these melodies might have sounded. Since early musical production was conducted as part of a primarily oral culture, its performers had the advantage of being situated within a living musical tradition. This meant that they either knew or had learnt melodies through other, most likely aural, means. In this context, early notation systems were likely intended as a memory aid for a performer or, in the case of music for religious rituals, perhaps as a way of establishing which melodies were to be performed together with which texts. As we shall see, all these points also apply to the forms of document in which we find Gregorian chant recorded.

As has already been mentioned, written records of Gregorian melodies first appear in manuscripts dated to the late ninth century. The Latin texts associated with the chants, of which the majority are excerpts from the Book of Psalms and other parts of the Bible, are of course much older in terms of their textual tradition as part of the biblical canon; their assignment as texts to be sung during certain parts of the complex ritual drama that makes up the Church’s liturgy, and at certain standard times and seasons in the year, can be traced back to around the end of the seventh century, first appearing in documents dating from around 700 AD.[5] This process of standardisation had its origins in the practice of the church in Rome in the early medieval period and the customary forms of worship sponsored there by successive Roman pontiffs, including Pope Gregory I the Great († c. 604), after whom Gregorian chant is sometimes thought to be named.[6]

In the wake of Charlemagne’s coronation of himself as Holy Roman Emperor in the city in 800 AD, these practices also became the official standard and were promoted throughout the Frankish king’s extensive realm. Since, for political reasons, the Carolingian rulers were eager to have their liturgical customs be seen to be in communion with those of Rome, they likewise sought to adopt Roman method of singing the liturgy by employing cantors who had been trained in the papal courts to teach their own monks and cathedral singers. Very little is known about what precise form this music might have taken, since no contemporary documents for it survive, but scholarly consensus suggests that much of the repertoire we know today as Gregorian chant is the product of an amalgamation of Roman and Frankish traditions of liturgical song.[7] Indeed, it is precisely within a Carolingian sphere of influence that these melodies first become tangible, in the form of manuscripts containing the liturgical texts notated with signs (or neumes) indicating a progression of relative pitches, the earliest of which were produced in the decades surrounding the year 900 AD.[8]

As we might expect of a religion which had always put great store by the technology of the codex, books had a large part to play in the liturgical life of the medieval Church, and books of chant were no exception. Various types of medieval document containing chant notation survive, most of them dating from later in the Middle Ages; from the evidence of these it is possible to trace, among other things, some aspects of the development of chant notation in the medieval period.

The most common kinds of medieval book to contain Gregorian chant in notation are the gradual and the antiphonal. Together with other texts such as the missal and the breviary, these represent part of the extensive collections of documents which monastic and other church communities in the Middle Ages required in order to perform the daily round of services which comprised the Church’s liturgy. The gradual contained the texts and music for the parts of the Mass sung by the choir; it typically gave the antiphons (short pieces of chanted text) for the ‘proper’ of the Mass, that is, those texts which vary according to the season of status of a particular day in the Church calendar (as opposed to the ‘ordinary’ texts, which are sung at every Mass). The missal, by contrast, contained all the texts for the different parts of the Mass, including the prayers recited by the priest, the scriptural readings, and the chants. These also sometimes included notation for the chant melodies. Although during the Middle Ages, it became a liturgical requirement to have the missal open on the altar during celebration of the Mass,[9] nevertheless, medieval missals commonly give only the opening words of readings and chants, suggesting that they were primarily intended for reference rather than as a functional performance text.

Rather like the gradual, the antiphonal contained the chant texts for the antiphons sung as part of the Divine Office (otherwise known as the Liturgy of the Hours). This was the name given to the series of eight services made up of psalms, prayers and readings that were sung at regular times throughout the day.[10] The full set of texts for the Office was contained in another book called a breviary; many of these also contain musical notation. Especially during the later Middle Ages, the breviary was employed primarily for private devotion and was therefore of slightly smaller and more portable format than the larger choir books, the gradual and the antiphonal. The large number of these kinds of books that were required by monastic and other church communities in the Middle Ages in order to supply the necessary information for their liturgical needs is attested by the substantial number which have survived in libraries the world over.

That the function of medieval books containing chant was to serve as a point of reference for the memory of singers, rather than as a book to read from while performing, is indicated by their format and by the style of their notation. As Crocker (2000) observes, most liturgical manuscripts produced before the fourteenth century are simply not large enough for a group of singers to stand around and sing from. Some are very richly decorated, these may in fact have been intended for show, as visible objects of authority to be placed on the altar or carried in procession through the church; alternatively, the time and effort taken to illuminate these manuscripts may be a measure of the honour given to their contents and their official status as approve service books for Mass and Office.

The form of notation in medieval chant manuscripts also developed throughout the Middle Ages. The graduals and antiphonals that have survived from the ninth and tenth centuries employ a form of staffless notation, the aim of which is to represent the musical shape of the melody in terms of a succession of single pitches and groups of pitches, represented by way of fine strokes of a scribe’s pen that appear to hover almost weightlessly over the line of text.[11] This type of notation can be best seen in the gradual from Laon (Bibliothèque municipale, MS 239) dated to c. 930.[12] In the eleventh and twelfth centuries, a movement towards a notational practice which employed a staff of a kind more familiar from later Western musical tradition, was inspired by the work of the Italian monk and musical theorist, Guido d’Arezzo († c. 1050). Guido’s innovation was the use of a four-line staff, with the lines for the notes F and C marked in a different colour or by using a clef (a sign to indicate which pitch corresponds to which line). Since these two notes each come above a semitone in the standard diatonic scale (inherited by the Middle Ages from the Greek musical tradition, and used as standard in Gregorian chant), it is possible to map out other pitches in the melody by reference to those.[13]

The introduction of the staff does not necessarily signal a change in the primarily mnemonic function of Gregorian notation, at least not as far as the traditional repertoire of melodies was concerned. As Hiley (2009) points out, part of the motivation behind the introduction of tools to help singers towards a more accurate pitching of chant can be explained by the influx of new melodies to liturgical corpus, in response to the addition of more saints’ days to the calendar during this period during this period. Thus, the singers (or the cantor who trained them) would still have been able to intone their familiar melodies by heart, while needing the help of the staffs to interpret those which were outside the tradition.

Much of the methods used to notate Gregorian chant in the Middle Ages would stay practically the same up until the waning of the tradition itself at the dawn of the Renaissance, and its replacement with new forms of liturgical music. It is only in the later revivals of earlier forms of Gregorian chant as a practical music of liturgical worship by the monks of Abbey of St Pierre in Solesmes in the nineteenth century that a new chapter in the story of the documentation and reception of chant begins to open. Inspired by the reawakening of Catholic life in France and a new appreciation for Gothic art and architecture during in the first half of the nineteenth century, a number of monks from the newly-founded community of Solesmes began to study medieval chant manuscripts (many of which had, by this point, been collected into the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, established in 1789). Their hope in doing so was to rediscover the original, pure forms of liturgical practice and, above all, methods of singing which had been lost in the Revolution.[14]

The results of these labours were several publications, beginning in 1883 with the first Solesmes Graduale Romanum, which sought to present Gregorian chant as the most authoritative and most natural style of music for the Church. Suitably framed in typefaces and a notational style that evoked the glory days of fourteenth-century French Gothic art, these books were accompanied by companion volumes which offered collections of facsimiles of the principal chant manuscripts from libraries across Europe.[15] The use of photo-reproductive technologies and the production of facsimiles signalled the final step in the changing reception of Gregorian chant from one of a living tradition in the medieval Church to a scholarly and antiquarian field of study which valued a particular conception of the past. With the publication of the official Vatican edition of the Solesmes-produced Graduale (1908) and Antiphonale (1912), and subsequent revisions of both these texts following the Second Vatican Council (1963-1965), the Solesmes method of representing Gregorian chant has gradually become the authoritative standard. For those in the modern Catholic Church with an interest in the musical heritage of the liturgy, these documents are now the primary form in which Gregorian chant is encountered.

In conclusion, the importance of Gregorian chant notation lies in the fact that it is the direct ancestor of much of our modern traditions of musical documentation. Yet the changes that occurred in the documents that represent chant in written form also mark its transformation from a part of the oral tradition of medieval Christian worship to a form of music that belongs to the past and needs to be re-learnt today (if it is learnt at all) by reference to standardised service books. It is fitting, therefore, that this part of our musical heritage—one which even in the Middle Ages sought to represent an authoritative liturgical standard for —should still, to a modern listener, seem to evoke a standardised (albeit somewhat stereotyped) image of the spirituality and mysticism of the medieval past.


Barlow, C. (compiler) (2011) Singing the Mass: Sung Order of Mass in English and Latin.

Solesmes: Éditions de Solesmes.

Bent, I. et al. “Notation.” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press. Available at: (Accessed: 19 December 2016).

Bergeron, K. (1998) Decadent Enchantments: The Revival of Gregorian Chant at Solesmes. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press.

Clemens, R., and Graham, T. (2007) Introduction to Manuscript Studies. Ithaca, N.Y.:

Cornell University Press.

Crocker, R. (2000) An Introduction to Gregorian Chant. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Fowells, R. (2007) Chant Made Simple: An Introduction to the Ancient Neumes. Brewster, Mass.: Paraclete Press.

Gant, A. (2015) O Sing Unto the Lord: A History of English Church Music. London: Profile.

Gleick, J. (2011) The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood. London: Fourth Estate.

Graduale Romanum (1974). Solesmes: Abbaye Saint-Pierre.

Gregorian Missal (1990). Solesmes: Abbaye Saint-Pierre.

Hiley, D. (2009) Gregorian Chant. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

doi: cbo9780511807848 (Accessed: 28 November 2016).

Saulnier, D. (2003) Gregorian Chant: A Guide. Translated by E. Schaefer. Solesmes: Abbaye


Strayer, H. (2013) ‘From Neumes to Notes: The Evolution of Music Notation’, Musical

Offerings, 4(1), pp. 1-14. doi: 10.15385/jmo.2013.4.1.1

Available at: (Accessed: 13 October 2016).

Whitworth, B. (2012) Music in the Liturgy. London: Catholic Truth Society.

[1] ‘Liturgy’, from Gk. leitourgia, denotes a ‘service’ done for the public good; in the context of Christian worship, it refers to everything that is performed as part of the daily round of services that are offered up by the Church on behalf of the faithful to give thanks and praise to God.

[2] Among the most accessible introductions to Gregorian chant as it appears within the context of modern Roman Catholic liturgical practice include those by Crocker (2000), Saulnier (2003), Fowells (2007), and Whitworth (2012). The chants for the post-Vatican II Roman rite (in Latin) can be found in the Solesmes editions of the Graduale Romanale (1974) and (in English and Latin) the Gregorian Missal (1990); for an edition of the Ordinary of the Mass based on the new English translation of the Roman Missal (2010), see also Singing the Mass, ed. by Christopher Barlow (2011).

[3] This of course holds true as much of recordings of music on CD or MP3 as it does of musical notation in written form, although in a slightly different way. Indeed, the modern experience of encountering music (including Gregorian chant) divorced from a performance situation in the present is uncannily one of extending the audible life of a musical performance which occurred at a moment in the past.

[4] The earliest clear example of musical notation is to be found on a cuneiform tablet from the Mesopotamian city of Nippur dated to around 2000 BC. With the emergence of the Greek alphabet in early centuries of the 1st millennium BC, the way was cleared for Greek musical notation to harness an alphabetic method of describing pitches; this seems to be the case from around 500 BC. For more on ancient musical notation, see the discussions in Bent et al. (2016) and Strayer (2013).

[5] See the discussion in Crocker (2000), chapt. 6.

[6] Crocker (2000), p. 7.

[7] See, for instance, the discussions of the issue in Crocker (2000), Saulnier (2003), and Hiley (2009).

[8] Two of the earliest surviving examples of these manuscripts are Stiftsbibliothek St Gallen, Cod. Sang. 359; and Laon, Bibliothèque municipale, MS 239. For images of these manuscripts, see Crocker (2000), pp. 154-55; online facsimiles can be found here (via E-Codices):; and (via Europeana) here:

[9] See Crocker (2000), p. 153.

[10] These are: Matins (or the Night Office), Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, and Compline. For more information on the Office and the Mass, see the discussions by Hiley (2009, chap. 1), Saulnier (2003, chap. 2) and Crocker (2000, chap. 6).

[11] This type of notation can be best seen in the gradual from Laon (MS 239) dated to c. 930.

[12] For an image of this manuscript, see Crocker (2000), p. 155, Plate 2. A full online facsimile is also available online via Europeana here:

[13] The first surviving manuscript using this notation is a gradual from Rome dated to 1071 (Cod. Bodmer 74 in the Fondation Martin Bodmer in Cologny, Switzerland). For a facsimile of the manuscript see the one provided online by the e-Codices project, available here:

[14] On the aesthetic motivations of the Solesmes monks, see the discussion by Bergeron (1998).

[15] For instance, the series Paléographie Musicale, first published by the monks of Solesmes in 1889.


More of David’s work can be found on his blog The Cathologuer, and you can follow him on Twitter @thulrbaker.

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#CityLIS Events: Visit to the Internet Archive by Sophie Johnston

*** This post is by current MA/MSc Library Science student Sophie Johnston. Here she describes the background to the CityLIS forthcoming visit to the Internet Archive. Sophie is our student rep for Library Science for 16/17.***

I am now in the second term of my MA/MSc in Library Science and we’ve started studying on a module called Digital Libraries. In this class we’ve been discussing the role of libraries in the digital age and the ways in which online content for libraries, archives, museums, and art galleries are now arguably blurring into the single category of ‘digital libraries’.

The relevancy of digital content in libraries cannot be overstated as so much content is either born online or duplicated online, creating the need for digital preservation. Which is where organisations like the Internet Archive come in. Created in 1996 and located in San Francisco, they are a non-profit organisation and rely on data donations from others. They believe in the importance of preserving cultural artefacts and as there is a danger of webpages being deleted and their content never being recovered, their mission is to capture as much online content as possible. [1]

Despite having the word ‘archive’ in the organisation name, there is regular mention on their website of the organisation as a ‘library’; for example, ‘The Internet Archive is one of the world’s largest public digital libraries’. [2] This goes back to my earlier mention of the crossover between digital libraries and digital archives. As physical spaces these are two different places, and yet it can be difficult to define the distinction between their digital counterparts.

It therefore seemed appropriate to try and arrange a visit to the digitisation centre at the Internet Archive’s London offices. Chris Booth, Digitisation Manager, has kindly agreed to show our class around and talk to us about their current projects and processes. This is a fantastic opportunity and we’re all looking forward to it.

Access to the Internet archive is via their website. The homepage has a search engine function for the whole site as well as a banner at the top of the page to search their ‘Wayback Machine’. This function allows you to search for a url, or keywords, and look at archived webpages by date. A search for the BBC news website came back with 25,306 archived webpages saved between December 1, 1998 and February 19, 2017. Overall the Wayback Machine claims to have 279 billion webpages saved.


A nice feature about the homepage is that if you scroll down the page you are given a large selection of their top collections. These are in no specific order and it a great way to explore the collection in the same serendipitous way you might browse a bookshop or physical library. Collections include ‘Russian Audiobooks’ (28,303 items), ‘Hip Hop Mixtapes’ (12,055 items), ‘Classic PC Games’ (9,923 items), and ‘Political Ads’, (3,475 items) to name a few. There is also the option to browse via media type, with options for images, software, audio, video, texts, and web.

The Internet Archive seems like a great tool for digital preservation, as well as a publicly accessible resource. It will be interesting to see how both the Library and Information Science community and others look back, in say 30 years, at organisations like this and how helpful they have proven to be in cultural preservation.





This post first appeared on Sophie’s blog LibraryGoth on February 19th 2017. Sophie is also on Twitter as @sophieanna30

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#citylis Reflections and Research: Gutta percha: forgotten material of the communication revolution by David Bawden

This #citylis Reflections and Research post is by David Bawden and looks at a material oft forgotten in discussions on the communication revolution…


Few other materials have had such a revolutionary impact on the world. And few others have been forgotten so quickly.
(Ben Wilson, Heyday: Britain and the birth of the modern world, Weidenfeld and Nicholson, London, 2016, p. xxiii)

Palaquim fruit tree (Rimbun Daham Arts centre)

Palaquim fruit tree (Rimbun Daham Arts centre)

Describing gutta percha as “the vanished material that made the telecommunication revolution possible”, Ben Wilson gives it centre-stage in his history of Britain in 1850s. A form of rubber, gutta percha is derived from the sap of the the palaquium fruit tree, native to what is now Malaysia; if drawn off and exposed to air, it solidifies. If heated, it becomes a pliable latex, and can be formed and hardened into whatever shape is needed. The local people had used it for centuries for items such as utensil handles and vases. Although British travellers had noted its strange properties in the sixteenth century, it was not until 1832 that a government doctor, William Montgomery, realised the significance of its properties.

Domestic items made from gutta percha (Atlantic Cable website)

Domestic items made from gutta percha (Atlantic Cable website)

Within a decade a new industry had developed. The hard, pliable latex was washed, folded into blocks, and brought by ship from Singapore to London, and to the new, and by the standards of the time, very high-tech, factory of the Gutta Percha Company, at Wharf Road, Islington. A report of a visit to the factory by a journalist in the early 1850s appeared in the The Illustrated Exhibitor and Magazine of Art. He noted that “We enter a modest-looking doorway between a pair of folding gates, on which the words ‘Gutta Percha Company’ are printed, and we become speedily aware that a branch of manufacture of which we hitherto knew next to nothing is being carried on within”. In the manufacturing process, the gutta-percha was boiled, shaved by a cutting machine, boiled again, then kneaded at high temperature, cooled in another machine and rolled into sheets, to be sold to manufacturers around the world.” Gutta-percha became ubiquitous in mid-Victorian daily life, used in tents, clothing, shoes, jewellery, domestic appliances and furniture. Waterproof, and resistant to acids, salt water, and chemicals, it was invaluable to industry for many purposes.

Atlantic cable, encased in gutta percha (Atlantic Cable website)

Atlantic cable, encased in gutta percha (Atlantic Cable website)

Its significance for information history, is that it is not only strong and waterproof, but also does not deteriorate when submerged for long periods in salt water, it proved the perfect insulator for electric wiring for undersea telegraph cables. The first cross channel cable, laid by HMS Blazer in 1851, was made from 100 miles of copper telegraph wire encased in a tube of gutta-percha, provided by the Gutta-Percha Company; four lengths were twined together with hemp, and encased in galvanised iron wiring as a protection. In 1858 it was used to insulate the first (unsuccessful) trans-Atlantic cable.
Subsequently, the Gutta-Percha Company amalgamated with Glass, Elliot and Co., a maker and layer of cables, to form the Telegraph Construction and Maintenance Co. Ltd. (Telcon), who made the successful Atlantic cable laid in 1866. Its use in supporting the infrastructure of the communications revolution continued until after the end of the nineteenth century.

HMS Agamemnon laying the first Atlantic cable in 1858 (National Maritime Museum)

HMS Agamemnon laying the first Atlantic cable in 1858 (National Maritime Museum)

Gutta percha fell from widespread use during the twentieth century, replaced for most purposes by synthetic materials, particularly polyethylene. It is still, however, widely used in dentistry; a worthwhile use certainly, but perhaps a come-down for a material which played a major part in the instantiation of the modern information age.


This post was originally published on his blog, The Occasional Informationist, on February 5th 2017. David Bawden is on Twitter @David_Bawden.

If you are a current #citylis student or alumni and would like to contribute a post, please contact our Editor, James Atkinson.

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CityLIS AfterHours: We hunt in packs: an introduction to radical librarianship

Simon & Binni at CityLIS photo by @lynrobinson cc-by

On Monday 20th March 2017, CityLIS will welcome back our smashing colleagues Binni Brynolf and Simon Barron, who will lead an informal discussion about radical librarianship and the politics of librarianship, what the Radical Librarians Collective is and does, and how to be radical in your day-to-day life.

The discussion will start shortly after 5.00pm in room A109 in the College Building at City, University of London. The evening will last around 90 mins, although there is always the option to go on to the pub afterwards :)

The event is part of our open, CityLIS #AfterHours discussion series, and anyone interested in the subject of radical librarianship is welcome to attend. There is no need to book, and light refreshments will be provided. A complete list of CityLIS events, including #AfterHours sessions, can be seen on our Events Page.

Radical Librarians Collective
Journal of Radical Librarianship

Follow: @RLC_SE, @RadicalLibs

You can also follow Simon and Binni on Twitter.

Event contact:

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