#citylis Student Perspectives: Thomas Ash on Books, bugs and a dead rat…Hands on History at the National Archives

Student Perspectives is our series of guest posts written by current #citylis students.

This post is by current #citylis student Thomas Ash.

#citylis Student Thomas Ash

#citylis Student Thomas Ash

Late last year I was fortunate enough to attend a #citylis arranged visit to the National Archives which included a talk about their work and a behind the scenes tour; some of their operations including document handling, conservation and digitisation.  Sadly no pictures were allowed.

Since then I have been lucky enough to find the time to go back for two free talks which they have provided as part of a programme called Hands on History:

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Polygraphiae libri sex Ioannis Trithemij, abbatis Peapolitani quondam Spanheimensis, ad Maximilianum Caesarem.- 1518


The first event presented an opportunity to examine and interact with a selection of rare books printed and published between 1518 and 1798.

Although, I would have found it interesting anyway, it was especially relevant as one of my recent #citylis assignments focused on the impact of printing on Libraries in the early modern period. Having read about the features introduced by printing, such as contents and title pages, here was a chance to seem them in the flesh, or paper as it were.

There was a wide selection of different books on display including a book on the history of the Exchequer of the Kings of England, a book entitled The compleat surveyor or, The whole art of surveying of land : by a new instrument lately invented; as also by the plain table, circumferentor, the theodolite as now improv’d, or by the chain only, which contained an array of fold out diagrams, or the beautifully illustrated Cosmographia Petri Apiani : per Gemmam Frisium apud Louanienses medicum & mathematicum insignem, iam demum ab omnibus vindicata mendis, ac nonnullis quoque locis aucta, & annotationibus marginalibus illustrata.

An image of the title page of The Compleat Surveyor
The Compleat Surveyor…1722

Some of the books were still in original bindings, while others showed signs of conservation works carried out in the past.

One book of particular interest was an early legal dictionary titled The interpreter, or, Booke containing the signification of words : wherein is set forth the true meaning of all, or the most part of such words and termes, as are mentioned in the law writers, or statutes of this … kingdome …: a worke … necessary for such as desire throughly to be instructed in the knowledge of our lawes, statutes, or other antiquities / collected by John Cowell. which had been banned for some of its definitions, relating to the monarchy when it was first published, although its subsequent release featured acceptable and amended definitions.

Title page of the the book the Interpreter which was banned upon first release
The Interpreter or book containing significant words 1637

According to the catalogue of the National Archives manuscript note pasted in the front reads: “The first edition of this book was suppressed in 1610 – a proclamation denounced it as a pernicious book made against the honor and prerogative of the Crown and the dignity of the law. It was not printed again until 1637. Cowell was imprisoned.” References to State Papers are given and a note that says See under Subsidy, King, Parliament, Prerogative. (For those interested a digitized copy of the book is available online here)

Ammended defintions

The talk gave an insight into the provenance of the books and in some cases how they ended up in the National Archives.  One featured a note saying that the book had belonged to a member of the archives staff before being given to the Archive by the Chief Librarian of Kingston upon Thames, though this was many years ago now.

There were many other books on display including the effectively titled:

The Office of the clerk of assize : containing the form and method of the proceedings at the assizes and general gaol-delivery as also on the crown and nisi prius side: together with The Office of the clerk of the peace: shewing the true manner and form of the proceedings at the Court of General Quarter-Sessions of the Peace: wih divers forms of presentments and other precedents at assizes and sessions: with a table of fees thereunto belonging. (catalogue record)

Published in 1682 this book was the standard book for the assize clerks and once belonged to Sir John Trollope MP once 7th Baronet Trollope of Casewick, later 1st Baron Kesteven and President of the Poor Law Board.

It was amazing to be able to view such rare books up close (and there was no need for white gloves, although they provide supports and weights, the latter seen in the first photograph) and to be able to look through them albeit delicately. Another bonus was that I could take photos with my phone…

Beyond the opportunity to see these beautiful rare books, it gave me an idea of the difficulties and challenges that are involved in both the cataloguing and conservation of rare books.


Warning the next section contain pictures of insects and a mummified rat look away now if you’re easily grossed out

You have been warned…


Conservation at The National Archives: Bugs and preventive conservation

The second event I attended was another Hands on History and was all about conservation at the National Archives and was not for anyone who dislikes bugs. It also featured my favourite item from the Archives:

A Mummified Rat

The talk was given by staff from the Collection Care and looked how they prevent damage from insects and other pests.

In their work the Collection Care team have to deal with a wide range of pests, some of which may directly affect the collections such as the Case Bearing Clothes Moth, which feeds on Textiles, Guernsey Carpet Beetles, Furniture Beetle and the Common Book Louse. Some insects feed on bindings, others may bore through and eat their way into covers and pages.

The National Archives hold a large collection of tally sticks which show signs of furniture beetle infection – holes and saw dust (although they said there has never been an infestation at National Archives).

Image of Tally sticks from the National Archives
Tally sticks from the National Archives – the holes are the result of furniture beetle boring through

Others indicate possible risks such as damp or, in some, the presence of dead insects provide food for other insects. The Archives are also at risk from rodents which can gnaw through pretty much anything and birds which can nest in ducts.

In the case of the latter we heard the gruesome the story of how a former Head of the National Archives was sitting at their desk when a horde of maggots began raining down from the ventilation duct. Apparently they had come from the corpse of a pigeon that had somehow become stuck and subsequently died in the ventilation duct. Yuck! To prevent such things occurring, they now make use of a variety of measures including mesh coverings, repellent gels and plastic owls.

To prevent infestations and damage they employ special adhesive traps which help monitor for the presence of insects.  As part of the talk we were able to examine these as well as a wide variety of dead specimens up-close using special microscopes.

Storing documents in boxes off the floor and carefully monitoring the environment to prevent damp and mould are amongst the various measures they take. Monitoring is a large part of the job as is liaising with a variety of other departments such as housekeeping and premises teams. They engage with Archives staff who can then aid them in monitoring and prevention and provide training and guidance to Government departments to prevent infestations from documents being transferred in.

Both talks were fascinating and insightful providing a great way for the Archives to engage with members of the public as well as perhaps sharing knowledge with staff from other archives or museums. I’d recommend anyone interested in attending future events to visit their Eventbrite page or http://nationalarchives.gov.uk for a full list of past and future events.




About James

Information Assistant (Academic Services) in the Library at City, University of London.
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