Podcast Transcript: WGHBU9, Part Six

University Histories Internships, Part Six – Discussing Vocabulary; Archival Humour and Cataloguing Backlogs


Graphic: Podcast Image


Graphic: Transcription Content

Participants: Lorraine McLoughlin; Ashlyn Cudney; Samantha Carrie and Lily Mellon

Date Span of Content: Focus on July-December 2021; Reference to historical events; Reference to the past ten to twenty years

Transcription Key:

  • ‘-‘ – denotes an abrupt or lack of end to a word
  • ‘…’ – denotes a pause in speech/separation regarding the thought being constructed (or provides a disconnect/separation that would benefit a reader rather than a listener)
  • [] – denotes when someone else interjects very briefly in the conversation or when a small clarification is required

Episode Length: 35 Minutes Approximately

Part Six: Episode Nine
Graphic: Episode Intro


Graphic: In This Episode

HOST (Lily Mellon): Hello and welcome to We’ve Got History Between Us.

In Episode Nine, which is split up into several parts, VOiCE is letting you get to know more about a 5 month internship that concluded at the Centre for Research Collections at the end of 2021.

This is Part Six and we’ll be talking terminology, key words and cataloging items. In the very first part of this podcast episode you heard Samantha Carrie introduce the project alongside Ashlyn Cudney but for that section I cut Samantha’s piece short.

Here’s the full section to remind you of the beginning as we start to talk terminology and description.

Graphic: Main Transcription

Samantha Carrie (GUEST): Project one was looking at the University and city links between slavery and colonialism. So this project was in relationship to Edinburgh Council’s slavery and colonialism review, led by the activist Sir Geoff Palmer, who’s now also Chancellor of Heriot Watt University and… long story short basically, we were given this list of monuments, streets and themes that we split up amongst ourselves and we had to research and create this database of sources.

So this is kind of early days of this kind of research in terms of Edinburgh’s connections. So what we were trying to establish is, is there material that can be researched? Is there material there that is, you know, we could say quite confidently is related to these themes, but also kind of developing a research guide for future scholars, in terms of what kind of issues we were coming up… in terms of research methodology. So one of the main things and I know for a fact Ashlyn and Nuzhat will agree with me, we had a number of conversations about this was vocabulary.

Is vocabulary is never the same. So for instance, a merchant could be totally innocent, but if you have a record from the Port of Leith, saying a merchant who on his boat has cotton, or, you know, there’s no context- that- but the dates are right as well, say 1700. You’re probably going if that’s cotton, and that’s going to Amsterdam, then… which then goes to the West Indies. There’s a good chance that that is somehow related to slavery, but you may also have a merchant that is dealing in fairly natural… like common resources, maybe food stuffs. So that kind of ambiguous vocabulary quite difficult.

I mean one of the other things we also deal with unfortunately is letters relating to [unclear] plantations, some of the, kind of, vocabulary can be quite derogatory, and attitudes that wouldn’t be acceptable now. They don’t use the legal terms stipulated, which is slaves or enslaved persons, it’s much more down to implementing that authority through racism… Being able to kind of find those sources when that vocabulary is being used is quite difficult, so that is kind of one thing that we had to try and get our heads around in terms of, how do we advise future scholars to do this as well.

And that was kind of information we were feeding back to Sir Geoff Palmer is well and it was interesting for us to see, kind of what themes were really… he was really keen for information to come out of as well.

I mean he was interested in everything but there were certain things that he would really… that they needed information on because these hadn’t been researched before, so that was kind of our main goal.

Lily Mellon
Nice, exciting. From my perspective or my project, I was working quite a lot into in the early female students and especially whether there was LGBTQ+ individuals and again the vocabulary and it was so ambiguous and so difficult to conclude on, and there… I had been using a lot of the national record stuff and death records were… there was quite a few that had registered the death from an intimate friend, and so two female women and you think… I was going back through a lot of vocabulary trying to work out whether intimate friend in this context at that time meant that they were in some form of relationship together, or whether it was just the language required legally to say I have… I have enough knowledge of this person to know that the data that I’m giving to you about who there- what their maiden name was, and everything like that is correct and things like that, so it’s… different, it’s off topic, but I feel yeah, the same about the whole… how much you can get into this sort of thing, and how much has changed over time in terms of the vocabulary that people were using.

Samantha Carrie
Definitely. I mean, I think we spent so much time discussing kind of, what are the kind of keywords that are getting results in terms of building this data, but also just some of the difficulties as well… I mean one of the key things that we had with Project One is that we’re not just dealing with… we’re kind of dealing with different layers as we’re also dealing with kind of mixed race individuals as well.

So who’s say mother was a sl- was an enslaved person, but say father was plantation owner and dealing with kind of difficult things like with that, because not only are you dealing with quite horrific themes kinda things like assault and things like that, you’re also dealing with issues of how these individuals integrated into society… compared to, say, other enslaved individuals, so the vocabulary can also shift.

Some people are les… have less of an issue, and then some people do have much more of an issue, so it kind of… there was no set research methodology for us. It was really had to go with the flow really, depending on what theme you were dealing with [LM: mm].

I mean, I dealt with largely… I think the medical associations and so that was at Royal Infirmary, the old medical school at Ed- the University, as well as the New Town associations… I also dealt with kind of, Court of Session and legal papers as well which was really interesting, kind of looking at the vocabulary used there in terms of what constitutes an enslaved person over in Scotland following abolition.

That was kind of difficult in terms of basic looking up kind of, legal, vocabulary as well, but it was kind of… it’s kind of expected from the kind of research we were doing, [LM: mm] but it actually it made it more interesting as well ’cause you didn’t quite know what to expect.

Lily Mellon: Yeah, and there’s so many big conversations happening at the moment in terms of, not wanting to… wash over or eliminate what language was being used at the time, but having the appropriate conversations about why…. How we might be describing it, how we might be presenting it.

Samantha Carrie
Yeah, I mean I think- so Geoff Palmer has been quite vocal about this as well. I think there was conversations. The National Library of Scotland are having conversations at the moment in terms of how they’re cataloguing their records in terms of slavery and colonialism, and I think there was a- I think, an inaccurate article, I think put out by the Times, which kind of was designed to stir up a bit of a mind of… kind of sensationalism, basically and… it’s kind of, I think the written- the vocabulary and etymology of some of these sources are just as an important record in themselves [LM: mhmm] and about the kind of culture, attitudes and prejudice that is occurring during this period… but equally I think it’s… what isn’t helped and one of the things that we were describing is that when you look at these sources you don’t have sometimes effective biographical context as well.

So sometimes you’re looking at these sources completely as isolated factors, you don’t really understand their connection to everything else, and I think that’s something we’ve kind of submitted in our report to the Council is that we would like to encourage kind of research funding to go to, kind of, archival systems as well in terms of research into very specific letters or documentation that could maybe provide a bit more biographical context that not only… that helps put that vocabulary in a more contemporary context in terms of its ramifications, its legacies, and just bringing in as many perspectives as possible just to make that… make sure the reality is clear, but also ensuring that we can understand why this document or source is problematic as well.

Lily Mellon
Mm, yeah, there’s almost like two separate but connected conversations going on at the same time and as important as that is… it also you don’t want it to take away from the actual source material as well.

Samantha Carrie Absolutely. I mean, we’ve we’ve had a lot of, I think, number of sources, that have issues with this. I mean, particularly for my research into the medical associations.

Graphic: Musical Interlude

Lily Mellon
Okay, so one of the topics that came up when I spoke to Samantha and Ashlyn from Project One was vocabulary and you kind of mentioned it a little bit already. When we’re dealing with underrepresented communities in the Collections and Archives- for example, LGBT students, international; BAME; female students, we quite often quickly come across outdated vocabulary in sources, as well as some of the kind of historical descriptions that surround this data.

It’s quite an ongoing debate, as you’ll know about how we deal with this and when it comes to the display of items or the interaction with the source for a researcher. I don’t know if you had any thoughts on the subject of… whether the Archive team has about policy surrounding it?

Lorraine McLoughlin
Yeah, we do. I mean, we don’t have, a written policy, I should say. Which, I think for in some ways is a positive because really our policy is to deal with the situation as it arises because… it is a complex one and it’s difficult to have kind of black and white rules around how whether or not to change vocabulary.

But yeah, it’s- it’s I mean it’s an ongoing issue for Archivists and we deal with it all the time and really the, the core issue is… how do we document and catalogue and describe material without taking away from the authenticity of the record, if that material is offensive or cruel or represents someone completely incorrectly.

So there is that constant dichotomy between… not affecting or changing the record based on our current societal attitude towards certain terminology, but also wanting archival research and research of collections to be a safe thing for people to do if they are faced with really difficult terminology and language, especially that- about themselves or their own- their own community, Then that’s- that’s not okay. 

You know, so, we- we deal with this all the time and actually one of the strange things about being an archivist is that- in trying to protect and understand and serve researchers, we’re kind of in the middle between the material and the researcher and so we often have to face this language ourselves. Or, for example, graphic imagery or discussion about really violent crime, without there being any- any filter or any protection between us and the material. And so we often will discuss that- certainly in the- in our own team in the- in the CRC, but it is something that’s discussed across the sector.

How do we support each other in dealing with harmful visuals or language in collections ourselves or trauma based Collections and then also how do we make sure that people have access to- to these materials without, without changing the record. There are some really simple, long standing… oodles of guidelines and standards around how to deal with certain topics but really, even the simple syntax of putting double quotation marks around a title in the file is an indicator that the title is a direct transcription from the material, and the archivist hasn’t derived that title.

Saying that, if it’s something that is really… too awful to have in the catalogue, of course, we have to change it. So we will change the language on the file, but explain that there is terminology within the file or the collection that could be offensive. And in that way, we’re trying to add a layer of protection to the researcher, without… just having a- a run of the mill disclaimer, either, because it’s not really just about saying it’s your own fault if you look at the material we didn’t, you know, we- we can’t do anything about it. Please don’t say anything to us if we don’t like it. [both chuckle]

We really we really want to do is- is try and care for the user care for the researcher and say there are some difficult things in these records… be aware of them. But then it’s also, “be aware” of them… and we will support the researchers to use these materials, but we don’t want them to have to not see them where we want ever close a file just because we think some will be offended because it’s- it’s everybody’s right to see these materials if they- if they need to for their research.

So, just to say a bit more about that coz I feel like I’ve only just touched a bit on it and I need to be more specific… I think the really good example of changing language is in something, like you said, the LGBTQ+ community or with medical records, specifically around descriptions of women. So if you take an example of maybe 100 years ago, looking at descriptions of women and mental health, you’ll often see you really derogatory explanations or descriptions of women and, across the board, whether it’s women and men, when it comes to mental health, you’ll see where it’s like, idiocy and lunatic and different words like that. So we don’t reproduce those words in descriptions, but we will label the catalogue data at a lower level so that people know that they’re there and then of course people can just go ahead and- and read the material.

When it comes to description and legacy changes but there- okay, so there are there are two different channels that we have to work within when we’re dealing with their con- Collections and trying to address problems or issues with vocabulary and terminology. The first is right now with new accessions, with new materials, how are we describing them? And what sources are we using to describe them and are we being inclusive enough in terms of the sources that are out there around how we describe individuals and communities.

And so, it is a policy now where our Archives team, to look for sources, thesauri, indexes, anything that we can find that are produced by the Community themselves and have been a kind of agreed upon and are, kind of, accepted within the community and make sure that we look to those sources when describing newer accessions and- and- kind of, newer donations.

Now, that’s something that a question of kind of stop the rot, you know. It didn’t- It didn’t happen in the past. We can make a change now with new incoming accessions. And so we can do that, and that’s actually relatively straightforward. And one of the examples is a thesaurus called Homosaurus, which I think I sent around to the Project group before, but if I haven’t, I’ll certainly share it again, which is just terminology that is agreed upon around describing, people from different LGBTQ+ communities and what is the meaning behind those terms. The other side of things or the other channel that we have to deal with is legacy descriptions which is much more difficult because- not because we can’t make the changes, but because there- we don’t know they’re there half the time unless somebody’s requested the material.

So that’s a much more a case of- of having a kind of core practice in place among core archivists where we have time put aside over the course of a whole working year to address and making changes to catalogue descriptions, which has been highlighted to us as offensive or abusive or unacceptable in some way. Now that we can do, but still making the decision about what does constitute offensive or abusive language still has to be made, and so although we want to be told generally by our users, if they have come across material that they don’t like, the description or language of, we also have to do that within reason.

So someone might not like the description, but that doesn’t mean it’s not an accurate and (chuckles) fair description if you know what I mean. [LM: yeah] So, so we don’t have a hard and fast rule of if someone complains about the language, we definitely change it and neither do we- neither do we have a hard and fast rule that we don’t… but like appraisal and like being accountable and you know are iterative process for decision making. Changes in language and terminology and vocabulary are something that is we regularly discuss, that Archivists has professionals all over the world regularly discuss and all we can do is keep making slight changes here and there depending on the era we’re living through and the communities that are emerging and the individuals response to the collections when they find them.

So yeah, the more I talk about it, the more I realize that there is a skeletal framework that archivists work within in order to get their work done, but really there is- there are very few situations where a hard and fast rule can be applied to every donated material or every collection or every- every bit of material, and so it keeps you thinking… at the very least.

Lily Mellon
Yeah, yeah. And let you say, you know, you might not want to policy on it because it- these things can’t become a tick box exercise.

Lorraine McLoughlin
Exactly… Yeah.

Lily Mellon
It’s kind of connected as well, coz we’ve already talked about historical descriptions and metadata and- and catalogue descriptions. Would you say that it’s an Archivists job to increase available keywords, or the researchers job to kind of utilize what’s there?

Lorraine McLoughlin
Oh, I think certainly it’s the- it’s the responsibility of the archivist but equally of the researchers. So it’s another one of those kind of ideally it’s a collaborative relationship. And I think that that’s an incredibly important part of the practice of being an Archivist as well, that there’s only so much that you can automate, only so much about the process that- that is mandatory or compulsory or automatic, and the rest of it is all about relationships. So certainly where… we have the time put aside. What we’d ideally love is that catalogue descriptions are forever being improved upon and that terminology is being linked between different related materials, related collections and individuals who have had an effect on each other across time, communities, etc. And the more keywords or the more search terms that are linked to the right materials, the better.

But as- as I was saying before, unless we’re physically working with the material and spending you know, really long periods of time, looking through each record or each- each file in- in- within a collection, we often don’t get a chance to see that, so the ideal is that, if the archivist is working or has a working relationship with the researcher, who is looking at a Collection more, more longer term than- than we would have the chance to, then we would collaborate and build up together.

Certainly the archivist would- would implement the changes or do the work to change the catalogue, but any help from users and researchers and the wider community that we can get, we use… it’s a massive part of the Archive sector is working with academics, researchers, citizens, volunteers, interested parties to help us change the record or improve the record- the catalogue records that are there because basically, once we have properly identified archival material by giving it the things it needs, like a reference code, title, dates, etc… we can actually leave the description of that archival record fairly scant, as long as we have links to certain authorities, like individuals or events or people or other collections, and- and that’s the creation of access points.

So again, we have a kind of a- a skeleton of- of- of information that we need to have in there to identify it correctly, whatever that item is, whatever that file is or that or crafting material, and- and beyond that, we- we can only guess at the perspective which users are coming to the subject from. We can’t always know what terminology they have in their minds when they’re trying to find certain records, so the- the more key terms we have, the better and the more other people can tell us what their access points are, the better.

Lily Mellon: Yeah, yeah, like way back. You know what, what’s the value or where my materials set within a specific collection. You don’t know what someone is going to come in and which angle they might be taking.

Lorraine McLoughlin
Absolutely. I’ll give you a really specific example more recently. Obviously, we’re looking to, you know, alongside the internship project we’re- we’re looking to, find more material related to different groups that are not so represented by, you know, across the board and the most obvious example is women, and we have tried to search our catalogues to say, you know, give us give us results for all the- all the collections or all the materials related to women, we get virtually nothing. But if we search the Collections looking for words like she suddenly things start to come up- or Mrs… things start to come up, you know, (laughs), so we have to look at it from the perspective of the times of the thing- that the material was- was catalogued in and try and figure out what might be the- the key term at that point.

And of course they didn’t have, back in the day they wouldn’t have had any idea that search terms that linked data like- like we have today would be so important. So yeah, I think that the focus is actually going, a little bit further away from a long winded descriptions and certain arch- archival fields, to trying to relate as many key points are key terms and search terms as possible to the one record so that at least somebody is brought to the record and then they can see for themselves whether it’s relevant or not… and that is actually a compromise, a direct response to the need to compromise on a kind of a full form archival catalogue, which is, which is really the ideal, and all, I don’t know if all Archivists would say that. I’m sure they wouldn’t, but really, what an archival catalogue tries to do… is give identify identifying information, but also information in the background, like their custodial information, administrative information, the biographical information for the material and all of that can build up a really big finding aid, that not everybody has time to go through.

The opposite of an archival catalogue is a Google search, and there were- so we’re dealing now with the last kind of 30 years with researchers who are having to go between getting data or answers at, you know, within a percentage of a second or a fraction of a second, and then going back to work on Archives and thinking, oh my God, this thing is so clumsy and I can’t get into the- the content quick enough.

The reason we don’t just scrap the format of the archival catalogue is because, a key principle in Archival theory and the management of Archival Collections is context, and so the act of drilling down into the information from a higher level and upper level and going deeper and deeper into the collection as opposed to somebody just arriving directly at the granular level means that there is integrity maintained as to where that, you know, information came from and all the other content- contextual bits of information that- that record is linked to, so it’s important from a truth telling perspective and a contextual perspective to- to- to filter down through in archival collection and see where it sits before you decide whether it’s the information that you want… so that’s the kind of compromise that we’re dealing with at the moment.

Lily Mellon
Yeah. Yeah, it’s getting that full story of, you know, how- how many people say that they’ve read something and actually they read the title of an article [LMcL: yes] and that might have been clickbait and you they never clicked into and it’s just getting a fuller picture, that fuller story.

Lorraine McLoughlin
Yes. Absolutely. A fuller picture and a fuller story, but also just making sure that they have identified the right individual because if you can imagine… throughout the centuries, especially when there are businesses or organizations which have multiple generations of people or relationships… you have to be absolutely sure that you’re talking about the right “John Smith” before you say it was this John Smith that said, you know… so, exactly as you say, it’s making sure that something isn’t just a sound bite that doesn’t give con- deeper context from above like- like a title, but also crucially, that that granular level, that unless the person is forced to cite correctly, no one else is going to check that, you know, no one else is going to say, what did you go back through all of the other series in that Archive and make sure that it was the- the right connection they were making. So we- we kind of- in a bold way, we make the researchers do that wherever we can.

Lily Mellon
Mm.. but whilst promising credibility and- and high levels of accuracy in terms of the research and the work that’s been going on, you know, you are, instead of a Google search, you’re getting to reference and source credible research or credible sources.

Lorraine McLoughlin
Credible sources exactly, credible material and also, I just think in a much more philosophical sense that… taking the time to understand the material and to- to- to read it is beneficial to any research endeavour.

And in a way, archival research is slow research, and it’s… not always convenient. In fact, 90% of the time it’s very frustrating that it’s so slow, but… I’m kind of proud of the fact that the field tries to slow things down and have people pay attention to the content and understand that a bit better, and they might actually figure out, you know, they- they might take ages looking at archival catalogue and think they’ve done all the work. And then they realize, oh…. I actually have to look at the collection now and that could take another few months and so it’s good to realize that a lot of, attention needs to be paid to some, some more complex collections.

Lily Mellon
Yeah, yeah. These conversations that we’ve been having or touching upon are just, you know, they- they don’t lend themselves to immediacy. It’s nice how much… So much of this goes back to kind of realizing- it’s going full circle and just about everything we’re talking about coz we go into vocabulary and the debate about kind of, how to represent material without upsetting or insulting, and, you know, you see how it can bring in what you were talking about before about community and community archives and accessibility and making people feel welcome and also encouraging people to come in and do what is all this really time consuming work of… working out what keywords might be there and then- and then building up from it or bringing people… I guess it’s that thing of if we’re talking about the fact that there’s all these underrepresented communities or people or human stories… That the- the solution to that can’t be to eliminate or hide material or vocabulary, or “the past” in a way… It’s not- that would not be addressing the balance.

Lorraine McLoughlin
Absolutely. Yeah, you’re right. And I think as well, if the task of addressing that imbalance is, is it kind of just on the table of the Archivist or in front of the Archivist, then we actually won’t make enough progress or the progress that we need to make. I think it’s a- it’s that- in order to address these issues, we need to be much more collaborative across different fields and start to work together at a much closer level. You know practicalities, as well as theoretical discussions around how to handle certain situations until we build up a new set of guidance or guidelines around how to handle cultural artifacts and be they archive collections or- or other objects or other types of materials.

Because basically, I mean it goes back to the idea that in order for something to be found… and this is a kind of small bugbear of archivists, but we often see article saying that something was found in the archive [LM: (laughing) it suddenly appeared and we think to ourselves, like God, I wonder how it got there, [both laughing] you know. So the whole thing is that…

Lily Mellon
Someone moved the dust

Lorraine McLoughlin
Yeah [both laughing] somebody swept away the dust in the kind of Indiana Jones warehouse and- and there was the Holy Grail and actually what we’re really trying to do is with very- usually very few resources, just make sure in the first instance that we’ve got it, we’ve got the stuff we, it hasn’t disappeared, it’s not been lost irrevocably. We just have it in the first place. And so there’s an awful lot of work that goes into… trying to get material, whether that’s physical, analog Collections into our repositories, or in fact, obviously more recently… digital materials into our digital preservation, management systems that, a huge push has to be- has to happen in order to get the material in and then we need collaboration with people. We need funds for, you know different project sponsors, we need people to be interested in the material so that it raises the profile and it’s- it’s with the collaboration that we can start to really preserve the material appropriately… appraise it so only the- the really important relative material is, is kept and then crucially provide access to it. If anything, as archivists we are well aware that there are massive backlogs when it comes to creating access points, but even to doing basic cataloguing.

Because it would take absolutely decades, decades to- to catalogue the materials that we have, even in just one- one repository. And so yeah, I think what we’re trying to do with projects like this internship project and other projects that are coming in the pipeline for the CRC, and other places, is to change our method so it’s not just the Archivist working in in a very [dayed?] way on cataloguing, but that we get communities, individuals, sponsors, different people to help us to collaborate to increase those access points.

Graphic: Musical Interlude
Graphic: Episode Summary

HOST (Lily Mellon): Part Six of Episode Nine is drawing to a close. In the seventh and final section of this podcast, I chat more to Lorraine about archival records and descriptive metadata before concluding this conversation with a final topic, a throw back to Ashlyn and Samantha, to discuss the future of this project and any advice for the hypothetical future interns that will come on board to grapple with University Histories.

Graphic: Episode Outro


HOST (Lily Mellon): You’ve been listening to We’ve Got History.

These episodes were recorded in December 2021 and March 2022. This was part of episode nine.

The guests were Lorraine McLoughlin, Ashlyn Cudney and Samantha Carrie.

Episode hosted and edited by Lily Mellon.


Author: VOiCE

UoE Collections VOiCE (Volunteers in Collections Engagement) run a monthly newsletter, podcast and blog about the different collections, people and museums at the University of Edinburgh.

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