23 July, 2007

The National Archives of Scotland

After our amazing visit to the National Library of Scotland we headed straight to the National Archives. The National Archives originally began as a repository built to house all the records of Scotland in the 1780s. It now consists of three separate buildings. The first building is the Robertson Wing used for public research with catalogs, computers, and microfilm - NOT originals. The second building was opened in the 1970s and is called the West Register House. This is a storage facility that also allows access to the public. The third and most recent building is the Thomas Thomson house, built in 1995. This building is primarily used for materials sorting and conservation so the public does not have access to it.

The National Archives of Scotland provide a number of services to the general public through their buildings and electronic sites. The General Register House, for example provides free access to records that date back from the 12th century to the present. Visitors can request digital copies of documents for a fee. Some of the resources include: catalogs, state/parliamentary papers, church records, wills, registers of deeds, taxation records, valuation rolls, family and estate papers, and private records. At the West Register House, visitors can find court and legal records, government records, business records, railway records, nationalized industries information, maps, and plans. The Education Officer of Archives gave us a number of great electronic resources provided by the National Archives:
http://www.scan.org.uk/ (Scottish Archive Network)
http://www.scottishhandwriting.com/ (a self-help guide to reading documents)

My favorite part of visiting the National Archives was being able to see and handle historically significant documents from centuries ago. We saw a letter from Mary Queen of Scots to her parents dated 1550, signed "Your Very Humble and Very Obedient Daughter". We were able to page through a handwritten cookery book from 1727, and journals of the Commissioners of the Union of the Kingdoms dated 1706. I was also interested to leaf through a 1914-1916 criminal case file on Janet Arthur (alias Fanny Parker) who was a Suffragette prisoner during this time period.

John Murray Archive: National Library of Scotland

Today we visited the National Library of Scotland. The National Library began in 1710 as an advocates library with right of legal deposit. It is still a place of deposit, housing over 3 million items. 8000 new items are coming in each week, so storage has become a problem and new buildings have been opened. The staff run educational seminars on how to use archives and collections because the collection users range in age from 6 years to post-graduate students and adults.

The current collection on exhibit here is the John Murray Archive. John Murray was a publisher in the 18th century who at that time published the best of every genre. The collection itself is worth at least 75 million pounds sterling. The collection is funded through the John Murray Charitable Trust, the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Scottish Executive, and fundraising within the National Library. The exhibition design took 3 years to complete because a lot of time and energy went into making the archival exhibit engaging to the viewer. The museum staff knew right away that they did NOT want the exhibit to be text heavy and boring. They wanted material to be displayed in a theatrical way, they wanted display cases to be object rich and label poor, they wanted interactive information access, a use of light and shadow that promotes an overall atmosphere, and finally a robust means of display that communicates the process of writing and publishing to the public.

I was extremely impressed with the John Murray Archive displays. When you enter the exhibit, you walk through an exact replica of John Murray's front door so you actually feel like you are entering his world. Display cases contained manuscripts and ephemera belonging to contemporaries of John Murray such as Charles Darwin and Lord Byron. In front of each of these cases was a move and zoom touch screen device that allowed you to highlight the objects you wished to examine more closely. The Lord Byron display showed what a "ladies man" he was in his day by comparing him to rock stars of our day. I really feel that I could have spent hours there being entertained and educated by this exhibit. On looking back on my notes about the staffs' goals for this exhibit, I would definitely say that the outcome was a great success.