King's College London


Geoff Browell - Head of Archive Services

With his customary authority, Geoff Browell discusses the ins and outs of managing a large, eclectic archive. Divided into two, the Military Archive and Kings College’s own records, it contains many notable artefacts including ‘Photo 51’, the photograph used to discern the double helical structure of DNA and the original ‘Green Line map’.

Please Note: This is an automated, machine-generated transcription. We have presented this 'as is' and have not undertaken any editing.

Hello and welcome to the Max Communications 2020 podcast a series of podcasts where we explore various archives and collections my name is faith Williams and I'm joined today by Geoffrey Browell head of archive services for King's College London would you like to introduce yourself and tell us about how you came into your position yes oh I'm Geoff and I started off my career in the world of history in early modern history looking at God's lightning bolt striking down sinners in the early modern period usually people playing football on the Sunday they never learned from their mistakes and they carried on playing football so they make about what you will and then I moved sideways into archives and I am now the head of the department wonderful so how do you spend an average day an average day well either pre or post Covid I'd say are two different things normally my average day would involve answering emails inquiries from all over the world about using our collections copyright permissions and so on I'll work with my colleague Kathy to help sort out and I'll be working on fundraising applications so a good ten percent of my time will be taken up with with that projects to catalogue to digitize to do interesting technical things with our collections that pull support research support teaching but also will provide for public engagement opportunities and the rest of the time will be spent managing the team so we have a small reactive team who manage a reading room so we have external researchers who come and view our collections and work through them and we also support up to 30 teaching modules annually so we have classes from subjects as diverse as the history of Nursing through to the history of physics through to war studies and the history of modern international relations and those classes will take place within the archive reading room another big part of my work is to go out and about around the country collecting new archives and that's the treasure hunt aspect the combination of who do you think you are with the Antiques Roadshow so I'll be scrambling around in attics in basements in sheds looking at new material physical material but quite often now we get sent digital material too so I'll have to access that and analyze it and and then we'll either preserve it make it available or it will be held in reserve I do a lot more besides that but that's the average day so you mentioned both digital and physical material what type of things do you have in your archive collection in terms of physical format but also content well the archives is twofold the Kings we have the little heart centre for military archives which has been in existence since 1964 and was founded by the military historian Michael Howard VESA Michael Howard who also founded the war studies department at Kings hence the link and it's a repository for the papers of modern British defence personnel that's the last 120 years or so and is comprises around 800 collections we normally get several new ones between 10 and 20 new ones annually involving modern conflicts or all the ones so we have material as bang up to date with the most recent conflicts in Afghanistan in Iraq for example but also material that that surface is about the Second World War sometimes even the First World War the other half of what we have in the archive is Kings own records so King's College was founded in 1829 but we also have the papers of institutions with which we have merged down the years like guys in st. Thomas's medical schools and this means that we have material that's a lot older than 1829 that goes back to the early 18th century for the medical schools and so we have a wide range of researchers that want to access all that including people who are working on medical history working on the history of dentistry nursing brain studies where Kings was a leader under Bentley Todd in the early 19th century and the history of hospital as an organisation especially in London but in addition to those collections the institutional records we have a complete set of student and staff records going back to the beginning of Kings and they are very very interesting or revealing we're one of the few universities that's retained them enables us to do all sorts of analysis and research on how the Kings community has changed in terms of students and teachers down the years including much more diverse international profile so we have records on some of the very first students to study in the West from Japan when Japan opened to the world in the 19th century last year we had a visit which was a wonderful visit from a group of Hawaiian library and information professionals and they were interested in visiting us because we have the records some of the earliest Hawaiian students to ever study outside the Pacific so and they greeted us with one of their songs it was absolutely wonderful delightful and that's the kind of thing that we hold there in that collection those sorts of personal accounts that are linked in with the the history of individual students and staff members and also research projects most prominently the discovery of the DNA double helix in the early 1950s and a lot of the work on that went on at King's College and led eventually to Morris Wilkins who was the leader of the Kings team and Watson and Crick being awarded the Nobel Prize in the early 1960s for the discovery of the double helix structure and the rest they say is history so you must have quite a wide audience of people who are accessing your material not just students and lecturers and things like that it's very diverse so we'll have journalists will have filmmakers we often have artists coming in you want to use our work for inspiration our military collections in particular include a vast array of content has nothing whatsoever to do with war or the military and that's because senior military personnel often had other careers as explorers diplomats writers poets and of course we have collections relating to their family members of their wives children who all might have had very diverse lives and that includes a lot of visual content includes photographs includes drawings paintings 3d art we hold artifacts of many different kinds in the archive from scientific instruments through uniforms nurses wore so it's very very diverse and therefore the user community is particularly diverse obviously we're focused primarily on delivering content for our own students and our own researchers are kings but were open to the whole world what's the most surprising access request you've had you mean a request for material and information whoa that's very difficult to say I mean we've had lots of interesting things that have happened to us down the years we work with Brian May the Queen guitarist fantastic collections to do with the discovery of 3d and stereo which was developed by Charles Wheatstone who was professor of experimental philosophy at King's College in its early decades and he was the he's really the godfather of three and he his collection a particular fascination for Brian May who is one of the world's largest collectors of 3d photography which was a big craze in the 19th century and so he visited us and I baked him rock cakes and we he then gave an amazing talk which really wowed a big audience another visit that we had was from Nicole Kidman so she and the cast of photograph 51 which was West End play and was a play that has been performed around the world but it was in the West End a few years ago and she played the lead role Rosalind Franklin and he was one of the researchers who worked on the discovery of the DNA helix in the early 50s and she and the whole cast and the crew visited to understand more about the collection more understand more about the people involved but also to look at photographs for example of what Kings was like then so that the set designers could redesign sets and the moment that the curtain went up and I went along to the first performance I could see that the sets behind the actors were ones based on the photography that we held in the archives so that's a direct link between our collection and something that people were enjoying on the West End stage so it's open to anyone seeking knowledge really exactly yes we're very much of the mindset that noise should be out there that we want to distribute it more widely and we have millions of stories locked up in our archives and I think the archive should be about stories there should be about people not paper how large would you say your archive is then we have millions of items it's very difficult to say exactly how many we have but they encompass around six kilometres if we were to place them end to end for an internal report last year we did estimate how many double-decker buses that was I can't give you an answer right now but as we all know in the world of public relations everything described in double-decker buses or Olympic sized swimming pools depending on football pictures sorry or football pictures or football pitches yes it's those three things yeah I can't say if we were to put them in a square how many football pitches they would make up but a significant number so are there any particular challenges that come with managing such a wide-ranging collection obviously the normal conservation requirements for the collections that could be 2 or 300 years old in terms of paper acidic paper in terms of photographs that are decaying we have a lot of x-ray photographs in our collection from the medical side because medicine is an important part of medicine health care generally including psychiatry is there's always been a major part of what kings teachers and undertakes risk research in its physical storage is a big challenge where do we put everything what do we keep and again the work of the archivist is not so much about what understanding what should be kept but about what should be let go and what should be lost because we can't keep everything an archivist can't keep everything and neither gun individual members of society to keep everything when we move house we throws it in loud we throw things out and the world of the professional archivist is no different we have to be quite ruthless sometimes or your archives physically-based in central London like the university campuses we have material on different campuses we also have to come here material in commercial storage so that in two or three places around the country so there is a big pressure within the archive world to to move out of very expensive premises and to concentrate storage in in cheaper locations and so that space can be put to better use you mentioned that you're still adding things to the collection what are your hopes for the future then and we've been diversifying our collections partly because Kings has been changing its profile in terms of its teachings so we've recently been collecting some film collections just the paper not the actual film and that's because film studies and cultural studies more generally it's a big part of what Kings does now so we need to have the collections to support teaching so we've taken in one or two very very interesting collections that are about modern culture and modern film and modern society so I can see us doing more there and of course on the military side on the little heart center for military archives that I mentioned again it's generating new content that we then archive so we've gone a war podcast series with a colleague a leading journalist who worked in Iraq and Afghanistan and our hope there is that as the podcast is proceeds in the future and we add to it we can we can then make available new content that we've been involved in helping to Commission and create I mean you must have a lot of contact with all the departments in King's College are you very connected with them and with other universities other universities of London oh yes yeah very much so so we are intimately connected to different departments and faculties and Kings through libraries and collections that's our parent department so libraries and collections manages the books and journals that that we use at Kings but also rare books and special collections which are very diverse and very important and include for example the Foreign and Commonwealth Office library so a lot of fantastic original material and a great body of expertise and that's their main conduit through which we are involved with different faculties and departments and the academics involved but we have very those contacts in particular because of the nature of our collections with history with war studies with the department of digital humanities which is a major international player in that field and happens to be on the same corridor as our third strand so very usefully for coffee breaks and discuss ideas in terms of London which is a big priority of King's London International Affairs supporting them we have a lot of connections and I having also to be the chair of 825 which is a charity to the supports archives in London we have 150 members and we develop different projects at the moment were involved in the project looking at cataloguing Jewish related collections held in London archives which are going to be part of an international project so for those catalogues because searchable for people interested in Jewish individuals organizations history culture and eyes and we work together as a consortium named 25 to support and enrich the our core sector in the capital and are there any themes that you're looking to explore you mentioned just there are Jewish collections and there's big big emphasis on black lives matter at the moment and with so many international students you must have a strong history of that we do and actually Kings was one of the first universities to not have religious tests for example for students applying in the early 19th century and that meant that we had some of our earliest students who actually Hindu and Muslim and we have a great history down the years of supporting diversification of student body and we have the archives that go with it and so we're hoping and planning to do a lot more in this area in the next year or two how big is your team that you have so many things to deal with you said it was quite a small team well I don't know in some archives would say it's a big team some people would say it's a small team there are seven that is a lot of work for so few people well we have we have a public reading human service we do extensive teaching we have an outrage outreach program with online exhibitions and with other activities we have a lot of visits as well and I support historical tours of the different campuses travelling of original features in and of course I'm involved in in all the committee work and everything in helping to run libraries and collections along with other members of my team as well who are all heavily involved in that so yes there's a lot of work in addition to that we answer hundreds and hundreds of detail inquiries annually from members of the public that could be genealogy that could be it could be research inquiries and about aspects of our work and contribution of King's College the last 200 years or from our military collections and that's an awful lot of work do you have students who kind of come in and do little projects or help out or anything like that oh yes and we have an internship program for history student one sometimes two a year and they work on the collection in detail and normally produce an exhibition at the end of the physical exhibition and a small online exhibition that is part of their part of their studies in the past we've worked on all sorts of volunteer programs we've run several University of the Third Age initiatives involving the college war memorials and charting the history of Nursing and the history of starting at Kings in the nineteenth century and we're of those staff came from and so we're involved in this sort of ad hoc basis in that but the internship program is the main way that we connect with individual students outside project work that is that's funded by Research Council's of by organisations like the world can trust that we apply for money from for individual discrete projects do you come up with those project ideas or do do volunteer kind of bring in their own ideas of what they're looking to find Oh everybody brings something to the to the party as it were and bring put something into the mix so I'd say that we're all equally valuable in terms of the ideas that we come up with we're as close team and we can quickly feed out the ideas of the city from our own members as well from our own ranks and hopefully then we're moving the service forward so always looking to the future to increasing the size of the collection the diversity of the collection and the use of the collection by different communities and in supporting the work of Kings and sporting the work of our students and researchers and and also the wider community as well particularly broadcasting and in new media as well what in your opinion is the most interesting item that you have in your collection um the most interesting item in our collection it's difficult one possibly photograph 51 which is the the basis of modern genetics this is the photograph used to discern the the double helical structure of DNA I'd say the Greenline map as well Cyprus the the map that delineates the boundary between Greek and Turkish forces in the war in the early 1970s well it was a Green Line map because that was the only colour of pencil they had available and we have the original map and it's it's known boundaries between disputed territory since then have been known as green lines interesting so but I have many favourites as well which we wouldn't have time to go through is there anything you're hoping to add to the collection that you're you're trying to find an attic somewhere well by definition quite often it's a surprise what you find I mean I've I've been in many attics and storerooms and found some very interesting items including its original photography of T Lawrence of Arabia and another firsts as well and photography from Jacques Cousteau and so i'm just looking forward to the next visit when visits can resume after this crisis out there and make the next discovery it isn't almost just about highlights though it's about a collection the contribution of individuals to science or the arts or in other areas and it's just being able to do justice to those contributions and and support the families in in many ways archive work is part the part the work of a curative curation it's part about history partly it's about technology and partly it's about being a counsellor in a way and understanding and working with people and their stories and doing justice to them so the role of an archivist is quite a responsible one so you've got so kings college archive is integral to the university itself but would you like to point members of the public in a specific direction to access some of the work you've been doing yes well we have web pages which were on the librarian Collections web pages for Kings College we have a blog which is updated regularly and a Twitter feed and we also have this whole series of online exhibitions and online databases for the nursing and war memorials and other work that we that I mentioned including the serving soldier website which is a showcase for some of our military collections which have been digitized some of which have been digitized by Macs in the past and so public can go and view those it's all free it's all accessible we have a online catalog which one can search and if there any questions that members of the public have they can just drop us an email in normal times they could phone us up and we'll endeavour to answer their query and if they want to come in and look at material they just need to come in book an appointment come in sign a form show a couple of forms of ID and then they're free to come whenever they wish in the future to do their work and we're very friendly hospitable team nice reading room which is third floor on the Strand and we would welcome you welcome members of the public if they want to get in touch and come along when things resume which hopefully will be in the autumn lots of knowledge to be discovered that's right it's a wealth of information and really ruin you're scratching the surface so do you come along do visit and use us and there might be a cup of coffee along the way thank you for agreeing to speak to me today Jeff it's been very interesting hearing about what you have in your collection I'm sure people will be dying to have a look at your website and all the different exhibitions you have they're quite varied I've had to look myself and so yeah thank you very much thank you very much yeah yes okay thank you thank you!