Zoological Society London
11/12/2020Sarah Broadhurst - Archivist
Sarah Broadhurst, Archivist for the Zoological Society London, talks about the challenges that come from working as part of a small team looking after the archive of one the largest zoological collections in the world.
Those who have visited London Zoo since its foundation in 1828 may not be aware that their ticket also goes towards funding the care of the working Society's archive. Sarah talks about the impressive collection of zoological research and the Society's historic records and also discusses the importance of an Archivist's role in valuing and retaining commonplace items that provide insight into everyday life.
Photo: Jumbo the elephant with Keeper Matthew Scott and small girl, 1870. © Photograph by Frederick York, from ZSL collections.
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 the series of podcasts where we explore various archives and collections my name is faith williams and i'm joined today by sarah broadhurst archivist for the physiological society of london hi sarah would you like to introduce yourself and tell us about how you came to be at the is that asl hi yeah i'm sarah uh as they've said i'm the archivist at the zoological society of london um which is a conservation charity uh founded in 1826 um and we're probably best known for the two um zoos that we run um which are london zoo uh and our sister site which is whips nade zoo and that's up in bedfordshire um i came to be here in the way that many people do in um their careers in this sector i think which is a very meandering way um i kind of had a background in sort of history of science stuff and worked in a number of um collections that were kind of that way inclined um and i've been here since 2016. so what does your role entail at the moment um at the moment pandemic-wise or just generally genderly although obviously pandemic has passed a long shadow hasn't it um generally i'm responsible um for maintaining um the archive collection of the society obviously adding new things to it and doing the kind of collections management side of things and then obviously i'm also responsible for um any inquiry work um that is related to the archive um and those questions can come from um internal staff as as much as external um members of the public researchers that kind of thing um so it's probably about half and half on those things um i would say there's a library this is the society has is are you part of that or is the archive a bit separate from that yeah so i'm part of that there's three of us um that work within the library um so two librarians and me looking after the archive um and we have uh not just kind of modern books and journals but um historical collections rare books artworks photographs um we say that we're the largest we think we're the largest zoological library in europe um but i suppose you never ever want to say you definitely are there might be somebody there in confidence no one will question you say it with confidence here so you know we're kind of there to assist everybody from um you know scientists working on uh the you know conservation science and um zoological matters kind of right now um and then people who are interested in in the more historical kind of side of things as well we sort of do it all but yeah we're just we're just a little team and the library is in um the main office building of the society which is uh outside of the main zoo complex but kind of across the road um and we're not a public library but we are completely open to the public and so anybody can actually visit us in normal times obviously not now we're closed um but i think we're a bit of a a bit of a well not a secret i'm not a hidden gem but i think people don't um immediately think of a library when they think of london zoo but i think that some people also wouldn't realize that we're a charity um but the library and the kind of historical collections have been there from the beginning and that's the the learned society kind of part of things and i think that people just um don't always make the connection between the two because they're quite they're quite intellectually different in a lot of ways i think what kind of content do you have available is a little bit scientific or is it to do with sort of the zoo venture the london zoo or what is there yeah so um within the archive you know you've got you know i often say that you know the zoological society of london is sort of like five different organizations all in one so you've got the kind of the the learned society aspect of things so you've got your kind of your um your council minutes and your ledgers those kind of things procedural kind of stuff um but then obviously you've got the rich history um of the zoo collections as well um and those are you know dating back to 1828 when we first opened um and then you've got um things that are kind of more related to um the scientific work we've done we have the institute for zoology and that was founded in the 60s so we've kind of got this learned society these zoos and that people kind of perceive as being visitor attractions and then we've got the institute of zoology and then the conservation work that we've been doing in the field um formally since the 1980s um so it's kind of all these different things and most people i think only have a perception of the organization through one of those lenders but not all of them um so it's quite interesting in that aspect i think who access is your collection say there's a lot of internal members but i mean you know this sounds a bit silly but tigers and stuff come from all over the world so you must get a lot of international users too yeah loads um i wouldn't say there's a there's a particularly typical inquiry um and it's certainly much much more varied inquiries than in previous institutions i've worked in um so you'll have kind of um you do get things like genealogical inquiries or you know people who um people who have quite a you know um an emotional connection particularly to london zoo i think a lot of people visited there as a child and sometimes they'll have questions about kind of a particular animal they remember from the time or you know something like that i think it it's quite um yeah people have this kind of emotional relationship i think so you get a lot of just general questions from the public about those kind of things then you absolutely have lots of um questions um internationally as well um and i'd say that they they can often be on the more academic side of things um but there isn't again there isn't one type of thing that people are working on it could be somebody who's interested in you know a particular taxonomy it could be somebody who's interested in the history of a particular animal um or you know a particular relationship we might have had with another country they might be looking into colonial networks imperialism we get a lot of people who are um interested or studying architecture because you know we also have a number of kind of listed um buildings on site um there's no kind of one typical inquiry so it's always really interesting and then we get questions from other collections and museums as well because obviously we had lots of animals over our history so it's not unusual to get a question from someone in i don't know you know new zealand or something saying we've got this stuffed animal was this one of yours um so the kind of roots of connection are really um really rich and interesting are you still adding stuff to the collection yeah yeah we still we still collect um so people the most common thing i think that people will send us their things like um old zoo guides um and it's always great to have more of those because they're kind of you know much like if you get a kind of a guide when you go and visit somewhere now they tend to be on quite kind of flimsy paper so it's always good to have extra copies of those um yeah one of the most common things that send that people send us but occasionally you know people can kind of come with things that have been in their family because maybe somebody worked at the zoo and they want to donate that item to viewers um so we do still actively collect because i think like a lot of collections you end up with these kind of gaps because maybe somebody worked there and they took a lot of their papers home and then after they've kind of passed on the family kind of go oh perhaps perhaps perhaps they would be better placed in an archive i think um so things can kind of come around about way um back to us what would you say are the particular challenges you have when managing this archive um i'd say probably capacity more than anything i suppose um like a lot of charity archivists i'm a loan worker um so sometimes it's just difficult to um you know there's only one of you so sometimes i think you can um feel frustrated that you're maybe uh kind of can't um do things as quickly as if you're working in a team um but i think that um i think that generally um i've got to kind of make make do with uh with what you've got kind of attitude i think that is i think that is the main that is the main challenge um and then as as well obviously being um being a charity which is something i don't think again i don't think people perceive us as being there's not um you know we're reliant on um the money that people come that we get from people coming to spend a day at the zoo and to fund the vast majority of our activities as a learning society so it's very linked to it's very linked to that so we're not kind of um perhaps as well off as some other um collections um but then you know a lot of places are in the same boat as well so i think it's just about being rather than kind of um seeing those things as a disadvantage looking for solutions to try and um fix those problems yeah if you have a good collection to to care for i think that that's a positive thing yeah there's there's never there's never a there's never a dull day and i would say that you know the interactions that i have with um with members of the public and researchers and answering their questions you know it's really uh i find it very fulfilling um and i think that maybe you know when you're kind of a person working by themselves it's good to emphasize a kind of a quality over um quantity kind of approach i guess you know you're never you're never maybe gonna have the kind of um you know vast very very shiny sort of storeroom that some other places may have but you know if you're looking after your collection well and you're helping people find those answers to the questions that they uh have then you know i think that's that's the that's the aim of the job isn't it if you had one thing to hope for the future what would it be would it be more staff to do more leg work or what um i think that uh i think that that would maybe help us progress in in in ways i you know i think i'd hope that um you know finding finding a way of kind of sustainably growing things is probably my hope for the future i think so you know having extra members of staff is all well and good but then if you don't have some of the other things in place then you kind of yeah you've got more you've got more people but you can't necessarily um expand in the way that you'd want to but it would it would give um you know it gives you that capacity to be able to do more just just generally i guess um you know and i think there's always lots of things that we want to do as a small team and we try and do as many of them and as we can we try and say yes as much as possible um but sometimes yeah you are you are limited by having a small number of people um you know and in some collections for my librarian colleagues they'll be you know somebody who uh you know you'll just have somebody who catalogues journals for example whereas obviously my colleagues are just two people doing all of those all of those kind of things um but i also think it makes you versatile and pragmatic and i think there's probably some days where you think oh an extra pair of hands would be amazing because then we could do this and this and we wouldn't have to say no to that other thing but in some ways i wouldn't change it if that makes sense yeah yeah you're right quality over quantity yeah and i think that's just that's just what um what we try and what we try and offer to people um but i think that you know we'd all really like to do um to have the time to use the collections in you know more ways um you know we i think we engage well with people as is you know we benefit from having things like um uh an education department within the zoo um that work with different groups um but it's kind of we'd love to do more of those kind of things um getting more people in because as you're saying you know we're a public we're a public library um and we're always really keen to have people visit um but it's i've lost count of the number of times that people will say i didn't know that there was a library but then you know like like i was saying before i think it's this um this kind of uh thing where people know london zoo but then they don't kind of know maybe very well any of the other activities that we do as well um so i think that it just just more more more people having a great time with the collections is my hope for the future um but doing it in a way growing that stuff in a way that is meaningful and sustainable is really important as well do you team up with other organizations to do projects like natural history museum or anything like that um yeah in a kind of ad hoc sense i'd say um that would do but nothing nothing um in the time that i've been there um the kind of larger scale but you know some sometimes some really nice pieces can come out of just um you know a question you might think of i was looking through some um uh deaf books that we have so these are kind of ledgers that were kept for um a period of time um that record the deaths of animals within the collection and kind of what they um what they died of um and then perhaps where their remains went um the kind of pathology records um and i noticed i was looking through um a volume from the 1920s and noticed that a lot were going to cardiff museum um and i just i wonder if they've still got these specimens i wonder if they're still within the collection so um email what is now the national museum of wales um and got chatting with one of the curators there and we ended up kind of um writing this blog together about these kind of um specimens that were still in their collection um and it was really fascinating so there are a lot more kind of things like that that happen with us i think um than kind of larger larger kind of big big projects lots of lots of little things what in your opinion is your favorite item that you think people should know more about i always think that the most interesting items in archives are letters um um i'd kind of hold that to be true for um for most places because i think in you know collections of letters can be so um varied in the people that are um that are sending them most collections i think only usually have one side of the correspondence um and they can be um they can be honest in a way that you're not going to get from you know meeting minutes um and we have uh probably our largest collection of letters is one um of letters that were written to one of our secretaries um he was called philip lutely slater from the 19th century these are all kinds of people that would write him letters you know you've got uh you've got kind of members of the public in there you've got um really famous people you would have heard of like charles darwin you've got um lots and lots of different scientific luminous you know for russell wallace um and i think you just get a kind of a a sense of tone and personality from a letter that you wouldn't get from other things um obviously selections of letters that are that are kind of um extent and kept within archives you know decisions that are made by people um in the past of what is important to keep on what is not which i think is interesting in and of itself as well um with regards to those ones apparently in the 1960s some council members went through um the trunk of letters and decided which ones were important and which ones weren't so the ones that i have are those letters and the ones that i don't have or whatever they decided weren't important which i think is fascinating as well um you know because it's all of these decisions that are taken um you know you can't um you can't think of the kind of the archive as a neutral place um as people say it's it's something which is constantly having decisions imposed on it um and i think you also spend a lot of the time explaining to people why things don't exist you know and i think the good thing about letters is often they'll they'll they can answer some of the questions that people have that are more more ephemeral you know people people do want to know what happened but often they want to know what was it like if that makes sense you know um what was it like to be there at this time how did it feel what did people think you know as opposed to just the decisions that were made and i think sometimes with institutional archives a lot of the records can be the decisions that were made but there can be a lacking in the um the feelings that people had about those decisions if that makes sense yeah it's a difference between history and historiography it's the facts versus how you tell them yeah exactly you know and i think that um you know i hope from a modern perspective that my outlook has always been that i'm trying to help anybody who has a question try and get to the bottom of that question um and attempt to impose as um that's kind of you know i'm not going to be going through a trunk of 60 letters and deciding what i think is important and checking out half of them that's uh that's not that's not great appraisal practice um but i think that um i spend as much time talking about the gaps in the archive as i do about what's in there which i always think is interesting what type of gaps do you have that annoy you that annoys me um there's definitely a lot of people who i think have taken their papers home um there's a lot of that um but i've noticed that in other archives that i've worked in as well i think i think people love to um you know and i think particularly when everything was paper-based you can really physically tell when somebody has probably had a desk full of papers and they've either taken it home or they've not kind of deemed it to be important enough to preserve um you know i i still do obviously actively try and collect internally um but you know people are very focused on the day-to-day business of what they do and often people don't think that what they what they're producing at the current time they kind of can't see how anybody would be interested in that because they think it's just kind of that's just what i do so normally i try and encourage people by using using things from the archive that are kind of related to the work that they're doing show them the old things and then go what you do now is the same please please be please be the history of the future um i think it's because people you know people are busy and um you know we are a charity so everybody is um working super hard with what they've got to kind of um do the best job they can so i think people don't often kind of have time to sit down and kind of intellectually ponder if their papers will be important you know it's kind of it's very much a thing that people um you know will donate their papers to the british library or whatever and that'll be that's why you're kind of as one of the reasons why you don't get those kind of um day-to-day things and that's what people are so interested in you know they want to know what was it like to be you know you know just a kind of a standard sort of level keeper in the 1930s but people wouldn't people you can understand why people wouldn't just write down what a normal day of work was like for them because they would think why is that interesting to anybody else and i suppose that's um that's what i'm trying to encourage people is interesting now because i can't i can't fix the things which weren't recorded in the past but you know i think that when you've got the absences of that you've just got um you've got more of that um more formal um recording of history i guess your minutes your your one of your meetings but it's missing i don't know the humanity of it is not the right right way to describe it but the the things that people are actually interested in people are interested in they're not just interested in people who were the president of his society for example you know they want to know what it was like for everybody who worked there um and i think you know like in many archives those are those are gaps that you have because probably at some point in the past somebody decided that those kind of things weren't interesting enough to record um or if they did that they weren't interesting enough to keep but that's what you're doing and you're all nowadays you're rectifying the mistakes of the past makes it sound grander than it is that's what i try and do because you know it's not it's not my job to um it's my job to look after these things and try and organize them in a way that um people are going to be able to find what they need more easily but it's not my job to decide whose story is more important than someone else's you know there's no because there's no difference to me if somebody's got you know an inquiry you know as a as a professor in a university to somebody who is just emailing because they want to know the name of a giraffe they really liked in the 1950s those two questions are just as valid to me as anything else so try as much as possible to be even-handed with those things that's a really interesting perspective thank you for joining us today sarah it's been fascinating hearing about the work you're doing in your tiny team to to keep a record of physiological society and it's it's zookeeping um ventures too you could have me visit well no you can't visit the library unfortunately but you are open to people's sort of borrowing and inquiring is that correct yeah so you can um if you are into twitter and then you can follow us our handler's zsl library um and uh what star and our zoo is currently closed i don't know when this will go up but um it's it's locked down take two and so the zoo is currently closed to and public um but obviously when we uh reopen please do come and visit the zoo as well um are there any other plugs [Laughter] i'm trying to think um yeah but you can you can always um send us uh an email um library at zsl.org um we've got a really great collection um you can find um you can find us on the zsl.org website as well um it's kind of got a bit more information about the collections that we hold but we're always very happy to hear from people any questions that they might have fantastic thank you for joining us sarah thank you bye