It all started with a scruffy manuscript recipe book from the 1830s and a few reckless comments about what fun it would be to have a go at trying some of the recipes. I doubt Maia realised that her casual remarks would be the spark that kindled the great flame that was 52 Weeks of Historical How-To’s: a year of exploring our collections, following recipes and knitting patterns, recreating photographic processes, crafting and brewing and climbing mountains, taking historical baths and searching the skies for planets.
The end of this year of shamelessly having fun provides an opportunity to reflect on our experience, the challenges and the benefits of what we were trying to achieve, and where we might go from here.
We set out to engage with the collections directly and practically: each blog post had to make use of at least one item held by Special Collections, whether by following instructions or recreating an image, process, or document. We also wanted to encourage more staff to get involved with the blog, to highlight little-known parts of the collections, and if possible to attract a new audience.
A project of this scale was of course going to have its share of challenges. Balance was an issue. It was quite simply easier to devise a how-to project for some types of material than others, so our stellar Muniments collection is unfairly underrepresented in this series. Chronological balance was also tricky: due to the nature of our collections, we found ourselves leaning very heavily on eighteenth and early nineteenth century resources. The University never set out to acquire cookery books and household manuals and has never (yet!) been presented with a collection particularly rich in these areas, so much of what we have came in unsystematically under the Copyright Act or in archival family and estate papers. We also found ourselves consciously trying to stretch the range of activities beyond what has been called “all this Mrs Beeton stuff”, as the blog series could very easily have settled into a cooking and baking groove; linked to this was the challenge of finding enough for the less domestically-inclined to do.
We certainly reached a new audience. The appetite on social media for old books and baking should not be underestimated. I hope those of you who have found us this year through interests in culinary and social history will hang around to learn more about our collections, even though the regular series has come to an end.
We’ve learned a lot about our collections. I think it’s fair to say that subclass TX of the Copyright Deposit collection – which for the uninitiated is the Library of Congress classification for home economics, including household management, servants, and cooking – has never been so heavily used as it has over the past 52 weeks. There has also been increased crossover between curatorial areas of the collections, with Rare Books Cataloguers venturing into the archival collections in search of knitting patterns, members of the Photo team consulting the Rare Books, and so on.
One of the clearest benefits for us was in sharing the load, with a much wider participation in producing blog posts. 52 Weeks of Fantastic Bindings was written entirely by Daryl Green. 52 Weeks of Inspiring Illustrations was the work of the curatorial team in Special Collections, then a core group of five people. Nineteen different people have contributed written posts to Historical How-To’s, not including all the other people who have joined in communal activities such as the Halloween ghost tour, papermaking, the Christmas party, hillwalking, and the blog choir.
This has also been a shared passion. From the moment when this idea was first discussed it was obvious that the concept caught the imagination of the staff in Special Collections and the wider Library. These 52 projects have been the source of much conversation, some hilarity, and an infectious enthusiasm for communicating this innovative and tangible engagement with our collections. One of the real pleasures of following this theme has been the opportunity to marry relevant items in our collections with the vast amount of talent in activities as diverse as making stained glass and dressage, and revealing skills colleagues possess which perhaps no one at work knew about before. And the opportunity to collaborate with colleagues from other sections was a very popular aspect of the informal choir who came together for a blog post, but which has generated several comments about how perhaps it should become a permanent feature of Library life.
The increased participation and the passion have both been essential, because the Historical How-To’s have represented a considerable investment of time on the part of everyone involved. A single project could easily take over 20 hours, not including finding an appropriate source within our collections or doing background research and actually writing the post. The bulk of this work was done at home, in evenings and on weekends and around family commitments, and sometimes during holidays. People also willingly invested their own money in tools, ingredients, or specialist supplies: the tea kitty covered some of it but by no means all. So it has also been 52 weeks of incredible commitment; yes, it’s been fun, but it reflects a huge amount of hard work and dedication. I just want to stress what a privilege it is to work with people who, in order to generate posts for the blog, are prepared to lug a camera lucida on a trip home to Canada, or persuade their spouse to give up a weekend to travelling round Perthshire retracing the footsteps of a honeymoon couple from the 1850s, or spend hours of their free time patiently embroidering around the neckline of a shift.
And in the context perhaps I can add in a couple of additional thanks. One is to all the family and friends who have had to put up with this obsession and its calls on our time. And the other, which really can’t be stressed enough, is to the blog’s editors, our Reading Room team and particularly Sarah Rodriguez, who have magnificently ensured that posts have gone up, with all the images correctly formatted and all the hyperlinks in the right places, and have shown remarkable forbearance in keeping us all on track and on time.
So where do we go from here? We’ll be taking a break from our regular weekly themed posts, and will return with a new 52-week series in the New Year. Until then the blog will continue to be updated with exciting discoveries, cataloguing conundrums, events we’re involved with and other chronicles of days in the life of a Special Collections department. Suggestions for future 52-week themes have so far included “52 weeks of external experts” (so we don’t have to write anything) and “52 weeks of chilling out” (experimental research on how people have relaxed in the past). But all will be revealed in January when we embark on a new adventure. And finally, for those of you who will miss our playing with the past, we just can’t let Historical How-To’s die completely – so there will be the occasional Special Edition to look forward to.