Researching Port in archives: guidance and advice

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Cockburn 1851
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Researching Port in archives: guidance and advice

Post by jdaw1 » 15:01 Sat 03 Oct 2009

As some members of :tpf: will be aware, Derek and I are researching a book on port vintages. Data is being gathered from many places, including libraries and archives. Having visited almost a dozen such places, some matters of practice are almost settled. But improvements are still possible: suggestions welcomed.

What to take
  • A passport or like form of identity.
  • Multiple proofs of address, probably in the form of a recent bank statement and a recent utility bill.
  • If possible a letter of introduction, on official headed paper, from an academic.
  • Business cards, of the :tpf: and other varieties.
  • A printout of a recent state of the database, covering at least the pre-WW2 vintages.
  • If the printout just mentioned is double sided, some scraps of paper.
  • A camera.
    • It needs enough memory. If I am being assiduous about changing resolution (lowest for dates on covers of catalogues; 5 megapixels for moderate amounts of text; maximum for more text and for images), I use about a gigabyte a day. So 2G should be enough for a one-day trip; more is needed for longer. If changing resolution is too much hassle, double these numbers.
    • A spare battery, and battery charger. Of course, the day should start with both batteries full, and if the batteries empty more quickly than they reload, perhaps three full batteries.
  • Some archives and libraries prohibit the use of cameras (so far, the National Army Museum, King’s Cantab, the library of the Frick Collection, and particularly shamefully the British Library) a prohibition that is mostly a wilful impediment to scholarship; and most archives prohibit the use of pens and of biros. So:
    • Two single-H pencils;
    • A pencil sharpener that can hold the sharpenings for later disposal (i.e., not one requiring pencils to be sharpened over the bin);
    • An exercise book or other bound set of paper to hold the words. I use a hard-cover A5 pad from WHSmith.
  • Be gentle with archival material. In a few centuries people might come to check our references, and only if the materials still exist will they be able to see that we were right.
  • Most archives have snakes (mid-weight chains wrapped in soft cotton), and stands (so that materials can be held open at less than 180°). Ask for both. Use both.
  • If something is really delicate then ask for help. If it falls apart whilst being held by the archivist, blame cannot be placed on the reader.
  • Sometimes papers are tied together with ribbon. This seems to cut into the papers, and (I think) is bad practice. Ask the archivist to re-tie things.
  • If something is out-of-order or misplaced draw it to the attention of the archivist. I have seen, within a price catalogue, a hand-written letter of very different date. Ask whether it should be separated and catalogued separately (somebody writing a biography of author or recipient might not think to look inside wrong-date price catalogues).
  • And being seen to treat materials with appropriate care has another advantage. If the archivist is called away from a small archive, readers might be asked to wait outside until the archivist returns. Being seen to have handled things well has caused me to be allowed to stay: a useful extension to the working day.
  • Most archives have rules restricting or prohibiting the use of mobile phones. Obey!
Zoom in not out.
  • So first photograph the name of the archive, so that it can be later identified. A good proxy for this might be the business card of the archivist.
  • Next photograph the class mark of the volume, and the relevant part of the cover. This picture can be low resolution.
  • If that volume covers multiple dates, photograph the date, again low resolution.
  • Then photograph the port parts, in appropriately high resolution.
  • Then date of next section, and so on.
  • Sometimes an out-of-sequence error occurs, port being photographed before date. Consider deleting the picture and retaking. Or, write on one of the scraps of paper (or back of database printout) something like ‟this date applies to previous photo”, and in one shot photograph the missing date and the words written on the scrap of paper.
  • Know that these pictures might be transcribed into excel after a long and forgetful delay, and perhaps by the co-author. In the manner of the previous bullet unambiguously annotate any variations from the obvious.
  • Subsequent transcription is made much easier by having the dates in order, from oldest to youngest. If the archives consist of many ill-sorted separate pieces, this might be awkward, but as much as possible, photograph in order.
  • If a picture might appear in the final book, take extra care with light, the angle of the photograph, the flatness of the page, and use maximum resolution.
  • If offered a business card, photograph it so that it cannot be separated from the data to which it applies.
Back at home
  • Soon after arriving home, separate the pictures into clearly named directories, one for each archive.
  • Make a backup of the data.
  • If photos are to be reproduced on :tpf: or in the book, write to archivist seeking permission and the correct form of acknowledgement.