52 Weeks of Historical How-To’s: Reflections and Visual Index

Thursday 6 November 2014
Featured Image
Pages from our scrapbook of 52 weeks of historical how-to’s

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.

Week 1
Week 1: Ghost tour
Week 2
Week 2: Nothing pudding
Week 3
Week 3: Pencil of Nature
Week 4
Week 4: Boot polish
Week 5
Week 5: Stir up Sunday
Week 6
Week 6: Girl’s Own Annual
Week 7
Week 7: Trifle
Week 8
Week 8: Mince pies
Week 9
Week 9: Xmas party
Week 10
Week 10: Fireworks
Week 11
Week 11: Magic
Week 12
Week 12: La Vénerie
Week 13
Week 13: Burns night
Week 14
Week 14: Portraits
Week 15
Week 15: Wet Collodion
Week 16
Week 16: Valentine cards
Week 17
Week 17: WWI Pack
Week 18: Pancakes
Week 18: Pancakes
Week 19: Paper making
Week 19: Paper-making
Week 20: Iron Gall Ink
Week 20: Iron gall ink
Week 21
Week 21: Calligraphy
Week 22: Hen keeping
Week 22: Hen-keeping
Week 23
Week 23: Dressmaking
Week 24
Week 24: Choir
Week 25
Week 25: Easter baking
Week 26: Beer
Week 26: Brewing
Week 27
Week 27: Embroidery
Week 28
Week 28: Esperanto
Week 29
Week 29: Shopping
Week 30
Week 30: Hill walking
Week 31
Week 31: Vegetarianism
Week 32
Week 32: Confectionery
Week 33
Week 33: Stained glass
Week 34
Week 34: Headaches
Week 35
Week 35: Knitting
Week 36
Week 36: Day trip
Week 37
Week 37: Reading
Week 38
Week 38: Historical bath
Week 39
Week 39: Dictionary
Week 40
Week 40: Lace making
Week 41
Week 41: Camera Lucida
Week 42
Week 42: Mind reading
Week 43
Week 43: Golf
Week 44
Week 44: Horsemanship
Week 45
Week 45: Matriculation
Week 46
Week 46: Paper models
Week 47
Week 47: Yeast
Week 48
Week 48: Library books
Week 49
Week 49: Report writing
Week 50
Week 50: Varnishing
Week 51
Week 51: Astronomy
Week 52
Week 52: Scrapbooks

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.


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7 thoughts on "52 Weeks of Historical How-To’s: Reflections and Visual Index"

  • Karen McAulay
    Karen McAulay
    Thursday 6 November 2014, 6.14pm

    And thank you on behalf of all your blog-visitors, because we've all eagerly anticipated each week's "How-To" Echo from the Vault

    • Christine Megowan
      Christine Megowan
      Friday 7 November 2014, 4.32pm

      We’re glad that you’ve enjoyed reading about our adventures this past year, and hope you will continue to enjoy our efforts even as we move onto a new theme in the coming year!

  • juliamelvin1
    Friday 7 November 2014, 1.05am

    I would just like to add a huge note of thanks to this talented and energetic team who look after our source.s Above all, it has illustrated over a wide range of sometimes absurd sources, how a seeker after the truth finds things embedded in the St Andrews University's unique collection. This is the sort of line that many searchers have to follow in order to arrive at an important point of arrival. I well remember in my youth assisting a distinguished lady historian who wished to know the colour of the wig of Queen Victoria's uncle. It didn't matter whether or not this information eventually appeared in the feted book; what was important is that the outcome of historical research is like an iceberg: with 7/8ths submerged. I have spent many happy hours in the St Andrews University Library looking in the Dean of Guilds Papers, or in the Papers of Secretary of the University. You might think how ineffably boring: not in the least. There, in those two sources, I found my eldorado! So there you are! A big thank you. I shall miss you. But particularly on 'Stir up Sunday'! Julia Melvin

  • St Andrews Special Collections
    St Andrews Special Collections
    Friday 7 November 2014, 4.42pm

    We’re grateful for your kind words. Our purpose in caring for primary source materials is so that we can continue to share them with researchers of all stripes, and much of the fun comes from finding out what bits of knowledge can be gleaned from the most unexpected sources. We hope that the Historical How-To’s have allowed veteran researchers like yourself to share in our excitement, and perhaps introduced a few new researchers to the pleasures of delving through special collections materials.

  • Daryl – Rare Books Librarian | 23 Librarians - and counting!
    Friday 17 April 2015, 10.40am

    […] post per week: first there was 52 weeks of Fantastic Bindings, then Inspiring Illustrations, then Historical How-tos, and now this year we’ve begun our newest thread Reading the Collections. This has been a […]

  • 52 Weeks of Reading the Collections: Visual Index and Reflections | Echoes from the Vault
    Thursday 17 March 2016, 12.57pm

    […] Historical How To’s, Inspiring Illustrations and Fantastic Bindings. […]

  • A whistle-stop tour of the ALS (Phew!) | IAML (UK & Irl)
    Tuesday 5 April 2016, 5.15pm

    […] St. Andrew’s innovative Echoes from the Vault blog, particularly their recent(ish) blog series: 52 weeks of historical how-to’s – a kind of experimental archaeology like approach to following the instructions (to the letter) […]


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