On reprints of very old books, and publicising local archives


Some thoughts on how modern reprints of books sometimes hundreds of years old, along with gems inside under-funded local archives can refresh our collective memories of the histories of our towns and cities – and how they are essential to contemporary local public policy on our collective futures.

Private wealth, public squalor…seems to be the story of Cambridge at the moment when you compare the fortunes and outlook for the much-lauded private sector in these parts vs the state of our pavements inside the city and the state of rural roads outside of it. So if I type something such as:

Cambridgeshire’s county archives are underfunded

…then responses such as “What about…[insert name of service?]” are often forthcoming. As I mentioned in my Lost Cambridge blogpost I got a written response to a public question I tabled to Cambridgeshire County Council. However, as Cllr Susan van de Ven (Lib Dems, Melbourne) mentioned, the potential of the local archives seems to have been missed by the executive councillors and is something that is worth following up. Not least because I also found out today that the reprographics unit in the archives is currently snowed under with orders that I can’t get my desired order for a massive reprint of the Holford Wright map of 1950 printed until April 2017. Although I think this is supposed to be a revenue-neutral part of the council, given the current funding crisis inflicted by central government (and not helped by the current squabbles inside the council chamber over the budget), this could easily be turned into a revenue raiser and something that the council should be investing in, rather than doing the opposite.

Digitising archives

Why digitise? Here’s the authoritative line from the UK National Archives. Furthermore this is what the BBC are doing. Also, here’s my take from a few months ago.

Now, Cambridge could have had a wonderful setting for the Cambridgeshire Collection as planned about a decade ago, but the controversial developers of Cambridge Railway Station and surroundings managed one way or another to not fulfil that commitment leaving us with a bland block of flats sold to the highest bidder on the international markets instead. All queries to the board of this group. Yes – local historians and community activists (not just me) are still fuming about it.

That above-rant meant that the opportunity to advertise and showcase Cambridgeshire’s history to a huge audience. Instead, as county mayoral candidate states, we’ve got ‘minecraft city’

Note the words of incoming interim Cambridge City Deal chief executive Rachel Stopard in the Cambridge Independent.

“For me it’s always about partnership working. So King’s Cross is a success because the local authority worked really well with an excellent developer who had a vision for the place that said it’s not actually all about office blocks.

I’d like to think she’d have issues with what has happened with the station area development given her experience with King’s Cross – which is just across the road from her old offices on the Euston Road – close to where I used to live in London during my civil service days.

“What’s that got to do with digitising archives?”

It makes it all the more important that we get the digitisation and promotion bits right in the face of losing the above opportunity. Because once the work is done, the developer as a firm is dissolved and the investors run off with the cash. Which also means no return address for anything that goes wrong in the future. (Unless the investors are somehow liable – an interesting list here – almost makes me want to buy shares in one of them and castrate (metaphorically) their chief executive at an AGM)

“Anger’s not good for your blood pressure”


“So…back to digitising archives and old books?”

I stumbled across this book by Eglantyne Jebb’s uncle Richard – the classicist Sir Richard Claverhouse Jebb, who was also elected MP for Cambridge University in 1891. Something tells me in the next decade or two, we’ll have a boundary review that will near as dammit recreate in all but name that constituency, covering the area where many academics and students live and work.

It’s not so much a book by Jebb, rather a speech he gave in Cambridge in the old guildhall. img_6446

From another gem in the Cambridgeshire County Archives, I found this plan of the old guildhall in a book called Cambridge Described and Illustrated by John Willis Clark. Isn’t it ****just wonderful****? 

Anyway, Eglantyne’s uncle said that the reason for England only having Oxford and Cambridge Universities for centuries was that it was better to keep all of the academics in as few places as possible so that the whole country could benefit from the exchange of ideas given lack of transport at the time. He also said that it was the development of the railways that got rid of the need to keep everyone living in close proximity to each other – hence the founding of other universities in the 1800s. See pages 2-3 of here.

Now, I don’t know whether it’s a straight-forward as that or whether there was more than a bit of Oxford and Cambridge wanting to maintain their privileges. Or something else. But it seems like a plausible explanation. I just don’t have any documentary evidence to hand to prove one way or another. Someone in this fair city of mine probably does though.

Digitising and modern reprints of very old books.

I’ve acquired most of my old books either online or via charity shops. It’s always sad to see an old book that has lots of wonderful things in it suffering from damp. My copy of Davige’s Cambridgeshire Regional Plan 1934 is one such damaged book I have. As historians at the Cambridgeshire Association for Local History said at a meeting recently, it was lovely to see the colourful maps in them – which I digitised here. It also has some beautiful woodcuts that were very popular with people, but because they didn’t catch my eye, I didn’t scan them first time around. Which goes to show 1) beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and 2) digitising things can give people access to things that they might value highly, even if you as the holder/custodian do not.

Same outcome, different process

I read and write very differently depending on what I’m working on. If I’m searching for something, how I ‘read’ it is very different to if I’m browsing for something or if I’m just ‘feeling lucky’ – which is how I found out about Eglantyne Jebb – the best MP Cambridge never had. I was standing in front of a bookshelf in the Cambridgeshire Collection feeling lonely and unloved (I go through these periods of gloom) when I stumbled across a book that told me more about the history of Cambridge in the 19th Century than any other book I’ve tried to read. And she did that…ooh…in a few pages of text? Eglantyne’s degree from Oxford was in history – perhaps explaining a reason why I found her social scientific study of poverty in Cambridge so easy to follow.

The thing is, when I was reading the original copies of the Cambridge Independent Press at the Cambridgeshire Collection – the ones dating from 1907 so as to see who said what about Eglantyne’s book, the process of reading those large newspapers was a much more relaxing one than using the microfiche machines. Yes, the latter are essential but they are noisy and fiddly things. For someone who spends too long in front of screens, any time away doing something constructive is a blessing. Browsing quietly in front of a wall of slightly faded text, awaiting the next historical gem to make itself known is far more relaxing than trying to do the same online. The process of zooming in and out is particularly annoying.

Finally with the books, I’m using the digitisation by G o o g l e to pick out the key bits of text – similar to searches on the British Newspaper Archive  which frustratingly is incomplete and thus work in progress. Thus I use digitisation to narrow down searches as much as possible, and once I’ve picked out something that has lots of gems in it, go either for the original or for a reprinted copy. In the grand scheme of things I’m not fussy about reprints vs old books. The importance with the latter is that they are much cheaper and more easily available to a much wider audience.

Why old history books – and their modern reprints are important

Taking Eglantyne again as our example, her current WikiP page states:

She moved to Cambridge to look after her sick mother. There she became involved in the Charity Organisation Society, which aimed to bring a modern scientific approach to charity work. This led her to carry out an extensive research project into conditions in the city, and in 1906 she published a book, Cambridge, a Study in Social Questions based on her research.

Not much came of this work, and for several years she lived quietly

I’ve put the last line above in bold – because it’s factually incorrect. It’s difficult to quantify what impact the book had at the time – especially given the outbreak of war less than a decade after. Much as I’d like to attribute the changing in housing, street and urban planning design to Eglantyne, there were various moves locally and nationally to do something about poverty and multiple deprivation. What I hope to find in the newspaper archives is whether her book led to any specific policy changes from local government, and/or pressure from her influential group of friends and activists to change government policy. One thing she didn’t do in her years in Cambridge after her book was published was living quietly. Quite the opposite.

(I’ll get round to signing up and editing that page/article in the near future but it’s past 1am in the morning).

And 110 years after her book was published, it’s becoming of interest again with the growth of Cambridge and with it, a renewed interest locally in the story of our city.

What would a refreshed ‘Cambridge Collection’ of reprinted books look like?

Y’know, other than books on a bookshelf.

The reason why I ask is because I’ve stumbled across a number of old pamphlet style books that are full of historical morsels but are all too easily missed/forgotten about because they have no spine from which to spot on a bookshelf. The old Oleander Press (now accepting new submissions for local history and children’s books) published a number of these in the 20th Century. This makes me wonder whether a compilation of their old works – perhaps with refreshed additions to cover the decades of history that has happened since, might be an interesting project for them?



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