Thursday, 14 June 2018

Anglo saxon scribes in St Catherine's monastery in Siniai

Yesterday I tweeted a link to a BBC story about the digital recovery of palimpsets from St Catherine's monastery in Siniai.

Essentially, by using clever digital techniques they can recover the writing from the various erased texts from reused parchment pages.

One thing that really caught my notice was the throw away comment that there was evidence of texts being written in Anglo Saxon hands. Doubly so as at the end of 2010 I became mildly obsessed with the question as to wether it could be true, as reported in some versions of the Anglo saxon Chronicale that Alfred sent Sighelm the ealdorman to visit the Christian communities in Kerala.

From this I started accumulating a fair amount of references covering links between the late Anglo Saxon world and both the Islamic world and the remaining christian communities of the middle east and India [summary].

Now the presence of an Anglo Saxon hand in a palimpset at St Catherine's doesn't necessarily mean that there were Anglo Saxon monks in the scriptorium - they could after all have been working elsewhere and the book ended up in St Catherine's, but it's more intriguing evidence of links between the late Anglo Saxon world and the christian communities of the middle east ...

Monday, 11 June 2018

The persistence of brands ...

When we were in Malaysia recently, I wanted to buy myself some fish oil capsules as I had forgotten to pack my usual brand, so, on the first opportunity I popped into a Watson's chemists to buy some.

And there they were, imported from Australia, and branded with the distinctive 'A' logo from Abbot laboratories that I'd come across time after time when documenting 1950's and 1960's pharmaceutical bottles for the National Trust.

Abbot is no longer a common retail brand in Australia, but there it was, alive and well in Malaysia.

One of the things coming out of my work documenting Dow's pharmacy is how you can (a) document the change from pharmacists making up their own formulations from materia medica to the rise of prepackaged products from pharmaceutical companies, and indeed due to the consolidation in the market, assemble a rough chronology based on brand names and packaging, and (b) track how some of the early suppliers of patent medicines turned into the pharmaceutical companies and wholesalers we know and love today.

And brands persist, Burgoyne Burbridge, a major nineteenth to mid twentieth century chemicl supplies wholesaler, long gone from Britain and Australia, lives on in Mumbai, and May and Baker, again long gone and now part of Aventis, still trades as May and Baker in Nigeria.

I would guess the reason for the persistence of brand names in some places is imply one of recognition - a brand has a reputation for trustworthiness, and once well established, it would be silly to abandon it ...

Friday, 25 May 2018

Klout RIP

Klout's gone.

For those unfamiliar with Klout, Klout claimed to measure your social media impact via some totally obscure algorithm that tracked retweets and mentions weighted by the number of followers your retweeters had, plus possibly some other factors.

It also did the same thing for facebook, linkedin,  and instagram.

For all I know it was all made up and the numbers were totally meaningless, but in the days when I cared about impact, altmetrics and bibliometrics (and some of that is possibly just as much a con game) Klout was incredibly useful as it provided a justification for the use of social media in academia, and time spent blogging and tweeting, even if it didn't show up in the traditional measures.

Now it's gone ...

Friday, 4 May 2018

another non isbn

I've been reading Amelia Edwards  A thousand Miles up the Nile, and I came to the realization that I really needed a copy of Murray's guide to Upper Egypt to make sense of both her's and other nineteenth century travellers' accounts of their travels up the  Nile.

Just as today we tend to follow our Lonely Planet or Footprint guides, they followed Murray's.

It turned out that the best and cheapest way to get a copy was to buy a reprint from one of these Indian print on demand shops that pop up on AbeBooks, so I duly ordered a copy.

It of course took about three months to arrive, during which time customs had sequestered it for examination to make sure it wasn't suspicious in any way, but it arrived, and in one piece:


and strangely, it again had a number that looked like an isbn on the cover. So I tried it in isbnsearch.org:

and again, an apparently valid, but unregistered isbn.

Which makes me wonder if there is some software out there that's being used by these overseas print on demand shops to generate fake isbn's ...

[update 05/05/2018]

and in fact, ten minutes with Dr Google has turned up a number of generators such as GeneratePlus


which when pasted into isbnsearch gives the following result


There's also a number of code recipes out there, including one for making fake isbn's for pre isbn books so you can put them into a library management system and track them as assets ...



Wednesday, 2 May 2018

Tracing patent medicine bottles with ebay

If you're interested in nineteenth century trade patterns nineteenth century patent medicine bottles are a godsend.

They're usually readily identifiable, often embossed with the manufacturers name or logo, and what's more, durable, attractive and collectable, which means that they turn up for sale on sites like ebay and gumtree, as well as more specialist bottle collecting sites.

So by treating ebay as a research resource, you can readily work out the rough distribution of the bottles - for example in both the cases of Hayman's balsam of horehound and Jacob Hulle, ebay gave me a rough spread of the bottles.

But of course it's not perfect. For a start there's no real provenance. We don't know where the bottles were found, or indeed under what circumstances. We don't know a date, even a hand waving one based on other items found with the bottles.

For example, with Jacob Hulle, we know that the company was operational for roughly ten to fifteen years, which can give us a rough date.

For Hayman's it's a bit more difficult. I've found adverts as early as 1861 and as late as 1895, which probably brackets the lifespan of the product. There's no real way of dating anything more exactly.

And of course, I'm making a big assumption, that the vendor is located close to where the bottle is found. It may of course been traded on at a collector's fair and have been found several hundred kilometres from the vendors location.

Now in the case of Australia, Wales and New Zealand the online collections of digitised newspapers are our friend, they give us clues as to where he was advertising, much as we can see that Hollway's pills were advertised extensively in the goldfields as in this example from the Ovens and Murray advertiser from 1869:

But then we turn to places such as South Africa.

I'd really like to know if the Hayman's bottles turn up exclusively in the former Cape Colony, or if they were rather more widespread. And of course one can't as there's no real provenance information ...

Tuesday, 1 May 2018

Is trove difficult to use ?

Yesterday, I went to a collections use workshop organised on behalf of Collections Victoria.

Essentially they want to find out how people are using their services and to that end have organised a series of workshops with people working on local history projects, and yours truly was one of them.

I won't go into what we said or did, because I don't think it was particularly remarkable but one key takeaway is that a lot of the participants said that they found trove, the NLA's digital resources website difficult to use.

I didn't have time to drill into what was difficult to use, but I got the feeling that a lot of people felt that they did not know how to search effectively online.

Most of those involved were reasonably competent local historians, used to dealing with books and paper archives but being in their sixties appear to have missed out on digital skills training or simply didn't have the opportunity in their past professional lives.

Seems like there might be a training need. And possibly one not to difficult to fill, after all most university libraries have been running online search skills courses for years ....

Friday, 20 April 2018

TextWrangler is end of life, and why I care

For those of you unfamiliar with the product, TextWrangler is a very nice language aware text editor for OS X from the same people who produce BBEdit.

Over the years I've used in mainly to write MarkDown, raw HTML and Perl, and it's done my proud. The folks at BBEdit have now decided to cease development of TextWrangler, and encourage people to move to BBEdit, although existing TextWrangler installations will continue to work provided you don't upgrade to the latest version of OS X (now Mac OS).

Essentially if you move to BBEdit, you get a thirty day free trial of the paid for product after which time you can say 'No thanks' and dropdown from the paid for product to a free version BBedit Lite, which has all the features currently in TextWrangler.

BBedit don'd publish product roadmaps, so we can't say with certainty what's the future of BBEdit Lite, but it's probably fair enough to assume that it'll be around for a few years.

Unfortunate, but that's life. It's their product, and they can do what they like with it.

Personally, I find that these days I'm increasingly going back to the Windows platform, so I'll probably not be that inconvenienced by its demise.

However, over the years, I've helped several citizen science, local history, and other community projects get going, be it counting bugs (real bugs ones with six legs) or transcribing old records.

These projects usually struggle to buy a box of teabags and a pack of MacVities digestives, and this is usually where I get involved.

These projects are often very reliant on volunteer labour and have next to no budget for anything. Basically what I do is try and get their recording methodology in place and help them get software installed.

Often they acquire what IT equipment they have through donations - old iMacs from dentist's surgeries, local library system cast offs, or PC's donated via a bank's community programme.

Now the people involved in these projects are often highly skilled in their specialisation, but they're not really into digital archiving or indeed IT generally.

So, when helping them get going I've tended to emphasise open products with open file formats so that the data can be imported into something else later with a minimum of effort. At the same time I've usually encouraged people to use text as a format for working notes and records because of it's clarity and simplicity.

And where possible, I've tried to leave them in a situation where they can be self supporting with simple products that it doesn't matter too much if they don't upgrade.

Now, remember these iMacs from the dentists surgery (and others from other places).

Over the last 10 or 12 years I've been recommending TextWrangler to my Mac users, because (a) it was rock solid, and (b) free. It's running on old machines, many of which will never, or can never, be upgraded to the latest version of OS X.

That shouldn't be a problem, except that TextWrangler now tells you it's end of life when it checks for updates, and this confuses people. They think they have to upgrade, even when they don't, and the  whole 'try before you buy' thing confuses them even more.

And that's creating a support problem. Like I said, unfortunate.