Owls in the archives

Researchers often talk about serendipity in research: that means coming across something when you didn’t expect to, or as the dictionary defines it: ‘the faculty of making happy and unexpected discoveries by accident’ (Oxford English Dictionary). My last trip to the National Library of Scotland produced such a happy accident. I was trying to find a copy of the ‘model rules’ for approved societies from 1912. These advised societies how to write rules about things like ‘behaviour during sickness’, for example when it would be appropriate to stop someone’s benefit because they had been drinking or fighting. I knew I had read these in the library before and had made some notes but wanted to check them again for further details. So I duly ordered them up through the online library catalogue. Instead of providing me with just one booklet, the librarian produced an entire box of leaflets and pamphlets – it seemed there was more than one copy of the model rules. There were rules for men, rules for women, rules for Scotland, rules for England, rules for Ireland, rules for new societies, rules for old societies. Actually they were all quite similar to each other (at least in relation to things that I was interested in). The most exciting thing for me though was a tiny little leaflet which turned out to be in entirely the wrong place. This leaflet was ‘The Family Guide to National Insurance’*, published in 1948 and, it seems, delivered to every household in the country. In it was an introduction to the scheme and, best of all, cartoons of owls. Owls claiming benefits:

Family Guide 1948 'making a claim'

Family Guide 1948 ‘making a claim’

Owls cashing their benefits

Family Guide 1948 cashing order

Family Guide 1948 cashing order

I loved it. I couldn’t borrow it from the library but I found a copy online in the Science Museum, an archive film about the guide on the Pathé website and, eventually, a copy available from a second hand bookseller, so I now I have my very own ‘Family Guide’. I told the library that the booklet was wrongly filed so I hope they will now be able to catalogue it and make it available to other enthusiasts (whether interested in National Insurance, public information, mid-century cartoons or owls).

What does this add to my research though? Well the process of looking for the booklet also led me to the Science Museum and the Pathé website and a whole world of archive material on the post-war National Insurance scheme. That probably doesn’t add much to my actual research but it gives me another glimpse into the world when the scheme was first introduced – and an excuse to put owls on my blog (and tweet about them @JackieGulland).

* Ministry of National Insurance (1948) Family Guide to the National Insurance Scheme. London: HMSO.

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