Using libraries

We’ve just celebrated national libraries day. I’m all in favour of that. Libraries are great places and many libraries, up and down the country, used creative ways to remind us of that at the weekend. But sometimes it’s easy to say that libraries are great without actually using them. It’s so much easier to get information online and download digitised versions of documents. Libraries can also help us with that by helping us to find things and by subscribing to electronic resources and then making them available to us all. Now and again we should go back into the buildings and remind us what they can do in a more old fashioned way.

One way that they can help is to provide space to write. When you are writing, you are constantly distracted by emails, texts, social media, even just thoughts ‘I need to reread that article’, ‘have I got a copy of that book?’, ‘which conference paper did I mention that in?’ ‘Who was it that told me about that?’ ‘I’m sure I had an example of that in one my documents’ or even ‘Must write a blog piece about this’. For just now I’m trying to avoid that (apart from the write a blog piece bit) by working in the National Library of Scotland. This library provides a quiet, largely distraction free, space, to just get on and work. The atmosphere helps. Surrounded by other people working away, apparently more industriously, it is difficult to avoid getting on with the task at hand.

Libraries also have books! Today I’ve been returning to some old appeal cases relating to sickness benefit in the 1920s. Some of the cases I’m working on are available electronically, digitised by Parliamentary Papers Online.(digital access available through many  libraries). Others are only available in the National Archives, but there is one little collection that was published in a book in 1923, which has not been digitised and I have to come to the library to look at them. I first looked at these a couple of years ago and took detailed notes but there were some things that I realised I’d missed so today I’m reading them again. It’s been a while since I’ve gone back to the originals but looking at them again reminds me what is so fascinating about them.

When I first looked at these cases I was interested mainly in how the appeal panels defined the idea of ‘incapacity for work’. That is still my main interest and the one that most of the writing from this project will focus on. However I am also interested in the appeal hearings themselves: who was there? What evidence did they think was important? What was the role of lawyers and other representatives? How did claimants find out about their rights? This is at the heart of my writing just now. I’ve made quite detailed notes on most of my cases but it wasn’t at the front of my mind when I last looked at this little collection from 1923. So today’s task was to ask those questions as I read them. I’ve found a few more lawyers, clearly attempting to influence the course of the proceedings but I’ve also found cases where there were no representatives. In these cases we sometimes see comments about the claimants’ lack of education and knowledge and the adjudicators trying to compensate for that. Occasionally the claimants appear to be just a little bit too knowledgeable and that might work against them. Today’s work has given me another glimpse into the past world of appeal hearings and some more examples to help us understand who was there and why and what difference that made.

But the library’s closing and the battery on my laptop is failing – I’ll have to come back another day.

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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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