Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Pillowcases and air freshener - the unexpected world of classic computers

On the day of his retirement, Pete Turnbull introduces us to his museum of computing.

If you walked along the ground floor corridor of the Fairhurst Building last summer, you would have seen a display cabinet reflecting five decades of computing artefacts. The contents came from my collection of 'classic computers'.

5 decades of computing at the University - click for key
Pete and his SGI 2000
My collection is quite small, comprising perhaps 65 machines, whereas my friend Jim has over 600. My smallest and probably cheapest computer is a single-board microcomputer only about 10cm square. The largest and most expensive is a Silicon Graphics Origin 2000, a 'supercomputer' once used by the Dutch weather bureau. It's almost identical to (though half the capacity of) a $1,000,000 system owned by Computer Science in the late 1990s. Luckily I only had to pay for beer when mine was donated. If that makes the CompSci outlay seem a little OTT, understand that the two acquisitions were six years apart.

Why do people collect these things? Well, they aren't all static museum pieces. Most run, and some have practical use in data recovery. There's also a movement to preserve history and heritage. Of course the real reasons for my collection are just nostalgia and entertainment.

Many of the machines have needed repair, restoration or 'improvement', and that's part of the fun. I designed and built the single-board micro mentioned above, loosely based on magazine articles of the day. I recall a trip to Cambridge to collect pre-production Zilog Z8 parts for it in 1984. Cutting edge stuff, 32K memory on a single chip. Fault diagnosis too can be a rewarding intellectual exercise, though ideally away from children easily confused by short 'technical' words.

The PDP-8 - now fresh and clean
Many machines I own came with stories, or the acts of collection did. One PDP-8 had to be treated in the 'circuit board cleaner'. As it was carried out to my car, a small round pink object fell out. "Ah yes," said the donor. "I meant to tell you about that, you'll need it." Apparently Mrs Donor refused to allow the machine in her house because when switched on and warmed up it smelled strongly of cat's pee. The pink object was the optional, somewhat non-standard and fairly ineffectual air freshener upgrade.

A common method of cleaning circuit boards in small production houses is to put them in a domestic dishwasher, so that's what happened. (If you try this, don't use caustic detergent and don't use the hot drying cycle.) Actually I own a number of useful pieces of equipment for computer care, and as several are located in the kitchen, my wife uses them too. For example, our large high temperature paint dryer also produces excellent cakes and roast meats, while the small-parts cleaner and drier can both be used for laundry. Just remember to photograph the keyboard layout before you remove the keycaps and put them in the pillowcase...

Friday, 26 September 2014


On 11 - 12 September Ben Catt from our Serials & E-Resources team attended the CILIP MmIT 2014 Conference in Sheffield. Here’s his round-up of the event.

The Edge, Sheffield by Virginia Knight (source: http://goo.gl/8cyZWC) CC BY-SA

MmIT (Multimedia Information and Technology) is a special interest group of CILIP (the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals) which aims to unite forward-thinking members in exploring the role of new technology in information services. The group hosts an annual conference in which a key topic is explored by speakers and delegates from a range of library and information sectors. This year the two-day event was held at The Edge, University of Sheffield, and the topic was Sound & Vision in Librarianship: Going Beyond Words and Pictures. Here are a few highlights of some of the sessions attended:
  • Penny Andrews presented the LibraryBox, a modified wireless router which can be used as a portable, inexpensive and secure digital distribution tool. Penny demonstrated how LibraryBox, funded through a successful Kickstarter campaign, can make open access materials easily available to users ‘off the grid’. Delegates were invited to connect their devices and help  themselves to a wealth of free e-books, PDFs, music and video content. Practical applications for LibraryBox include promoting open advocacy and providing reading materials in locations without web access such as hospitals and rural areas. Here is a map of currently known LibraryBox locations around the world.
Photo: LibraryBox by Jason Griffey, reused under a Creative Commons CC BY-NC license.
MmIT 2014 provided a valuable opportunity to share new ideas on multimedia and technology in library and information services. It was great to be offered an insight into work being done at other institutions and to chat with library professionals dedicated to making their collections more accessible and open to the public.

MmIT logo, used with permission.

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

It’s 'Banned Books Week' in the USA!

Each year, the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom documents hundreds of attempts by individuals and groups to have books removed from libraries and classrooms. September 21–27 is the official week when these books are celebrated in the United States.

Banned Books Week banner showing 99 of the 100 most banned books for 1990-2000. Image courtesy of
Dayton Metro Library, re-used under a Creative Commons licence. Can you tell which is the missing 100th book?

According to a recent article in TIME magazine, part of the reason why book banning remains so prevalent in the U.S. is that “the challenges to books happen mostly on a local level. The federal government stays out of it, but individual schools and libraries are ... eager to protect everybody from hazards like ugly words, sedition, blasphemy, unwelcome ideas and, perhaps worst of all, reality.”

The ALA publishes a list of all the complaints they receive and if you can name an author, chances are they're on it: from F. Scott Fitzgerald, Philip Pullman and children's author Judy Blume, to JK Rowling (several times), John Steinbeck and Stephen King.

Here are a few of the most well-known titles on their ‘challenged classics’ list. How many of these have you read?

The Catcher in the Rye JD Salinger
The subject of multiple attempts at banning and censorship, it’s been removed from various libraries and curricula for reasons such as “excess vulgar language, sexual scenes, things concerning moral issues, excessive violence, and anything dealing with the occult”. But my favourite reason was from a submission by Libby, MT, High School in 1983 who wanted it banned “due to the book's contents."

To Kill a Mockingbird Harper Lee
According to Vernon Verona Sherill, NY School District in 1980, it’s a "filthy, trashy novel."

1984 George Orwell
Challenged in Jackson County, FL back in 1981 because Orwell's novel is "pro-communist and contained explicit sexual matter."

Song of Solomon Toni Morrison
Only in 2009 was this book reinstated on the English curriculum at a school in Shelby, MI but parents “are to be informed in writing and at a meeting about the book’s content. Students not wanting to read the book can choose an alternative without academic penalty.”

But my absolute favourite reason for banning a novel is coincidentally for one of my favourite books. Just like the book, this reason has got the lot:

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest Ken Kesey
In 1974, five residents of Strongsville, OH, sued the board of education to remove Kesey’s book. Labelling it "pornographic," they stated that the novel "glorifies criminal activity, has a tendency to corrupt juveniles and contains descriptions of bestiality, bizarre violence, and torture, dismemberment, death, and human elimination."

These books are all available to borrow from the Library.

Further reading:

Friday, 19 September 2014

Happy 20th birthday to YorkWeb!

Mike Brudenell looks back to the birth of the University website...

It's 11:55am on Monday, 19 September 1994. Several members of the Computing Service are gathered in our D/104 high performance workstation room in Derwent College, anxiously looking at our watches. Radio York said they'd be here for noon but there's still no sign…

We're about to launch the University's first ever website: the culmination of an accidental discovery and a year of hard work.

I joined the Systems Group within the Computing Service (now IT Services) in July 1988. The following year, our group were lucky enough to receive money from our departmental Innovation Fund to buy a computer, write some software, and create our Information Server. Recognising how useful it would be for people to see information and reference material online, we’d put in a bid to devise something to meet this need.

Computing, sometime in the '80s...
Over the next five years the Information Server was expanded as more and more departments started putting their reading lists, academic and administrative information onto it so they could be viewed 24 hours a day from anywhere on campus.

One of my own responsibilities was to keep an eye on mailing lists and newsletters to look for new technologies that might be of interest. And so, in late 1993, I spotted an interesting article describing work by Tim Berners-Lee: something called the 'World Wide Web', and along with it the first ever graphical 'web browser'.

Curious as to what this might be I had downloaded, built and played with the software and was fascinated: it let you organise and view information much like our own Information Server, but in a much more usable and easy to browse way. You could even include pictures, change fonts and colours. Wow!

I showed my mini test website to the Head of Systems, Dave Atkin, who recognised its potential. So we started planning to retire the Information Server and move all of its content over to this new-fangled Web-thing.

I was charged with setting up the web server software and storage that would hold all the information, whilst Dave wrote conversion programs to extract the menus and pages of data out of the Information Server and convert them into the HTML markup language used for the Web. He even managed to maintain the organisation of all the data, creating index pages corresponding to each of the Information Server’s selection menus.

The Birth of YorkWeb

The University's new website was to be called 'YorkWeb' and, as the new Academic Year fast approached, its launch was set for 19 September. We planned a small event to celebrate, there in D/104, with the Great and the Good of the University (and cheesy nibbles too!).

This was a big thing: there were very few websites in the whole world, let alone the UK! And ours would be unusual in containing lots of information right from Day One, thanks to our prior use of our Information Server.

Somehow the local Press and Radio York heard about the event and Radio York told us they wanted to cover the launch and would be there for noon.

John Byrne (left) talks to radio York.
Our author is lurking in the background (right)
11:56am …
11:57am …

Sudden commotion downstairs! A Radio York radio car screeched to a halt outside and a reporter came hurtling up the stairs, dragging a vastly long training cable behind him! He clipped on the microphone, adjusted his headphones, and smoothly launched into describing the scene to listeners. From his voice they’d never have guessed his mad flight up the stairwell and the cable dangling precariously down through the atrium!

At noon my colleague back in the department threw the metaphorical switch and YorkWeb, with the University's first ever home page, sprang into life. 

From left: Dave Atkin, Anne Worden, Mike Brudenell, Julian Richards.

As the years have passed web servers, web browsers and websites have become ever more capable. Way back at the start every page had a grey background: there wasn't a way of changing it. There were no animations, no embeddable fancy fonts, no way of wrapping text around a photo… and no advertising, no pop-up windows, no browser hijacking malware to take you to dodgy compromised websites!

As new features have been introduced to the Web so the design and content on web pages have evolved. The grey backgrounds are long-gone, and information is now organised not in an "aren't we clever having a website? Here are some links to take you to other companies' sites" but instead to draw you in - helping you to find the information you want, but also keeping you within the site.

Our own University home page has changed and evolved over the years too. Although that first web page sadly no longer exists it is possible to view many from 1997 onwards at the Internet Wayback Machine: a website devoted to taking snapshots of websites over the years. You can use it to view our homepage as the years go by:

And back to today…

So now, on 19 September 2014, we can take a moment to look back and remember. As part of its growing up, the University's website may have been renamed back in 2010 but, having been there at its birth, I'm afraid I’ll always think of it with its original name - so...

Happy 20th Birthday, YorkWeb!

And may you have many more of them.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

Behind every great woman...is herself

Rummaging through the York Art Gallery collection again, we found a clutch of artists sometimes better-known not for their art, but for the men in their lives. Ilka Heale puts them back in the spotlight.

Hilda Anne Carline (1889–1950) was a British painter and (coincidentally) first wife of the artist Stanley Spencer. Born into a family of painters - her father was George Carline and her brothers Richard and Sydney - she studied at the Slade School of Art.

Self-portrait. p. 57 in The art of Hilda Carline: Mrs Stanley Spencer
Lincoln : Usher Gallery, 1999
In 1919 she first met Stanley Spencer at a family dinner; they married a few years later in 1925 and had two daughters. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography notes that "the years preceding her marriage were particularly productive: she benefited from the intellectual stimulus and challenge provided by ... the gatherings at the Carlines' home ... and like her brothers she exhibited regularly with the London Group."

In 1932, Spencer started a relationship with Patricia Preece which would lead to Hilda and Stanley separating in 1934 and divorcing a few years later.

The first retrospective of Hilda’s work was in 1999, nearly 40 years after she died. A book in our York Art Gallery Collection was published to coincide with an exhibition of her work: The art of Hilda Carline: Mrs Stanley Spencer (on the shelf in the Library at LJ 9.2 SPE).

Winifred Nicholson (1893-1981) painter and writer, was born in 1893, as Rosa Winifred Roberts. Her grandfather was the painter George Howard, 9th Earl of Carlisle.  She trained at the Byam Shaw School of Art in London in 1912 and showed a watercolour in her first exhibition at the Summer Exhibition of the Royal Academy.

Portrait of Winifred p. 41 from Winifred Nicholson by Christopher Andreae, 
(Farnham: Lund Humphries, 2009)
Ben with Jake 1927, p. 102  from same

In 1920, Winifred met Ben Nicholson and married him later the same year. But 11 years later Ben met the sculptor Barbara Hepworth, and by the end of the year he had left Winifred for Barbara. Unlike Hilda, Winifred continued to paint and exhibit throughout her life, sometimes in joint exhibitions with her husband and later in group shows.

For further reading see Winifred Nicholson by Christopher Andreae (LJ 8.1 NIC/A - quarto) along with other books in the collection about Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth.

Gwen John (1876-1939) was the sister of artist Augustus John but she's now probably more highly-regarded than her brother. He himself said "Fifty years after my death I shall be remembered as Gwen John's brother". She attended the Slade School of Fine Art and later studied with James McNeill Whistler in Paris.

Self-Portrait by Gwen John - Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
Cecily Langdale's essay in The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography remarks:
Gwen John's art is consistently described as ‘private’, ‘quiet’, ‘reticent’. She herself said: ‘As to whether I have anything worth expressing … I may never have anything to express except this desire for a more interior life’... She was not a major historical force who influenced those after her. Although perhaps a minor master, she was surely an enduring one, possessed of genius.
We have a few books about Gwen in the Library (LJ 9.2 JOH) and you can see one of her paintings for yourself when the Art Gallery reopens in Spring 2015: Young woman in a red shawl is owned by York Museums Trust.

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Northern Collaboration Conference 2014

A delegation from the Information Directorate attended this year’s Northern Collaboration Conference, hosted by Teesside University on Friday 5 September.

New Teesside University building / Photo by James West,
used under a Creative Commons licence
So what is the Northern Collaboration? In theory it’s “a group of 26 academic libraries in the north of England [which] aims to provide a framework within which libraries can work together to improve the quality of services, to be more efficient, and to explore new business models.” 

And in practice that’s exactly what happens - Friday’s conference was on the theme of ‘Engagement and Audiences’ and it was full of ideas worth pinching! On a blazing hot day in Teesside we heard from lots of speakers, all sharing innovations implemented at their institution. Here are just a few of the sessions we attended:

  • Derfel Owen of the University of Exeter gave the keynote address on ‘Working in Partnership with Students’. He explained that students are becoming increasingly fundamental to supporting change in HE, and that institutions are working in collaboration with students in order to improve the teaching and learning environment. His was also the only talk of the day to reference Monty Python’s Four Yorkshiremen in an academic context. You can read more from Derfel in his book.
  • The University of Manchester gave a great talk about their Eureka! Library Innovation Challenge in which students pitch ideas for improvement to library services, Dragon’s Den-style, to a panel of experts.
  • Stephen Morrin from the University of Salford discussed the challenges he faced in implementing a mobile-optimised library website - the finished product is really slick.
  • Newcastle University's talk about their Herbal Magic project was really interesting - making the connection between Special Collections on herbals and current research on the use of herbs in several diseases was a great idea. The project led to the creation of online resources, assessed activities for postgraduate students, and to outreach workshops for local school children.
  • Our own Jess Stephens gave a well-received talk on the changing face of communications in HE, and on how the Information Directorate is using Twitter and Facebook to engage with students.
  • Sarah Price from Durham University Library gave a fantastic presentation on the cultural engagement activities which they co-ordinated around the Lindisfarne Gospels Durham Exhibition. The partnerships they fostered across the entire north east region were truly impressive. From the stimulus of one exhibition, a gospel choir was formed, they had a Lindisfarne-themed bake-off, and even got an artist to create some Anglo-Saxon graffiti in various public spaces. Oh and they also worked with 20,000 school children!
  • The day was rounded-off by Ann Rossiter of SCONUL who gave an interesting overview of Richard Sennett's dialogical model of co-operation which 'enables understanding of complexity'. You can read an excerpt from Sennett’s book online, or borrow his book Together: the rituals, pleasures and politics of co-operation from the Library.

The Northern Collaboration aims to exchange ideas and good practice, and enable connections between librarians and related professional groups - this year’s conference did exactly that.

Monday, 15 September 2014

Celebrating Roald Dahl Day!

Saturday was Roald Dahl Day. In a guest blog from the Department of Education, Dr Victoria Elliott discusses the author's impact - personal and professional.

It won’t be a huge surprise to anyone that as an English in Education lecturer, Matilda is my favourite Roald Dahl book. In fact when Matilda came out in 1988 I was offered a choice of birthday present (I was 8). I could either have Matilda as a hardback (now!) or I could have some new clothes (which I really needed) and Matilda when it came out in paperback. I still have the hardback.

A few personal copies
Matilda is a tribute to the power of reading in people’s lives, and particularly their education. Through reading, we step into other people's shoes and live lives we could never dream of. We can learn to empathise with others, and we can gather the 'cultural literacy' to interact with our society and heritage. Reading for pleasure is immensely important for young people’s educational success.

For an English educationalist Matilda is a particularly powerful fable. A small girl escapes from her dreadful, anti-education family at first metaphorically through reading and then literally, as she uses her brain power to defeat the awful Miss Trunchbull and rescue her favourite teacher Miss Honey.  Education saves lives.  And of course, it's every English teacher's dream to find an under-ten reading their way voluntarily through Dickens's works. (Matilda would have no problem with the new requirements for a 19th century novel at GCSE.)

Roald Dahl from US Library of Congress' Prints and Photographs division.
Digital ID van.5a51872.
Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Roald Dahl is quite extraordinary as a children’s author. He's widely read and celebrated and continues to be so after his death. Matilda has of course become one of the most successful modern musicals. Every September Roald Dahl Day is celebrated on his birthday, the 13th (the day after mine as it turns out. Coincidences abound!). Children from all over the world can visit the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre, in his old home in Buckinghamshire. The official website also has a great selection of online teaching resources, FYI trainee teachers!

Perhaps this Roald Dahl Day you might stop by the JB Morrell library and visit the Peggy Janiurek collection to borrow one of his books. If books about brainy kids aren't your thing, I recommend The Witches too. Or James and the Giant Peach. Or Fantastic Mr Fox. Or, for a surprisingly feminist retelling of fairy tales you might more expect to find by Angela Carter: Revolting Rhymes. After all, every Red Riding Hood should keep a pistol in her knickers to defeat the Big Bad Wolf. Although if Matilda had worn the red cloak, she might have come up with a more cunning weapon than that…

Monday, 8 September 2014

If you go down to the woods today…

There's something which links Cockatoo Island in Sydney, a quiet spot near Janet's Foss in the Yorkshire Dales, the University of Stirling, the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, the Chelsea Physic Garden, and the National Fruit Collection at Brogdale in Kent.

Literate bees.

Between 2012 and 2014 the artist and poet Alec Finlay selected and read a number of bee-themed books after which he took each text and transformed it into a home for solitary or wild bees. The numbers of these little garden juggernauts are in slow decline so the creation of the nests was both practical-minded and creative. A collection of poems inspired by a close-reading of the books also resulted from the project.

With the arrival of July came the annual Information Directorate staff development festival. Day Two focused on teamwork. This year, after a morning of presentations, members of the Content Department - that’s the people who buy, catalogue, and manage everything which goes in the library - had the opportunity to visit the Yorkshire Sculpture Park and see one of Finlay's Bee Libraries in action.

Despite warnings of finding ourselves "up-to-our-elbows in mud", the day was hot, the plants and flowers in full bloom, and the bees were buzzing. The far side of the park's lake not only offered shelter from the sun's rays but the chance to see Finlay's apian-inspired installation. Twenty-four individual bee nests float high up amongst the trees at YSP. Often the only way of knowing there's one around is by stumbling across the markers detailing which book each of the homes is made from.

Titles include Sylvia Plath's Ariel, Simon Buxton's The Shamanic Way of the Bee: Ancient Wisdom and Healing Practices of the Bee Masters, Karl Von Frisch's The Dancing Bees: An Account of the Life and Senses of the Honey Bee, and Sam Hamill's The Little Book of Haiku. Dangling amidst leaves and branches, it's easy to see why solitary bees love this well-camouflaged hovering library.  

"Reading gleans knowledge, which writing
refines into poetry – as nectar is refined to honey."

As Finlay recognises, however, "the nests are not meant to last. Paper will begin to flute, mould and decay immediately." He further notes that "the slow aging process of the indoor library is here supplanted for the rapid effects of weathering, as materials are exposed to rain, wind and, in time, snow and frost." Finlay concludes "we may take our cue from the bees themselves, who survive for only a brief time – though not brief to them."