Hooray for Experts

Sometimes an archivist is lucky enough to work with a collection relating to a topic they know well but more often than not (and perhaps this is even luckier) archivists find themselves cataloguing material about which, in the beginning at least, they know as much as a certain Jon Snow. I imagine it’s similar for book editors who get to read about subjects they’ve previously never heard of. However, to be able to make informed appraisal decisions and then arrange and present the material in a meaningful context, ideally preserving provenance and original order, it is necessary to spend some time researching the collection’s creator, be it organisation or individual.

There can, at times like these, be no substitute for having an expert on hand; someone who has worked in the field or even created the records themselves. Experts can provide not only knowledge, but details about records and processes which cannot always be picked up from secondary sources.

I am delighted to have such an expert available to advise and help me make sense of the Lothian and Borders police archive. Dr John McGowan is not only an ex-Edinburgh policeman but has done his own extensive research into the history of policing which has resulted in two in-depth books on the subject:

A New Civic Order: the Contribution of the City of Edinburgh Police, 1805-1812; with Reflections on Social and Public Order, 2013

Policing the Metropolis of Scotland, 2010

One thing that Dr McGowan has been at pains to impart is that the police have always been involved in so much more than simply fighting crime; a fact that the records themselves bear witness to. He has frequently said that there will be a police record for every letter of the alphabet – well there’s a challenge that I couldn’t let pass!

So here’s Part 1, letters A-H:


Aliens Register for West Lothian for the period 1916-1918


Billiard Room License book


Casualty records – accidents and fires in the County of West Lothian


Dogs – Lost and Found register


Events – Police Orders for the Commonwealth Games 1986


Firearms Registers

General Orders Music Resized

General Orders – instructions from the Chief Constable


Hackney Cab Licences


Handlisting Highs and Boxlisting Blues


Contents of a box including film reel, handbooks and old photographs

Imagine standing at the start of a 6m long and 4m high shelving stack filled with faceless brown boxes not knowing what any of them contains.   It’s like looking at a blank canvas waiting to be filled.    Fast forward 8 weeks and the canvas is almost complete; the boxes have  become familiar friends, the stories, voices and pictures held in each one have been revealed bit by bit, piece by piece and now each box, far from being faceless and silent, has colour and personality.

I invent nothing, I rediscover – Auguste Rodin

While boxlisting, records which have been untouched for years are re-opened; the past is not invented but (hopefully) recorded and it is the archivist’s job, if not to rediscover it, then certainly to pave the way for others to do so.

It’s been fascinating to see a picture of the history of the Edinburgh police emerge from the many boxes, volumes, plans and photographs lining the shelves. The police have been involved in so many aspects of our everyday lives, not just fighting or preventing crime, and with each box opened an extra layer is added to the picture. I’m beginning to gain an understanding of the intensive and all encompassing nature of police work.


Leith Police Force 1906

There are high points such as royal visits, community engagement, amateur dramatics and award ceremonies but also extreme lows from sudden and tragic deaths to missing persons and horrific murders.   To open up a box is to become immersed in all these stories and some days the stories have happier endings than others; as an archivist I can leave it behind at 5pm but officers working on difficult cases would surely not have had that luxury.

Aim of Handlist

There is something liberating about a handlist. It is the catalogue’s wildling cousin; unpolished, staying out all night not caring about order or responsibility.


Linlithgow County Constabulary Warrant Card 1901

It provides a summary of what the collection contains and then allows appraisal to take place and the material to be arranged into an ISAD(G) compliant catalogue.  Extra information which may be needed further down the line is also captured – storage, conservation requirements, outreach possibilities, accessibility issues (particularly pertinent in police records) to name a few.

This particular collection has come in to the archives in dribs and drabs from several different police stations and there is little evidence of original order.  Having said that it’s been important to scrutinise each box carefully as the contents of some have revealed themselves to belong to specific individuals and such is the nature of a career in the police that, alongside a murder file, may be the minutes of the force’s football association.

And Finally…


It’s not! But sometimes it can be hard to work out what some material is and why it is together

Did I mention having to put on my coat to make the long walk to the bathroom – “old school” as a former colleague said with a wry smile; perhaps this is a rite of passage all archivists must go through…..