Container or Content: The Ethical Quandary of Unlocking the Archive’s Locked Books

Container or Content: The Ethical Quandary of Unlocking the Archive’s Locked Books

By Dr Sarah E Hayward and Katherine Szentgyorgyi

We haven’t updated you about our work in the archives for a couple of months, but we’ve been busy as ever. We’d like to share a glimpse behind the scenes with you today, with what was something of a dilemma for us for quite a while.

It concerns our collection of locked books.

We didn’t know what – or how much – content was locked inside them.  This is how they’ve been since each one was carefully placed in a box and added to the shelves in the archive. In this state, they really add nothing to our knowledge of the Hospital.

We did try a series of small keys that we managed to source, and even tried our hand at lock picking, but to no avail. As a last resort, Sarah said that she could bring in her Dremel (a rotary power tool) and see if she could cut through the locking bar. Please believe us when we say that we didn’t take this decision lightly, but in terms of priorities for the archive, it was so much more important to see what they contained than to preserve their locks.

The task was more labour intensive than we had expected, probably because Sarah was trying to do as little damage as possible, but within an hour we had access to these books which nobody had seen inside for decades.

And the result? Well, after all that build-up, we can’t actually show you inside, as the books turned out to be personnel ledgers from the 1930s to the 1960s. As they’re under 100 years old and they contain personal data, they need to be kept confidential for now. However, we can tell you that they’re not especially objective by today’s standards. Alongside the names of staff, there are notes such as “very untidy but kind to the patients”, “good nurse but somewhat overanxious… apt to tell doctors what to do!!”, and “again pregnant”.

This new content is a great addition to our archives, though, as we have precious little material relating to our former employees. We look forward to going through the books, and to opening them up to enquirers once GDPR regulations allow.

Archive Open Lecture on 6th June

We’ll just take this opportunity to tell you about our upcoming open lecture; ‘Beyond Incurables: the Royal Hospital for Neuro-disability’s journey in care’.

In this talk, Katherine will be looking at the Hospital’s admission records during the Victorian era, including one of our earliest patients who lived to over 80 years of age – after being admitted as incurable a whole 50 years beforehand! She will then delve into the Hospital’s admission records through to the post-war period and beyond, to discover how the conditions that were treated became much narrower and how the RHN gained its specialism in brain injury.

The talk is online and free to attend, but please book via the link below: