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Instruments of Power

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Instruments of Power is a follow-on project by Paul Sillitoe from his PhD research at the University of Liverpool. The aim of that research was to develop new ways to make technical drawings more accessible for researchers, by making them more understandable for archivists.

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The text below has been submitted by Paul, his new project will work with archivists and researchers to transform theoretical findings into practical outcomes. So he will be looking for archivists and researchers to act as consultees for the project.

The Problem
Technical drawings graphically represent engineering and manufacturing designs better than any textual description. These potent instruments of power and innovative thought depict progress, process and product across British industry.

Yet they are under-valued, under-used and at-risk research resources - less likely than textual records to be selected as archives, or adequately described for researchers. Why?

As a second-career archivist, from an engineering background, I took reading technical drawings for granted. Yet as I began to manage archival cataloguing teams, I realised that many archivists could not understand them. Their predominantly arts-based backgrounds had not equipped them for this foreign technical language, whose graphical conventions differed across industries and time.

Consequently, many technical drawings, even if secured for archival preservation, remain uncatalogued and inaccessible to researchers. The archival record for Britain’s period of industrialisation is therefore unbalanced.

A Research Solution
My hypothesis is that archivists do not need to understand a technical drawing in its entirety. They only need to be able to extract the information required for appraisal and cataloguing.

The aim of the PhD research was therefore to discover whether sufficient information could always be found within a technical drawing that was unrelated to its subject content. Such generic information, if identified and described, could form the basis for practical guidance to the understanding of technical drawings.

The PhD research statistically surveyed a sample of complex twentieth-century technical drawings. Individual concepts and characteristics were identified, and their frequencies of occurrence quantified. Thirty four concepts and characteristics were identified as almost always occurring within technical drawings, and having potential to be useful to understanding.

Forty further concepts and characteristics were identified as occurring less frequently within the sample. They have potential to be useful to understanding if they are found to occur more frequently in other samples of technical drawings. Archivist and researcher consultees are now required. Consultees are now sought to help assess the practical utility of these concepts and characteristics in understanding technical drawings. The consultation will be held principally online. Your views will contribute to published practical guidance to the understanding of technical drawings for archivists and researchers.

If you are interested in the project, then please contact Paul on


About This Blog

This blog will provide information about the development of a National Strategy for Business Archives in Scotland. It will also be used to provide general updates about Business Archives in Scotland.

This blog is written by Kiara King, the Ballast Trust archivist. Updates on the Data Mapping Project are written by Cheryl Brown, project officer.


The Business Archives Strategy for Scotland was published in August, read it here. Keep an eye on the blog for more news about business archives and the strategy's implementation.

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Kiara King (Ballast Trust Archivist)