Behind the scenes: Annette Faux and the LMB Archive
Annette Faux, the LMB Archivist, started at the LMB in September 2001. Prior to this, she worked as an Assistant Librarian at the University of Cambridge’s Department of Biochemistry; Senior Library Assistant at the Cambridgeshire Collection (Local Studies Library), Cambridge Central Library and at the University Library, in both the Reference and Photography Departments. During her tenure at the LMB, she has overseen the organisation and expansion of the Archive, helped plan numerous events and become a go-to source for anybody looking for historical information about the LMB.
Here, Annette reflects on how the Archive has grown, the varied projects she has contributed to, and the interesting people she’s worked with along the way.
Archives: a never-ending job
When I joined the LMB, the Archive consisted of a lot of material that hadn’t been processed. Margaret Brown, who had been the Director’s PA, had done a very good job of collecting boxes and boxes of material, items that we simply would not have without her and that’s what the Archive grew out of. But very little indexing or cataloguing had been done and so the material wasn’t really being used. The Archive was in a small, narrow office in the PNAC wing, in Block 7 of the old building. There was also random stuff all over the place, particularly in the basement which was not ideal because it got damp. So, I really was starting from scratch to bring all this stuff together, finding out what we’d got and making it available to other people. The one good thing about being in the PNAC wing, was the way you just met and talked to so many people in the area — not least when trying to negotiate your way down a corridor around all the fridges, freezers and equipment.
When the new building project started, I was involved in discussions about what I wanted from the Archive area. I’m really happy with the Archive now, because we managed to house most of it in one location. But preparing for the move was challenging, whereas most people were encouraged to get rid of excess material and downsize, the Archive just got bigger and bigger as people gave us old material for the collection. It was a little overwhelming — we moved over here and within half an hour our computers were up and running and we were working (thanks to our great IT team). There didn’t seem to be any time to actually get to grips with sorting out what we’d brought with us. We’re nearly ten years down the road since moving, and there’s still material that hasn’t been sorted because I’m so involved in other things.
I am always collecting more material and always learning more about the LMB. Archives are never-ending. There’s no end or stop point. Our official start date is 1947, although we do have some older items: Max Perutz’s reprints from 1938 onwards. We’ve got a few items from the original MRC ‘Hut’, but so much stuff was thrown away when they moved to the first LMB building in 1962. Most people had no notion that this was something historical that would be of interest. A handful of people did, including Mark Bretscher, who rescued quite a few things from the old building, some of which are now in the LMB Archive and his collection at the Churchill Archives Centre. The latest item donated to the Archive was a South African postage stamp featuring Aaron Klug. We have a very modest stamp collection, including a few which we provided images for from the Archive.
21 years of organising events
I was only in the archive job for two weeks when I was asked to be on the organising committee for a large meeting to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the DNA double helix. It was my first major event planning role, so it was quite a learning curve, but a great way to meet lots of people — both LMB colleagues and then lots of LMB Alumni at the event. I have been involved in organising many events since, particularly those involving LMB Alumni, as the Archive is responsible for the alumni records. In 2014, I helped organise the Alumni Symposium in the new building, to celebrate 50 years of molecular biology.
I was also on the organising committee for the official opening of the new building. This was quite a different event because it was a royal opening but no details were announced until two weeks beforehand, so we weren’t allowed to say anything. Of course, people were speculating as to who would perform the opening, as the one in 1962 was attended by The Queen, who returned for the 2013 opening too. I knew I was going to do a little display of material from the Archive, but just a few weeks earlier I was told I was going to talk to her for five minutes about the items. In the end, it’s was all a bit of a blur. I showed her a 1950s travel-size, ball-and-spoke model of DNA and an original Nobel medal (afterwards everyone wanted to come and see it and have their photograph taken with it — which I wasn’t prepared for).
I enjoy being part of a team organising events, but when you’re two to three weeks before any event there’s a lot of troubleshooting to do and it’s quite stressful and manic. But I’ve done enough events that I know that’s going to happen, no matter how early you start. And it’s a great feeling at the end of the day when it all pulls together and you can see how successful it is. I’ve met quite a lot of the alumni through 21 years of events, it’s like welcoming old friends now.
People: a great archive resource
This job has given me the chance to meet lots of interesting people and be involved in projects I never thought I would be. For example, I worked closely with Aaron Klug, and his wife, Liebe, in sorting his archive which is now kept at the Churchill Archives Centre. Aaron and Liebe very much led the discussions, making sure we captured everything, but I physically sorted through every single item and piece of paper in Aaron’s LMB office, which took several months. He had lots of stuff in cubby holes from floor to ceiling where the top piece of paper could be decades older and a totally different subject from the next piece of paper. But Aaron was always very generous with his time and with sharing his extraordinary knowledge. He was the first LMB scientist I was involved in video interviewing; we spent two days in a professional recording studio, where Aaron was interviewed by Tony Crowther and John Finch. I was hidden away in the technical room, with the Director, Live Editor and Sound Engineer, keeping a track of the timings and with the Director checking that I was happy with what was happening. I had never been in a recording studio before, so I wasn’t sure what was supposed to happen, or whether I was happy with it. But I quickly learnt and really enjoyed the process.
Richard Henderson, under who’s Directorship the Archive started and who gave me the job, has supported me from day one; passing on his knowledge, and wonderful LMB stories. He still sends me little notes of support and bounds into the Archive office on a regular basis. I also had the opportunity to work with Michael Fuller who was at the Lab from 1952. He had officially retired before I was in post but stayed on as a ‘retired worker’. We worked very closely together on lots of projects and he was a valuable source of information, even after he stopped coming into the Lab; he would send me news articles and information he had collected about the LMB.
Books, books and more books
Before I was in post, Richard Henderson had this idea that the history of LMB should be captured in a book. John Finch, another ‘retired worker’ was working on this; interviewing people, gathering information and writing it all. I worked with him very closely on checking information and I was very heavily involved when we started to source the 250 images for the book and with sorting out copyright permissions. Richard, John and I also worked with a local publisher to get the book printed, something, again, I’d never done before. I had to quickly get up-to-speed on the complexities of book publishing and their very strict timetabling. And then, of course, once the book was out, we did a book launch and sent out copies to the LMB Alumni; I remember having to pack an awful lot of books.
And then, Hugh Huxley wanted to gather together memoirs of, mainly, American visitors to the LMB from the 1970s and 1980s. He persuaded several to write articles and edited the book. I helped pull it all together and worked with the publisher to get everything ready. This project had a bittersweet ending though, as Hugh died unexpectedly before the book was officially published. But, in his last email to me, a week before he died, he thanked me for the four advance copies he had received and was delighted with the final version. I was pleased that he got to see the finished book.
More recently, I worked with colleagues on Kathy Weston’s book, ‘Ahead of the curve: Women Scientists at the LMB’ liaising with the publishers and author. The last months of the process were done during the pandemic lockdown, working on the book from home. Despite this, it was still published on time in November 2020. So that was quite an achievement.
My favourite archives: photographs
Even before joining the LMB, nearly all my jobs involved photographs. I particularly love old photographs. At the Cambridgeshire Collection one of my main jobs was cataloguing photos and images, often old postcards, often with no information about the image. That was fun, trying to discover what the image was of, what date it was, playing ‘detective’. They have a fabulous collection, including 1962 photos of the LMB building taken by Ramsey & Muspratt, a long-closed local professional studio. The LMB collection of photos is also amazing, especially for a scientific research lab, thanks to there being a photography (visual aids) department at LMB from the late 1960s. I work a lot with the Visual Aids Department.
One of my favourite moments is when I discover photographs I’ve never seen before, particularly photographs showing something or someone different. I remember finding a photograph of Sydney Brenner, a still from a BBC TV programme from about 1960. He is waving a model of a bacteriophage around. I found it in a random box of papers, and suddenly this file with this photograph popped out. That was great!
And people always love to see old photographs. Not every photograph is technically great, but you can have a fairly mediocre photograph and it might show you something you’ve never seen elsewhere. There’s such a wealth of information in photographs; architecture, society, fashion, technology, relationships, history in the making. A large number of archive enquiries we receive are for the use of LMB photographs, e.g. in publications, we’ve had photographs go on front covers of books which is always a nice thing but we’ve also had people want photographs purely to put in their office.
Away from the Archive: crafting and bowling
Away from my desk I’ve always been a keen crafter. I like making things, that’s what I do to relax in my downtime. I do knitting and stitching and make cards, which quite a few people here will have received. This does also spill into work; for a very long time I’ve assisted with the annual Arts and Crafts Show, helping arrange the displays and contributing a few of my own little makes. More recently, as a member of the LMB’s Craft and Chatter group, I’ve been involved in making items for our big charity Christmas sale. And for many years I’ve helped with the LMB charity Christmas raffle, selling tickets and assisting with the draw. That’s really satisfying – helping raise money for charity.
I am also a keen ten-pin bowler, which is the thing most people don’t know about me. I’ve bowled in a couple of teams in amateur leagues at a local American Air Base for over 15 years. I love ten-pin bowling, because there is a technical element to it — it’s not just about being able to chuck a ball down as fast as you can. It’s measured and there’s a lot of thought in it, it’s more strategic than lots of people think.
From the past to the future
It’s still extremely unusual for a cutting-edge science lab to have an archive and LMB was one of the pioneers in this field. A lot of people are surprised that we have an archive. But there is much more interest in the history and development of modern science now than when I started here. Back in 2001, we only got a handful of enquiries, now we get a large number of enquiries every year from right around the world. I can see how much the archive has grown in terms of people wanting material; that’s a really nice thing. The Archive team has also expanded and in 2010, Teresa Wallman joined the team, initially in a joint-role with the LMB Library, and we have worked together for 12 years. At various times, we have been joined by temporary assistants who have helped work on key projects, most recently Grace Massucci, who now has a permanent role in the Public Engagement News team.
The Archive is now seen as a public engagement resource and through projects from our current Director, Jan Löwe, we are able to tap into this resource more, such as with the new exhibition room. There are also many new challenges, digitising our collection and making sure old formats are still usable (with the Visual Aids Department we converted old VHS, audio and DVD tapes into electronic files). And collecting ‘born digital’ material, such as emails, graphics and electronic files, is a massive challenge for archives.
But being the LMB Archivist has always given me challenges; learning new skills, finding and researching information for enquiries and juggling the role with other commitments. It gives me an amazing variety of work — there is never a dull moment, although I occasionally crave a quiet, pottering around the office day, if only to make progress on sorting through the material that has been untouched since we moved to this building ten years ago.
Annette was interviewed for the 2022 Alumni Newsletter on 19th October 2022