From Textiles to Tea: Global History Hacking the James Finlay & Co Archives

Published: 16 June 2019

By Rachel Rowan, PhD Candidate in Economic & Social History, University of Glasgow

On Thursday 28th February, an array of twenty students, postdocs, and lecturers gathered at the University of Glasgow Archive Services to ‘hack’ the James Finlay & Co papers within the Scottish Business Archive. A ‘hack’ or ‘hackathon’ is predominantly undertaken in scientific or technological-based areas of research and business to facilitate teamwork and generate fresh concepts. This ‘Global History Hackathon’ was our first attempt to experiment with this format for historical teaching and research design. We hoped to identify teaching resources and projects for students to study Global History and contribute ideas to the bespoke creation of an MSc in Global History at the University of Glasgow.

Before the event, the Global History Hackathon Team consisting of interns Sarah Gambell and Rachel Rowan, Franziska Mucha, and Dr Hannah-Louise Clark brainstormed guiding questions for the ‘hackers’. Subsequently these were reworked to become four hackathon challenges:

  • What global story would you like to tell using the James Finlay & Co. papers?
  • How will you use the catalogue and the archival documents to tell this global story?
  • What would make this global story more accessible and usable for you?
  • What would make this global story more accessible and usable for people in the places touched by this story?

Meanwhile, the hackers were given a task to ‘Meet the Archives’ wherein they browsed the online catalogue and requested 1-3 items that they thought might be interesting or helpful for the event. They were also given optional readings on non-western business history and global history approaches.

The hackathon began with introductions led by Hannah-Louise and Clare Paterson. Senior Archivist and College Librarian. In this introductory phase, hackers introduced themselves and were then invited to form ‘first impressions’ of archival materials placed around the reading room. Sticky notes and pencils were provided for them to jot down individual or group responses to the four guiding question and apply these notes to story boards. Within a short space of time, this produced four ideas collages with comments such as ‘produce school materials for schools in these areas: Kenya, Assam, Sri Lanka, Scotland’, ‘translations into other languages, copies at remaining tea plantations,’ ‘visualisation model on the web: mapping and modelling on connections’ and ‘digitisation of documents’.

The next stage was team formation. The global history hackers took a break to exchange ideas over cups of tea sourced from Finlay plantations and home-made scones and biscuits. The Global History Hackathon Team attempted to identify underlying themes across the proliferation of sticky notes. Ultimately, the team decided to divide the notes into four thematic groups, but Hannah-Louise Clark mischievously mixed up some of the notes to see what different combinations of ideas would stir up:

  1. Personal and Corporate Geographies
  2. Local Global History
  3. Labour Matters
  4. Scotland and its links to the World

Back in the tea room, hackers were invited to form teams around these topics and given 1 hour to ‘hack’ the archive documents each person had individually requested in the ‘Meet the Archives’ activity. 


In the final phase of the hackathon, our four teams shared their findings with the group. The results were positive, engaging, and surprising: a small number of people in a short space of time generated myriad ideas for using the collections in teaching, research, and public engagement. For example, the ‘Local Global History’ team had wrestled with definitions of ‘local’, disagreeing about whether it meant Glasgow, Scotland or ‘indigenous local’ in Sri Lanka and India. The team had scrutinised a small book inscribed ‘Monthly Payment book’ dating from 1847-49 in which Mrs James Finlay had recorded personal and household expenses. The entries showed how two locals—Glasgow and Bombay—were intimately intertwined, with clothing, cutlery, and even a toy doll being shipped from Glasgow merchants to Bombay. This team also reflected on how each person perceived and wished to use the archives differently and how ‘different things can be done with archival sources.’

Methodological reflections arose across all four of the teams. One hacker mentioned the data management challenges of working with such a large archival collection (90 linear metres, or the equivalent of 9 London buses as Clare Paterson later remarked). Another remarked on the challenges of comprehending the archive documents as part of a working business system. Another hacker raised the issue of English not being the only language in which to study global history and the need to address the balance in anglocentric fields of history, while recognising that this poses a skills challenge for learners and researchers. The ‘Labour Matters’ team suggested how the company’s in-house magazine could be critically analysed to document changing attitudes towards race within the corporate hierarchy. Several teams had ideas for public engagement from these archives, including an exhibition, a showcase, a public art installation and even a theatre production or television drama that could serve to connect the stories in these archives with a more global public.

For the ‘Personal and Corporate Geographies’ team, money was no limit. This team envisaged capturing large grant income and working with Finlays to create a digital database incorporating digitised records, quantitative metadata, and personal narratives or qualitative data to help plot local and global history. One hacker in this group, who identified English Literature as her primary discipline, proposed establishing connections between Scotland and India to encourage research in India and vice versa. She also proposed a creative writing assignment in which history students would study archival documents and secondary literature to produce a life snapshot of a female worker on the tea plantations, or a travel narrative for one of the Scottish agents captured in the James Finlay collection.

This first hack really showed just how much potential there is to be unlocked in ‘local’ global history archives, with the very real possibility of sharing this at a global level. We also received extremely positive verbal and survey feedback on the event and an enthusiastic response to the live tweeting that occurred throughout the day. A lot of excitement and energy has developed for the next global history hackathons! Follow the excitement at @HistGlobal and using the hashtag #GlobalHistHack19.


First published: 16 June 2019