By Brigham Young University
Aug 03, 2016

BYU Curators Help Digitize Scout Archive

In the late 1800s, Robert Baden-Powell—a war hero, adventurer, actor and sometimes a spy—sat down with a pencil and paper and wrote out his idea of “Scouting for boys.” That document, along with hundreds of others that show the worldwide development of Scouting for girls and boys, is safely stored in the Scout Association Archive in Gilwell Park, England. For years, anyone wanting to research the origins and history of Scouting needed to travel to the archive and work with the archivists.

The Prince of Wales

The Prince of Wales Photo Credit: Courtesy of the Harold B. Lee Library

Thanks to a group of archiving experts from Brigham Young University those documents are now available online on the BYU Harold B. Lee Library website.

When BYU History Professor Paul Kerry saw the archive collection at Gilwell Park, just outside of London, he immediately recognized that digitizing these important historical documents on Scouting would benefit many. These fragile documents could be made more accessible to many more people with help from BYU.

When he got back to the United States, Kerry asked BYU Library Curator John Murphy and Digitization Expert Scott Eldredge for help with this project. Soon Eldredge and Murphy were working with the curators of the Heritage Collection at the Scout Association Headquarters; they developed a plan to send a team of BYU students to England to assist with the work.

Scouts at Kandersteg in Switzerland 1931

Scouts at Kandersteg in Switzerland 1931

The BYU Library has a long history of digitization projects. There is a lab in the basement of the library where student employees are trained on handling and scanning rare books, photographs and documents. For the scout papers project, a scanning team comprised of Marisa Synder, a reformatting manager, and two students, Riley Lovesee and Chelsea Bauer, packed the necessary equipment and flew to England.

Working with Scout Association Archivist Claire Woodforde and reading from these papers gave the BYU team insights into Scouting that most people in America have never seen.

“It was interesting to learn about the history of the BSA organization,” Lovesee said. “It’s something I’ve been around most of my life . . . but you aren’t exposed to the history very much.”

The range of documents in the archive is impressive. There are both handwritten and typed letters that show the growth of Scouting and the huge challenges of expanding into new lands, each with its own language, culture and traditions. There are scrapbook pages and photos of early scout gatherings and celebrations. There are programs featuring royalty. The maps of early camps will look familiar to any scout who has set up a tent at an organized scout camp in the last 100 years.

One of the unique documents is Baden-Powell’s personal outline of significant events in his life, Lessons from the Varsity of Life. The outline follows adventures of his childhood and the challenges he faced in the military from 1857 through 1895.

Rally at Crystal Palace, 1909

Scout rally at Crystal Palace, 1909 Photo Credit: Courtesy of the Harold B. Lee Library

One of those challenges documented in the collection came in 1899, during the siege of Mafeking in South Africa, where Baden-Powell was in command of the city. Researchers point to this siege as key event in Baden-Powell’s life and crucial to the development of organized Scouting.

While waiting for the enemy to attack, Baden-Powell organized a cadet corps made up of the boys in the town. He found that they were very capable of performing important tasks, such as running messages in a time before radio communication.

The idea of a corps of boys supporting their country was repeated years later when Great Britain was heading into World War I. Baden-Powell received a letter, now preserved in the archive, from the military suggesting that young Scouts could serve their country as “Air Scouts,” a group of trained young people who could watch the skies and identify aircraft. While the Air Scouts program never took off, other groups, such as the Sea Scouts, based on Baden-Powell’s love of sailing, did.

Eldredge, the BYU digitization expert, has read many of the documents in the collection and has developed a deep appreciation for Baden-Powell in the process.

“People don’t really appreciate how ahead of his time he was,” Eldredge said of Baden-Powell’s contribution to Scouting.

History buffs and fans of Scouting are invited to browse through the Baden-Powell Papers online at


Author: Roger Layton | Communications Manager, Harold B. Lee Library, Promotions & Outreach Department

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7 thoughts on “BYU Curators Help Digitize Scout Archive

  1. Melany GardnerMelany Gardner

    While I was at BYU the other day I talked with some of the librarians who worked on the BP project. It was neat to learn about the process of how BYU got into digitizing the documents at Gilwell. From what I heard, it was multi-year process with lots of librarians, students, travel and scanners. The sad thing I heard was the state in which all the documents were being stored at Gilwell before BYU come to digitize them. Perhaps it’s a funding thing, but you would think the people of the U.K. would be more proud of the legacy that Lord Baden Powell left across the world that they would help preserve his memory. The history of a visionary man like BP deserves better than that. Good on BYU for taking the initiative to get these things digitized for the whole world to see and explore. Hopefully there are more projects like this one to come for the history of Scouting.

    1. AvatarScott Eldredge

      It appears that we may have said something during your visit to BYU that might not have been clear, and I apologize for any confusion. The Baden-Powell collection is properly stored in archival boxes, each with individual folders, lovingly and appropriately cared for by the archivist and staff at Gilwell Park. Many of the boxes were indeed very full, and many of the documents are brittle due to natural aging, but please be clear that there is NO indication of neglect of the physical collection. I am sorry if we somehow gave that impression.

      1. AvatarScott Eldredge

        I should also further note that The Scout Association of Britain provided the majority of the funding for this project.

      2. Melany GardnerMelany Gardner

        Thanks for clearing that up, Scott. I guess what I was really saying is that I wish that more of those fantastic documents were on display for visitors to Gilwell, but now they are digitized and all of us Scouters and history buffs alike can now enjoy them.

  2. AvatarJ Minshull

    Out of curiosity, if the archives were in the UK and funded (mostly) by the Scout Association of Britain and seemingly digitised in the UK, why were Americans brought in to digitise the documents?
    Surely it would be cheaper to outsource this task to a UK company or archive?

    1. AvatarRoger Layton

      Good question.
      A UK organization could have done this, but no one had. The BYU library has the expertise in document scanning and, along with Dr. Kerry, an interest in Scouting. The library saw an opportunity to be helpful to researchers and provide a great international experience for our student employees.

      These days location isn’t as important as you might think. Scanning the physical materials was the fastest part of the project. Much of the work—formatting images, preparing the metadata, and loading the information into the database—can be done anywhere with an internet connection. Since we have strong technical services and digitization teams it made sense to add this collection into our workflow.


  3. AvatarLeah Overson

    We can probably look forward to more books about the man and the movement now that the information is more readily available. Nice work!


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