Opening the Archive Thinking about collections

Documenting the Archive, Destroying the Magic?

It’s an experience most people who work in archives have had: you find a box of intriguing-looking papers at the back of the archive, but there’s no paperwork with it, nothing to identify what the material is or where it came from and no-one else in the organisation knows anything about it. So you put it back and forget about it.

photograph of the inside of our archve vaultPeople may think this is the magic of the archive – the hidden treasures waiting to have their secrets unlocked by an intrepid historian. Or that this is just the way archives are; physical items need to be preserved for the future, but you can’t expect to know what everything is.

For me, this is overly-romantic, and slightly irresponsible. If I don’t know what this orphaned box of papers is today, what hope does someone in the future have of being able to make sense of it? Or even knowing that it’s there? Surely preserving the information about an item in the archive is as important as preserving the physical item itself?
We’ve been as guilty as anyone of bringing things into the archive without properly recording what they are and where they come from. At the time you think ‘Of course I’ll remember what this is…’, then a few months down the line you draw a blank; ‘Was it Mr x or Mrs Y who gave me this…? And what did they say about it?’

As a result, since moving into Central Library in spring 2014 we’ve been on a mission to properly document our archive collections: to formally record everything we know (or don’t know) about the collections, in a standard catalogue format, that can be easily accessed and searched by staff and researchers alike. No historical items deserve to be left neglected at the back of the vault! It’s a big job, and without a dedicated archivist on the task it’s been a case of divvying up the work between team members, volunteers (some really excellent volunteers to whom we’re extremely grateful) and the occasional freelancer. Naturally, we all have slightly different approaches to how we organise and record information, and subjective ideas about what is and isn’t important, so key to creating consistent documentation has been to firstly design processes and systems that everyone can follow. Archiving starts to sound a lot less romantic when you put it like that, doesn’t it?

There are lots of collection management databases out there, but that would be a big investment for a small outfit like ours, so we opted for a simple system of spreadsheets and documents as our master copy of collection information. This information can then be transferred to existing archive databases, such as Greater Manchester Lives and Archives Hub, for the research community to access.

If I do say so myself, our cataloguing spreadsheet is a thing of beauty. It records the what, where, why, who and how of our collections. Each collection can be documented at three levels: collection level (how an archive collection came about, who donated it, why, etc), series level (subsets of the collection, depending on how it is organised) and item level (what individual documents are in a collection). It is flexible for different sizes of collection and different types of material. Combined with Word documents to record donor details, copyright information, accession details and movement control, all carefully filed and regularly backed up by the University’s IT network, it is, we hope, a robust system for recording, storing and protecting our precious collection information.

In case you hadn’t guessed, I’m a detail person; you might even say I have a spreadsheet fetish. And you might think that all this paperwork and processing and numbering takes away some of the magic of the archive; maybe we need to have gaps in our data to allow the physicality of a mystery document to spark the imagination? Maybe, but I don’t think it’s an excuse for neglecting our responsibilities as archivists, especially of a collection like ours that aims to preserve vulnerable histories: those that still fall outside of the mainstream; that are already at risk of evaporating.

photograph of labelled archive boxes in the vault

By aiucentre

An open access library specialising in the study of race, ethnicity and migration. Part of the University of Manchester and based at Manchester Central Library.

One reply on “Documenting the Archive, Destroying the Magic?”

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