Opening the Archive Thinking about collections

Bending the Rules: Archiving the Manchester BME Communities collection

Our freelance archivist Heather Roberts has been working her magic on our large, and until now slightly unwieldy, Manchester Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) Communities collection. Here she reflects on the process and reveals some of the thinking behind her work:

Arranging the Manchester BME Communities collection was an interesting adventure in flexing the rules. As well as deciding what to keep and what not to keep, organising the remaining material was a bit tricky.

the picture shows a row of archive files with colourful papers sticking out of the sides. the label reads 'refugees and immigration'

Getting started

The main bulk of the collection is a mash-up of three separate collections: the much smaller original Manchester BME Communities collection; the community resource and reference files donated by Ananna, the Manchester Bangladeshi Women’s Organisation; and (literally) hundreds of local reference items accrued by the Centre over the years, previously stored in themed box files.

All of this material is of a kind; community-based information on themes of health, education, women, activism, etc etc etc. So it made sense to put it all together. This way, anybody researching, for instance, employment, would only need to request one box from the archive instead of lots of different bits from different collections.

Binning stuff

The material from Ananna and the  Centre’s themed box files both had to be heavily weeded of irrelevant stuff. For instance, there was a lot of material to do with women, but not specifically BME women. This is because Ananna found this information useful for their own reference, but it’s not useful in the context of this archive.

Great fun was had with the paper bin (my sincere apologies to the students who saw me skipping armfuls of what they may have assumed were valuable historical items – they weren’t! I promise!), after which about a third of the material was actually left.

Sorting stuff

Next came the question of how to arrange the material. This is a really important question for archivists to ask, especially when there are so many options. We need to make sure that how we organise a collection represents what the collection is about, but also makes it as easy as possible for researchers to use and find what they want.

We decided that arranging by ethnicity was not feasible as some material was general or multi-ethic. Similarly, arranging according to geography or organisation wasn’t ideal as there were so many different locations represented, and plenty of overlap.

So we asked ourselves, what do people generally ask for when they want to see this material? As we most often get questions like “What do you have about health/education/elderly/childcare?” we agreed to organise the collection into broad themes. Long hours of sorting commenced!

the picture shows archive boxes and archive material partially sortedCheating on rules

Next came the cataloguing and rule bending (breaking?).

We decided not to catalogue each item (this wouldn’t have been useful enough to be worth the time it would’ve taken!) but just to gather the material into the themes and simply say ‘material about healthcare for BME communities in Manchester’ and highlight some of the main health themes within that. Piece of cake, right? Well…

Whilst themes are usually the primary concern for users, many also add extra interests such as an ethnicity or geographical area. Questions then become something like, “What material do you have relating to refugees in Oldham?” or “What material do you have about Bangladeshi women in South Manchester?” This had to be taken into account. But how?

Usually, most of the descriptive information would go into the ‘Scope and content’ bit of the catalogue. However, this is a large and very varied collection, so having a pile of stuff about, say, refugees, and then listing loads of cross-cutting themes in the description might’ve been confusing – even though that is what the rules say you should do. So, I cheated.

There’s a cheeky little ‘Key words’ section within the catalogue, which is usually used very sparingly. I decided to make it glorious! I listed all of these extra themes and references here, meaning that researchers could still figure out if the material within the wider theme fell within their narrower scope. Success!

Choosing the right theme

Some material, unsurprisingly referenced more than one theme. Most items refer to anti-racism in some way, and many reference women specifically alongside themes of employment, racism, education, arts etc.

When this cropped up, I took a pause in the manic reshuffling and asked myself “What is the main issue being addressed by this item?” By asking this question, the item’s theme was far easier to figure out. But with willful and excessive use of the keywords, I could still reference all the other themes, so no information would be lost.

The finished catalogue has been designed to be both easily navigable for users and flexible enough for us to add to, as this collection grows. From start to finish, this particular collection has been an interesting exercise in archival theory, best practice and efficiency.

Follow Heather on Twitter @herarchivist

Find the most recent version of the catalogue on the Collections page of the website

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.

2 replies on “Bending the Rules: Archiving the Manchester BME Communities collection”

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