Friday, 20 May 2016

Collecting in Tough Times

It’s no secret that the heritage sector has felt the effects of the recession and subsequent period of austerity severely. As a result, archive services in local authorities, universities and other sectors have had to scrutinize their practices and re-evaluate their priorities. In the face of reduced staff and funding, many collecting institutions have found their core activities, including collecting, challenged in new ways by a range of factors. It was in this climate that the Archives and Records Association (ARA) presented their workshop ‘Collecting in Tough Times’. Myself and two other staff from the University Archives attended the Northern Region event hosted at The Showroom in Sheffield last month (a beautiful art deco building which hosts an excellent horror film festival each autumn, if you’re so inclined!).

The Showroom cinema, Sheffield

The act of collecting archives is not as simple as it first appears. In the past many archive services actively sought to acquire the records of organisations whose activities were relevant to their remit. However for many this is no longer possible as reduced resources has limited their activities such that they have been forced to become passive collectors responding to offers of content rather than directly seeking it.

It often comes as a shock to people outside the field that we do not keep everything. Sometimes archives will refuse to accept donations, and as a matter of course that which we is accepted is likely to have items or sections removed and destroyed (this process is known as appraisal and is never done at the History Centre without the permission of the depositor). Changing priorities and difficult circumstances has left many organisations facing the complex task of ‘de-accessioning’ some collections from their holdings.

History Centre staff with some appraised records for secure destruction

The speakers’ range of backgrounds made it clear that the problems we face as a sector are similar regardless of the type of institution, and it was really interesting to hear about alternatives to traditional collecting activities. York Explore and West Yorkshire Archives Service have successfully contributed to the collecting activities of local groups external to the institution, demonstrating how archive services can continue to be central to the preservation of the historic record despite restrictions on our own ability to collect.

It was also stressed that archives shouldn’t be afraid to ask for funding contributions from depositors. This however is dependent on the right circumstances – a financially stable depositor with the means to support such work. My own project at the History Centre – the papers of the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) was funded in a similar way. The level of engagement with this collection already felt at the History Centre demonstrates how both the public and the collection itself can benefit from such an arrangement.

Many presentations addressed the need for institutions to be stricter on the material they accept in the first place. A suggestion was made that we ‘collect beyond our capacity’, that is, we are still accepting new content despite in many instances lacking the resources needed to process some of the collections we already hold. This lack of balance means there is a risk of archives holding large quantities of uncatalogued content which would not be accessible to the public without further processing. I learnt that museums will often only accept items into their holdings if they can guarantee that they will have adequate long term care and accessibility – not something taken into account by many archives when considering whether to accept donations.

In the afternoon we developed this idea further discussing what motivated us to say yes or no to offers of material for the archives. It became clear that a huge range of factors could influence such a decision including aspects relating to the records themselves, the institution and the potential for use. As with many things in the world of archives, there are no definitive – even something as ephemeral as a bus ticket may have value to the right institution in the right circumstances. Does this institution you work for specialise in transport ephemera? Was the bus ticket used by George Michael after his first Wham! performance on Top of the Pops after which the pair famously caught the bus home (this was the only celebrity bus story I could bring to mind). Is the depositor offering you a financial gift in exchange for preserving and cataloguing the ticket?

To sum up, it’s always great to see services successfully turning difficulties into opportunities, and although the sector has changed, archivists continue to have an essential role in the preservation of the historic record, although maybe not in a traditional sense. The place of appraisal in our work is an essential but complex one, and making decisions relating to the removal of content can sometimes become a routine task. Discussions like the one held in the afternoon are a great way of reconsidering what we as archivists are motivated by, how to retain balance in our decisions, and how to work effectively to support the public, the institution we work for and the sector as a whole.

Alex Healey, Project Archivist (ACPO)

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments and feedback welcomed....