5.5 Not as Expected: Archives and Cataloguing
The advertisement for the project archivist position read:
"An exciting opportunity for a qualified archivist to join a small team exploring an important area of the nation's history and heritage: Schools, homes and environments for children and young people during a period of dynamic change in residential therapeutic child care. You will be gathering, cataloguing, and working with some of the subjects of the archives, learning what they can teach us about the archival record, and exploring ways to facilitate their discovery and sharing of the schools and communities to which they belonged. You will have the opportunity to introduce others to archival practice, to work with students and volunteers, and to contribute to theatrical performances based on the materials in your care. And more."
Increasingly, archive services find themselves engaging with new communities in new ways, and asking archivists to undertake, alongside the core tasks for which they were trained, new sets of roles and responsibilities. It is an exciting time to be an archivist.
The Archive and Study Centre itself had been conceived as an actively engaged and outreaching facility from its inception, with widespread involvements throughout the heritage and current work, sometimes leading and sometimes supporting. With changing legislation and changing expectations among the subjects of records, and with the radical change in the general public expectation of archives as immediate providers of a wide range and volume of online information, a new generation of challenges, possibilities, opportunities, and dangers had arrived. By working closely with project participants, many of whom would have disturbed and disrupted backgrounds, and many of whom would have a deep personal interest in records held in the Archive, the project aimed to explore the issues, the solutions, and the horizons of possibility around gathering, handling, cataloguing, preserving, sharing, and generally managing sensitive child-care related records, and working with and for the people most concerned in them.
The immediate problems faced by the project archivist, however, were practical. The office software was open source and unfamiliar, and a reasonable expectation that a unified, computerised cataloguing database system would be in place was disappointed. In a sense even worse, the existing catalogues and listings, which covered the majority of the collections, were in a variety of formats: The electronic version of the accession register was in a very early version of DBase Text database software, while the listings and catalogues of archive and library collections were in a mix of spreadsheets and Word documents, held systematically in hardcopy in ring binders as well as digitally. The oral history collection had a separate spreadsheet database, as well as physical log entries in a ring binder. To add to the complexity, the archive collections were physically stored using two parallel systems, one collections-based and one chronologically by accession date. Although adequate for relatively low-volume use with staff familiar with the system, in terms of the project and the intended long-term increase in traffic in the Archive and those involved with it, the existing array of approaches and systems presented problems.
Apart from overseeing the digitisation of 350 items, the only set targets for the project archivist were to prepare publicly accessible versions of ten of the existing catalogues, which had been prepared for internal use and therefore contained sometimes confidential and sensitive information; and to create three new catalogues, a version of which could be made available to the public immediately. The problem being addressed was that the confidentiality of the existing catalogues reduced their usefulness in terms of being able to inform the public about the Archive's holdings, which in turn restricted the use that could be made of the holdings; and users who came to the Archive were dependent on the archivist to effectively search the catalogues on their behalf - a far from satisfactory situation for anyone. The project's aim was to begin to rectify this situation by generating a new body of publicly accessible and searchable catalogues, and in the process to establish a model, appropriate to a small charitable archive with limited resources, which could be applied to new accessions and rolled out systematically to convert the backlog of existing closed catalogues into open information resources once the project was over.
Alongside this, as part of the wider goals and purpose of the project, the archivist also needed to be able to identify archival materials which volunteers could safely handle and tasks they could appropriately carry out, given the sensitive nature of so much of the holdings.
Having carried out an audit, the project archivist made the argument that to properly and most effectively meet the goals of the project, and for the longer-term development of the Archive, it was essential to create a one-stop-shop database, bringing in to one place and unifying the bewildering mix of information sources. With the help of archives volunteer Rachael Thompson, she explored a variety of open source and commercial archive management database packages. The latter were prohibitively expensive; she felt the former were not easily adapted to accommodate the diverse range of library, oral history, museum, and archive materials held in the Archive and Study Centre. With both Macs and PCs at work, the decision was taken to invest in a professional cross-platform database package, and for the project archivist to create a bespoke cataloguing system in which all of the existing sources of information could be brought together, cross-referenced, and unified in one flexible and searchable package. Members of the team and volunteers could readily learn to operate it, it would meet ISAD(G) standards, and it would be thoroughly tested and populated with entries by the end of the project. And so it happened.
There were, of course, further complications for the project archivist to deal with. The original identification/numbering system for archive collections was based in the early 1990s on that used by the Wellcome Library. The cataloguing system had been adapted by assistant archivist Teresa Wilmshurst from that used by Gloucestershire Archives, to which she had been regularly seconded by the Archive during her two years with the Trust between 2000 and 2002. In the absence of regular support staffing after Teresa Wilmshurst left in 2002, a backlog had inevitably developed in cataloguing, with an increasing reliance for management purposes on accession lists and the accession register. There had been no development in the cataloguing system itself to take account of advances in computerisation.
In the face of this, and given the highly confidential nature of much of the material held by the Archive; given the need to be able to safely and quickly identify items which could and could not be handled by volunteers, researchers and the general public; and given the need to be able to identify in detail material which would be of interest to specific former children, who might be named in it, and who would be taking an active part in the project both as participants and as volunteers, the project archivist took the decision to go back to basics: She argued that it was necessary to design a comprehensive database; it was essential to integrate the approach to naming and cataloguing with therequirements of the new computer-based database; and it was important to catalogue relevant collections at or near item level. Cataloguing at something approaching item level would ensure the closest identification and greatest control over confidential materials, while also providing the closest identification of documents which might be of interest to specific individuals.
To be effective, it was imperative that the new cataloguing entries contained accurate, up-to-date and clear location references, and with this in mind, and with the help of volunteer Ross Oakey, the project archivist re-numbered all of the archive store rooms and shelves and installed new high visibility room and shelf labels. She also, in consultation with the project oral historian, established naming conventions for audio and other files produced by the project, as well as new forms for archive accessions, and managing new materials. To speak in terms of project targets "only" being so much cataloguing underplays the amount of time and work involved.
Having taken an in-depth, often item-by-item approach to cataloguing, the re-cataloguing of existing collections became tantamount to new cataloguing. A major setback came in July 2010 when the RAID digital storage system failed (see 5.4 above), losing the better part of a month’s work in 225 record entries. Nevertheless, by the end of her 15 months with the project, the project archivist had entered or overseen the entry of over 5,000 catalogue records covering 22,177 items, with two new catalogues completed and two in progress, and seven old catalogues re-catalogued with another three ongoing. By the end of the project another new catalogue had been completed by volunteers, with volunteers bringing the final total record entries in the database to 5,515 , and the number of items covered by the catalogue database to 22,356.