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Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Misapprehensions about archives

Following a speech at the launch of Codebreakers: Makers of Modern Genetics which did make it clear that having those archives available to digitise was the outcome of long years involving negotiations and building up good relationships with donors and depositors, and generally indicating that archives usually do not just arrive, someone said to me that they had always assumed that people just gave their papers to archive repositories.

Well, sometimes they do, but it is good professional practice to look any such gift-horses in the mouth, and get the documentation sorted. To begin with, any given repository may not be a good match for a particular collection and there may even be legal issues bearing upon this, as with records generated within the National Health Service. There may even be other papers of the individual or organisation in some other repository, which anything offered should be joining.

We'd like to know exactly what we're letting ourselves in for by taking a particular collection. Is it a gift or a deposit on permanent loan? Some libraries end up with papers that were originally only on loan for the duration of a particular researcher's project. Whatever the status, this needs to be documented.

Does any part need to be closed, either under the Data Protection Act, or because of the donor/depositor's sensitivities? Are they going to want intending researchers to request permission to consult their records? If so, is there going to be a reliable system for researchers obtaining this? What about copyright - are they okay with people photocopying or scanning for private research purposes, even if they want them to come back for permission if they actually publish anything?

What sort of physical condition are the papers in? Do they require de-infestation of insects or mould? Will they need extensive conservation treatment? How large is the collection? How well-organised is it? What sort of resources is it going to require for storage and processing? This is why we like to make on-site surveys before giving a definite commitment.

And finally: do we think this is a collection that has historical interest and value and that researchers are going to want to use?

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