My Website

Thursday 19 December 2013

Forthcoming appearances

From deviance to diversity? Finding sexuality and sexual science in the archives  
The National Archives, Kew, 29 Jan, 14:00
‘A night with Venus, a lifetime with Mercury’: sexually-transmitted diseases and their history?
Barts Pathology Museum, in Matters of the Heart month series, 18 Feb, 6.30 pm
The Florence Nightingale Museum, 27 Feb, 6.30 pm

Wednesday 11 December 2013

Unglamorous but necessary

Yet another thing that archivists suspect is under-appreciated by, if not completely unknown to, the general public, is the central importance of cataloguing to what they do. (Even if is also the activity that tends, frustratingly, to be the one that gets pushed down the priority list by more immediate demands.)

One still finds people who make an initial contact, or just come in, and think that the way to engage with an archive is to start with the first box and go until they reach the last file in the last box.

A good catalogue performs the function of the London Tube map in providing an overview and showing how the items within the collection are related to one another. It will probably also include helpful background information on the person or institution and a general account of the collection, what it contains, notable gaps, state of order when found, etc.

A recent post by a colleague on the Wellcome Library blog draws attention to the importance of the contextual information about the individual item that the classic archive catalogue provides, and the impact of new online approaches, their advantages and disadvantages.

Sunday 8 December 2013

Another message of caution pertaining to archives

Organisations usually already have archives, and the priority, if they are worried about the preservation of their history, is to do something about those archives that they are sitting on. It's a nice flourish to run around collecting oral histories from aging individuals who have been associated with the organisation from the outset, or at least for a very long time, or to ingather bits of memorabilia. But it's not the most vital thing.

The core action point should be to talk to an archivist about the existing archives. It doesn't necessarily have to be an archivist whose repository might take the archives, just somebody who can give the essential advice about physical storage, what to keep and what to throw away, and someone who can advise on what repositories might be interested,  from either local or thematic collecting policies.

The next thing is to get those archives into decent storage (and preferably not one of the more expensive commercial storage firms) rather than the coal cellar or the loft where pigeons have started roosting and to which entry is restricted to able-bodied persons who can manoeuvre up the rickety drop-down ladder and through the hatchway.

It is always possible that it is quite feasible for the archives to be retained in a secure and safe manner on site, catalogued on the premises (preferably by a qualified archivist, or at least with professional input), and made available for ongoing research by interested parties. In most cases this is likely to present problems (archives take up space which may well be at a premium, who is going to deal with researchers, etc) , and negotiations should be opened with an archival repository.

If an organisation wants its history to be reliably preserved, its records need to be in a secure store with appropriate environmental controls, and the intellectual control over what's there needs to be gained via cataloguing, or at least, an adequate inventory identifying what's there and where it is located.

Once this end has been attained, it provides a sound basis for all those other activities.

Wednesday 4 December 2013

Possibly I am in unduly pedantic mood

Over the past few hours on Twitter I have irked by some simplistic or unthought-through invocations of history.

Just because something has not happened before during one particular (youngish) person's lifetime, doesn't make it a unique phenomenon in history. It is one that can probably even be discernable with other people's living memory (what about the 'New Poor' between the wars or the Great Depression?)

The 1890s/1910s were not a period of uncomplicated British Imperialistic confidence and triumphalism.

Just because a method of contraception exists, doesn't mean that everybody, everywhere, will have access to it, particularly if it's a pharmaceutical product, which will a) be subject to national or regional regulatory licensing systems as to whether it may be prescribed b) is under the control of the medical profession.

Tuesday 3 December 2013

Possibly more than six and sixty ways

Thinking about a conversation I had last week, I wonder how many times I have been asked whether I have some appropriate qualification relevant to the subject matter of the archives I catalogue. To which I think any archivist would respond that there are basic principles of archival practice and it doesn't really matter what you deploy them upon, providing it's an archive of some sort. Actually, I think this has mostly arisen in the context of am I a proper medical doctor (no, my PhD is in fact in history of medicine, so perhaps I am licensed to apply leeches when needful...). I don't think anyone assumed, when I was at the India Office Records, that everybody there was an Old India Hand or had even visited it in the days when it was at the end of the Hippy Trail. (It does help to have some knowledge rather than a completely blank slate to work with.)

That having been clarified, people may want to know if there are rules for cataloguing a particular archive, to which the response is usually, it depends. Just because a particular arrangement was appropriate for one archive, doesn't mean that it can be generalisable to all archives, because every archive is unique, and probably idiosyncratic, outside of certain bureaucracies which stick to protocols laid down in the heyday of public administration. Individual repositories may have local conventions, and certain kinds of records may fall into recognisable structures. But particularly when dealing with personal papers, anything goes, or can go.