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Tuesday 28 February 2023

The archivist regrets...

I was recently reminded by discussions elsewhere of a rather gloom-making instance of a very prolonged interaction, or rather, recurrent interactions, I was involved in during my years as an acquiring archivist. This was possibly the most frustrating case in my recollection - which professional omerta forbids me from actually naming, and indeed, such are the mysteries of what organisations do with their records and then forget they've done until they suddenly turn up where no-one expects them, I should like to think that not all hope is gone...

This was different from the annoyance that was created when we had, over a period of years (we thought) nurtured a relationship with the last surviving inheritors of a pretty much defunct organisation, and persuaded them that their archives were of permanent historical value, and ought to be somewhere other than somebody's cellar. And then they turned around and placed the records in Another Repository. With which, I suppose, there was some relevant connection, and at least the records survived and had been placed in safe custody.

There was the case where the person who had the papers of an organisation in which they had been a prime mover and was quite happy for them to come to us, died suddenly, and whoever cleared the house just chucked them into the skip. That was immensely infuriating.

But this one I first mentioned: the frustration came because I had actually seen the records, which had at one time been in the hands of a research centre within a university. As was the way of research centres, this was, I think, defunded, or at least ceased to engage in activities involving the holding of archives, and one collection they had been holding came into our care, but another, related, collection, went back to the creating organisation.

Attempts to gather in this collection, which was substantial and would have been of considerable importance, and related closely to other materials we already held, persisted over a period of decades. Unfortunately we would make an approach and things would seem to be moving along and then the person with whom we had been dealing left, or moved to a different post, or there was a general reshuffle, and re-ordering of priorities, and it was down the snake back to square one.

There were a few occasions when researchers were permitted to consult these archives on site.

At one point we heard the rather horrifying news that it had been decided to microfilm the records in the interests of saving space. The collection was significant enough that we were even prepared to take it in this form that would be a nightmare to process and catalogue. On the whole one is perhaps just slightly relieved that they did not go overboard in digitising in the really early days of that becoming a possibility, because while microfilm is not a preservation medium, it's a good deal more robust than most digital media.

But it was back to snakes-and-ladders and silences and this remains one of the regrets of my archival career. Still, maybe one day somebody will look a filing cabinet drawer and wonder what are all these boxes of microfilm - 

One may only hope they don't just throw them out.