New and personal insights into archive collections

At the recent Data Standards Group meeting of the Society of Archivists, Jon Newman from MLA London gave a talk on a current project that he is working on called Revisiting Archive Collections. This project involves recataloguing archives whilst, at the same time, increasing community awareness of and engagement with archives. The intended outcome is to add value, creating more relevant archive descriptions, whilst at the same time reaching new audiences and maybe getting archivists to think differently about approaches to cataloguing and about the audiences they are trying to reach.

Focus groups of diverse groups of people, generally unfamiliar with archives, were set up in three different London institutions. They were asked to look at and provide feedback on specially selected archives that were chosen because they might resonate with the groups, having relevance to their lives and experiences. For example, a Tanzanian women’s group was commenting on photographs and manuscripts relating to Tanzania and a group of cleaners and security staff, many of west African origin, were looking at Somalian and Nigerian material. The groups gave feedback through questionnaires, and the project is looking at adding this feedback to the archive descriptions in some way, either to the catalogue descriptions or to the index terms or as new associations or observations about the archive.

This approach does raise questions surrounding issues of reliability, authenticity, whether archivists should moderate or authenticate information provided by users, and intellectual property rights (the possibility of contributors claiming the ownership of their feedback). There are also questions about how exactly to integrate the information into the descriptions and finding aids.

The traditional view of archivists being the gatekeepers is to some extent challenged by this approach, but it surely can only be a good thing to recognise the value of expertise held within the community and work with the community to draw this out and use it to benefit others. It certainly does appear to have been very successful in providing new insights into archive materials from the perspectives of those who have a real and personal connection with the materials.

The sustainability of this type of project is uncertain. Jon Newman pointed out that the project depended on a well chosen selection of archives that were engaging and would resonate with the focus groups. It may not be practical from a funding and resource perspective to undertake this sort of project routinely, but there might be value in repositories carrying similar activities out intermittently, as this kind of approach helps to engage new audiences, provide new insights and furthermore it may change the approach that the archivist takes to thinking about, researching and cataloguing archives.

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