From whisky to war: tales from university archives

I attended the ICA/SUV Conference in Dundee this week – that is, the International Council on Archives Section on University and Research Institution Archives. This is my first report of the event.

The conference began with an entertaining keynote by George McKenzie of the National Archives of Scotland, who opened by explaining, for the benefit of those from other countries, the rather unusual set up within the UK. We have a British Olympic team but if you went into a local pub in Dundee and asked how the British football team were doing you would not get a very good reception! So although we are all British, in many ways we have separate identities and histories. There are important legal and administrative differences between England and Scotland that impact on archives management. George talked about the National Register of Saisines, which is a Scottish property register, and how it has gone through six different formats, from handwritten to xerox and through to digital, whilst retaining the same content. The changes have all been in reaction to user demand, so the motivations for the move from handwritten to typescript were really the same as the move from Xerox to digital: it is always about satisfying user demand for access.

I found George’s description of the ScotlandsPeople service interesting, because as well as an online source the initiative has included the creation of a centre in Edinburgh, partly with a view to ‘genealogical tourism’. Studies show that 5% of visitors to Scotland are interested in family history, and they are often the visitors who stay longest and spend the most. This does seem to contrast with the approach in England, as the Family Records Centre in Islington, which is fairly central London, is closing down and operations are moving to The National Archives in Kew, which is a little way out of London (and on the infamous District Line!). A particular remark that drew my attention was his assertion that maybe it is no bad thing to compete with the private sector in the field of family history, as it means that the public sector has to be focussed and ensure that it delivers a good service that can compete effectively with others.

George’s talk ended with reference to the Declaration of Arbroath of 1320, which was a formal Declaration of Independence and is one of the most famous records in the National Archives. He also showed us an image of a most important document with the first known reference to the distilling of whisky!

Megan Sniffin-Marinoff of Harvard University also gave a keynote which looked at emerging trends within the higher education sector. Whilst acknowledging the great diversity of university archives and contexts across the globe, she did draw out some common themes that are likely to affect many of us. Amongst other things, she referred to life-long learning and the increase in students outside of the typical 18-21 year old range. She looked at some of the reasons for this change, such as the need for people to re-skill in a fast changing world and the increasing demands of employers. She also raised issues surrounding distance learning and new innovations in teaching and proposed that we might have to think differently about our outreach activities as a result of this changing student body.

There were a number of enlightening talks from archivists of different countries, and I thought the contrast between Latvia and Lebanon was particularly striking, because they are both very different from the typical UK experience. Gatis Karlsons explained to us that the University of Latvia has 28,000 students (the country has a population of 2 million). The way that the archives are managed is influenced by Soviet theories, because of the occupation of Latvia until the declaration of independence in 1991. One obvious difference to me (which caused some confusion until I realised) was that the term ‘archives’ is used to refer to records in their current, semi-current and non-current states. Whilst Gatis talked about the ‘archive’ where he works, the records for long-term preservation are in fact transferred to the state archives, so in UK terms his place of work would probably be seen more as a records centre and a place practising records management. There seemed to be a very integrated and rigorous approach to record keeping, with boards of experts to appraise the records, consisting of archivists, academics, legal and financial representatives. The archives have very few visitors, only about 10 per year, although the records are doubtless a rich source, so this does seem to be a shame. They therefore have no purpose-built search room.

Unfortunately Samar Mikati Kaissi from the American University of Beirut in Lebanon was not able to attend the conference and so Susanne Belovari from Tufts University in Boston gave her presentation. It was a sobering experience to hear about a situation where war has played such an all-pervasive part in the functioning of the archive. In fact, when Susanne originally asked Samar about the effects of war Samar said that they were not that significant, but as they talked what emerged was that the effects are ever-present and society has simply adjusted to them. The archive has managed to continue to function and is the only academic institution with a fully fledged archive programme and it has carried out some digitisation projects, but the numbers of researchers has been affected by the war and political upheavals (it is generally around 1,000 per year). Also, the war has affected staff morale and staff attendance, as people are often more preoccupied with the welfare of their families. There is some national archives legislation, which would not apply to the University as it is a private institution, but Samar said that no-one knows exactly what it is anyway! Rather ironically, the archive has no disaster preparedness plan, but when the archive was set up the decision was taken to put it in the basement because this offered t
he best protection from bombings. There are no archival suppliers in Lebanon so they are dependent on getting boxes, folders, etc, from outside. They also suffer from an intermittent electricity supply, which compounds the inadequate environmental situation.

Image from Flickr (Creative Commons licence)