Building an Archive

A large part of my project involves turning the material down at the National Institute of Agricultural Botany into a workable archive. When I arrived there were simply piles upon piles of paperwork, boxes and box-files doted around the building. A sizeable portion had been salvaged thanks to the efforts of some hard-working volunteers. They have since formed the NIAB Archive Group and it’s a real pleasure to continue working with them. Seeing as I have just finished stage 1 of the process (‘establishing control’ is the technical term) I thought I would update you on the project. By the end of my third year the whole thing should be searchable on line, so writing a post about it every few months should help me keep on top of the thing!

This is one third of the archive room, the entirety of which has now been controlled! ‘Establishing control’ basically means that every item in the archive has now been assigned to a particular series. Incidentally, everything I know about archiving comes from Arranging and Describing Archives and Manuscripts by Kathleen Roe. This was a very helpful and pretty speedy introduction to the basics so I would recommend it highly. The most useful principle that this taught me was that each item should ideally be arranged according to its provenance and purpose; it’s really like resurrecting the Institute’s old infrastructure. I tried getting this done in drips and drabs to begin with,  but ultimately it took me a solid week of sitting with the stuff and ploughing through it all in one go. From here each series emerged pretty organically, and even at this early stage I am beginning to be able to find things  just by using the series. This felt like a pretty major accomplishment (though ask me if I can do it again when I go back after a couple of months!). Some of the series were pretty easy to identify, for instance all photographs had already been moved from the files they were in and put together (an archiving sin!) but there was nothing that could be done about it, so they became a series of their own. Same with some box-files that a deputy-director had once put together. More items are coming in all the time now so these pictures are a little out of date (I found two shelves full of cash-books tucked away in a cupboard a couple of days ago) but these should easily find homes in existing series. All in all there are currently around 9 series, though this may change once I start describing it all in more detail. That’s the job for the next year and a half. For this I think I’ll be using the Archivist’s Toolkit, but haven’t played around with it yet. When I do, I shall let you know how I get on. In the meantime, here is another fascinating picture of the archive!

P.S. Check out Rebekah Higgitt’s reconstruction of a twaffic accident (twitter portmanteau are not my speciality) about scientific progress. Yes, I left a comment. Yes, that’s mainly why I want you to go there. No, don’t let that put you off, all the rest of it is very interesting and thought provoking.

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