Spare a Thought for the Archivist

Have you ever been frustrated by an archive catalogue? Perhaps what you were looking for didn’t show up, or showed up in an unexpected place. Perhaps you found what you thought you were looking for, but the entry was so basic you could make nothing of it. Perhaps you have called something up, only to find that the catalogue entry was very misleading – the date was incorrectly recorded/it was actually a later printed copy of the manuscript you wanted/it was written in Latin (of which the catalogue made no mention)/it was not available to view due to conservation concerns/it was simply not in the box where it should have been, and the staff are unable to locate it… or perhaps it was another reason, of which I am sure there are many.

In my time researching, all these situations have presented themselves to me, and I have generally rolled my eyes when the staff weren’t looking, and sworn silently under my breath. It can be very frustrating when a promising manuscript turns out to be incorrectly described, or appears to be missing. In a digital age, we have very high expectations of search engines – and we are very quick to criticise when things don’t go our way. Research time is limited, after all, and a catalogue should be just that, a catalogue.

A list, register, or complete enumeration; in this simple sense now Obs. or arch. […] Now usually distinguished from a mere list or enumeration, by systematic or methodical arrangement, alphabetical or other order, and often by the addition of brief particulars, descriptive, or aiding identification, indicative of locality, position, date, price, or the like. (OED)

The trusty OED tells us that our catalogue should be complete. That it should be systematic. That users expect more from it today than they ever have done before. In theory, perhaps, the first two points are very laudable. The last one, however, is probably the only one that all archive catalogues share in common.

Having worked my way through a few (ten now, only another 80 uncatalogued MI boxes to go!) of Shropshire Archives MI boxes (miscellaneous small accessions), adding catalogue entries and tidying up some of the storage, I have come to ponder a few archive-related questions. I have also glimpsed the complexity facing by the people who brave the task of preserving these records and making them available to the public.

One document in particular helps to illustrate some of my thoughts. It is an apprentice indenture dating to the late nineteenth century, and is not particularly noteworthy. It was deposited with six other manuscripts, and doesn’t seem to have any close relationship with any of its fellows other than sharing the same depositor, being of approximately the same date, and from the same geographical area. What is striking about it, though, is how difficult it is to read. It is a printed document with spaces alloted for the addition of handwritten details. Whilst those words that are printed are still clear, the handwritten text has faded badly. Of course, it is the handwritten details that make it unique. An empty standardised form is of relatively little value. Until names, dates, and individual details can be ascribed to such a document its history is (generally speaking) unremarkable.

Every time an archive item is called up it suffers damage – no matter how carefully handled. Simply opening a book can cause irreparable decay to the paper and ink on which it was produced. Even with the best of conservation, items deteriorate simply sitting in storage. Next time someone pulls this indenture out of the box it will probably be harder to read. Generally speaking, the parameters of the catalogue are to give an indication of date, persons involved (in the writing of, or the import of the document), type of item, perhaps noteworthy points and a brief description. A catalogue rarely gives a complete transcription, and is an indication of what the item is – not an ‘edition’ of it. This particular document is not of devastating importance. However, in this case I chose to add to the description.

My catalogue entry is still pending approval, so it may still be edited. If it remains as I typed it, anyone searching for apprentice indentures in Shropshire in the 1880s will learn that ‘Richard Harry Gotobed, an infant, by the consent of his Grandfather William Pugh of Richards Castle of the County of salop does put himself apprentice to Edmund Philip Thomas of Ludlow Draper etc. […] from the twenty fifth day of March 1882 for 4 years.’ Not a massive rebellion – all I have done is to add a couple of the defining details that the document offers. However, I have transcribed every handwritten word on the page. Hopefully, if it cannot be read when it next sees light, whoever looks at it can refer to the catalogue entry and fill in any gaps (assuming I haven’t made any fundamental errors).

I am a volunteer, so to some extent I can choose how I spend my time at the archives. If something genuinely interests me I have the freedom to pore over it. There is no expectation placed upon my output, so I have all the time in the world to compose my catalogue entries. On the other hand, if a document doesn’t excite my interest, I am perfectly at liberty either to skip it or to to give it only the briefest attention. (In case my supervisors are reading this, I hasten to add this is never the case in actuality!). I try to be fairly consistent, at least with what the minimum details that I enter are – but if I really like a document it is treated to a very thorough recording! Permanent staff employed in local record offices don’t have this privilege to the same extent. They have targets, policies, budgets, and a queue of people demanding access the documents in their custody. They must prioritize, and they must compromise.

The truth is, that all local record offices have a large amount of uncatalogued material in their storerooms. In some cases it takes many years before it is organized, preserved and catalogued. Until it is catalogued it is not available to the public. To give you some idea, the MIs that I have been cataloguing, (a paltry ten boxes), are from a run of over one hundred similar boxes. The ones I have looked at so far were deposited in the late 1950s and early 1960s. As I work my way through I gradually meet ‘younger’ deposits. I assume that if ever I made it to the end I would meet the present day. (Though, of course, only in the sense of the deposit date – the documents are not necessarily contemporary to their accession date, and the manuscripts deposited yesterday could very well trump those deposited in the 1960s in terms of their age).

Record Offices in the UK struggle to meet tight budgets, and have many more documents to catalogue than staff or resources for the work involved. Well known documents, or those that are popular (parish registers etc.) will be prioritised. It is only right, after all, to deal first with the material in highest demand. Less well-known material falls lower down the pecking order, and will be dealt with as and when time and money are available. One of the most successful strategies for combatting this is to apply for blocks of funding for specific projects, with circumscribed aims and limited remits. If a large estate collection is deposited, it is often possible to put together a project to get it conserved, catalogued, and probably (in order to attract the funding) facilitate some outreach/public engagement with it. While this is a good thing in some ways, it leads to problems in others. Each project is run by a new team, frequently with different working practices and different priorities. Funding will usually have tight time constraints, with little leeway for (time-consuming) discoveries en-route. Often an element of volunteering is involved, and there is a limit to the existing skills that volunteers bring to a project, and to the amount of training that can be provided.  Catalogue entries can vary wildly in their detail and their format as a result. In addition to this, when a new project attracting funding arrives at an archive, other cataloguing and conservation work slips down the priority list.

Shropshire Archives’ MIs (miscellaneous small deposits) are not a nice coherent collection. They are not an easy ‘sell’ for project funding, and for the most part no-one is very sure what they contain or what potential they have. Because of their variety they take more time than many other documents to sort, conserve and catalogue. Hence they are more likely than most manuscripts to remain at the bottom of the pile, and have done for a good many years.

Volunteering for Shropshire’s Heritage is a project with a bit if a difference, as its main focus is upon volunteer involvement. Whilst there are ‘headline’ manuscript collections that it aims to cover, there is plenty of scope for other, smaller projects under its umbrella. It runs for three years, so time constraints are less of a factor. Thus I am cataloguing MIs, alongside three other volunteers (not literally alongside, mind, some of us are in on different days – PC space is at a premium!). I am human, and make errors. Some of my work follows my own whims. I am also not an archivist, but I am quickly learning some of the difficulties they face and beginning to understand just why the information in Local Record Office electronic catalogues doesn’t always meet my expectations as a researcher.

So what am I really saying? Archives, and particularly local authority archives, are perhaps not as good as we would all wish them to be. Nonetheless, all the staff that I have met working behind the scenes are dedicated and passionate about their work. They really do care, and do their best. Added to them are a whole raft of unpaid volunteers beavering away to make searchable catalogues possible. Next time you are tempted to roll your eyes when the catalogue throws you an error message or provides nothing but nonsense – don’t! (Someone working in that archive will be looking, even if you think they are not). Take a deep breath, be creative with your search terms. Talk to the staff. Make (constructive) suggestions. Consider volunteering yourself. But most of all, spare a thought for the archivist. Not everyone who entered data into that catalogue was paid to do it, and if you happen to be in Shropshire, it may well have been me.

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