DIY Archiving – Presenting Collections

Yesterday there was an interesting conversation on Twitter on the subject of archiving and UK spoken word. This conversation was sparked by the work of Lunar Poetry Podcasts, and their work to archive their podcast series with the British Library. It was followed up with blog posts by David from Lunar Poetry Podcasts, and Katie Ailes, a PhD researcher from the University of Strathclyde.

Following these excellent contributions, I wanted to note a few of my own thoughts. I have recently finished a work placement with the National Theatre archives, and have worked with the National Library and Scottish Poetry Library. One of the particular challenges from an archivists point of view is a lack of resources and funding for new projects. As such, when a new collection is deposited with an archive, the archivist often has to make some quick judgements as to what can be kept, catalogued, and discarded.

I wanted to write this blog post to give a sense of how individuals can help the work of archivists. There are many horror stories I can tell you of libraries being given literal garages worth of jumbled papers, or official records being left in sacks (cw 13:00 onwards contain graphic scenes of death). Being able to provide a cursory catalogue will helps an archivist in evaluating a new deposit.

Archives tend to operate by some form of international standard. One of the most widely adopted of these is ‘ISAD(G)’, the General International Standard of Archival Description. The goal of this standard is to catalogue archives in a manner that is accessible and accurate. This is a pretty intensive document, but there are a few points that I feel are useful for individual practice:

Catalogue from the General to the Specific
Unlike libraries, archives do not start cataloguing from the item level. Rather, they look for general description in order to represent the relationships between items. For your own collection, don’t waste time by trying to make descriptions for each item. Rather, if you have collected poetry pamphlets, separate them into year of publication. Or, if you have the organiser of a regular open mic, separate your materials into press releases, posters, flyers etc.

This is a fancy word that essentially means “why is this here?” An archivist wants to find out what the relationship is between an item and the place it is stored. As such, it is useful to make a note if you bought the items in your collection, or acquired them after running an organisation, or if you made them yourself. This will help an archivist make a decision about keeping materials in one place, or donating relevant parts to more more specialist archives.

Date Your Materials.
This. Is. Crucial. I can not tell you the amount of headaches I have had due to materials that have not been dated, or even worse, been dated inaccurately. You don’t even need to get this to the precise day. If you can accurately place an item at ‘early 2003’, or ‘c. [June] 2012’, this will help enormously with the work of an archivist.

4 Important Facts
If you want to put in a little bit more work, you can begin to put together a cursory catalogue of your materials. ISAD(G) sets has 26 different fields of description, all of which work together to create an accurate catalogue. However, only six of these are considered essential by archivists. Two of these (‘Reference Code’ and ‘Level of Description’) will be decided by the particular archive you donate to. The rest can be adopted into your own practice:

  1. Title – What is the item?
  2. Creator – Who made this?
  3. Date(s) – When was this made?
  4. Extent – What is it? Is it a book or pamphlet? Is it a collection of papers? Is it 20 identical flyers?

I hope this has been a helpful introduction into adopting archival standards. I will be putting together a demonstration of this with my own poetry pamphlet collection in the near future, and would be happy to talk through any questions that people might have.


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