Working in a Private Archive

In this feature blog;Jane Anderson, Archivist of Blair Castle, Blair Atholl, Pitlochry describes the ups and downs of managing a privately owned collection.

This is a personal view, which won’t reflect all private archives as some may have “career progression”, but generally archivists for a privately owned collection just happen upon the job from a variety of backgrounds, discover their luck if it suits their circumstances and only infrequently move on, being found buried in the collection after many years have elapsed.


Financial records and photograph albums
Financial records and photograph albums

There are usually two main aspects, to answer a wide variety of enquiries from the public and to meet the needs of the estate or owner.
The former can vary from school project requests from the whole village school on “how old is my house?” which must be familiar to most archivists, to PhD students who can provide valuable context to family history or objects. Folk in search of their family tree vary from the well prepared to those wanting an ancestor with a ducal connection regardless of date or place. Clan members have been known to request to stay and visit the family, as do ghost hunters who are unconvinced by assertions that no staff have ever seen a ghost however dark the attic passages. Most summers produce a request for a visit from a local society which can be challenging with cramped conditions. The winters are the season for talks to local groups. One hazard is the desire of individuals or groups to use the archive to deposit their own collection which should generally be strongly resisted.
Often private archives can be located in properties open to the public so the archive provides a valuable resource for display and interpretation material which be interesting and informative for the archivist to produce as an exhibition. The archive may be used to give information on contents either for loan or for conservation work. As the archive contains information necessary for the production of a guide book this can often fall to the archivist.
A large working estate can produce varied demands, for example the grant of fishings has to be proved by the production of the original charter even if they were sold hundreds of years ago or police may want to trace an ex- employee of 50 years ago. The estate itself can generate a huge quantity of modern documents to archive, which can be a storage problem, or to address this logically can take time to develop a records management policy. Even more challenging to those not of the younger generation are the digital records produced by a diverse business. Looking to the future an oral history record of retired staff would give a fuller picture in an age of emails.

Archives are stored in the basement of the Castle clock tower
Archives are stored in the basement of the Castle clock tower

In addition to these demands the core work of the archivist must be to improve the listing of the collection, either starting from scratch with their own or a bought in system, or continuing an existing index rarely ever finished by a previous incumbent. Sometime students volunteer for work experience in this area which can be both an asset as attention must be paid to them but also time consuming. This work rarely continues uninterrupted! The collection must to maintained in as good as condition as possible so environmental monitoring must be carried out for humidity, light and temperature and sometimes unsuitable condition must be rectified by building work or rehousing the collection with all the associated challenges of architects and accountants.
Apart from large collections where a separate librarian could be employed, the library usually comes under the remit of the archivist, with associated duties of dusting and leather dressing. Local NADFAS groups do volunteer for such work but that requires supervision time and finding space for congenial working conditions. Curatorial duties may also be included in the archivist’s job so building up a good set of contacts

for the restoration of pictures, furniture, china, rugs and guns is useful in addition to those for vellum, paper and photographs.

So as you can see there is a lifetime of satisfaction but no time for a career!

Jane Anderson- Archivist Blair Castle

All photographs are copyright of Atholl Estates.

Trunks containing records and the estate plan chests
Trunks containing records and the estate plan chests
Map storage for the Estates impressive collection of maps
Map storage for the Estates impressive collection of maps

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