Ever wondered why, in your new place of work, there are huge amounts of untouched boxes? Have you come across those entire consignments that have either no list or only minimal descriptions such as ‘Research papers 1890-1930’? The answer is always these three words: Time, money, resources.
Just as it’s easier to get funding to save an endangered fluffy animal than a critically-endangered lizard, funding topics for archives are often dependent on the ‘flavour of the month’ or time period. The centenary of World War One led to large projects funded by governments around the world, allowing a focus on archival military or war-related records, such as Project Albany, carried out by the National Archives of Australia (NAA). This project focused on 600,000 World War One repatriation records held in the collection, including digitising 5000 records of the men and women who left Australia from Albany, Western Australia in November 1914 as part of the first convoy. Located in all NAA offices around Australia, many of these files had not seen the light of day since the mid-1970s.
Whilst it was an incredible achievement, and immensely satisfying to see properly-described items being made accessible to researchers, it did mean that other description projects had to be put aside.
So how, as a new member of this industry, does this affect you?
- Your first job may involve working on one of these funded projects that need ‘all hands on deck’.
- Unfinished projects – due to funding drying up or a tight time-frame – are extremely common.
- Good description requires time and effort.
- It is guaranteed that there will be ‘surprise’ boxes or files. Be delighted by these surprises, not cross that the holdings don’t match anything else in the grouping.
- Description is usually linked to preservation – which means supplies such as boxes, archival-quality file covers and binding tape all have to be paid for, as well as the staff to carry out the work.
- You will be required to keep statistics on how much you started with (number of items, or meterage of material, or another metric) and how much you end up with once the work has been done. Preservation tends to expand the amount of space a collection takes up.
You can also use the time that you are working on these projects to consider which collections should be prioritised next for cataloguing. Are there ways to advocate for them to be catalogued? Can you use current projects – and their statistics – to demonstrate the value of the cataloguing work you have been doing and why it’s important for the other collections? Are there any upcoming ‘flavours’ or hot topics that are linked to uncatalogued material and could be a way of securing funding?
So, as you wander through the shelves in your archival workplace, if you see large groups of records, seemingly untouched by the existing or previous staff, you’ll know why they haven’t been listed yet. Whilst the archives are happy to have the material in their collection, proper cataloguing and description needs time, money and resources!
Melissa Read, archivist, records manager and publisher in Perth, Western Australia