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Workshop – Caring for your collection

At the Mills Archive we recently made our first foray into delivery online webinars, on the topic of caring for archival collections.

Two webinars held over two weeks looked at all aspects of archival care, including archival cataloguing, preservation of the physical items and the world of digital collections.

The webinars were a repackaged version of courses we used to run in person, pre-Covid, at our home at Watlington House in Reading. Converting these into an online format allows them to be shared more widely and provide greater access to people across the country and even overseas. In addition to members of staff and our trustee Mildred we invited several volunteers to contribute, giving their perspectives on the issues from their time working at the archive. Here is an outline of some of the main topics covered:

Why, what, who and how?

We began the first workshop looking into the most basic questions – what are records and archives? Why keep them in the first place? Who should be involved, and how should they go about it?
All kittens are cats, but not all cats are kittens. Similarly, all archives are records but not all records are archives. The term ‘archives’ is usually defined as referring to records which have been selected for permanent preservation due to their historical value (advert from the Northwestern Miller magazine).

Written records carry the memories, stories and sense of identity of individuals and communities, and it is only by preserving them that these can be handed on successfully from one generation to the next. We explored some of the criteria one might apply in order to determine which records to preserve, and then looked at the challenge of balancing access and preservation – without providing access to records, their preservation serves no purpose, but accessing records brings risks that threaten their preservation. Both must therefore be managed to ensure that archives survive to be available in the future.
A slide from the workshop illustrated the balance between preservation and access.
Arrangement and description

In this section we look at the tasks archivists describe with the terms ‘arrangement’ and ‘description’. These tasks involve sorting archival collections, understanding what they contain and working out how best they can be arranged before moving to the process of listing or cataloguing.

To carry out these tasks well requires an understanding of the nature of archival records, and so we looked at the things that make records different from museum artefacts or from printed material, such as their informational content, uniqueness and the importance of understanding their original context.
This example of a letter from our collections illustrates the way in which an archival record often assumes a lot of knowledge on the part of the reader. Reconstructing and preserving the original context in which records were created is an important part of ensuring they can continue to be used and made sense of. For example, keeping this letter together with all the others between the same correspondents will shed light on the topics being discussed.

We then moved on to explore how a basic catalogue might be created. Our volunteer Amanda shared some of her experiences working on cataloguing collections in the archive.
Amanda shared some of the things she discovered when cataloguing Rex Wailes’ notebooks.
Physical preservation

In our second workshop, we began by exploring the different risks to the preservation of physical archival collections, and how these can be managed. The risks range from disaster threats to mould, insect damage and damage from poor quality packaging or mishandling. Mildred gave an overview of this area and she was followed by our volunteer Guy who shared the lessons he had learned through working with collections at the Mills Archive.
Examples of archival packaging from Guy’s presentation
Digital archives

Our final session looked at the issues raised by archiving digital material. We looked at the topic of digitisation, and how this can help both to preserve and provide access to information, even though digital copies are never a perfect substitute for the original. We then examined the preservation of digital files, which can often be subject to as many risks to their long-term survival as physical items, although these are of a different nature. Finally we looked at online access, and some of the questions this raises, including the challenges posed by copyright and data protection.
Choosing the right file format is an important part of ensuring the long-term preservation of digital files. Image formats like JPG which use ‘lossy’ compression can lead to loss of information, as shown above.

Organising and running a webinar series was a new experience for us, but a rewarding one. There may have been a few nerves on the day, but the courses ran smoothly without any major technical hiccups and the attendees got involved in discussion after the various presentations, asking questions or offering suggestions from their own experience. Some of the feedback we were given included the following:

“It’s really a great place to go if you want to know how to start dealing with archives.”

“It’s been helpful because it’s the actual nuts and bolts of how you actually catalogue something.”

“It was all extremely good for us, taking over care of an archive partly catalogued. My colleague volunteers have been re-enthused also as we aim to make the archive more available.”

“Thank you for an interesting webinar. I really joined to learn how to look after a small collection of family papers. I now feel confident that I could volunteer to help with our local history group archive.”

After quite a bit of preparation it was good to feel that the webinars had been helpful and informative and had given encouragement to others who, like ourselves, have been entrusted with the duty of caring for the records of our shared history. We hope to run the courses again, please get in touch if you would be interested in attending in the future.