What should we do with our records?

1-2 April 2000

The following report appeared in Industrial Archaeology News, the newsletter of the AIA, in issue 113, Summer 2000

The title of the annual affiliated societies weekend held at Ironbridge on 1-2 April 2000 may not initially excite all and sundry, but a moment’s reflection will indicate that while we may derive real satisfaction from surveys and site visits, at the end of the day there is little point in making records unless they are available to others. As every speaker showed, there are many issues involved. The AIA is grateful for the behind-the-scenes work put in by Ray Riley, the Affiliated Societies Officer, and John Powell, Librarian at Ironbridge.

The proceedings were opened by two representatives from the Welsh and English recording bodies. Hilary Malaws, Head of Management of the National Monument Record of Wales, stressed the issue of accessibility, pointing out that the industrial archaeologist’s contribution to knowledge would be lost if records failed to reach the public domain. It is important to donate records, via wills etc, to appropriate bodies, but at the same time there is the problem of information overload and the need to undertake weeding.

Mike Evans, Head of Archives of the English National Monuments Record at Swindon, set out some of the many issues with which he is faced. The great increase in material being offered recently has raised problems of storage, leading in turn to rejection of records thought not to be significant; some are more appropriate for county record offices but those which are nation-wide surveys are more difficult to place. Mike and Hilary both asked that when collections are offered, they should have been first sifted and well ordered, with a synopsis made of the contents, so that the record is easily understood and accessible to other people. Although they would be only too delighted to accept everything, constraints of space and time to catalogue records mean that, reluctantly, some have to be refused. Copyright and intellectual property rights should always be negotiated and also future access by the donor if required.

Storage is another issue. Good paper is essential if records are to last and if databases are used, they should be updated using a standard programme. The future is unquestionably digital, although it is too early to have established optimal practice. Hard copy should be available where appropriate and CDs are preferred to floppy discs. All records should be kept in archival quality material and bulk can be reduced by giving good references rather than photocopies of material that is available elsewhere.

Negatives are preferred to transparencies, as the latter can fade, and prints can always be made if wanted. Black and white is preferred, but now colour has improved, these are also accepted. Clifford Morris, who is a Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society specialising in industrial subjects, but as art rather than recording, spoke about the methods he employs to store photographs. His exhibition prints are on fibre paper, developed with extreme care, and are stored in sheets of archival film in special boxes and should be safe for very many years.

Peter Stanier demonstrated examples of what we should all be recording with photographs – the location, date, place, subject, orientation, scale and name of photographer – as an absolute minimum to be of value to future researchers. Photographs, negatives and slides should be stored and catalogued so anyone can understand the references and there was discussion on the best way of marking them. It must not be forgotten that a separate catalogue could easily become separated from the originals and lost. Again, pruning and weeding out is necessary to reduce storage space. The thousands of transparencies taken by enthusiastic industrial archaeologists remain a large headache for archivists, especially if poorly labelled.

Malcolm Tucker, who is well known to AIA members for his meticulous recording of any photographs in his little books, explained the sophisticated classification system he has developed to handle his enormous collection. He would deposit his records with a public institution if he was not still using them. He mentioned that GLIAS has initiated a register of members’ records, to prevent duplication, and suggested that the AIA might mount an initiative on the ways in which individual and group records might be placed with archives and museums.

The problems of the classification of records were addressed by Ron Martin, who has made a study of the subject. It is clear that as classification systems (such as IRIS) become more comprehensive, definitional problems multiply, something which is compounded by the use of local terms without cross-referencing. He spoke too on the Sussex IA Society’s recording forms, of which many thousands have been completed. The Society is now considering what to do with the information – a database is obviously an answer, and microfiche has been considered but found to be expensive.

Without exception, all the speakers had mentioned the role of electronic storage but the subject was brought into focus by Tony Yoward, who gave examples of his 120 databases for various things varying from mill records or cast iron gravestones to the organisation of delegates to AIA Conferences. He is convinced that this is the way forward and demonstrated not only the immense storage potential but also the impressive retrieval potential of the modern computer. The material has to be on a programme in general use and must be kept up to date – and backed up in case of emergencies – but little room is required for hundreds of records. References to original sources for all entries are essential. Discussions during the weekend also concerned the updating of digital records (‘onward migration’) as new advanced computer systems are introduced.

Ray Riley concluded with some cautionary tales, such as the dangers to records posed by fire (many Norfolk Local Studies Library records were lost this way in 1993). The unreliability of the accession records of record offices is another concern and he quoted the case of Tony Yoward cataloguing the Armfield of Ringwood papers and when the Chairman of Hampshire Mills Group went to see them, he was told that they were not there! But they were eventually found. More worrying, are the results of Ray’s own researches in Portsmouth in 1967, which seem to have disappeared into the Portsmouth Record Office and are still being looked for! Back up copies elsewhere would always be invaluable.

Finally, Ray briefly outlined some of the themes which had emerged from the weekend:

  • The annotation of records
  • The classification of records
  • The use of electronic data bases
  • Information accessibility
  • The appropriate placing of records

It is to be hoped that the AIA will be able to produce some guidelines for ‘best practice’ based on the weekend’s discussions.

During the weekend, John Powell gave members a tour of the Ironbridge Library and archives. He explained how the library had developed over the years and is now as a centre for researchers of the district. We were taken into the strong room and shown, among other things, part of the Elton Collection of prints and manuscripts. The Saturday night dinner was at the New Inn in the Victorian Village at Blists Hill and was followed by a hilarious pictorial quiz organised by Ray Riley. This provided relief from a most stimulating working weekend during which many important issued were raised and aired.

Mary Yoward and Ray Riley

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