‘It’s Really Niche’: the ethics of archives and archiving
Is it ever appropriate to de-accession or throw away an archive? Are all archive materials suitable for sharing with all library users? If budgets are tight, how are decisions made about which archive collections to digitise? These and other questions on the ethics of archives and archiving were discussed at a recent training session at Bishopsgate Institute as part of The Only Way is Ethics youth arts project.
The Only Way is Ethics
(TOWIE) rebooted in February with a new cohort of young people as well as some familiar faces from last year's summer school
. This term participants learnt about collecting, cataloguing and curating during intensive heritage skills training sessions delivered by the project heritage partners, Museum of London and Bishopsgate Institute.
On Saturday 1 March at the Museum of London in Docklands the training included opportunities to put together a pop- up exhibition of historic postcards with Honorary Research Fellow Cathy Ross and a session on how to date archaeological skeletal assemblages with Curator of Human Osteology Jelena Beklavac – featuring actual human remains from the Museum's collections.
On Saturday 22 February at Bishopsgate Institute, the focus was on archive interpretation and the ethics of collecting. TOWIE participants Antonia Bici, Tanisa Gunesekera, Linda Gyamfi and Beth Jellicoe joined Project Archivist Nicky Hilton for an afternoon of hands-on training that began with a jargon-busting quiz giving Antonia, Tanisa, Linda and Beth a chance to discover some of the specialist terms used by archivists such as acquisition (the process of identifying and obtaining historical materials) and appraisal (the process of determining whether collections have sufficient value to warrant acquisition by an archive). Linda pointed out: 'This is like learning a different language! The jargon acts as a barrier to understanding archives and archiving for general audiences.'
Next the group looked at some controversial stories from the archives, which included the opportunity to handle the Minute Book of the First International Working Men's Association (1866-9) – a volume considered so politically inflammatory in the years immediately following the Russian Revolution in 1917 that the governors of Bishopsgate Institute locked it in a bank vault for some twenty years. A lively discussion followed about whether it was ever acceptable to prevent readers accessing historic items in a public library or archive collection.
During the discussion, Linda pointed out: ‘archiving isn’t as straightforward or impersonal as you might think. Some aspects of collecting seem to be about fashion or what’s popular at the time.’ Beth agreed. She was especially struck by the importance of an archivist’s role and the power he or she has to direct, even rewrite, history: 'archiving is a useful skill to have because it's really niche. It's been fun discussing the ethics around archiving. It's great that it's not abstract. These are real people and real legacies so that makes it seem important.'
Once the discussion ended, Nicky explained more about the work of an archivist. Everyone was surprised to learn that there are no hard and fast rules involved in archiving. Instead archivists follow a code of ethics which focuses on: maintaining the original archive order or filing system of the material; protecting the material; and promote access to the material. Nicky also pointed out the curious fact that the unique character of archive materials means that they cannot be insured because each document, letter, minute book and so on is irreplaceable – and therefore priceless!
The archives training ended with the group gaining an intensive introduction to cataloguing, using the Unite Against Fascism collection of badges, posters and flyers from the 1980s to the present day and including items from the high-profile Love Music Hate Racism campaign. Tanisa had had some experience of object cataloguing in a museum but found it quite different working with printed materials. ‘How do you paraphrase the text and pick out the "right" information from the pamphlet or book to include?' she wondered. Antonia is a Drama and English graduate who had never done any cataloguing before. She said afterwards: ‘I feel really privileged taking part! Finding out more about how the process of cataloguing works is something most people don't get to explore. The things we’ve discovered today from the collections about history and politics in London will inform my performances in the future.'
Before the session ended, the participants worked with Nicky to put together a Unite Against Fascism Pinterest board
featuring items from the collection they had catalogued. All agreed that being archivists for a day had been a valuable and thought-provoking experience.
The next TOWIE event at Bishopsgate Institute takes place on Sunday 11 May as part of the Trouble Makers? festival (details of the festival will be available on our website from Wednesday 26 March). All welcome.
Bishopsgate Library and Archive Collections are open to everyone.