A while ago I was invited to speak at a Liverpool University Centre for Archive Studies (LUCAS) event entitled “New Directions in Cataloguing”. The organisers were putting together a programme of speakers from new initiatives to explain what they were doing, and give an opportunity for archivists and archive students to discuss strengths, weaknesses and possibilities.
Last Wednesday was the actual event, on a bitterly cold and sleety afternoon in Liverpool. I had spent a lot of time working on my presentation, and was really looking forward to the chance to put my project methodology “out there” to a group of my peers and hear what they had to say. I was also keen to hear the other speakers, who have taken different approaches to cataloguing a wide range of collections in very different circumstances. There was:
- A civic archive project from Hull History Centre. They have split their backlog into chunks of historical themes and are attacking it on a project by project basis using lots of volunteers and a programme of events
- The archivist who catalogued the personal papers of the artist Barry Flanagan, which have been interweaved with his artworks via an interactive website at http://www.barryflanagan.com/ Unusually the papers were not in an archive but kept by the estate, who funded and controlled the project.
- One of the team of Hillsborough project archivists who were responsible for the cataloguing and digitisation of the Hillsborough disaster records which were made public last year. This was an unusually high-profile archive cataloguing project and it was fascinating to hear how they dealt with a different set of challenges to the ones we are used to.
I was the second of the four speakers. As I got up and launched full pelt into my presentation all my nerves disappeared and I genuinely enjoyed myself. It was so nice to be able to talk in detail about my project methodology, and to share our ideas with a lecture theatre jam-packed full of other archivists to see what they had to say. I talked about the problems we initially faced, the way the project was designed, and the MPLP mindset that we feel has changed the way we think about cataloguing.
What I was trying to offer was that MPLP is a way of thinking harder about the cataloguing process, and a way of critically evaluating all the options open to you, then building your project to suit. Our project is particular to our circumstances, and so should everyone else’s be. It’s also about focusing on access and user needs, and pragmatically proving sufficient information for people to find what they need right now, and then supplementing it with more detail later on.
Happily there was a positive reaction to this approach, as well as the tools I am using such as the functional map and the authority files. I also discussed what we see as the strengths and weaknesses, as transparent processes and evaluation were what the whole afternoon was about. I talked quite a bit about the risks of the project, because we are trialling a new method, and we genuinely won’t know until the end how well it has worked. I mentioned the blog and what I am trying to do here with you guys, recording the thinking process and talking openly about theory.
All very exciting really! Working in a small archive service, it’s really important to stay in touch with the bigger archival community as how else can we make sure what we are doing is both up to date and theoretically sound? There were some great questions from the audience about topics I hadn’t had time to talk about such as what series-level cataloguing means practically in the searchroom when someone only wants to look at one box, and another about where conservation needs fit into the project.
Getting home late, wet and cold after several trains were cancelled and delayed by the power cuts and snow, I was so pleased with how the event had gone, and woke up to an inbox full of emails from people asking more questions and providing feedback in the morning. It really brought home to me how much I enjoy my work and am enthused by this process! It really is a special project to work on, and will be a contribution on so many levels when it is done. It was good to take the time to put it in the context of what other archivists are doing, compare and contrast, and I learned a lot about what else is going on in archives at the moment.
Thanks go to LUCAS for kindly inviting me to speak, and details of the programme can be found on the LUCAS website at http://www.liv.ac.uk/lucas/. The slides should also be going up there soon, so you can see what the other speakers and myself talked about.
Back at base, access to original archive material is now officially closed so we can prepare for the move ahead. There is still the full local history service at York Explore Library, and many of our records are available there in other forms such as Microfilm so please don’t hesitate to get in touch or check out our website to find out what’s going on during this period of change.