Guidance for archive and heritage professionals
The section of the guide is aimed at archivists, museum and heritage professionals and academic researchers who are considering embarking on a collaborative journey of acquiring an archive related to a disaster or traumatic event.
When working in collaboration with the owners of a private archive, clear communication and open consultation is required throughout. Assumptions that the group may have a good understanding of the heritage section and how archiving works should be dismissed, and clear and open dialogue should be entered from the beginning to build trust. Follows is a summary of points for consideration when starting the journey of consultation with the private archive’s owners.
Knowledge about archives and how they function
Those outside of the heritage sector have very little or no knowledge of how archives operate and what their requirements for depositing material with them would involve. An introduction on how the process of depositing with an archive might work and what the implications would be is essential. Allow the group time to ask any questions and flag any concerns they might have, ensuring these are captured for when an approach to an archive is eventually made.
Building trust and a relationship with the group
Archive material that involves sensitive content and subject matter requires a sensitive approach to engaging with those who own the content. The group may have faced challenges with other outsiders who they have encountered, including those not willing to listen to their concerns and give them the time and space needed to make decisions. Building trust with the group and allowing them to lead on the pace and process of working through their archive is important, as is understanding the relationships within the group. The dynamics and differences may impact on your work with them. Finding a gatekeeper or lead representative who can communicate to the wider group is also helpful.
Concerns regarding access
Handing over personal and sensitive information to a third party can be an overwhelming task. Understanding what restrictions the group might want to put on access to certain parts of the archive, and ensuring this is documented, can help to build trust further. Establishing what these restrictions might look like before approaching a host organisation can also help to manage expectations for all involved. If restrictions to access cannot be guaranteed, then the group may choose to exclude certain documents when a deposit is made.
Ownership and control
Group archive material will likely involve multiple owners, and these individuals may have differing views on how their material is documented, stored and accessed by a potential host organisation. Having discussions about what control the individuals can have on the material once deposited will help to again manage expectations on how ownership will work going forward, and what the individuals will be able to have control over should they change their mind. Determining whether the deposit to the host organisation is by the individual owners or as a collective group will also need to be decided.
Concerns regarding sensitive nature of the content
Being asked to engage with personally sensitive and traumatising content can be an overwhelming task and one that some individuals may not feel able to do without support. Who will access this material in the long-term also needs to be considered. The process of asking people to talk about and share this type of material needs to be done carefully, with room for discussion and flexibility over the timeframe and methods used.
Getting to know the owners of the archive and giving space for them to get to know the project team leading the archiving process, is critical. Meetings where everyone can introduce themselves and begin to ask questions or flag concerns is an important starting point. Providing a way for the group to ask follow up questions, including on a one-to-one level and in a safe and confidential environment, will help to continue to build trust. Share contact details and be clear as to what everyone’s role in the team is from the beginning.
Before an approach is made to a potential host organisation, an understanding of the content and scale of the private archive needs to be determined. The process of capturing this information, however, can be very challenging for the owners of the material. A number of stages need to be worked through, each with sensitivity and care.
Defining the scope and parameters of the archive
Private archives are not necessarily created with any archive intentions or aims in mind. They will grow and evolve over time, reflecting the experiences of the groups and people they represent. They will likely contain duplicates of material, with multiple group members collecting and documenting the same events and stages of development. They may also feature gaps in content, which the group may wish to look to fill before depositing with a host archive.
For the S11UKFSG, defining the scope and parameters of their archive was an important step to help everyone involved understand what was to officially form their archive and what was personal content that would remain in their possession. Through discussion, a decision was made that the archive should be a record of the formation and evolution of the Support Group itself, rather than a record of the personal losses experienced by the individual members. Minutes from meetings or invitations to event would fall under the archive’s scope, for example, whereas photographs or condolence cards would not.
Auditing the archive
Asking a group to conduct a thorough audit of sensitive material without support should be avoided. The auditing process should be done in partnership with the host organisation, ensuring the correct and relevant information was captured and to allow for the process to be as open and collaborative as possible.
When the project team first engaged with the S11UKFSG, it was suggested that each member complete a spreadsheet that summarised the material they owned and were willing to submit for archiving with a host organisation. The spreadsheet consisted of the following headings:
The group were given a month to complete their spreadsheets. During that period, only the group member who is also part of the project team, Jelena Watkins, filled in information about her personal collection. Other members chose not, either because it was too time-consuming, because there was a nervousness about opening boxes they had not engaged with in a long time, or because they still had a lot of questions about how the information they shared was going to be used.
Reassurances were given that there was no obligation to donate anything they did not want to, and that only very top-level information was needed at this stage, in case the task felt too overwhelming. This did not result in any further submissions. The project team felt that some details were needed in order to be able to approach a host organisation, but it was decided that the information Jelena shared would be sufficient and that further requests to the rest of the group should not be made at this stage of the project.
Pre-empting the host organisation’s requirements
As well as the needs of the group being complex and requiring flexible and sensitive approaches to the ways in which any auditing of the archive material was conducted, the needs of the potential future host organisations were also unclear.
Each archive has its own aims, policies and parameters. Finding a host organisation that would align with the needs of the group was one challenge, but it was also difficult to communicate to the group exactly what the process of depositing such a host organisation would involve. A guarantee over how access would be managed and whether restrictions could be placed on certain areas of the archive was impossible to make until the host organisation was on board.
At this stage of the process it is important to:
- Outline all possible options regarding access to the archive material once deposited with a host organisation to manage expectations
- Provide a range of options for the host organisation and what the pros/cons of each might be in how the archive material is documented and used
- Outline the range of information the host organisation might request so that the group are prepared for what details they might need to provide
- Give insight into how archives may be used in the future – research, display, online – again to manage expectations and to begin to consider restrictions to access
Identifying a suitable archive to deposit material in comes with many challenges. This component of the project is ongoing and as a result this section of the guide will be completed at a later date.
However, as insight into conversations being had, The National Archives were approached as a potential host organisation for the S11UKFSG archive. A summary of the archive, including its aims and the ambition of the group for finding a permanent home, was shared with archive staff. In response the following questions were sent to the project team to answer before a meeting was arranged:
- Are the collection/record(s) at risk – physical/intellectual harm and why?
- Where is the location of the record(s)/collection?
- What is the physical description of the collection/record(s) being considered?
- Are there more copies of the document /these records held elsewhere and if held elsewhere please state where?
- Provide a short description of the content of the collection/record(s) being considered
- Date range and format and volume of the collection/record(s) being considered
- Any commercial considerations/opportunities for the collection/record(s)?
- What is the copyright?
- How is the collection accessed (via catalogue list)?
- Does there appear to be any sensitive content of the documents – classification markings/topic/GDPR/FOI/EIR?