The Art of Archiving

An archive can vary in substance and appearance from a beautifully bound set of books and documents to a few boxes of papers and hand-written notes. Some are digital, date-sorted and completely accessible, and can be held at The British Library or a university library. Others are still in people's homes sitting unsorted. At what point does an archive become a complete version of itself? And who uses them?

An archive is a collection of documents surrounding a person, place or institution. There will usually be written notes, meeting minutes pre-21st century, books, circulars, members details (if an association) and even bank details. It is up to the archivist to deem what should be made searchable and what parts of an archive should remain closed. They would then consult with the owner of the archive and draw up a list- this then forms the skeleton of the unsorted material. Some archives may be sorted chronologically. Some may not be dated, which would then need researching as to the ink and font used in any hand-written letters, or for really old material, who would have created it. This kind of work would be overseen by a specialist curator.

The most prolific archive users tend to be academic researchers, particularly in historical studies. They will have a thesis or dissertation question to answer, and that involves seeing the real primary sources. They will know that the archives exist usually from their peers or by reading books on their subject that have handy footnote references. The archival use of a research student is non-commercial and they will be using what they find as evidence to support their question or theory.

The next archive user will be the company or association that the archive is about. They may use it to illustrate their past, like the Penguin archive which is used to produce old artwork for classics or those lovely postcards. It could be turned into a booklet for an anniversary or a couple of paragraphs could feature online in the "About Us" section. However, an archive is very rarely just about a company, it is actually more about the people. This is why it is good to work out what should be public knowledge and what is private, especially if there are people involved not directly linked to the company/association. An archive should not be taken out of context, as tempting as it is to share it all over social media, otherwise it stops being an archive.

Other people may want to access an archive, such as journalists for example, and they want to embellish a story or angle for their publication's own commercial gain. For this purpose, archives are usually guarded by copyright and IP law. Research students operate under a code of ethics and have to provide information as to how they have access to archives if asked by their examiners. However, if they wish to publish their finish research as an author, they would need to ask the archive owner for permission.

Archives don't have to be dusty and boring. They can give their owners, companies and associations a back-story and a reason for being. Looking to the future is great but the past is why we have what exists. Always stay curious and use your archives responsibly!

By Maria Vassilopoulos

Huge thanks to Maria, who will be taking on the task of archiving the SYP's documents dating back over at least 50 years. Watch this space for more information!