Survival Of Archives; Archives Of Survival

In a previous job, I glimpsed the Laycock military papers, among them documents created by Capt. Evelyn Waugh somewhere in the Mediterranean during the Second World War. There was no time to pore over them, as I was just processing a copy order – but it struck me that their survival (complete with scorch marks and water damage) was miraculous, and that so was their creation. In the melee of conflict, there was Waugh armed with a typewriter, setting down the information that others would need.

Whether it’s a literal battle or the current battle against coronavirus, there’s nothing like crisis for putting pressure on those charged with setting down information.  A crisis also reveals starkly how important a resource information is, and how much we rely on its being accurate and available.

One criterion that defines an archive is authenticity. A document in an archive collection was created for reasons that had everything to do with the situation at the time and nothing much to do with us. We are not the intended audience. The primary reader is the writer’s contemporary – a busy person who needs evidence of what has been done and what remains to be done; what has been agreed and what is still up in the air. Succeeding generations may be able to peer over the shoulder of their ancestors, like a rail passenger reading their neighbour’s paper, but this is a happy accident.

It’s an accident so happy, in fact, that we need to make it happen. At Derbyshire Record Office, we try to make it happen by committing ourselves to a management policy which says: “We will respond positively to opportunities for expanding the scope of our collections, to make them more representative of the diverse range of human activity in our county’s history”. There’s quite a range of human activity just now, even in the midst of forced inactivity.

An acquisition strategy is not a new idea. Just look at this 1918 advertisement printed on a ration book in the Ogden Family papers.

D331 1 49_0003

Please note: it’s 1918 and this is on a ration book – the appeal to preserve evidence of the Great War had started, even as war still raged.

Information grows in importance during a crisis, and so does community – even a socially distanced one. Again, this is nothing new. Another episode in Archives I Have Glimpsed While Doing Copying Orders: papers reflecting the efforts of Women’s Institutes to find billets for evacuees during Operation Pied Piper, because there was no government presence large enough or connected enough to do it.

Novels will be written by people quarantined by this outbreak, some of them good.  There will be poems and sculptures and great works of art. Whether good, bad or indifferent, these will be part of an archive of human survival, and we will have to find ways to preserve it. Will there be an archive of the spontaneously-generated COVID-19 community support groups, whose members bring essential supplies to people with a duty to self-isolate? How will we preserve the activities of a neighbourhood interacting over social media? Two key words for a future post: Digital Preservation.

The evidence we leave behind will be the product of people acting under pressure in a rush, like Waugh at his typewriter. But it won’t be structured in the same way as a military archive, or a company archive, or a local authority archive. And we can’t save it all. Some history, perhaps the overwhelming majority of it, will slip through our fingers.

This will be ameliorated by forward-thinking people setting out to document today for the readers of tomorrow – not a happy accident of authenticity, but an act of conscious creation, authentic in its own way. Two examples:

Earlier this month our Local Studies Librarian, Lisa, gave a talk delving into Derbyshire’s past by peering over the shoulder of long-departed residents and visitors, and into their personal diaries. Last week we were contacted by a member of the audience who has been inspired by diaries kept during the war to record her own experience of the current coronavirus situation. Mass Observation, as it is known, was first developed in 1937 and ran until the 1950s and it was restarted in 1981 – the Archive is held at The Keep at the University of Sussex. If you would like to take part in Mass Observation and contribute to the archive, whether in relation to coronavirus or in the future, find out how to Become a Mass Observer online.

An idea that began in Arizona but is going global – a web resource called Journal Of A Plague Year: An Archive of COVID-19. The title, as you spotted, is a nod to Daniel Defoe. Here we find stories, photographs, video files, sound files and, yes, Facebook and Snapchat memes, all selected to help preserve a collective memory. Take, just as a for instance, the snapshot of a New Orleans pizzeria which has hurriedly altered its business model so that boxed food may be passed through an improvised service hatch.  At the time of writing, there are 323 items in the archive, which can be browsed, searched, or picked from a map.  And the map tells me there are no UK contributions yet. How long until that changes, I wonder? Yes, you may take that as a challenge.

Wishing you all good health.

Advent Calendar – Day 5

Over a fifth of the way there, and here is today’s advent door…

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Cover of the Department of Energy’s Report on the Markham Colliery Disaster of 30 July 1973. For an enlarged image, click here, or visit us in Matlock to see the full report, including plans, available on the open-access shelves in Local Studies)

18 miners lost their lives, and a further 11 were seriously injured, as a result of the accident. In the last few years work has been underway at the site of the colliery, now Markham Vale Business Centre, to erect memorials remembering the 106 men who died during the three disasters at the colliery, 1937, 1938 and 1973.

There are a range of other sources for the colliery, including relating to the accidents, held in the archives and local studies collections at the Record Office. Search our catalogue or visit us in Matlock to find out more.

 

Archives rescue team swings into action!

A few weeks ago, the Ripley Heritage Trust alerted us to the possibility that there were historic Butterley Company records at the former company works in Ripley that were in danger of being severely damaged or destroyed.  The works was sold after the Butterley Company closed down in 2009, since when the company that owns it has gone into administration.  The site has been sitting derelict and is shortly to be sold for redevelopment.

After visiting the site in the company of the very knowledgeable members of the Ripley Heritage Trust, the Record Office was able to get approval from the owners of the site to salvage records, so this morning a team of four of us went down there with a van.  If you find the sight of neglected records distressing, look away now:

IMG_8870 IMG_8871 IMG_8868As the pictures show, much was damaged beyond repair, but most of this material looked like purchase orders and timesheets, which aren’t of historical value.  There were however, lots of engineering drawings, mostly dating to between the 1950s and the 1980s.  Although some had been disturbed by vandals, and were ruined, many were still in plan chest drawers and had been well protected from the elements and the pigeons – mostly!

IMG_8853

Some chests had drawers that couldn’t be opened: IMG_8859 IMG_8884

But well-equipped in our protective clothing, we were able to salvage a good proportion of the drawings:


IMG_8856The drawings are now heading to our quarantine, and once our conservation team have given them the OK, we hope that the Ripley Heritage Trust will be able to use their expertise to identify the drawings so they will be accessible for research.

If you haven’t heard of the Butterley Company before, if was a company famed for iron founding and engineering.  In its latter years it was responsible for prestigious projects including the roof of St Pancras Station (if you’ve ever been in the station you’ll know how impressive this is – if not, take a look at these images) and the Falkirk Wheel.  Derbyshire Record Office already holds a substantial archive for Butterley (see our online catalogue) and Ripley Heritage Trust have just gained funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund for a project to document the history of the firm (see: https://www.hlf.org.uk/about-us/media-centre/press-releases/ripley-heritage-trust-secures-heritage-lottery-fund-support).

Thanks go to the Ripley Heritage Trust for alerting us to the records, and we are also very grateful to the owners of the site for allowing us to preserve this piece of Butterley history.  It will take some time before the drawings are sorted and listed – if you, or someone you know, has an engineering background and/or used to work for the Butterley Company and would like to help, please leave a comment below and we’ll be in touch!