Hidden collections – archival description projects and philanthropic funding

Today, I have suddenly found myself with a little time for reading and thinking. The luxury of time to read, and review, cannot be overstated. Marking is in that strange place where I am waiting to do some moderation, before frantically getting all the marks uploaded in time for Boards of Education, and writing lectures and assessments can be safely put off for a few weeks.  I’ve got a presentation to give for my other work in a few days time, but I think that I can wing that (mostly). And, out on twitter, I get the nod to the US Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) recently published proceedings on their Hidden Collections funding and research symposium – Innovation, collaboration and models. 

Working with the Mellon Foundation, CLIR have been working for over seven years to fund projects that improve the findability and discoverability of archival collections, through better cataloguing, inter-repository collaborations, and outreach programs. Over these years they’ve funded 129 projects, and over 270,000 item descriptions, where items means not files and folders, but individual letters, manuscripts, pictures, plans and objects. It’s an impressive set of figures, and the projects from which they are derived are also impressive, as detailed in these proceedings.

The introduction by editor, Cheryl Ostreicher, sets the mood admirably. The goals of the CLIR and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation are clearly set out, and Cheryl then goes on to explore the work that was done and the way in which archivists, librarians and archival practice have been enhanced and supported through these projects and the funding.

CLIR “aspires to transform the information landscape to support the advancement of knowledge.” (quote from the Editor, Cheryl Ostreicher, p.2)

This is done through the development of close relationships, shared professional experience, and above all, a willingness to collaborate and innovate, as identified in the title.

The theme is picked up by the keynote speaker at the symposium, Professor Jacqueline Goldsby, Yale University. In her paper, Parting the waters: CLIR’s pathways into the archives, Professor Goldsby invokes the image of Charlton Heston, parting the waters of the Red Sea, in the Ten Commandments, as her icon for the way in which the hidden collections funding has improved access to archival resources.  She goes on to discuss the concept of ‘relational archives’,which draws on the ideas of performance art to engage with and respond to an audience, and is something that I’d like to explore further. Goldsby sees evidence of this ‘relationality’ in the tag clouds created to provide additional access points to collections, in the collaborations put forward for funding, and in the growing use of and requirement for interoperable descriptive schemas to link collections and materials together. She identifies the way in which federated searches through portals like the CLIR registry are enhancing and improving scholarship, which Clive Hurley and Sue McKemmish, among others, have been discussing.

There are too many papers to do justice to all, but a number spoke to me about the way in which we work, and in which archivy as a profession can evolve. “All history is local: expanding access to American Jewish archival collections” looked at the challenges associated with establishing common metadata and descriptive practices among organisations with differing levels of resourcing and expertise. “The challenges of sustaining a long term collaboration: reflections on the Philadelphia hidden collections” also looked at this, and raised the alarm as to how long a private institution might continue to support an aggregation site.

“Collaboration and education: engaging high school students with EAC-CPF research” looked at educating school students into archival descriptive practice, and history research techniques.  I’ve long thought that one of the problems archivists face is a lack of archival awareness at school level (primary school children can read a MARC record, even if they don’t know what it is), and this was an ambitious project. However, it also flagged that high quality research and description is not always easily achieved.

“The Churchill Weavers collection: an American treasure uncovered” looked at an unusual collection of textile samples, and considered a range of descriptive and cataloguing practices, with the development of a hybrid system in a museum catalogue software system. Not only did the project catalogue and identify the material, but it also included a preservation component and, with separate funding, digitisation for access.

And all of these are before the section on Arrangement and Description.

There are a number of other things that this publication has identified for me. The US is, seemingly, blessed with a range of philanthropic institutions and funding bodies who seem to take libraries, archives and history research seriously. There is the National Endowment for Humanities funding from the US government, the world renowned Carnegie Libraries and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, not to mention the Getty Institute and many others.  Australia is not so lucky. While there have been a number of large and recent philanthropic donations, particularly in Victoria, the scope and vision of the funders is more limited, often funding a single institution. In addition, the range of portals and aggregators for archival collections available highlights the paucity of the same in Australia, particularly as the Directory of Australian Archives is no longer actively maintained. Nevertheless, it is as important for Australian archives, and archivists, to channel their inner Heston, as it is for those fortunate brethren whose projects make this work such a delight.

I’d respectfully encourage all of you—and CLIR—to channel
your inner Charlton Heston-as-Moses and lead the publics you serve to the Hidden Collections Registry more assertively. This shouldn’t be a hard story to sell. The recovery of so many original, fascinating, inspiring, never-or-hardly-used archival collections—and the labors archivists and librarians expended to organize them—is a mediagenic story that should be spread as widely as possible. The work that you’ve accomplished deserves publicity on the scale of a Cecil B.DeMille spectacle! (Jaqueline Goldsby, p.11)




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Archivist, historian, avid reader

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