THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Endangered archives blog

30 January 2017

Kaleidoscopic stories: first impressions from our new Grants Portfolio Manager

This week's blog is written by Ruth Hansford who has recently joined the Endangered Archives Programme as our new Grants Portfolio Manager. In this blog she shares her first impressions of her new role.

The world of archives has not always seemed like a high-pressure environment, but rescuing endangered archives does acquire a sense of urgency when you read the stories of those who are trying to ensure they survive. I have spent my first few weeks in the Endangered Archives Programme (EAP) reading applications for the next round of grants to digitise and find a home for at-risk archives from all over the world.

My arrival at the BL coincided with the press coverage of the Louvre’s secure storage facility being extended with the potential to accommodate works of art threatened by conflicts.

At the Endangered Archives Programme we’re talking about other threats too: the more localised conflicts around the ownership of a collection – or its opposite: neglect or indifference from the custodians.

This year we are up to Round 13 of the Arcadia-funded Endangered Archives Programme and we have seen the highest number of preliminary applications to date: 112 in total. Many of the applicants are dealing with the logistics of digitising material, clearing the rights so that it can be put online, and in some cases ensuring the original material will be appropriately housed. Some need finance for digitisation equipment, while others may need support for negotiating access with archive owners who are worried that the process of creating a photographic record may damage the material or devalue it in other ways.

I have been captivated by stories from all over the world. First, the stories of how and why these archives are at risk: tales of political or cultural figures who might be forgotten in the rush towards cultural homogenisation; tales of neglect when the prevailing winds change and the archivist’s job disappears; tales of leaking roofs; of rodents or termites chewing their way through unique documents, of photographic negatives disappearing before our very eyes, and of acidic paper eating itself.

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Every application tells a different story, with its local dilemmas around how to get hold of the kit, how to cope with power cuts, and its cast of monks, heirs, civil servants. In the last few weeks, reading the applications has taken me to the Caribbean, sub-Saharan Africa, the Steppes of Central Asia, and places that are closer to home but seem very far away.

Then there are the human stories revealed by the material itself: records from the churches, orphanages, the courts, that open a window on to civilian life all over the world. Not only can we marvel at the spectacularly elaborate bureaucracies that grew up at a certain period, we can also contemplate the lives of the thousands of bureaucrats who made it all work, as well as the beneficiaries of the services, the people in the dock or the witness box.

Once online these stories will be available for anyone to use for research or for inspiration, or simply to enjoy.

Ruth Hansford, EAP Grants Portfolio Manager