THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Endangered archives blog

14 May 2019

From Colombo to London: Encounters with the Endangered Archives Programme

I first read about the Endangered Archives Programme (EAP) in 2015. I also discovered that EAP had funded several projects in Sri Lanka, ranging from community manuscripts to religious collections. In 2017, I was working for a human rights archive in Sri Lanka, and at a conference on archiving, EAP was discussed at length, particularly with regard to the CAVR archive. Two years later, I was sitting at the nerve centre of the Programme on the fifth floor of the British Library—the world’s largest national library (or as I call it, the brick-lined colossus of the library world).

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My arrival at EAP, however, was hardly a matter of chance. A prestigious Chevening scholarship brought me to UCL to read for an MA in Archives and Records Management. When asked by my Programme Director where I would like to head off to for my work placement, EAP was at the very top of my list. I was curious about the nuts and bolts of it all. In my mind, EAP’s mission addressed one aspect of my archival work—the digital preservation of endangered human rights records and heritage material. Any further insight into the Programme—the approaches to archival description, the development of metadata and the types of software utilised—would expand my own archival tool-shed.

There were a few other factors that influenced my decision. The British Library’s position as an authority in librarianship and archival management is widely recognised. Throughout the MA programme at UCL, I had numerous interactions with the Library. One thing that struck me at the time, perhaps unsurprisingly, was that the spirit of openness, intellectual exchange and collaboration appeared to be embedded in the Library’s internal culture. From the Sound Archive and the Oral History team to Digital Preservation and Collections Care, the Library’s practitioners, partners and thought leaders were always generous with their time, hospitable to archival neophytes such as myself and open to exchanges that challenged and shaped my understanding of archival praxis.

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It wasn’t much of a surprise when I walked into a similar environment at EAP. Over the course of two weeks, Jody Butterworth, Graham Jevon and Rob Miles made sure I was exposed to as much of EAP as possible. I was immersed in EAP’s archival workflow; running through metadata processing, sitting through meetings on technical developments and learning about EAP’s plans for the future. In the midst of this very serious work, there were plenty of vivifying interludes—for example, the Library’s 21st Century talks—where new research on OCR was presented and discussed—and a guided tour of the Imaging Studio—where I stood enthralled at the various uses of multispectral imaging. During the second week of my placement, I was able to work on a digitised collection from Sri Lanka, specifically the manuscripts and records of the Bishop’s House in Jaffna, some of which date back to the 16th century. All in all, it was a privilege to participate in efforts to make the collection accessible to researchers around the world.

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Examples from EAP981

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On my last day at EAP, as I was browsing through the images of the collection, I recognised a name. I had just stumbled upon a letter written by my great-aunt, Louise Nugawela, who was married to Major E. A. Nugawela, the Minister of Education in the first Cabinet of Independent Ceylon. I believe the letter (reproduced below) is addressed to the Bishop of Jaffna, inviting him to join them for dinner on the 26th of June, 1948.

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The discovery was a fitting way to end my work placement. My sincere thanks for an immensely rewarding experience at EAP. I hope the Programme goes from strength to strength in the years to come.

Nigel Nugawela is a Chevening Scholar at UCL, where he is reading for an MA in Archives and Records Management. His full profile can be viewed here.