museums, libraries, archives, collections

Uncovering hidden histories: the secret archive

Uncovering hidden histories: the secret archive

Disused archival material
Disused archival material

Many companies and businesses in the area are old, possibly even centuries old. They have a history of which they are justifiably proud. They have stories to tell. They have objects and papers to illustrate the story. So, how are they telling this story? Where is this story? Who sees it?

The answer is usually that they don’t tell it, it’s boxed up, it’s on a shelf, nobody sees it. Often, on asking a company about the visual representation of their history, I’m told: ‘We aren’t telling it – it’s gathering dust in a cupboard’ or ‘I think there’s some stuff in the attic, I’ve no idea what’, or ‘There are a few bits in reception which have been there for ages and there’s loads upstairs’.

Companies hold onto documents and objects which are important to them and their histories, yet don’t allocate time, money or effort to preserving and using those histories to inform the future. Why, then, are they hanging onto it? Can’t they throw it out? No, they can’t, and they don’t, because it’s old, it’s the company history and it’s important. So, paradoxically, it’s too old and important throw away and it’s not important or old enough to bother about.

Barriers to responsibility

Who takes responsibility for this stuff? Usually, in a company, if anyone is allocated ‘the archive’ they also have another role, the main and important one, the one which on they are appraised and for which they receive wages. The archive isn’t doing anything, it’s not part of the company strategy, it’s not mission critical – I’m busy; it’s on my list; when I have a minute – maybe the next postholder will deal with it.
Additionally, it costs money to look after an archive. Even documenting what’s there might take weeks or months depending on the size of it, let alone digitising, packing, monitoring etc. Who can afford that?
As we noted before, the company history is not usually a mission-critical element of the company strategy – it’s viewed as just being there, in the past, done and forgotten – useless, almost.
Knowledge is another barrier. Imagine, say, a busy secretary – trained, skilled, qualified, experienced and knowledgeable in the role. Yet his or her knowledge of how to prevent leather book bindings falling apart, or the chemical reactions between different materials, or archival systems for document retrieval, or preventing insect infestations , are different matters entirely. The secretary can’t know this; can’t sort out the ‘stuff’, mothballs the project, and the condition of the collection worsens.

What if it could be different?

If a collection has taken many decades to accumulate and has been stored and added to all that time, surely it’s worth a little thought and effort? It might only take a few days to assess and tidy a small archive but the benefits are much greater than the cost of the time taken.
Tidying the archive will result in organised data retrieval – staff will know what’s there and where it is. If the collection has been digitised then it’s even easier, and with the addition of images you can not only see what you’ve got, but sell that information to others, creating a sustainable revenue.
You’ll be able to have simple asset administration – your history is an asset, and if you find valuable oil paintings, rare equipment, specialised documents or useful information, now you’ll know where it is, what condition it’s in and what it’s worth.
In many cases, tidying results in saved space, fewer accidents and breakages and a diminished risk of theft from researchers.
Once it’s done it can be used in many ways but possibly more importantly, those who made the decision to invest in it can be proud of saving it for future generations.