University of Cambridge Museums

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Clouds, Engines, and Emotions

The Archives and Records Association (ARA) Conference, 2016

Hello Wembley!! bellowed the ARA chairman, Geoff Pick, as delegates took their seats in the Grand ballroom of the Hilton Hotel, Wembley. This was not a rock concert, but there was certainly a genuine air of excitement as archivists, records managers and conservators, came together for the association’s annual conference, with a theme entitled ‘Global Futures’.

I last attended conference in Edinburgh 2011, and had found it a positive experience as well as a great opportunity to review common issues and experiences across the Archive sector. I was able to attend again this year, and took full advantage of the packed programme.  There were three strands to the conference – Archives and Records, Conservation, and Digital Preservation – and I attended at least 2 sessions in each strand to learn about different approaches and projects taking place right across the UK from Aberdeen to Aberystwyth, to further afield in San Jose.

I attended several talks about digital preservation which, despite referring to clouds, surrogates, SIP and ZIP were excellent, and I came away feeling a little less daunted about tackling this potentially overwhelming activity.  One speaker said that their institution (which is a global company) generate 230million (!) internal emails every month! As professionals we manage paper records to enable staff and researchers to access information, but the same must apply to the digital records we now all create.

An exciting volunteer project being led by University College London (UCL), transcribing the records of Jeremy Bentham using Transkribus was encouraging. The ‘Handwritten Transcription Engine (HTE)’ is something I shall be keen to investigate further – in 2018 it will be 200 years since Adam Sedgwick (1785-1873) became Woodwardian Professor, and his field notebooks are yet to be catalogued. This software may therefore support our plans to transcribe and catalogue these important records, providing much needed context to Sedgwick’s rock, mineral and fossil specimens.

‘The Archive Effect: users, emotions and global impact’ by Caroline Williams challenged us to consider what effect, positive and negative, archives have on people, and to ask ourselves does it matter?, and what might we do differently as a result?.  In the past few years I’ve certainly seen the excitement on visitors’ faces when we show them the fossil pencil drawings of painter Agostino Scilla (1629-1700), or photographs of Sedgwick Club members on excursions in the 1880s. I have also seen mixed emotions from visitors making very personal journeys to the Archive – a touching letter about a late wife’s administrative work during the 1950s, or photographs of a beloved father on expedition from the 1930s. These encounters, at the very least, show the continuing relevance of Archives in the 21st century.

The ‘Information Village’ was a useful place to pick up the latest information about products and services. I was able to see the latest book scanners in person, speak with suppliers about preservation resources, and learn more about digital preservation software. There were also poster displays from colleagues covering topics such as mental health – Norfolk County Asylum case records being used to inspire creative writing and art workshops – and details of The National Archives and Heritage Lottery Funded project to address gaps in expertise within the archive sector, ‘Transforming Archive Trainees’.

Delegates were treated to a gala dinner at the end of the conference with a 1960s tribute band. Several of us wondered what Archivists from the 1960s would make of ARA 2016? Asides from questioning our 1960s outfits, we hope they would be proud of our ongoing commitment to improve access to archive collections, and to tackle the newer challenges we now face in this increasingly digital world.

Sandra Freshney, Archivist, Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences

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This entry was posted on November 8, 2016 by in Behind the Scenes, Goal 1, News and tagged , , .
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