Friday, 5 September 2014

Conservator and Archivist, Working Together

This week Project Conservator, Emily, talks about the benefits of working with an archivist in the HIV/AIDS project….

The HIV/AIDS project consists of two parts; conservation of the entire collection and cataloguing four of the twelve collections which have not yet been reviewed. For the first five months of the project, I was working alone focused solely on the conservation of the material. In May, project archivist Karyn Williamson was recruited to catalogue the four uncatalogued collections. Difficulties arose, however, as the conservation of the catalogued material was completed by the time Karyn began. This meant that the cataloguing and the conservation had to be carried out in tandem to avoid the interruption of the work flow. Working together, we came up with a temporary numbering system that allowed me to record what conservation treatments had been carried out on which documents and also allowed Karyn to begin box listing the collections. This means that although the order and composition of the collection may change, any conservation work carried out is always recorded. 
Postcards and stickers from GD22, before conservation, items wrapped in acid free tissue and cotton tape.

Postcards and stickers from GD22, after conservation, rehoused in polyester album sleeves.
Through working with Karyn, I have learnt a great deal about the process of cataloguing and what archivists actually do! I had trained in the conservation of works of art on paper, so I had little idea of how an archivist would record and order the meters and meters of documents in the HIV/AIDS collections. The materials used to create a fine art print and paper office documents are similar, so my conservation skills could be transferred to archival items, but I had no idea how an archivist would make sense of seemingly random papers in the collections. I now understand how a well ordered collection with a clear catalogue can aid access to the material and encourage use of the archive. For me, the whole point of conservation is to ensure that the useable life of the collection is extended for as long as possible. I believe archives should be used for the benefit of all, and not just locked away in a store room. I want the items to be seen, used and enjoyed (safely!) and through good conservation practice and a concise catalogue, this is possible! Karyn’s ideas on outreach; creating educational resources, oral history programmes and exhibitions have also been inspirational and injected new life into the project. As a newly qualified conservator who is used to working in isolation, it is great to have a new set of eyes on the material and has also given me ideas to take on for future projects. 

I hope that working with a conservator has also been beneficial to Karyn. Many of the re-housing techniques I have used can easily be applied, by a non-conservator, to other collections. For example, using paper tabs rather than a plastic clips, which can cause planar distortion, to hold sheets of paper together and making bespoke boxes to house mixed material. As a conservator, I have also been able to offer advice on digitisation and re-housing to groups who are considering depositing HIV/AIDS related material into the LHSA collection, as well as being on hand to deal with tricky material, such as pages stuck together with ink or degraded sticky tape.

Sticky tape that has become discoloured and brittle over time.
Overall, I think the partnership between conservator and archivist working together rather than sequentially has been extremely valuable. Not just in terms of preservation and cataloguing of the material, but the chance to learn new skills from each other that can be taken on to new projects and the opportunity to collaborate on outreach activities.  Come down and find us for our #librarypop session on the 24th September (10am-12pm) on the first floor of the main library to find out more!

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