Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Conradh na Gaeilge Archive - Appraising the Archive

As we approach the end of November and we head towards the final stages of 2018 we pass some significant events in the process: the annual Explore Your Archive campaign draws to a close as does the year marking Bliain na Gaeilge and Conradh na Gaeilge’s 125th anniversary. It is a fitting time therefore to bring you all an update on the progress so far as I continue to process the Conradh na Gaeilge archive in NUIG. In the first blog of the series I noted the various stages vital to processing a collection before it can be made available: know what you have, make it safe, appraise it, decide on an arrangement, catalogue it, consider what should be made accessible, digitise where possible and suitable and then release it. Due to the sheer vastness of this collection it was decided to divide the overall project into three sections.

Phase 1 - The First Pass: this is the process whereby the contents of every box are removed, examined, listed and re-housed in special archive boxes which are then stored in secure climate-conditioned storerooms. It encompasses the first three stages listed above: know what you have, make it safe, appraise it.

Phase 2 – Arrangement: In order to get intellectual control over a collection, give it structure, and lay the ground work for making items easily discoverable to researchers down the road, a clear logical arrangement must be decided on by the archivist.

Phase 3 – The Final Countdown: this phase predominantly involves the painstaking work of cataloguing the collection, box by box, file by file, and in some cases item by item. During this phase items are also considered for digitising, and decisions made on accessibility which take issues such as GDPR into account. More on this in future blogs!

Progress so far:

Happily I can report that Phase 1 is over 80% complete, well within the projected time-frame. 470 of approximately 580 boxes have been processed with the remainder due to be completed by the end of January / early February. Records have been removed from boxes that were buckled, disintegrating and overstuffed, and carefully placed in folders within archive boxes and stacked neatly on designated shelves within the storeroom. From chaos comes order!

An example of an overstuffed box of files
A warped and damaged box with buckling files and loose name-tags
Full Archive Boxes neatly stacked on shelves

What is “Appraisal”?

A vital component in this initial phase which has been mentioned already is the task of appraising the collection. Not everything in a collection should necessarily be kept – it may not be relevant or unique to that collection, it may be a duplicate or in some cases it may not be possible to suitably store it due to its format, size or other practical considerations.

In the case of duplication decisions need to be made about what to do with such duplicates when they are discovered. Generally speaking archives will retain between 3 and 6 copies of an item. Any more and you quickly face storage issues. Any less and you limit the choices you have to exhibit, digitise or lend an item, since the best possible copy needs to always be kept safe. When an archive arrives to an institution an agreement known as a Donor Agreement is made between the donor (in this case CnaG) and the institution (NUIG) which covers many things including what to do with items not to be retained.

Duplicate flyers

While duplication and practical considerations are self-explanatory, uniqueness needs a bit more explaining. Certainly if something is unique to your collection and not found anywhere else it obviously needs to be retained. But sometimes items become important and unique not for what they were originally intended for but for the secondary value they end up attaining. To give a good example of this let me digress momentarily and discuss my own personal archive. As a professional musician who has toured internationally for many years, I have some interesting items in my personal collection, none more so than a folder of sick bags! Why do I have such a thing you ask? Well because having being stuck on planes for hours at a time, when a melody comes into my head that I want to write down I use what’s to hand! Many of my compositions are thus written on sick bags and now stored in a folder. So imagine a blank sick bag (unused obviously!). Everyone understands its original purpose. But it is not unique. Now imagine a branded sick bag. Suddenly this item is unique to a particular airline, and perhaps to a particular period of that airline’s history if the branding has since changed. Now imagine one of my sick bags. Because of the compositions I have scrawled on them, they have now taken on a secondary value not relevant to the initial purpose but important and unique none-the-less. So when an archivist is appraising a collection, this uniqueness and potential for secondary value is a necessary consideration.

Discoveries so far:

With 80% of the boxes examined I can safely say that this is a very rich collection throwing up expected and surprising treasures at every turn (no pun intended!). Since a donation of archive material was previously made by Conradh na Gaeilge to the National Library of Ireland in the 1940s it was suspected that this collection might not have very many items pre-dating that but I am happy to report that every decade from Conradh’s first in existence in the 1890s to the first decade of this millennium are covered.

An Oireachtas Programme dating from 1897

An invite to Oireachtas na Gaeilge 1902

“Labhair Gaeilge Liom” Poster

Topics range from raising children through Irish to apartheid in South Africa, from organising Féile to campaigning for Civil Rights, from the work of the Timirí nationwide to the minutiae of company finances. Apart from paper items such as letters, reports, programmes, posters, chequebooks, invites and flyers, the collection also contains medals, brooches, badges, trophies, paintings, balloons, stickers, watches, pens, and even a framed £50 pound note! There are samples of bilingual packaging including a Welsh Tayto bag, a Monaghan Milk Carton and a Canadian Post Office envelope. Languages covered include Welsh, Breton, Manx, Scots-Gallic, French, German, Swedish, Finnish, Flemish, Basque, Greek, Bengali, Urdu, Hindu, and Mandarin. It is a fascinating collection that I hope you all get to enjoy in the near future…but not before I complete my work!

Welsh Crisps from the 1980s
Bilingual packaging for Welsh crisps

A selection of badges found in the collection

Looking ahead:

Between now and the end of the first quarter of 2019 it is envisaged that Phase 2 will be completed along with Phase 1. By that stage all items in the collection will be safe and secure, and a complete box list of the collection’s contents will then be used from which to plan an arrangement for the collection. Future blogs will cover this second stage and the subsequent work. In the meantime I hope you have enjoyed another glimpse at the work being carried out behind the scenes and the few gems I was able to share. Feel free also to check out the previous blog below.

Until next time

Beir bua,

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