Conference Summary

Sailing to Ithaka

This year’s conference was held at Westminster College on Tuesday 27th September and focused on the theme “On a Wing and a Prayer: Managing the Small Repository”.  The presentations from four diverse small repositories examined different aspects of running a small repository.  The main thread from all the presentations was that a small repository is also a versatile one.

After a warm welcome from Susan Durber , Principal of Westminster College and Emma Wild Wood, Director of the Henry Martyn Centre, Margaret Thompson shared her perspectives on running the Westminster College, which has a rich collection of Presbyterian and Congregational records and identified three challenges facing a small repository:

  • The competition for funding leads to the inevitable compromises between the best practice and what can be achieved within available resources.
  • The staff through necessity have to be multi-skilled to field enquiries, catalogue collections (if time) and invigilate researchers among other tasks, and in many cases the contribution of volunteers is a vital resource for developing the collection.
  • Recognition is often difficult to achieve, as many people do not easily identify with an archivist’s work and often are unaware of the impact of their activities on the archives.

Margaret ended by referring to the current Westminster College development appeal, which if successful will provide a new archive store for the college archives.

Sue Sutton spoke about the archives held by the Henry Martyn Centre for Mission Studies and her work of rearrangement, cataloguing and re-boxing of the collection since 1996.  The Archives not only contain collections relating to missionary history, but also to anthropology, the partition of India, the emergence of African nationalism during the colonial period and the evolving role of women in missionary ministry. This provides contemporary theological students with an insight into how the context of evangelisation has changed over the last 200 years.

The exploitation of any archive rests upon its successful preservation. Claire Muller from the Westminster Diocesan Archives gave a practical guide to preservation possibilities within limited resources; she reminded the audience that preservation is about prolonging the survival of a record and all the activities of a custodian touch on preservation of the collection from the packaging to the creation of surrogate copies.

She introduced the audience to the various standards and sources of advice that are available.  Claire emphasised the practical benefits of creating a preservation policy, analysing the threats and using the results to compile a risk register and being pragmatic about using passing opportunities such as small projects that cumulatively make a difference over time.

Sughra Ahmed of the Islamic Foundation gave a presentation that illustrated how archives are increasingly embracing audio-visual resources to capture communities with a strong oral tradition, but relatively weak administrative traditions.

The Foundation’s Oral History Project is recording the experiences of the first generation of Muslims who settled in Britain in the years 1950-1979.  Various themes including contemporary young Muslims lack of knowledge of their own history, the “myth of the return” and the crucial role of women in consolidating the Muslin communities in the earlier phases of settlement are being explored.  A project of this kind enfranchises the community enabling it to take control of its own past. However, funding constraints inhibits the project’s progress.

After an excellent lunch and a tour of the libraries of Westminster College and Henry Martyn Centre, which included exhibitions from the archive collections, Rachel Rowe of the Centre of South Asian Studies gave us a guided tour to the potential of using social media to promote your repository.  She showed us how relatively easy it is to use blogs, flicker, face book, podcasts, twitter as well as the more customary ways of reaching out to an audience, including open days, exhibitions and not least anniversaries. Rachel reminded us that the technology was rarely as forbidding as it might first appear and that it has never been easier to reach large audiences economically and effectively.

The 2011 conference successfully demonstrated that despite the constraints of funding, staffing and sometimes a lack of recognition, small archive repositories with skilful management can by pragmatic and incremental steps achieve a great deal and provide a potent witness for their faith tradition.

Like the voyage to Ithaka, the journey is long, full of adventure and discovery, and even if we do not achieve all our objectives our experience is never wasted. By incremental steps the religious archives sector has become secure, more professionally managed and accessible and to that, extent prayers have been answered.

Philip Gale and Elisabeth Novitski, The National Archives, October 2011