Wednesday, 15 April 2020

Marlena signing off!

Although this year has undoubtedly been an extraordinary one (for all the wrong reasons), one of its highlights has definitely been the successful completion of our internship programme last month. Without these short, paid programmes, a lot of valuable work would go undone, and we wouldn't have the pleasure of meeting so many aspiring young archivists - a hope for the future that we all need at the moment! These are the reflections of Marlena, our Archive Cataloguing Intern, written in the middle of March 2020, as she finished her internship:

Hello everyone, and Goodbye! This week is my last as an intern with LHSA and I thought I would share my thoughts on the last eight weeks here.

As you will have read in my last two posts on the blog, I have been cataloguing a collection on bio-engineering research in Edinburgh donated by David Gow. The collection contains all kinds of fascinating material; there are journal articles, diaries, photograph albums, newspaper clippings, and correspondence, on anything you could think of in terms of bioengineering prosthetics, as well as many wonderful surprises. You might expect the collection to have meeting minutes and technical diagrams (and it does) but we also have records on Russian electric prosthetic hand development in the 1960s, material samples for inflatable mattresses, and some really cute baby pictures. My job has been to organise the material in a way that users can understand the context of its creation, and can easily find records within the collection.

'Russian hand' documents from 1965
The majority of my time here has been spent reviewing the material and drafting hierarchical structures by which to sort the records. In the archives world, this is called arrangement. You may already be familiar with the term from my first blog post. It’s important to remember that cataloguing isn’t just database input (although I did that as well!), it’s about expressing how things are connected, why the records were made and stored, and how they can be used. Arrangement therefore is possibly the most important part of creating a catalogue, and I spent over three weeks reviewing arrangement ideas before settling on my final structure.

Final structure

I had kept a list of the material I viewed during the scoping process, with titles, descriptions, and dates of items, so the actual ‘cataloguing’ (that is, the database input) was fairly straightforward, and, dare I say it, a good bit of fun. I had some previous experience with cataloguing with other collection management systems such as CALM, Vernon, and of course Excel, but this was my first time using ArchivesSpace, which I consider to be very user-friendly.

Due to the limited time frame of my internship, a key concern over the past eight weeks has been ‘scalability’. There is simply too much material to squeeze into the time available, so I had to prioritise what made it into ArchivesSpace. If you look at the structure above, you will see the subfonds (term used for different work areas or activities of the record creator) LHB71/1 (Administration), LHB71/2 (Research and Development), and LHB71/3 (Photographic Material). This is what I prioritised. All three of the first subfonds are now in ArchivesSpace, and searchable at item level. That means that if you are looking for a particular item within this group, you can find it by searching the database, which looks something like this:

Subfonds LHB71/4 (Internal Publications) and LHB71/5 l(Publicity Material) are searchable at series level. A series is a group of records that essentially have the same function. That means you’ll be able to find an entry on the content of the groups of these records, but you won’t be able to search for individual items.

My last two weeks have been rehousing the collection, putting everything into acid-free folders and melinex sleeves, numbering and labelling items so they’re easily identified and arranging the items in acid-free boxes with related items (for example, other items in the same series) so they are easy to find.

My greatest lesson learnt in this internship is that everyone, and every archive, is different. I know this sounds clichéd. I realise it’s glaringly self-evident, and it’s something I thought I already knew. There is a difference, however, in knowing something and really understanding it. One of the reasons it took so long to finalise the arrangement was because I had some expectations on what ‘should’ be in the collection, and how the arrangement ‘should’ look. From my studies and my previous cataloguing work, I had come to expect that the first two subfonds would be administrative and financial in nature, but there were few records relating to finance in the collection, and those that did, did not conform to my ideas of what financial records look like. Instead of ledgers, waste books, or accounts, there were grant proposals and a few material quotes as well as some budget estimates and fundraising correspondence—these were all records of what might have been spent or gained but not actually evident of a financial transaction. In hindsight, I was blindly naïve to expect these records to exist and to continue drafting structures that gave them great prominence. The centre didn’t keep those records, as many of the financial transactions would have happened via the NHS and the Princess Margaret Rose Hospital.

My mistake is especially unfortunate considering the subject matter of so much of the collection, which focuses on fitting prosthetics to individual patients. No one person has quite the same disability, and the patients seen at the centre each had a prosthetic fitted to them individually. Some patients had partial hands and needed fingers, others didn’t just need a hand but an arm as well. Some patients needed cosmetic prosthetics (called cosmesis) for important functions like weddings and funerals, others needed a more functional hand for work. And a hand that was made for a teenage boy wouldn’t fit a five-year-old girl. All kinds of things needed to be considered when fitting a patient with a prosthetic. Just like no person has the same fingerprint, no person has the same hand, or the same hand prosthetic! And no archive has the same arrangement, either.

After this week, I will be continuing my studies with the University of Dundee and volunteering with the archive at Glasgow Trades Hall. I have learned so much here that I hope to use in my future career. The past eight weeks have flown by and I have enjoyed every minute of it. Everyone at LHSA and the CRC here at the University of Edinburgh has been so encouraging, supportive, and helpful. I only have one more thing to say, and that is a big THANK YOU to Louise Williams,  Louise Neilson, and Ruth Honeybone, who have made this internship such a wonderful experience.

So long, farewell, Auf Wiedersehen and thank you!


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