Transforming professional practices for digital archives – Archive Services, University of Reading

The Museums and Special Collections at the University of Reading holds a wide range of collections, Art works and artefacts which spans thousands of years, ranging from the Museum of English Rural Life, Zoological and botanical specimens and archaeological artefacts, through to rare books and archives. Digital access via the website includes online exhibitions, searchable databases and online learning resources.

The centrally managed archive service covers documents and manuscripts from the Special Collections including business and family archives, writers and artists papers, and the world’s largest collection of resources for the author Samuel Beckett. The service also looks after the archives of the Museum of English Rural Life, including a vast collection of photographs. .

The role of Associate Director (Archive Services) has a wide-ranging brief therefore, as well as being the senior archivist, the current postholder Guy Baxter, also works closely with museum and library colleagues.

Making history and culture accessible

The staff across the collections – some centrally managed and some in academic departments – work closely together in caring for the collections and supporting users with the aim of promoting history and culture. It is an Accredited Archive Service and works towards making the collections accessible.

 … our museums and collections are here for everyone to discover, explore, and be fascinated by, from schools and group visits, to creative practitioners and members of the public [1]

A member of staff of the Special Collections Service, University of Reading, helping a researcher © University of Reading

A member of staff of the Special Collections Service, University of Reading, helping a researcher © University of Reading

During the recent closure of museums and universities due to Covid-19 the archive and library team took the opportunity to upload data from paper catalogues into their database with the help of volunteers, making them searchable. It also launched the new two websites for the Museums and Special Collections.

Cutting edge developments

As the service has such a wealth of information in its archives and collections, it has collaborated with researchers in its own and in other institutions and services to open up data to be used by anyone. In response, archival staff have needed to upskill in digital methods and work with data scientists. This case study highlights the power of engaging in collaborative research in order to transform professional practice.

For example, the world leading Samuel Beckett collection at Reading was central to collaboration in 2012 -2015 with Chester University and the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. “Staging Beckett: The Impact of Productions of Samuel Beckett’s Drama on Theatre Practice and Cultures in the United Kingdom and Ireland” received substantial AHRC funding (£668,144), in order to research professional productions of Samuel Beckett’s stage plays in the UK and Ireland. The Museums and Special Collections service was more involved than simply providing the material for the research. Due to the knowledge and experience with theatre databases of staff in the service, it could contribute technical expertise to the creation of a searchable database of Beckett productions (which in itself required the development of a new data model).

Model box for an unrealised production of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, designed by Peter Snow. Donated to the Beckett Collection, University of Reading, by the Katharine Worth (MS 5331) © University of Reading

Model box for an unrealised production of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, designed by Peter Snow. Donated to the Beckett Collection, University of Reading, by the Katharine Worth (MS 5331) © University of Reading

The role in the project was not to conduct research in a traditional way, but to push boundaries of what was possible:

 Was I involved in some quite cutting-edge stuff on the research team? Yes I probably was. [Guy Baxter, Associate Director of Museums and Collections]

The service is still working to ensure the sustainability of the database as an ongoing resource.

Using research to transform a service towards digital

The experience of the service providing a technical role for a research project led on to collaboration with the University of Reading’s Art department and the Universities of Glasgow and Sheffield, The Legacies of Stephen Dwoskin’s Personal Cinema, funded by the AHRC. The archive of experimental film maker Stephen Dwoskin was deposited in Special Collections shortly after his death in 2012. The archive is a hybrid of paper and digital therefore the project is concerned with the preservation and examination of the twenty hard drives that encompass Dwoskin’s digital legacy. This entails digital forensics and data exploration.

Being part of the project has benefited the service in two ways. Firstly, it has demonstrated that archivists have a technical, translating, “Bridge” role in collaborative research.

I act as a bit of a bridge between the art people and the digital forensics and data analysis people, partly because I speak a bit of each language so in some ways it’s sort of translating:

This has ensured good communication and provides the opportunity for joint authorship of publications:

…the team has got good at communicating more directly and that’s fantastic, and the other thing that’s been really good is I’ve been able to contribute and maybe co-author on some papers, so that’s been nice.

More importantly, the participation of the archivists in such a project has transformed their working practice:

…having the archivists involved so heavily was important …it’s transformative for us in terms of our practice because its digital archives, it’s a driver for us to get involved with digital archives and to get systems and workflows up in place.

Research collaboration as a trigger for learning and development

One of the messages from this case study is that undertaking collaborative research can provide the motivation for hands-on training. Although digital archives had been talked about previously, the service needed the catalyst to develop its professional practice in order to deal with them. In consequence, the whole team has undertaken training:

… everyone’s been doing training on digital archives you know we’ve used it to transform our service …we’ve used that project as kind of a lever to move some of that stuff

The benefit is that the team has acquired the relevant skills and confidence to enable it to develop the workflows and systems required to accept and manage born digital material.

The Associate Director reflects that the inherent skill set that makes a good archivist or librarian is one that lends itself more naturally to digital working.

And I think what’s been interesting is that as we’ve moved more into digital… the skill set that’s needed quite often [is] actually the skill set that sits with us [library sector] a bit more than it has with the academic.

As the archival team have been learning digital archiving skills, it has confirmed Guy’s belief that:

…the best way to build a digital archivist is start with an experienced archivist.

Making and allocating time

The challenge that arises from staff of the Museums and Special Collections being involved with research projects is that they are not allocated core time for such activities. Time can be costed into to a funded project, but that may not be an accurate estimate of the time spent. Research work has to be fitted around the daily tasks and there is little slack to do background reading.

Lessons learnt

  • Being part of a research project about a collection can lead to greater involvement with future funded projects
  • Involvement with funded research can provide the opportunity and motivation for up-skilling a team and changing workflows and working practice to benefit a service
  • Transforming a service requires training all the staff

Further Information