Monday, 22 October 2012

An Exchange

Last week we were lucky enough to be hosting a visit from an archivist who works at the University of Arts Archive in Berlin. A number of trips were organised for her so she could experience different Archive Services while also getting to see a bit of Cornwall. I was lucky enough to be accompanying her on the visits which included the University Library at Woodlane in Falmouth, Heritage Collections at the University of Exeter at their Streatham Campus and St Ives Community Archive.

Interestingly, these trips raised a number of differences between practices here and in Germany, the most significant being the role of volunteers in archival practice. In Germany, if there is not a qualified archivist on staff then you are not allowed to hold archival material. In light of this, our trip to St Ives was an interesting experience for her as well as an impressive example of what community groups can achieve.

St Ives Archive is run by a Board of Trustees and boasts around 40 volunteers. With costs per month of £1700 to remain open, they exist very much on a year by year basis. Like many small groups they are constantly fundraising and seeking new sources of support to enable them to continue their work. Without that dedication these valuable collections could be lost.

St Ives Archive
There has been mixed opinions within the profession towards community archives. Some have voiced misgivings, particularly towards access to such collections by people outside the 'community' [ARC March 2011]. Yet, without these groups, valuable aspects of our past could be lost. Indeed, for both our visitor and myself the obvious commitment and enthusiasm of those volunteers involved was the most striking aspect of the visit. Certainly, no limitations on access are applied at St Ives, which is open to the general public 10-4pm Tuesday to Friday.

The second difference was the terminology. Sarah, our Archivist, and I were enthralled to discover that in Germany there are specific terms for documents as they pass from what we term 'semi-active' to those with actual archival value. 'Archivreif' refers to documents which are no longer needed for current administrative purposes, but are being kept for a fixed term to satisfy  legal or organisational conventions. Financial records, for example, must be kept for 7 years, so during that period those records would be archivreif. We would term this semi-active.

Similarly, once that period has finished and the appraisal process has judged the document of archival value, in Germany it would be referred to as 'Archivw├╝rdig.' We don't really have a specific archival term for these time frames, other than a semi-current record and eventually an archival record.

The issues of professional terminology and cultural differences provided a real topic of discussion throughout the week. One such debate centered on the application of the rather generic term 'archive'. In English it can refer to the repository, a collection or even a single item. It was suggested by our Archivist that if our professional terminology is so generic should we really be surprised that the general public are sometimes confused about exactly what Archivist's do. A dissertation topic perhaps!

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