31st March 2021
Blog: How To Start An Archive Project In Lockdown, by our Community Archivist, Sophie Smith

Starting any project during lockdown can be a daunting task but it can be even more complicated with an archive project such as the National Lottery Heritage Funded project; From City of Empire to City of Diversity: A Visual Journey. Part of this large project is to have an archivist catalogue the photography collection of Ernest Dyche whose two studios in Birmingham were used predominantly for portraits from the early 1890s – 1980s. I was hired to do this job and started work on over 10,000 photographs at the start of January, however, I started this remotely from Manchester with little access to the collection. For this blog I will write a guide on how to start and archive cataloguing project in lockdown based on my experience and the challenges I faced.

When starting out on a project without access to the materials it’s important to have a plan for getting access to at least some of the collection. This can take a lot of negotiation and planning from both the archivist and the team around them. For my project I was lucky that some of the archive staff that live in Birmingham were willing to take scans of photos for me, so that even though I couldn’t get an overall idea of the collection, I could start making some box lists and getting an idea of the range of photos I would be dealing with. Within a box list I can collect the vital information that will be used in the catalogue such as date and description of the photographs. With access to these photos I can start making steps towards the full cataloguing of this material as listing the items on excel in the first instance means I can upload the Excel spreadsheet to our cataloguing system, CALM, once I have created a catalogue structure.

Along with this, I was still able to get a sense of the scope of the collection as well as how it fit into the wider context of Birmingham Archive & Collections as I was given access to a written background of the collection and a list of catalogues that include items pertaining to Dyche’s photography studio. These documents were invaluable to me as an archivist as I can understand how the collection came to the Archive, as discussed in the blog by Paul Taylor a few weeks ago. This sort of information gives me the insight I need to make decisions about the catalogue structure and arrangement before I am even able to see the collection in person.

Research has also been an important part of starting this project. Getting in touch with members of the project board and asking for their article and book suggestions has been very insightful to understanding the context of the photos I have been looking at along with useful for getting to know the members invested in the project and the people who I will be closely working with in terms of suggesting materials I think will be interesting for them to consider for the exhibition.

Starting any project in a lockdown situation can be daunting – yes, but it is not impossible, it takes collaboration, dedication and additional resources to get this type of project off the ground in the first instance, but having experienced it personally I would say it’s worth taking the time and effort to start a project off on the right foot. It’s important to remember that the collections will still be available to work on once archive services open again and, in the meantime, there are valuable tasks that can be worked on remotely, even if this is not ideal from a cataloguing standpoint.

I want to finish off this blog by explaining a little more about my specific cataloguing project. I am working on a photography collection which will be used to create a large exhibition in Birmingham at the 2022 Commonwealth Games. This exhibition will highlight the rich heritage of the city and the journey from a city of manufacturing and empire building, to a large culturally diverse city. The importance of this project for Birmingham and the archive is evident; but I would also like to stress the importance for Birmingham’s ethnically diverse communities, who have helped shape Birmingham to the great city it is now known as. As a part of this project the aim will be to involve local communities with activities, workshops and volunteering as it is important that the local communities are engaged with a project that they have been instrumental in bringing to fruition.

If  you would like more information about the project, the collection or the exhibitions, please contact our Community Archivist, Sophie Smith at sophie@sampad.org.uk.

Images: Dyche Collection, Reproduced by permission of the Library of Birmingham.