Records aren’t always made of vinyl

The title of this post may seem obvious to anyone with a long-standing interest in archives, history or heritage, but not everyone comes from this kind of background. If you’d asked me, two years ago, to describe a record I would probably have imagined my parents’ 33rpm albums or the few Top-40 singles I bought just before cassette tapes became widely available. If I thought about it really seriously I might have muttered something about hospital notes.

But what has this got to do with Gloucestershire Archives? Well, two things really.

In April 2013 I became GA’s latest (and last) Opening Up Archives Trainee. This three-year programme was designed to open up the archives profession and the heritage sector to people like me, with non-traditional backgrounds. Each role had a different focus, and mine was about opening up archives in a slightly different sense: using online services to help people access the rich documentary heritage of Gloucestershire and South Gloucestershire.

During my year at GA I was involved in a wide range of interesting activities to make material more accessible, including building online learning resources, writing user guides, helping to enhance the online catalogue, and even doing some of the development work for this blog. I also had the chance to run a pilot LGBTQ History project, between September 2013 and March 2014. The project included an online exhibition to showcase stories hidden in existing collections, as well as generating new material for the Archives.

Another significant part of my work was about digital preservation – one area where the nature of a record really does matter! Again, if asked two years ago, I might have suggested faded parchment or old newspapers as examples of archival material. But I’ve learned that records are as diverse as the interests of the people who want to access them, and that increasingly includes digital items.

Image: selection of media from GA's collections

Media from GA’s collections

Gloucestershire Archives’ holdings contain audio, video and text in a range of formats and they all need to be cared for with the same dedication as seals, wills and minute books. This isn’t necessarily a simple task, as technologies and ways of creating digital files evolve quite quickly, but staff at GA work hard to make sure they will be able to preserve and make digital objects accessible, now and in the future.

I’ve taken so much from my year as OUA Trainee – from underpinning archival principles and the importance of dialogue with users, to rudimentary palaeography and the potential of open-source solutions for preserving and sharing digital objects – and I can’t thank colleagues, users and volunteers enough for their generosity and support while I explored their work, and its context.

Mostly though I’ve learned how much effort, commitment, talent and patience it takes to keep records of all kinds safe, and make them accessible to the public. Along the way I’ve also reminded myself exactly how much I love learning!

Sam Bairstow
2013-14 OUA Trainee
(and current volunteer, cataloguing D13414 – the LGBTQ History project)

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