Friday, 24 August 2018

Guiding's Archives

We in Guiding are unusually fortunate.  Over the 110 years of our history as Girl Scouts and then as Girl Guides, many members, ‘off their own bat’, have collected and preserved our organisation’s history, and their own part in it.  Individual members, Patrols and Units have made and kept log books.  Some members kept the uniforms, books and badges from their youth and early adulthood.  Scrapbooks and photo albums of events were compiled.  Several of the Guide Training Centres have an archive, and sometimes a room in which to house it – and many of the Guide Counties have some form of archive looked after by a lone volunteer or a small team, where some of these personal collections have found a home.  Some County Archivists are fortunate enough to have the use of a room within a County building in which to store the County collection, but many more have to house it themselves.  Despite limited budgets, they attempt to catalogue, conserve, and create a functioning resource, in order to share information about Guiding in their area with the current generations of members, and to preserve the County’s story, ancient and recent, for the future.

They are largely unsupported.  Where other County posts have access to both a Country/Region Adviser and a UK Adviser to whom unusual queries or pressing difficulties can be referred, Guiding Archivists do not – the post of UK Archivist has been left vacant for many years now, and there is no word of any attempts to fill it.  The UK Archives have been put into storage and remain totally inaccessible to County Archivists and ordinary members alike, this has been the case for years since the last archivist left.  New County Archivists get little information – if they are lucky, instructions from the last UK Archivist, over a decade old, will be photocopied once again and forwarded to them by a neighbouring County for local adaptation.  Communication is usually by informal chat and by grapevine, not coordinated.  And many of the Archivists have no deputy, tend to be elderly, are often re-appointed each time a new CC takes post, and most of them continue in the role for as long as they are able – ‘death in service’ is not uncommon.  Though they often have lengthy personal knowledge and recollection of past events which is valuable, there are serious implications for the County if the Archivist “Goes Home”, and the County has to try to sensitively reclaim the Archive from the late Archivist’s grieving relatives, then quickly find somewhere to rehouse it.

In the absence of a UK Archivist, and given the archives themselves were moved out of the London Headquarters building to location unconfirmed during that building’s redevelopment work, it is not clear whether the UK archives have been properly stored in temperature and moisture controlled, infestation-free conditions – nor whether anyone with relevant conservation experience has been tending them, or adding items from recent years to them.  Although there have been rumours of a home being found which will allow access to the contents for research, or perhaps even to create a venue of some sort where they could be displayed - various locations to host the collection, and dates for access to re-open them have been suggested – all have come and gone with no update, and no sign of preparatory work at any of the locations indicated.  So there has been much talk from senior people in Guiding, certainly, but still no tangible sign of action.

There are certainly arguments against Guiding spending money on storing and preserving their archives.  Many would say our money should be spent on providing adventurous and educational activities for today’s young members, not on dusty documents that are rarely read and old badges and uniforms which can provide temptation for moths and pilferers, but not necessarily for a large audience.  Others would argue that we could scan all the information on paper and just dispose of the originals – online resources are the future.  But my thoughts turn back to the BBC Domesday project in 1986.  The information collected by that project was stored on state-of-the-art laser disks, as a ‘New Domesday Book’ written 1000 years after the original, with the idea both books could be studied, in future, perhaps even in 1000 years’ time.  Sadly, by 2002 there were already concerns about whether the data on the disks could still be accessed, as there were only a handful of computers left which were capable of reading the disks, and no spare parts available should those few break down.  Yet the original Domesday book was still as easily accessible to readers today as it had been when it was first written.  Putting information online can be a straightforward way of making it available widely, and it also provides a backup in case the original should be damaged – but retaining the original still has value too.  40 years ago computers ran on cassette tapes, 30 years ago it was large 10” floppy disks, 20 years ago it was DD and HD floppy disks, 10 years ago it was CD ROMs, currently it is Memory Sticks, who can say what it will be in 10 years’ time?  All of these were said to offer long-term document saving and access, but all have experienced data deterioration or loss even if stored under ideal conditions.  Whatever the next tech, paper and ink has seen them all come and go . . .

Interestingly, one of the featured topics in the new modernised Guiding programme – is Guiding history.  It features both in the programmes for all sections, and in the handbooks.  So there are clearly some people in Headquarters, currently involved in creating policy and programme, who think the organisation’s history is one of the key topics for young members to learn about today.  So the view seems to be that yes, our history and the resources for it matter, and yes, it is relevant to make moderate investment in them.  But we need to ensure that the archives which we choose to retain are kept relevant, and Archivists need to be encouraged and supported to produce materials which can be used to support the new programme, meet the needs and interests of units seeking to teach their girls aspects of Guiding history, and encourage the young members to be interested in relevant aspects of the subject.  Each item in an archive’s collection needs to justify it’s place and ‘earn it’s keep’.

We can also think about how to make our County’s history accessible – if you have a regular newsletter, could there be an ‘Archivist’s Corner’ item – a paragraph or two at most, on a particular aspect of Guiding history in the County – 25 years since a particular County Camp, a feature on a Guider from the County who served with the GIS, a brief history of a County Campsite, memories of a Brownie Revels, how we marked the Jubilee, etc.  Deliberately kept short, with many items from recent decades, and comparatively fewer from longer back unless of general interest, so that as many people as possible can reminisce, and people are reminded that history is about the recent past as much as it is the distant past – “yesterday is history too”.  We can also look at ways of sharing the history with youth members.  Activity Boxes containing uniforms for dressing up, examples of books, and activity idea cards which can be used to bring the items in the box to life and spark an interest by comparing ‘then’ with ‘now’ or telling the experiences of real-life past members.  We can create resource packs to help with the ‘Guiding History’ activities in the new programme, and plan activity sessions at County events, and events for units, to help with sharing knowledge and inspiration.

Paper records can be scanned and stored, making them accessible to a larger number of people with a range of different interests in them (it also means that, should the worst happen to the originals, they are not entirely lost).  Use can then be made of offsite storage such as a local museum, enabling public as well as Guiding access to them whilst compact storage allows space to be freed up in the County archive for other items, or to allow more space for people to work in or visit the archive room.  Collections of books and of uniforms can and should be rationalised – enough copies kept to allow access, and to keep significant examples – then the rest sold to raise money which enables the archive to look after, repair and preserve the items that are to be kept, and to acquire items to fill any key gaps in the archive’s collection.  We don’t need to have 20 examples of 1968-1990 Brownie dresses, especially if selling 10 of them would enable us to acquire that Air Ranger uniform we don’t have any examples of at all.

But – this all depends on Archivists having support within the County.  Who will help with cataloguing the existing collection, and who will help open, sort and record the contents of the parcels of new donations which arrive so regularly?  Who will set up the activity boxes, arrange their dispatch, check them for completeness on their return?  Who will repair the sagging hems and loose buttons on the vintage uniforms, carefully hand-launder the dusty items, and darn the little holes and rips to an appropriate standard of skill, or arrange for items to be dropped off and collected from the specialist repairer?  Who will do the lengthy work of scanning page after page of logbooks, County Records and assorted correspondence?  Who will take on the job of selling off the extras, and keeping the accounts?  Could all that ever be done as a one-person-job?  In many Counties, it currently is . . .

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