Archive Update: Birmingham Archdiocesan Archives

Naomi Johnson, Archivist

What an (almost) year this has been. When I closed the doors on the archives last March I, like most people, thought I’d be back in within a relatively short period. I rapidly went through the process of moving all the material I was cataloguing into the strong room, along with two recent deposits that I had yet to process. The database was backed up, all my files put onto an external hard-drive to take home and four boxes of material packed up and ready to remove back to my house, so I could continue to do something productive.

A few weeks of inconvenience was soon to become a much longer period of remote working. As the country settled down into the first lockdown, it became clear that this unprecedented reality had no roadmap, not even a sketchy plan of how to proceed. The Emergency Response Plan for the archives covered flood, fire and even infestation but this was something else. One of the first tasks I set myself to was trying to write pandemic protocols and it was clear that many heritage sites were trying to do the same. In the end, simplicity won out; I could write a technically perfect document, covering every possible situation, but if I wasn’t allowed on site then I was dependant on the Cathedral team to execute the plan and they wouldn’t be interested in a 20 page document. The outcome was simple – the site manager would check the reading room and the strong room once a week at the least and send me a text or email update. If there were points of concern, he would phone me to talk through the best course of action. It seems obvious and simple putting it in writing but with everything else going on, cathedral staff being furloughed, the doors to the site being closed and the priests in residence needing to shield – the archives were at the end of a long list of concerns.

With the safety of the archives secured I turned my attention to other documents and policies which had fallen to the bottom of the to-do list. Without access to the physical collection and with none of the material digitised (except those registers on Findmypast) it was as good as time as any to pause work on the catalogue and work on supporting archives material. I wrote, or rewrote, sixteen documents, from the collections policy for the archives, to reprographic request forms and basic guidelines on how to start and maintain a parish archive. One of the most challenging tasks was producing guidelines on digital archiving for our parishes, so that material wouldn’t be lost before it was deposited at the archives. In order to better produce this guidance, I undertook the online training offered by the Digital Preservation Coalition (https://www.dpconline.org/); suffice to say, I was a clear novice on the subject before I started and at the end, I realised just how much more there was to understand in order to preserve digital content for the future.

As the summer moved on, I was furloughed for a couple of months – about the same time as I joined the CAS council and took on joint control of the website and social media accounts – so the spare time proved useful.

I came off furlough at the start of August and I took the time to start working through the online catalogue, tidying up search terms and closure periods etc. I also spent a lot of time looking into digital scanners, as the lockdown had made it abundantly clear that having material digitally available for researchers and for archivists alike was no longer simply a wish list item but a genuine need. I have yet to settle on a system, so if anyone has any suggestions, I’d be pleased to hear them.

At the start of September I received the news that site access would be possible again but would be limited to one day a week, as the cathedral tried to safeguard all the staff and members of the public in line with government guidelines. I managed just about seven weeks of being allowed on site, one day a week before we went back into lockdown and then just two more before Christmas and then lockdown 3.

However, in those short periods, I managed to set up a remote interface with the archives computer, giving me access to more material and resources and I was able to clear the backlog of research and family history requests that had come through in the previous months, by spending my day on site imaging documents with my digital camera and then spending my home-working day processing and sending them on and I managed to do the initial top level of cataloguing of a deposit that had come in from one of the Bishops, the item level is waiting for my return to site once more.

So what have I learned? I’ve learned that you can only do as much as you can; if the infrastructure and technology isn’t there, then there is nothing you can do about it. I’ve discovered that if you send an email asking for help, then fellow archivists will always step up to try and help and I have been reminded that despite all the panic and worry that the collection has not had my eye cast over it for most of a year – it is fine and far more resilient to change then we are.

Like everyone, I look forward to being back on site and working as we used to do so, but until then, I will keep doing what I can from where I am and tackle the rest of it when it comes.

Examples of material digitised from requests received during lockdown:


Vita et martyrium RDD Edmundi Arrowsmith [BAA:R941]

Maryvale Land Survey, March 1990 [BAA:B10268a]

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