Dr Natalie Hayton, Assistant Archivist, Special Collections, De Montfort University, Leicester
1 October 2019[print-me]
This piece reflects on a session delivered by myself and fellow archivist Katharine Short as part of a Postgraduate Archives Open Day event. Organised by Dr Ellen Wright of the Cinema and Television History Institute (CATHI) at DMU, the day was geared towards encouraging archival research and debate in relation to film archives. The title of our session neatly reflects some of the issues raised in the session, while also acknowledging our most significant collection relating to television history: the Papers of screenwriter Andrew Davies, writer of the famous 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.
The session was developed with the intention of providing a behind-the-scenes approach to discussing some of the debates within the archive sector around access to archives, their use and how they reflect wider society. We chose five problematic items from our collections and asked attendees to write brief catalogue entries for them, encouraging them to consider issues of physical access, ownership and authorship, and cataloguing language. This blog post will highlight the issues raised in relation to access while touching on representation and copyright. The democratisation process within archives is very important to us at DMU, and through our work with the Stephen Lawrence Research Centre, the Equality and Diversity Team and regularly reading up on sector guidance and finding out what other repositories are doing, such as the National Archives, Archives For Everyone policy framework and Jass Thethi’s work on ‘creating a space for marginalised voices in the GLAM (Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums) sector’, we hope to improve our catalogues and collections. [i], [ii] & [iii] Having said that, we are aware that as archivists, we are still learning how to best catalogue, describe and make accessible problematic records.
Access all Archival Areas?
Providing access to archives is a fundamental part of our job as archivists that is found in sector standards, such as the Principles of Access to Archives produced by the International Council on Archives. Significantly, this creates a tension at the heart of the archivist role: our two core duties are to protect originals from deterioration and to provide access to them, but we believe these should not be viewed as antithetical. Extensive use of an archival item will cause damage, but at the same time it is a human right, not a privilege, to be able to view the information contained within records held in public repositories, even if the original item cannot be produced.
However, as much as we may want to assist our readers, there will always be times when we are bound by legislation, donor restrictions, technical issues or concerns surrounding security and preservation. While we are committed to seeking creative solutions, there will always be instances where access is denied, or at least postponed.
Assessing the Archives/Artefacts: Content Warning
The following examples are the items we used for the session, some of which brought forth some strong opinions regarding privileging access to collections unintentionally and whether promoting access is to the benefit of repositories and readers in all circumstances. Before moving into an examination of the objects, I want to offer a content warning as one of the items discussed is a collection of Robertson’s Preserve Manufacturers Ltd. promotional figurines known as “Golliwogs”, offensive caricatures of African American people inspired by nineteenth-century minstrelsy.
Exhibit 1: Correspondence of Andrew Davies from the Papers of Andrew Davies, Screenwriter D/061
Just from looking at this image, it is fairly obvious that we have some access issues here! Although Davies has given permission for researchers to access any of his letters in the collection, what he cannot give permission for is access to material produced by third parties (the letters he received from others) or that which references living individuals who may have no idea that items relating to them are held in a public archive. In instances such as these it is an archivist’s responsibility and ethical duty to comply with privacy legislation such as Data Protection by either redacting information or closing the item until such a time as those mentioned are deceased. While this can be frustrating for readers and archivists alike, ultimately the protection of 3rd parties (as well as being legally binding) is not something we would want to compromise. It was in relation to this item that points were raised regarding whether it is worth promoting the existence of these letters at all, as such practice can lead to unwanted media attention and once the existence of letters of someone famous becomes more widely known, disappointment will inevitably follow when it is discovered they are off limits (for now, at least). Closures can be made at collection, series or item level and decisions are typically made on a case by case basis. At DMU we have decided to close and redact where necessary while still listing the correspondence in the catalogue in a way that favours promoting the collection as a whole as well as ensuring we are protecting individuals at item level.
We specifically wanted the discussion of these books to focus on whether we should use our catalogues to highlight the white patriarchal heteronormative framework inherent to this series (seen in images featuring actors wearing black/brown and yellow face, the complete lack/under-representation of actors of colour and the gender essentialism apparent even on the front cover this 1955 edition in its depiction of complicit sexual violence). However, there are also some important physical access issues surrounding these magazines.
Like all repositories, we always offer our researchers some friendly instructions when handling items to ensure they are cared for properly when being used and to encourage readers to feel more confident about handling archives. For example, using support cushions, page weights and turning pages carefully using only the corners is not knowledge we take for granted. Unfortunately, like the Picture Annuals, some items may already be damaged, either by age or design. As you can see from the first image, some of the pages have come loose and there is a risk here that pages could become muddled with pages from other books, or taken out of order. As there is no justification for the cost of digitising we do allow access to the originals but ask readers to be mindful of the loose pages and the likelihood that others may also come out if proper care is not taken. The second image highlights a page where a feature has intentionally been removed. This obviously has implications for those readers who may have been looking for a specific piece but it does perhaps offer insight on how the books were used by previous owners e.g. cutting out images for scrap books (Special Collections has two such film star scrap book collections: Film Star Scrap Books, 1930s and Film Star Scrap Books 1925-1945).
Exhibit 3: Interview with Benazir Bhutto (Politician and Prime Minister of Pakistan 1988-2007) from the Anita Anand (Zee TV Collection).[iv]
Again, the access issue here will be obvious for those who have wanted to view materials that require obsolete technology. While many organisations will have a way of migrating recordings from VHS (video) to a digital format, unfortunately, transferring the contents of Betamax and Betacam tapes is not so readily available. The newly acquired Anita Anand (Zee TV) Collection comprises over 60 linear metres of Betacam tapes donated by the journalist and radio and television presenter. While we are doing our best to organise and begin cataloguing using the labelling on the tapes, at the moment we have no way of determining what is actually on them and it is proving difficult for us to find the resources needed to provide full access to the tapes (budget, time, storage space, expertise). In the short-term we are attempting to source a Betacam player but we are also discussing options with specialists at Media Archive of Central England and intend to put together a funding bid to get this amazing collection of Asian TV digitised and accessible to all.
Exhibit 4: Robertson’s “Golliwog” Figurines
Another recently acquired collection includes these figurines which were created by the UK’s Robertson’s Preserve Manufacturer Ltd. in the 1960s and 70s. The “Golliwog” was the mascot for the company until 2001 and these figures were redeemed for tokens collected from the labels found on purchased products.
While still viewed as collectibles and defended by many as ‘innocent and lovable’ characters rather than examples of systemic racism, this is unquestionably a naïve position. The original literary Golliwogg, found in Florence Kate Upton’s children’s books, was inspired by minstrelsy entertainment, which began in the US around the 1830s: minstrelsy typically involved troupes wearing blackface to perform songs and sketches that reinforced white supremacy and dehumanised and degraded African American people. While our discussion for this collection focused on considering the best way of conveying this information in a catalogue in terms of language and description, questions surrounding access were also plentiful. The donor of this collection specifically requested they be used as a tool for highlighting the pervasive and insidious nature of racism in cultural products, so does that mean we should restrict access to collectors or enthusiasts who only wish to view them out of curiosity?
Another issue discussed was that while we are dealing with two very different formats when working with the Anita Anand Collection and the figurines (making them incomparable in some ways), the fact that examples of racist oppression are more readily accessible than a collection that more positively contributes to archival inclusivity and diverse social representation raises questions about whether we are unwittingly upholding oppressive frameworks by failing to provide access to the tapes. This is something of a dilemma for us because obviously we do not want to give items like the figurines more of a promotional platform than collections with a wealth of untapped research possibilities, such as that which is potentially contained on the Anand tapes. It is important for us to reflect on and learn from such comments in order to continually improve our practice and ensure that we are respectful of the needs and opinions of all our users. It is only by listening and acting that we can further develop our understanding of archival access and how we can make archives and catalogues inclusive spaces.
Exhibit 5: Draft Script of Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason
For our final item we return to Davies, and a draft script for the film Bridget Jones: Edge of Reason released in 2004. This script has no less than 5 contributors, including the author of the novel from which it was adapted, creating an authorship and copyright minefield! The discussion focused on if it could be determined who made which revisions and how that impacted on access and use. Can only the parts of the script written by Davies be made available to researchers? Stamped with Davies across the front this is undoubtedly his copy of the script, but again, do the other contributors know their revisions are held in a public archive? Should we be allowing access at all? Certainly, if you wanted to quote sections of this script for a publication, as archivists, we would be advising that you would need to contact all contributors for permission to ensure compliance with copyright regulations. With layers of copyright and ownership, it can be difficult to get permission to use scripts, but happily, much of the Davies collection is solo written and with nearly a third of the archive comprising unproduced drafts, there is a wealth of accessible material for researchers.
Supporting Access for All
As we hope this blog has highlighted, we do not pretend to have all the answers but we are committed to creating a prejudice-free archive and believe that pride in our work is not the same as being too proud to learn new methods and share our expertise. Rather, we encourage a cyclical knowledge exchange with our users where decision-making processes are transparent. While we stated at the beginning of this blog that preservation is our primary duty, all of our work from re-packaging, arrangement, digitisation and migration and cataloguing is, in fact, all geared towards ensuring long-term accessibility for future generations. Even if we can’t make it available immediately, we’ll be working on it.[v]
Natalie and Katharine
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[i] The Stephen Lawrence Research Centre features a seminar room and communal study space as well as a permanent exhibition telling the story of Stephen’s life and murder and the legacy of Doreen Lawrence’s tireless work to achieve justice for her son. The exhibition includes several displays of items from the archival collection, Papers of Doreen Lawrence relating to the Stephen Lawrence Case. The collection is currently closed but it is hoped access arrangements will be finalised over the summer and made available to the public at Special Collections and via our online catalogue.
[ii] For further reading and examples of our work on archives and representation please visit our
[iv] While work has started on creating an online catalogue for this collection and access is imminent, arrangements are still being finalised.
[v] The session created for the open day and this blog were both inspired in no small way by a module I have recently completed for the postgraduate qualification in Archives and Records Management at CAIS, Dundee which I am currently undertaking by distance learning.