How to map an archive collection

How to map an archive collection

Please reference as: Liz Stanley (2017) ‘How to map an archive collection’, and provide the paragraph number as appropriate when quoting.

1. Why map archive collections

1.1   The meaning and import of individual archival documents comes in part from their specific content, and in part from the context in which the researcher comes across them, which in many cases is the archival collection that they are a component of. An example will help explain. Two letters about taking some prize-winning sheep from the Eastern Cape into the then-Rhodesia by Arthur Pringle, a sheep farmer who was a younger relative of 1820 Settler Dods Pringle (the Pringle collection is one of the focuses for WWW research), are mildly interesting to those concerned with sheep breeding. However, once it is known that both of these letters are archived in the Cecil Rhodes Papers, that the sheep were for Rhodes’s estate, and that between the first and the second of Pringle’s letter being written, Rhodes had sent a stinging letter of rebuke to him because he had departed from instructions, these things give them a greater import.

1.2   Succinctly, the context of archiving, and specifically that of the collection that something is part of, will make a difference, and sometimes this difference can be extremely significant. What this means in terms of how to carry out archival research is that it is always important to gain an understanding of a collection as a whole, not just a particular item or items within it.

1.3   But how to do this in a way that is efficient and effective in terms of how research time is organised? After all, most collections are quite large, and some are huge, and it is important not to get bogged down but to keep the eye on the aims of the particular investigation in hand.

1.4   This ‘how to’ discussion sets out a way to get to grips with the contents and overall shape of an archive collection in a time-efficient way that will support work on individual documents and not swamp this. ‘Mapping’ a collection in the way discussed below is the basis of carrying out well-founded research that is able both to focus on specific items of great significance for a research project, and to take full account of the wider context that these are part of.

2. Mapping: how to

2.1   Mapping a collection starts with practical but also important questions (rather than fancier intellectual ones). These are directed towards enabling the researcher to gain an overall understanding of the collection in the quickest time possible and in such a way as to support possible future work on particular items within it – or to rule this out for good reasons based on knowledge of content.

2.2   These questions are as follows:

2.3.i.  How is a collection organised? How big is it, what are the main sections within it, what kinds of materials are these, such as letters, financial papers, diaries or Wills or other things?

2.3.ii. What are its main contents concerned with, its overall themes and concerns?

2.3.iii. Are its contents either in whole or part relevant to your particular research topic? And if so, what aspects of it more exactly?

2.3.iv. What if anything would it be helpful to record at first acquaintance with a collection, concerning its organisation, overall content and particular aspects, by writing notes in notebook, or a computer file, or perhaps by making an entry in a database?

2.3.v. Should any digital photographs of documents be made at this stage, if doing so is permitted by the archive in question? What criteria should be used in deciding if a collection’s contents are important enough to your research to decide to later carry out more detailed work on it?

2.3.vii. What should such more detailed work consist of? How does the researcher go about making decisions on this?

2.3.viii.   These questions are general ones, they aren’t tied to a particular collection or research project. They are transferable and can be used to guide working on any collection, in any archive, anywhere, and they are very handy for gaining useful knowledge of how things work.

3. A practical example – the Paton collection

3.1   It’s always easier to understand how to do things when discussed in relation to practical examples. Consequently these questions will now be explored in relation to an investigation of the papers of a well-known Kimberley (South Africa) man, a jack of all trades and entrepreneurial farmer turned diamond mine owner called George Paton.

3.2   Paton was, among other things, for some years a close associate of Cecil Rhodes and with Rhodes was one of the MPs for the Barkly West constituency in the Cape Parliament. This was one reason why the collection of his papers was considered as a possible focus for study within WWW research, with the other being that the secondary literature suggests that over time Paton’s land was converted to mining use with many disputes about this from the originally African occupants. There are 16 over-sized boxes of his papers and a brief inventory of in the Kimberely Africana Library collections. A number of small-scale investigations of possible case study material in Kimberley’s museums and libraries was carried out, with the work described below being on the Paton collection part of this.

3.3   What resulted? Around seven focused hours of concentrated work (no breaks, no little chats etc) was carried out on the Paton collection; that is, one entire working day. Through this, (a) all of the above questions were answered, (b) some working notes were made in a notebook, (c) four typed pages of more structured notes were made in a Word file, (d) an overview was written, (e) the key finding aids (in this example, an inventory) were digitally photographed, as were some interesting items in the collection regarding the wider WWW research, and (f) some decisions were made about whether or not any future work on the Paton collection might be carried out.

4. The process detailed

4.1   The ‘how to…’ aspects of mapping the Paton collection outlined above were carried out in order to gain an overall sense of what it contains and what its value for the wider WWW project might be. How the questions listed above were explored was as follows, with all these points being transferable to working on other collections:

4.2   Read the inventory very thoroughly. An inventory or other finding aid tells the researcher what the broad shape of a collection is as this was seen by an archivist who, when it was being compiled, was also in process of trying to make sense of the collection. This may not necessarily be as the researcher eventually comes to understand it, but it does provide a good starting point.

4.3   Fill in a request slip – each archive tends to have their own specific variant of this – to obtain a box or boxes from the vaults or other places where archive collections are kept. Use the inventory as the guide here. In most archives, a small number of boxes can be ordered in one go, but usually only one box, or sometimes just a number of items from within a box, can be worked on. This helps prevent contents from being muddled by careless or harassed researchers.

4.4   In doing this, it is important to ‘call up’ and explore some materials from each of the main sections of a collection as signalled by the inventory. This may look something like, personal & family letters, company papers, notebooks, letter-books, and so on. The aim here is to skim-read a file or box of documents from each section of a collection, to get a sense of their contents and to make short aide memoir notes about them.

4.5   Call up the box or boxes holding the earliest dated items in a collection, then skim-read through contents to get a broad sense of what they’re concerned with and make some aide memoir notes on this. Ditto the latest dated items in the collection. Ditto a box in the middle. Also make sure that some items from each of the main parts of the collection are also called up and examined. This adds up to a form of sampling, and it prevents the researcher from only looking at things we are particularly interested in, because it ensures that the knowledge gained from this process is broadly based.

4.6   Decide provisionally what are the most interesting aspects of the items that have been looked at so far, ‘interesting’ both in their own terms and also of course regarding the wider research project. Regarding the Paton collection, this was (a) material from the early more open and less controlled phase of diamond mining, and (b) papers concerning the Newlands Diamond Mining Company that Paton established and which later failed because of what he saw as a shareholders’ plot, something that was intriguing.

4.7   Fill in request slips to call up more items related to the things found most interesting, read these rather more carefully and also make more detailed notes about them.

4.8   If needed, revise the list of interesting items; then if necessary, call up and examine more items from the collection.

4.9   At this point, but not before, decide which items to digitally photograph, and resist photographing everything. As a previous ‘how to’ has explained, this just defers the problem of figuring out how a collection works and whether and to what extent its content is relevant. In the case of the Paton collection, what was photographed was: *the inventory, *a small number of letters about land purchases because this frequently involved the disappropriation and removal of black people, *some items mentioning the Diggers Revolution in early mining days, and *regarding the Newlands Company. Before doing this, a file structure on the computer was made with these headings, so that as these items were photographed they were immediately downloaded where they could be easily found again.

4.10   Most archives have a small stock of relevant books and other materials related to their collections. The catalogue for these may be a card catalogue or may be computer based. At this point, the researcher should search the catalogue for anything the archive has that relates both to the collection being worked on and also the specific items of interest that may have been found within it. In this case, Paton himself, the Newlands company, the Diggers revolt, and the early days of land disappropriation in the Kimberley area, were the focus. A number of relevant references were found and information was recorded about these.

4.11   At this point it is important to take stock of what has been done and what if anything might be looked at in more detailed work on the collection or part of it. This involves reading through notebook entries and computer files and adding to these any subsequent thoughts that come to mind about what is interesting and what might be looked in further work. It can also help to write a brief overview covering such matters.

4.12   Having done this, then sit and think. Do so for 5 or 10 minutes. Mull over what has been done, and what ideas come to mind about this. Has it been relevant? Are there specific items that seem important? What else if anything might be done with either of these specific items or the collection as a whole? Does anything else come to mind? Try not to rush this period of reflection or to make it too instrumental. At the same time, it can be useful to keep some basic notes about these things, and particularly any conclusions that may be reached, in a research notebook or file.

5. Answering the questions

5.1   Some answers to the basic questions outlined above are:

  • A good overview of the Paton collection was gained, including of the detail that lies beneath the spare headings in a very schematic inventory.
  • Its main themes, its overall concerns, are outlined below.
  • The conclusion was drawn that it was interesting, but not directly relevant to WWW work because the collection lacks a significant number of letters and also covers just a short time period.
  • Brief notes were made in a notebook as this work proceeded. Also, some very brief notes were made in a computer file on the Paton collection about every item that was read, together with its meta-data (archive and collection reference, date, writer, named recipient, address etc) for referencing purposes.
  • Following the period of thinking and reflection at the end of the day, a short overviewing document was written in a Paton collection Word file. This took about 10 minutes. Then digital photographs were made of the inventory and also of 15 documents that were found interesting.
  • Following the above, the decision was made that the Paton collection was not relevant enough or extensive enough in epistolary terms to be part of WWW, but that it would be an important collection to explore for anyone who was interested in Kimberley, diamond and gold, and (failed) Randlords.

5.2   Some detail about what went into this decision is that the Paton collection was interesting to go through, but it doesn’t contain a lot of letters, nor does it cover a lengthy period of time, features which would have given it more importance for the WWW project. This is an assessment based on a specific viewpoint: would it fit into the WWW project as a case study? However, this is not an absolute evaluation of its contents, and clearly for other purposes the collection is interesting and important.

5.3   One interesting aspect is that it documents the rise and fall of a ‘failed Randlord’, with this the result of the machinations of Rhodes and his henchmen and because eventually Rhodes wanted to ‘get’ Paton. Another is that its contents provide an interesting and important inroad into the early days of diamond mining, land buying and deals, a later stage of company formation, and also concerning the ‘fall’ of Paton and what had been a successful diamond mining company. George Paton died in 1914. However, the mine continued under other ownership for some decades before it was declared unprofitable, and the collection includes papers on this subsequent stage too. Matters of ‘race’ and ethnicity are key to the organisation of mining and its hierarchies and divisions of labour, so there are interesting things to be explored on this in the collection as well, and given a close scrutiny of them they may well turn out to be important.

5.4   Future work on this collection? Not for the WWW project. However, it would make a useful and potentially important node of attention for a research project concerned with Randlords, failed Randlords, and the social and economic transitions around diamond mining that occurred in the Kimberley area.

6. The results

6.1   Carrying out the activities described above, in compiling a two sets of notes, schematically in the research notebook and in more detail in a Paton computer file, writing an overview of the collection and its most relevant contents, and copying the most interesting documents including the inventory, took one day’s work, a day that was well spent and productive. Although the Paton collection is not huge it is still quite large, and this shows how just much, with a simple practical plan, can be done in one day’s work.

6.2   People sometimes say that they don’t have time to do anything like the above, they just whizz through hoping that something ‘important’ will leap out at them. This sounds a rather haphazard way of working and potentially involves wasting a lot of time in the sense of producing little to show for it. Also, as discussed at the beginning of this ‘how to’, what is ‘important’ is not just a matter of specific content but also of the context as well.

6.3   In addition, the mapping procedure that has been outlined and discussed here always produces some productive results. In relation to the particular example of the Paton collection, its results are the collection’s organisation and structure is now known, its contents overall can be described, the highlights of these have been identified, and in addition some interesting items of direct relevance for the WWW project have also been pinpointed.

Last updated: 27 May 2021