Managing Collections at Surrey History Centre

Surrey History Centre (SHC) is home to Surrey Heritage, which encompasses the county's museum, archaeological, archive and local studies services. The archive service undertakes all aspects of collection management, including collecting, appraisal and cataloguing.

What are the environmental and strategic drivers for collections management work?

Surrey Heritage's mission statement is 'Discovering, Preserving, Celebrating'. It encompasses all aspects of work by the associated heritage sections, and the service structures its business plan and strategy around these three broad groupings. Good collection management is central to this mission, particularly around discovering and preserving.

The service also aims to relate its activities to Surrey County Council's (SCC) current strategic focus areas. Most recently these have included stewardship i.e. looking after the county's resources responsibly, creating public value; and investing in quality; and collections management work can be tied into all these areas. However, as the strategic focus areas change periodically the 'fit' is not always so apparent.

How do you obtain senior management support and understanding for collections management work?

There is a strong commitment from the council. The Heritage Manager advocates for archives within the council and to senior officers. However, collections management work must be carefully presented to be of interest to elected members, who want the council to be viewed positively.

SHC constantly promotes the case for good collections management and the responsibilities of the council for good stewardship. It demonstrates how proper collections management is at the core of more high profile and public-facing outreach work, for which its holdings often provide the raw materials or inspiration. Online catalogues can provide the incentive for people to visit SHC or talk about the council's services.

It is also important to demonstrate to senior management how the public value heritage. SHC passes on any good news stories or compliments to senior management and stakeholders. Each month SHC produces three 'Marvels of the Month' - an archivist will  focus on one document, the local studies librarian will highlight an item in the local studies collection, and a conservator will highlight a repair technique or threat to a document - with accompanying text and images. 'Marvels of the Month' is published on the website and publicised through Facebook, Twitter and sent to the CEO. SHC also passes the CEO, as a supporter of heritage, any good news items and evidence of the richness of collections.

SHC actively solicits the cooperation of the community and local groups in its collecting work for example by promoting its collection function through public talks. In 2012 SHC held a showcase event in the east of Surrey (SHC is in the west) in which SHC and local history bodies in the area came together and organised a public 'roadshow' with talks and stands to promote the message of collecting and encourage the public to tell SHC about potential collections.

What is your strategy for collections management?

Collecting:
Collecting is 'thoughtfully reactive'. However, SHC does seek to identify collections and fill gaps and is currently working on a practical and achievable collections development strategy. Staff also provide collections management advice to owners of records who do not wish to deposit immediately, as a way of developing a productive relationship which may lead to deposit in the future.

Cataloguing:
SHC places a strong emphasis on cataloguing and developing in-house cataloguing skills. It has always seen cataloguing as at the heart of what it does and has worked hard over many years to ensure it remains a high profile and greatly valued activity by demonstrating how cataloguing supports so much else of what the archive service does. 

SHC aims to catalogue incoming accessions and then target from the backlog those collections most likely to be used, those that would attract users into the centre, or those that are historically important, with the overarching aim to make available some information about all collections. SHC has evaluated its backlog and has core management information about quantity, depositing agents and content of all accessions for which there is no proper catalogue.

SHC produces a range of finding aids ranging from detailed catalogues to box lists. It produces uncatalogued collections in the searchroom under certain restrictions so lack of a catalogue does not necessarily prevent production, but the preferred route is to catalogue a collection first. 

Most of the archivists spend a significant amount of their time surveying, accessioning and cataloguing: for those archivists who don't have additional managerial responsibilities this represents 30-50% of their time.

Through SHC's public services user group and the Exploring Surrey's Past website the service invites users to correct and enhance catalogues and comment on other aspects of collections management.

SHC uses volunteers (including a former archivist) extensively in cataloguing work, under professional supervision, notably to add detail concerning, for example, letters, diaries and personal correspondence, where staff do not have the time, and also to produce box lists of larger uncatalogued deposits.

The archive service also closes for a fortnight each year to target major backlog accessions with staff and the searchroom space free for such work. At this time staff and volunteers work together on the cataloguing of larger collections.

Are there any underlying trends in the SHC's collections management work?

Demands on archive services are much greater now than a few decades with much greater emphasis on outreach, collaborative working and demonstrating public value. This reduces the availability of staff for collections management.  

SHC is accepting more digital collections from external depositors. Whilst these are mostly small scale SHC is also starting to be offered larger and more structured digital collections now. SHC's collecting and preservation policies explicitly identify the archive service as a repository for digital material and it has devised basic procedures for dealing with digital records. Staff are now consulting the corporate information managers and IT department on the long term preservation of SCC's own digital records. 

However, there is no noticeable reduction in the quantity of paper records being offered to the archive service.

Each year there is probably a slight increase in numbers of individual accessions partly because of the SHC's successful advocacy around collecting.

What resources are required?

  • Trained staff are most important for their skills and to act as mentors/supervisors to project staff and volunteers 
  • It is valuable to have a conservation unit in-house especially as the conservators have developed a broader responsibility for preservation generally e.g. digital preservation, strong room management and collection care generally

What benefits does the collections management work deliver to the archive service and its stakeholders?

  • Collection management underpins everything else SHC does - events, talks, partnership projects and public service. High quality catalogues and staff knowledge of the collections supports this work
  • Stakeholders are aware that responsible collections management and stewardship reflect the quality of service SHC aspires to, which is particularly important for depositors and partners. The existence of sound procedures, high quality cataloguing, and state of the art of storage gives weight to any work done with stakeholders

What are the issues for SHC ?

There are several core issues:

  • Developing additional storage when the current storage is full in a few years time
  • Further development of digital preservation activity
  • Addressing the falling number of onsite visitors. This will partly be addressed by developing the availability of collections online and its online audience
  • More focused collections development, to be documented in a new strategy
  • Increased pressure on the service both to generate income and deliver big high profile events, whilst continuing to develop collections management work

How would SHC like to develop in the future?

  • Developing collections representative of all parts of Surrey's people and communities, by addressing gaps in its collections 
  • Eliminating the cataloguing backlog and providing detailed information about all holdings online along with digitised collections
  • Promoting its collections management work to the public more

What has SHC learned from its collections management work?

  • Collections management is a vital activity and no archive service should ever forget that it is essentially why they exist
  • Engaging with your local communities to recruit archive service volunteers can create both a group of ambassadors for the archive service and a resource who can assist with collections management effectively

Find out more information: see Surrey History Centre and 'Marvels of the Month'