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Distant, but not Dormant

Posted in This months highlight on 14 May 2021

Like many organisations, things have been far from ‘normal’ for us this past year. For the first part of the pandemic, we couldn’t get onsite except to check that the collections were doing ok. Now we are open once more, the archives are being handled once again and the stories from the archives can be discovered. But what happened in between? Well, we initially thought that we hadn’t been able to do very much but actually, we managed to do quite a bit.

Once more staff were allowed onsite in July 2020, we were able to carry out remote enquiries and some of our background work such as taking in new collections. We took in 67 new accessions which is about a third of our usual annual intake, but actually was about the same size due to some being pretty large deposits! This is an example of one such accession which has since been catalogued, a 1932 needlework school book which belonged to a student of Cholsey Board School (catalogue reference: D/EX2821/3).

Cloth with rows of sample sewing stiches

Some deposits are in digital form and we took in a 7000MB of digital accessions compared to 5800MB the previous year. This contributed to the 6,500 files on Preservica which amounts to more than 75GB – the previous year we only had 48 files!

Graph showing number of files on Preservica

Staff couldn’t really catalogue as much due to protection measures in place as well as providing onsite access to visitors which requires a lot more preparation and cleaning time. Despite this, we managed to complete 48 new catalogues. Numbers are difficult to compare though as sometimes one catalogue could have thousands of items and take years to complete, whilst another ‘collection’ could consist of just one item. Here is an example of a catalogued item from the Papers of the Head, Best and Pottinger families, 1652-1938 (catalogue reference: D/EZ198).

Dog sat on the back of a horse

Even though we haven’t been onsite as much, we still managed to deal with enquiries remotely. A total of 3913 written enquiries in fact, which was higher than the 3350 the previous year. By contrast, we dealt with fewer telephone calls, as we weren’t able to answer the phone. As part of the enquiry service, we processed some 2840 copies which was actually 417 more than the previous year. We were lucky to be able to gain some access to our emails and collections in order to continue to offer our services as best we could, and we’re very grateful for the patience that our enquirers have shown as things have taken longer to do.

Once onsite, we played the hokey-kokey game of “are we open?” as we were closed, open, closed, open, then closed and finally open as we are now – hopefully for good this time. During that time, the number of visitors permitted onsite was greatly reduced so we only had a total of 303 compared with 2242 the previous year, and we managed to produce 5695 items for them.

Room with tables and cabinets and yellow tape marking areas as off limits

Having volunteers onsite has been a challenge and as a result of the pandemic, some projects have been put on hold. Having said that, we did manage to get some volunteers onsite at times to work on transcriptions relating to previous cataloguing work and other remote listing projects, such as transcribing an account of the 1804 epidemic in Gilbraltar, which was amongst the Baynes papers.

One new way of working with volunteers for us has been creating a remote project and we’ve had 10 volunteers working on a spreadsheet listing soldiers mentioned in the World War Two Pangbourne Methodist Cafe visitor books and registers. Set up to provide somewhere warm and comfortable that soldiers stationed in the area could visit, it catered for Royal Engineers who were stationed on Pangbourne Meadows to do bridge building training. The volunteers have completed two visitor books and portions of four others, and it was great to be able to offer this to some new volunteers in lieu of being onsite too. It takes a lot of work to put together such projects and manage them, but we will definitely look into offering more remote volunteer projects in the future.

Historic text in handwriting from 1940s

Staff have been working from home when not onsite and have been doing some of the not-so-glamourous jobs that needed doing, such as typing up old catalogues originally made on a typewriter into electronic format. A total of 67 such catalogues have been completed. They require a fair bit of editing, but some 27 have already been printed off to replace existing hard copy catalogues in the searchroom and eight are now available on our online catalogue. We hope to get many more available online throughout the year.

View from above of catalogues

Other work that staff have done at home have included typing up 11 accession lists, as well as converting 44 electronic catalogues ready to import to our online catalogue. We’ve also typed up about 67% of our library accession registers. We hope to upload the details onto our online catalogue enabling researchers to search our reference library material as well as our archival material, all in one place.

We’ve been checking through our collections on various subject matter in order to create new source guides which we’ll make available online in due course. We’ve also relisted and repackaged a collection of prints and made them more accessible by putting their descriptions on our online catalogue. Below are a couple of those prints. You can see the catalogue online by clicking here.

Print of Reading Abbey Engraving print of Reading Abbey ruins with animals in foreground

We created a new Instagram account to reach more people and even made our first video for our new YouTube channel. We were also able to offer virtual talks through various Berkshire libraries. We’ve also been keeping ourselves busy through taking part in various social media campaigns on Twitter and Facebook such as the History Begins at Home campaign which aims to keep people connected and end loneliness by talking about their own memories and history. You can discover more about the campaign online by clicking here.

And if all that wasn’t enough, we managed to create two online exhibitions. May 2020 saw the 75th anniversary of VE Day for which we created the ‘Through Their Eyes’ exhibition which enabled 1447 ‘visitors’ to see it from around the world. You can still view it online by clicking here. More recently, we created the Thames exhibition “Where Smooth Waters Glide” to tie in with the 250th anniversary of the Thames Navigation Commission. You can view this free exhibition online by clicking here.

Boats on the River Thames with Maidenhead Bridge in the background

We hope you agree that despite all the adversity that the pandemic through at us last year (and continues to), we accomplished a great deal. We were definitely not dormant whilst the archive was ‘asleep’ from March to July 2020, nor when it awoke from its slumber to visitors again in August. We may have been, and still are, more remote than we would like, but we are determined to continue to collect, care for and share the archives of the Royal County of Berkshire with you.