Wednesday 13 October 2010

ICA / SUV Conference

Prague, 29 September – 3 October 2010

The Section on University and Research Institution Archives (SUV) is part of the International Council on Archives. This year’s SUV conference was Hosted by Charles University, Prague and the theme was: 'Archival Tradition and Practice: Are Archivists Historians?' Delegates attending the conference came from many different nations, and we were given insights into the differing situations to be found in archive repositories across the world.

In the first session Petr Svobodny of Charles University, Prague, spoke of how the connection between the Archives and the Institute of the History of Charles University affects the role of archivists at the University. The archivists do more than routine work, using their historical training to interpret the collections and develop research.

Bill Maher, University of Illinois, then spoke on whether impartiality on the part of the archivist is a myth – the ideal is that archivists should be completely objective, but in practice this is often difficult. According to Bill the ICA’s Code of Ethics for Archivists infers that the archivist should cover the middle ground and maintain a balanced and impartial position. Norman Reid of the University of St Andrews cautioned against the archivist cataloguing or describing a collection in a particular way which might influence future research – archivists in the past have sometimes highlighted items that may be of interest, but which might have no relevance to the historians’ area of research. Over cataloguing can hinder archival serendipity.

Another perspective was provided by Matĕj Spurný who is writing a university history and is a historian rather than an archivist at Charles University. The role of historians, he argued, is to construct the past in the archive rather than mere detection. Using the example of security service files from the Communist era being opened up he pointed out that providing access to files does not in itself enable an understanding of history. This is why, in his point of view, archivists should manage their collections from a historian’s perspective and actively engage in the process of the deconstruction and reconstruction of history.

After lunch the three delegates from the University of the West Indies, Sharon Alexander Gooding, Cherri Ann Beckles and Stanley Griffin gave an overview of the development of archives in the West Indies. In 1965 the first West Indian archives conference took place in Jamaica, which highlighted how dispersed the collections across the Caribbean are – an effect of having several colonial powers dominating the region in earlier times. Indeed, many documents relating to the history of the region are held in the old imperial capitals, such as London, impacting on access to the collections and their usability. More trained archivists in the region are also required. The point was made that archivists are not filing clerks, that they should reflect the cultural reality of present day societies.

The last speaker of the day was Andrzej Klubiński from the Archive of the Polish Academy of Science who told us about the Polish standard of archival description, which was developed by Kazimierz Konarski. Andrzej compared the scheme devised by Konarski to ISAD(G) and highlighted the many similarities between the two systems. The Konarski system has been so successful that it is still the main standard used in Polish archives, rather than ISAD(G).

The conference dinner took place on Thursday evening in Strahov Monastery, founded for the Premonstratensian order. The delegates were given a tour of the Theological Hall which houses an amazing baroque library of some 18,000 volumes. The meal itself was in the Monastic Brewery.

The second day our colleagues from Dundee, Caroline Brown and Pat Whatley, discussed the role of the archivist in ‘creating’ history – especially in the area of appraisal. Caroline presented a fictional case study to show us the many issues involved in deciding which institutional records to select, from the relevance of the material to the parent organisation to basic aspects such as storage space. A major factor, for example, is the pressure from the institution for the archivist to support the University’s current business practices. This inevitably affects the decision about which material should be accessioned. Pat examined appraisal issues in relation to outreach. She explained how the use of Beatles photographs from the Michael Peto Photographic Collection promoted the collection and how this promoted the University as a whole but also how the selection of particular images might influence perceptions of the collection. Importantly, this also raised the profile of the Archives within the institution; with active collaboration between the Principal’s Office and the External Relations department.

After a tour of the museum of Charles University and the SUV’s AGM, Garron Wells of the University of Toronto spoke on the role of early historical societies in Canada in developing historical research and preserving and making available the documentary heritage of the country, part of which involved the establishment of research centres. Shelley Sweeney told us about a video produced for the University of Manitoba’s YouTube channel that used photographs of séances and paranormal activity from their Hamilton Family Photograph Collection. This had proved successful in introducing archival material to a wider audience and increasing interest in the collection. It also raised the question of how the video relates to the collection as a whole, and if use of such a method of promotion alters the way a collection is perceived and approached by researchers.

The video can be seen at:

Marek Ďurčanský of Charles University Archives and Jens Blecher of Leipzig University Archives examined how archives can be used to promote, highlight and mark university anniversaries by looking at two relatively recent case studies from Leipzig and Prague. The turbulent history of Prague has led to many important anniversaries, and this has enabled the Archives to focus on events in preparation for compiling histories of the institutions.

The last session of the day was a demonstration of Manuscriptorium, part of the Enrich project and which is a European digital library of written cultural heritage. This is available through a website:

In the evening there was a reception at Villa Lanna which is owned by the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic. We were treated to a buffet meal with accompanying music from a contemporary trio - L'Arrache-Coeur - who played European folk music with a modern approach. They used an accordion, clarinets and a modern, electric hurdy-gurdy!

On Saturday Martin Franc of the Archive of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic spoke on the exploitation of personal papers for biographies and histories. The appraisal of papers of scientists is affected by various factors. For example, the post-War political unrest in Prague affected which personal papers survived. Scientists tend to favour material relating to their research work, whereas archivists want a broader picture reflected in the documents acquired. He was followed by Gráinne Loughran of the University of Ulster who discussed issues involved in archiving the arts. This included recording performance based art and the problems surrounding this – such as, for example, the archivists themselves affecting the performance. With regards to the arts the dynamic of the relationship between the archivist and the artist moves the former away from Derrida’s belief in the archivist’s power.

The conference ended with a lively and thought provoking debate about whether or not archivists should have a historical background – which related to the theme of the conference. It was interesting to see that delegates were clearly divided in this issue and argued strongly for their point of view. For some the requirement that archivists should be historians can prevent a broader perspective of an archival collection during the process of appraisal and description. For others only archivists with historical training can bring proper tools to the job that will aid future historical researchers.

On Sunday there was an excursion to the Cistercian Monastery at Plasy in Western Bohemia. This mediaeval monastery and early modern castle that belonged to the Metternich family contains the Architectural Heritage Centre of the National Technical Museum in Prague. The visit included a climb up the old clock tower to see the original clock mechanism – still in use – that dates from 1686.

We would like to take this opportunity to thank our Czech hosts for the conference organisation and for their wonderful hospitality. Děkujeme vám!

Michael Bolik and Jennifer Johnstone

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