Thursday 9 April 2015

Introducing the Genesis Project

The Borthwick Institute holds archival collections that range in date from the 11th century to the present day.  If you have visited the Institute yourself you will be all too familiar with the numerous paper catalogues that take up an entire wall of the searchroom reception, serving as guides to our ecclesiastical, business, architectural, health, estate and drama collections (not an exhaustive list by any means).
If you have looked up these same collections on the internet, you may have discovered that only a small fraction of these vast holdings, perhaps 10%, have information available online - via external databases such as The National Archives ‘Discovery’ catalogue (and its predecessor Access to Archives), the Archives Hub, and dedicated websites like The Cause Papers Database and The Lascelles Slavery Archive. 
Lots and lots of lists...
A newly funded project aims to change that.  Over the next two years the Genesis Project will open up the full range of the Borthwick’s collections to staff and the general public through the creation of our own online catalogue using AtoM, or Access to Memory, a web-based, open source application for archival description and access.  For the first time, users anywhere in the world will have remote access to accurate and up to date information about our full holdings, bringing the Borthwick in line with other institutions of similar size and scope and creating a wealth of opportunities for research and discovery.
The aims of the project are both ambitious and modest at the same time.  Where traditional archival practice has often focused on putting complete archival catalogues online, right down to individual item level, our aim in this initial stage will be to populate our catalogue with collection or ‘fonds’ level descriptions, that is descriptions of archival collections at the highest level, and their associated authority files.  These are the parts of an archive catalogue that provide users with the ‘need to know’ data, the key dates, names and general content of the collection and any restrictions that might apply to its access and use.   The fonds level description will describe the collection as a whole, whilst the authority file will describe the creator of that collection and can be linked to multiple collections, allowing us to show links between different groups of archival records created by the same individual, family, or organisation.
The project will prioritise collections with no existing finding aids online, bringing key details of such diverse archives as those of the playwright Sir Alan Ayckbourn, the chocolate makers Terry’s of York, and the estate and family papers of the Earls of Halifax, to a global audience.   In doing do we hope to highlight the hidden treasures in the collections which, until now, have only been discoverable by searching the paper catalogues in the searchroom.  Treasures such as the Morrell Deeds in our Private Deposits which include records from as early as the 12th century, or the papers of the York family which date from the 17th to the 20th century and include 24 volumes of diaries, visitor books and common place books kept by Lady Mary York between 1786 and 1831.
As Project Archivist I will be spending the next few weeks getting to grips with AtoM and the archive standards we will be using before I begin work on the first collection level descriptions.  As the project progresses I hope to use this blog to share new developments and discoveries. The Genesis Project is, as its name suggests, just the beginning - but by establishing a single, uniform source of information for our holdings it will provide an invaluable tool to staff and visitors and a solid foundation for the expansion of our online catalogues in the future, showing the world just what the Borthwick Institute has to offer.
 Sally-Anne Shearn

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