Karen Stapley: A day in the life of an archivist
This blog post is part of a series for Explore Your Archive.
The British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership is a project to digitise half a million pages of archival and manuscript material relating to the Gulf that will result in an online portal that will present the collections in both English and Arabic. As part of that project I am part of a 13-strong cataloguing team working on material from the India Office Collections that document British Colonial influence in the Gulf region from the 18th to 20th centuries.
As a project archivist on such a large mass digitisation project we are working to very tight deadlines and having to tackle many difficult challenges and questions as they arise on a wide variety of issues, so interacting with colleagues is essential to ensure that our approaches to these issues are consistent and well-documented.
The cataloguing team for the project comprises of a mix of Archival specialists, Gulf History and Arabic Language specialists and Cataloguers. Communication between us as a team is vital in order to present the information contained within the records accurately. The breadth of the subjects discussed in the records means it is simply not possible to learn everything you might need to know about the history of the Gulf region as you go along in order to catalogue the records, so the depth of knowledge and experience of the Gulf History specialists has been essential in ensuring an accurate understanding of the records being catalogued. The frequent appearance of material in Arabic, Persian and other eastern languages, as well as the decision to present Arabic names and places using transliteration and diacritics, has made the Arabic language specialists a vital part of the cataloguing process too.
There are currently two main aspects to my work; the physical cataloguing of the records, for which my responsibility and focus is on the collection of private papers which has been included within the project remit and more strategic work centring on the authority records we are intending to create as part of the project.
Authority records are a way of providing context for the way in which the records have been created and used; they can be used to provide information on the people, organisations, places and subjects that are central to the records and enable users to interpret the records more accurately by providing this additional information.
The project faces some unique challenges in terms of its decision to translate the catalogue entries and metadata into Arabic and have it available simultaneously in both languages. The standards that Archivists work to are International Standards, however they have been designed with western names, places and information in mind and trying to adapt them so that names and places, particularly those in Arabic and Persian, can be incorporated is proving to be an interesting challenge.
The nature of our collections has posed some interesting questions in terms of the definitions we might use in the UK and how they differ from the Gulf region. One question of particular focus today has been how we might define the difference between a ‘tribe’ and a ‘family’ and the circumstances under which we would use each term in our work. Other recent challenges in this area have been attempting to define the different capacities that a ruler of a Gulf state such as Bahrain might act in which include their corporate responsibilities as head of state, their responsibilities as the head of their family and their own personal interests and responsibilities all of which are defined in different ways for this project.
Other challenges we are tackling revolve around authoritative sources for the information we are providing– one of the types of authority file that we are using are subjects, however the principal sources for these, the UK Archival Thesaurus (UKAT) and the Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) are excellent starting points but often lack the breadth of information required to establish subject headings for subjects specific to our records such as religious courts, pearl diving or piracy or where they do already exist their meanings are very different from those given in the records being catalogued.
Karen Stapley, Project Archivist, Archival Specialist, Qatar Project, the British Library
This week sees the launch of Explore Your Archive, a new campaign for archives, which highlights the value of local, university, business, specialist, private and national archives. Archive services across England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Ireland are sharing inspiring, surprising and enticing stories from their collections. Have a look at the website to find an event near you and be inspired to Explore Your Archive.