People often think of archives in terms of national historical importance – the Magna Carta, for instance, or the Domesday Books, or the Atlantic Charter – which is indeed true. What is less well-known is the importance of archiving for organisations, councils and companies: the charities, government structures and businesses that are a large part of society’s fabric. Documents such as minutes, agreements, court cases and correspondence all link an organisation to their past, and all may be needed in the future.
We at The National Trust are currently carrying out a complete review of our records and archives. Being the second largest landowner in Great Britain, The National Trust has hundreds of thousands of files, which are mostly stored in an old stone mine just outside of Bath. A lot of these files aren’t catalogued - so nobody knows exactly what’s down there. Our project objective is to decide which of these need to be kept and archived and which need to be destroyed, and to catalogue accurately and in detail those we decide to keep – making it easier for others to access the information and to preserve The National Trust’s history for the future.
Our usual process for sorting our records consists of the files arriving at our workshop, which are then appraised and catalogued: staff look through the files, and using a retention schedule, appraisal guidelines and a good sprinkling of common sense, decide whether they need to be kept permanently or destroyed. Those which are destroyed are shredded, but those which are kept are catalogued on our Archives and Records Management System (ARMS) with a title, a unique ID, keywords and a description of what the file contains – which can be anything from war damage claims to disgruntled tenants to property acquisitions. Some of the files are horrible – staples so rusty they have completely crumbled, cardboard covers water damaged and on their last legs – so we replace the metal and file covers and send the finished items, reprocessed and repackaged, back for storage.
However, this week we have been based at Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre, where we keep our permanent archives. These are any executive and regional committee minutes, any important documents which show us how the Trust has developed over time, and anything that dates before 1940. As the Trust began in 1895 this covers just 45 years, but some of the most important years for the charity: the original acquisitions, statutory rights, the war years – in general, the work that would be the foundations for the flourishing charity we are now.
Most of the archives we’ve been cataloguing this week have fallen into the latter category – that is, they are all dated pre-1940, and, as a result, we have come across some intensely interesting documents.