Wednesday, June 13, 2007

The trouble with Ernest Pottergill

No stranger to political posturings, impassioned views and the interventions of interlopers, Garth Bland, beleaguered county archivist of Loamshire has been wrestling with the latest of the many challenges facing him.

Sir Roger Twit's Almshouse, Bloggsbridge

For some time Loamshire Record Office has been home to the records of the ancient Sir Roger Twit’s Charity, founded in the late 16th. Century by, as one might suppose, Sir Roger Twit. Twit rose to some local prominence as one of Queen Elizabeth I’s minor administrators and in his latter days became disposed to relieve the condition of the paupers of Bloggsbridge, the county town of Loamshire, the legislative efforts of his glorious queen notwithstanding. By his will therefore, he established the charity whose name commemorates him to this day.

The collection had only occasionally been subject to the depradations of the curious, the genealogically inclined and a few chance users who had irritatingly found the Internet version of its list a useful inroad into some otherwise obscure and forgotten technicality of history. Until one day Miss June Piddler, clerk to the trustees, rang him, that is.

Now Garth had had some previous contact with Miss Piddler. She had always made it plain she was irritated at the lack of progress in his office's listing of the unlisted part of the collection. Naturally it would cut no ice with her or the trustees that Garth and his colleagues had a vast backlog of unlisted collections, that they were snowed under with exhibitions on ethnic minorities or that management of the collection was commensurate with the office’s business plan.

She had been approached by that most amenable of freelance archivists, Ernest Pottergill DPhil, who had proposed just the solution. For a suitable fee, he would list not only the unlisted portion of the collection but would re-list the listed portion of the collection too. How kind of him. Would Garth mind letting Dr. Pottergill take the material away to undertake this work? Naturally it would be returned on completion.

The staff room at Loamshire Record Office was buzzing. A freelance archivist touting his services to their depositors behind their backs? A major depositor disregarding their longstanding arrangement with Loamshire County Council? Loamshire Record Office treated as merely a convenient record store at the disposal of freelance archivists? No consultation on such a significant exercise? A complex, large and ancient collection arranged and listed by an unqualified person? How to incorporate the new list, especially the electronic version, into their finding aids and online database? How to avoid anomalies in the numbering? The cheek of it.

Garth considered his best course of action. Dr. Pottergill was not a qualified archivist and as he was not, and could not be a member of SQA, no disciplinary action could be taken against him through SQA. Dr. Pottergill was a member of the rival Society of Archivists [sic] but disciplinary action through that body seemed unlikely and in any case their membership was open to non-archivists. One could sympathise with Miss Piddler for being impressed with Dr. Pottergill’s paper credentials. To the wider public, membership of the Society of Archivists naturally implied all its members were unambiguously archivists, qualified by some means or other to undertake professional archive work. There was no choice in the matter: Garth had to agree to the scheme.

In the event, Garth met with Dr. Pottergill and Miss Piddler, stated some of his concerns about the lack of prior notice, the benefits of properly scoping such a project and the need for careful planning and collaboration from that point onwards. He tactfully left unstated the ethical issue of a depositor dealing with a third party behind his back and the matter of Dr. Pottergill's lack of training and professional qualification.

And so there the matter rested, if not quite to the satisfaction of all the interested parties.

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