Media Matters in the Archive

Last month on the BPMA blog, I wrote about how we catalogue archives. Since then I’ve primarily been working in the areas of the Archive concerned with Post Office media campaigns, PR and communications (POST 108 and POST 118). In this month’s cataloguing update I’ll tell you about some of the challenges presented by this material.

Matt contemplates the range of media types to be catalogued.

Matt contemplates the range of media types to be catalogued.

The picture above shows a sample of (mostly duplicate) archives from the boxes I’m cataloguing in the POST 108 backlog. As you can see, these archives aren’t just paper! I’m cataloguing VHS training videos, audio tapes of press interviews, and reams of promotional publications sent out to staff, business clients, and the press. There are also CD-ROMs containing digital documents. The reel you can see resulted from a 1980s Royal Mail programme to microfilm thousands of paper reports from earlier years, and I’ve got a box of nearly 60 reels to catalogue!

All these relatively new media are at odds with the traditional image of archives as being old and paper-based, but they’re archives all the same. At the moment we still have the technology to access information held on obsolete media like VHS tapes, but how will they be accessed in the future when no one is making devices that play them? In the longer term, it may be necessary to migrate audio/video/digital archives to new media. For now, though, I’m concentrating on cataloguing these hundreds of archives as rapidly as possible, ready for them to be opened in line with the 20-year rule.

A big task for me in the coming weeks is to catalogue several hundred files produced during the publication of Courier, the Royal Mail Group staff magazine that’s still published today. These files are being transferred from the POST 108 backlog to POST 118, joining related archives already on the catalogue, and the work is being ably assisted by our new volunteer Leanne, who joined us in September.

The files contain all the photographs collected during production of each monthly Courier edition in the 1970s and 1980s. The photographs don’t merely illustrate high-level business stories; they were also collected to accompany articles on local news from all over the UK. Best of all, the files include the images that were rejected for publication. Thanks to the Archive, they have escaped oblivion.

A sample of uncatalogued photographic files from the Courier archives.

A sample of uncatalogued photographic files from the Courier archives.

The immediate priority is preservation. As you can see from the image above (a handful of files from one of seven crates!), the photos were originally stored in batches inside office dividers. Some sets of prints, like the one on the bottom left, are still in their original glassine envelopes. This isn’t optimal for long-term preservation – photos can stick together over time – so I’ll need to transfer them to individual polyester pockets stored within acid-free archival folders.

There are cataloguing challenges, too. While many photographs were taken by Post Office staff, many more were simply bought from third-party agencies. It’s not always possible to determine copyright ownership, as some prints are unlabelled. My job as an archivist is helped by the slips attached to many prints, identifying their subjects and the Courier editions for which they were selected. The bottom-right print in the photograph above is an example. Unfortunately, standard practice was apparently to date images by month… but not by year! Ultimately, even after cataloguing is complete, it may be necessary to cross-reference these photographic files with the published Courier editions held in POST 92 to exploit this resource fully.

Repackaged and catalogued Courier photographs. This portrait (POST 118/14028.jpg) shows Dorothy Fothergill, appointed Director of the London Postal Region in 1971.

Repackaged and catalogued Courier photographs. This portrait (POST 118/14028.jpg) shows Dorothy Fothergill, appointed Director of the London Postal Region in 1971.

With hundreds of archives in the POST 108 backlog that need special packaging and cataloguing, there’s a mountain of work to do! Once it’s finished, though, it will enrich the picture of the Post Office’s more recent history. This is just one part of the ongoing cataloguing work being undertaken by colleagues and volunteers at the BPMA.

– Matt Tantony, Project Archivist (Cataloguing)

3 responses to “Media Matters in the Archive

  1. Hi, congratulations for the excellent work and the blog! .. very cool expose these issues and difficulties. Preserve these objects is the biggest challenge. Today I wonder how many VCR in good condition were released in the last 15 years … and how many still find VHS in closets and we will not be playing. Here in São Paulo (Brazil) the climate is subtropical, so the humidity is very common even in summer (raining heavily) then keep stamps in good condition, photos and books is a labor of Hercules … in the UK there is excess humidity?
    Greetings from Brazil!

    • Hi Joao. Thank you very much for your comment and greetings to the people of Brazil! We well understand your battle against excess humidity.

      Here in the UK, relative humidity varies quite a lot – like the rest of our climate! Relative humidity varies between a low of around 73% in the summer and a high of around 90% in the winter.

      Many archivists agree that it’s best to keep paper archives in stable environmental conditions, with a relative humidity between around 40% and 65%. Photos and film should be kept at a lower relative humidity of around 30-35%. Here in the UK the British Standards Institute has issued a document outlining optimum standards for the storage and exhibition of archives (see

      I hope this is helpful.

      Best Wishes,
      – Matt Tantony, Project Archivist (Cataloguing)

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