Our first class visit was to the world’s largest archaeological archive: the London Archaeological Archive Research Centre (LAARC) at the Museum of London. LAARC originated as overflow storage for the Museum of London collections, but in the last few years it has become an archive that is open to researchers. We had a wonderful guide: Kathryn the Learning Coordinator, who is focused on outreach and programming relating to the collections. LAARC is housed in a very nondescript former factory/warehouse building in Hackney. Having the collections tucked away in this unimposing yet practical structure is helpful in terms of security and maintenance of the collections, but the fact that it is not immediately apparent does hinder people’s ability to find the location. Our host could confirm the location and appearance is often problematic, especially for school visits.
Kathryn explained how items in the archive are found, and how they are then organized by their “site” and “context”. The “site code” consists of 3 letters (which identify the geographic location where the item was found) and 2 numbers (which indicate the year in which excavation of the site in which the item was found began). The catalogue lists where items can be found, and is organized in order of site code. We also learned about the concept of “context”, which is critical for archaeologists. Context refers to where an item was found, what it was found in, and what it was found with. Another important archaeological concept was the idea that the absence of something can be just as, if not more important, than its presence, in terms of what it tells us about the people or civilization who lived there at that point in time. It was so interesting to think about this kind of metadata associated with these items. It is very different than traditional library cataloging and classification, to be sure, but it just goes to show how significant the information contained in the metadata can be, and how it complements and potentially influences a user’s understanding of particular items within a collection.
Kathryn made an important point about the need to balance preservation versus access. After all, access is the very purpose of the preservation of these collections, and they offer such valuable, tangible learning opportunities. Information professions, as caretakers and facilitators of access to these collections, need to allow and enable access of the collections in order to justify their existence, but the need for access needs to be balanced with preservation and security concerns.