‘Records at Risk’ – what does that mean?

We are currently undertaking a project to find and support significant theatre & live art records placed at risk due to COVID-19.  We are looking to help individuals and organisations that have been affected by the pandemic and need help with caring for their archives.  If you are concerned about your records or know of any records that are at risk, please have a look at our Records at Risk page and get in touch with Siân Williams, Project Archivist: sian.a.williams@bristol.ac.uk

As highlighted in my previous blog post, the Records at Risk project has an important advocacy role to raise awareness of records and archives and the research value of industry professionals’ records.  We want to reach those currently working in the theatre industry and get professionals thinking about their records now.  We recently held an online seminar in collaboration with the ABTT about Caring for your Records. You can watch a recording of the seminar here:

But to really ensure the project has a wide reach, we need to be clear what we are talking about when we use the phrase ‘Records at Risk’.

What are records?

Records are documents created or accumulated in the course of your day-to-day activities.  The records we generate in daily life or business can take any form, including paper documents, photographs, sound and video recordings and digital files.

Records are created by individuals and organisations, both public and private.  And records are active, meaning they are in current use and are needed to carry on activities, from train tickets and pay slips to rent agreements and music playlists.

In your professional life, records are the material that you create and accumulate in order to do your job.  For example, a theatre designer’s records could include original designs, fabric swatches, research papers and photographs, technical drawings and plans, correspondence and production photographs, in addition to personal administrative records such as financial papers and contracts.

When no longer in active use, these records can be selected for long-term preservation as an archival collection, providing a window to the past for future generations.

What can cause records to be put at risk?

Records can be placed at risk due to a myriad of factors.  For example, records can often be at risk of loss when companies go into administration or liquidation.  During such a challenging time, the company’s records are not the priority and insolvency practitioners may not have an awareness of the historical value of the company’s archive.  The Crisis Management Team for Business Archives make great efforts to ensure these business records at risk of loss are preserved for the future.

If funding streams are cut off, this can cause performance venues or companies to close very quickly and at incredibly short notice.  Physical spaces might change hands or be sold and the organisational records can be thrown away during this handover. In the case of the greenroom archive in Manchester, we had to act quickly when funding streams changed and the performance space had to close at short notice in 2011. greenroom started as a peripatetic organisation in 1983, eventually establishing a permanent venue under two railway arches in 1987, becoming Manchester’s centre for new, experimental and contemporary performance.  This archive is now held in the Live Art Archives of the Theatre Collection and captures the administrative and performance history of the company.

Particularly under threat are the records of peripatetic performance companies who may not have a permanent physical space to store their records. If records are kept at home by individual members of the company they can be lost over time with changes in personnel.

Records might also be at risk of physical damage or loss due to environmental factors, such as flooding or fire or due to inappropriate storage conditions.  We’ve put together this short video with a basic overview of how to look after your records, which should keep them in good shape and slow deterioration:

Audio and audiovisual material on obsolete formats is also at risk.  Film or magnetic media, such as VHS, Betamax and U-matic tapes need to be prioritised for digitisation due to degradation and the limited life of the original tapes or reels.  Similarly, material saved on optical media, such as CD-R and DVD-R, should be transferred to a more stable storage media as soon as possible as they also degrade very quickly.  Once the material has been saved onto more stable storage media or digitised, the digital files need to be managed so they can be accessed in the future.  We’ve put together this short video to help those starting to manage their personal digital files:

By Sian Williams, Project Archivist

If you would like more information about finding a home for your records and advice on caring for your own records, please have a look at our updated ‘Caring for your theatre and live art records’ pages: http://www.bristol.ac.uk/theatre-collection/caring-for-your-theatre–live-art-records/


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