Working to open up our ‘Born Digital’ archive.

In autumn 2014, the Tavistock Institute established its paper archive at the Wellcome Library – 300 boxes of paper files, catalogued by a dedicated archivist and made available to the world in 2016. It holds a comprehensive record of the formation, establishment and development of the Tavistock Institute over a period of 70 years. Not only has our archive been immensely popular – it is consistently in the top 10 consulted archive collections held at Wellcome – it has also influenced many outreach events such as our wildly successful 70th festival in October 2017 and, more recently, an archive symposium, Archive-A-Live! an exploratory day for those researching the archive.

However, while comprehensive, the paper archives only cover the Institute’s material up until the late 90s. Since then, like other organisations, we joined the computer revolution, and records of the work since that time are all processed electronically. Reports, minutes, fieldwork, governance documents, communication – all of this typed up, saved on one server and rarely printed. And the result? Data. A LOT of data. 1.39 terabyte of information, held on the Institute’s server. A server that runs 24 hours a day, 365 days a year requiring power and air conditioning. For various files, this data is also duplicated, resulting in some elaborate naming strategies and conventions:
Report Final_final_FINAL 2019’!

How, then, do we approach this mass of information and data, appraise it when we cannot hold it in our hands and ensure that it can be added to our current archive collection at Wellcome so that the Institute’s more recent history can be saved and accessed?

It was certainly a daunting task from the beginning, and it became clear that we needed specialist technical help. Since summer 2018, we’ve been working with a Digital Records Management Consultant, Frank Owen, Development Director at Max Communications.

In April 2019, the process received a huge boost when we won a prestigious Scoping Grant from the National Archive for our consultant Frank to scope and develop a tool for appraisal of the Born Digital material. This enabled us to hire two archive students, Karen Kiss and Kate Shaw, from University College London, to sort the material. You can find a copy of the TIHR Digital Archive Scoping Report here written by Frank Owen with contributions from others at the Tavistock Institute. The report goes into detail about the process and the technicalities of the work. For those thinking of embarking on a similar project, it’s a must!

The appraisal continued with our archive students into late 2019. The process was time-consuming but wholly necessary as our plan for 2020 was to add the digital collection to our paper archive at Wellcome Collection. It was with the view to making available our more recent heritage of applied social science, including EU research and innovation, citizen empowerment projects with NHS, and local government governance change.

Of course, the world had other ideas, and the whole project was put on hold in March 2020 as both the Tavistock Institute and Wellcome Collection were called to action in their different ways to serve and support society through the pandemic.

However, on 7th July 2021, our first tranche of the digital archive was formally transferred to the collections department at Wellcome. We hope, in due course, that this material will be catalogued and made available. We also hope the archive project continues to serve as a novel example of how organisations can sort and handle the amount of data the world now creates.

If you want to find out more, we encourage you to listen to a recent podcast recorded in collaboration with Max Communications. Here you can listen to a discussion between our Operations Manager, Meg Davies, our Business Development Manager, Juliet Scott, who has led the archive project from the beginning, and Faith Williams, Manager at Max Communications.

Meg Davies
TIHR Operations and Editorial Manager

The Tavistock Institute of Human Relations’ archive can be found by searching on Wellcome Library’s online catalogue, using the reference: SA/TIH.

To access material held within the Tavistock Institute archive at Wellcome please email collections@wellcome.ac.uk