Digging around the London Archaeological Archives and Research Centre

Map of London at LAARC

Map of London at LAARC

Fourth Class Blog Post:

This morning, we headed to the London Archaeological Archives and Research Centre, LAARC for short, at the Mortimer Wheeler House in Hackney.  Since the 1980s, the building was an archive and mostly used for storage and in 2002, they opened their facilities for research.  Though open for research, one cannot just stroll in – he or she must make an appointment.  The building houses three major distinct sections: the Museum of London Archaeology, the London Archaeological Archive Research Centre, and the Social and Working History Collection.

We first toured the Museum of London Archaeology section where we saw the facilities where they receive, clean, and store materials from excavations.  It was nice to get a sense of the process instead of thinking about it as a concept.  Sometimes one does not think about the work and effort that goes to just cleaning an artifact, let alone preserving it.

Next, we visited the LAARC, which holds a vast array of items excavated from all over London.  We saw items from Roman to medieval times.  As is the case with most traditional LIS centers, the LAARC faces issues of storage.  There just is not enough space!  I can imagine that space is more of an issue in London than in other cities because land is scarcer and more expensive.  If the LAARC ever runs out of space, they could have an annex, but creating an annex can raise more issues.  Since the LAARC holds fragile items, transport can be tricky and/or not recommended.  I cannot imagine that they can build a very accessible annex because land is scarce, so they might have to build an annex quite far away, which might mean that it might take longer for them to transport items.

Storage at LAARC

Storage at LAARC

One way they save space is by going through their older archives to condense boxes and update records.  LAARC relies heavily on volunteers who rationalize (make pragmatic decisions on what to keep and what to toss).  This process can take a long time because there is just so much stuff.  The archives have about 200,000 boxes with a variable amount of items in each box.

As another measure to save on space, they organize their items by year excavated instead of by subject, material type, or time period.  This idea of storing by the year excavated allows them to maximize space instead of having to guess how much space to devote to Victorian or medieval London.  This method reminds me of how USC’s annex and the British Library store their books by size rather than Dewey Decimal Classification or Library of Congress Classification.  Each information center must make the most practical decisions for their needs instead of blindly adhering to accepted standards.  That type of thinking promotes innovation and can really help cater to specific information centers and audiences.

We also got to see really cool items.  In the picture below you can see a footstep embedded in the orange-colored stone.  It is mind blowing to think that someone a really long time ago stepped down and made such an impression.  It is definitely very humbling and makes me think about cause and effect and snapshots in time.  We also got to see a medieval ice skate that people created out of animal bone.  Apparently the Thames used to freeze over and one could skate/glide over it.  I would never have guess that was the purpose of that particular artifact.  I guessed that it was a back scratcher!

Cool artifacts at the LAARC

Cool artifacts at the LAARC

At the end of our tour, we visited the Social and Working History Collection.  We were not allowed to take pictures there, but it was really cool because we saw the room where they store toys and items of communication.  The highlight of that section was probably the switchboard they used at Buckingham Palace in the 50s/60s.  I probably could have roamed around a little bit more because they had such interesting curiosities.  A lot of the items stored there are used for exhibits at the Museum of London and possibly other institutions (contingent on loan).

Overall, I really enjoyed the visit because it was very revealing and relevant to the LIS field, though not everyone would group them together.  LIS institutions and the LAARC both have a lot of the same issues of storage, archiving, and preservation, so it was great to look at those issues from another perspective.

Until next time, stay cool, friends!

 

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