Hidden Histories: The US-UK Fulbright Commission Archive at the British Library

Eleanor Casson is a manuscripts cataloguer at the British Library and from March-November 2018, she catalogued The US-UK Fulbright Commission’s Archive. In this post she describes the processes involved in cataloguing an archive.

The US-UK Fulbright Commission’s Archive was acquired by the British Library (BL) in 2017. With support from The Eccles Centre for American Studies, the collection was catalogued to coincide with the Commission’s 70th Anniversary year (2018). The catalogue consists of three hundred and sixty three paper files, several thousand digital files and spans from 1945 to 2014.

To celebrate the launch of the Archive, an event was held at the British Library 19th November 2018 – Hidden Histories: Gaps and Silences in the Archive. Chaired by academic Jane Winters (SOAS), this event featured presentations and a panel discussion with academics Caroline Bressey (UCL) and Tony Badger (Northumbria), historian Kate Williams, and me. The panel discussed why material may be missing from an archive, how this creates gaps and silences and how these gaps can be navigated by researchers. My role in the discussion was to explain the archival process and the phases involved with cataloguing a collection.

First phase

My first task working on the archive was to create a preliminary listing of the entire collection. This created a holistic overview of the material to work from. This allowed me to understand what was included in the collection and what action would need to be taken to preserve the material. The listing of the collection identified two main groups of records; the US-UK Fulbright Commission (Fulbright) and the British Fulbright Scholars Association (BFSA). It also identified that there were CD back-ups of computer drives containing files, in archival terms these files are called born-digital objects.

Pictured: The British Fulbright Scholar Association Newsletter, No. 1 (1983), (Add MS 89316/2/30), The British Fulbright Scholar Association: Link, No. 1 (1989) (Add MS 89316/2/31), and The Fulbright Alumni News: Linking the UK and USA, No. 22 2001 (Add MS 89316/2/32) © Copyright The Fulbright Commission.

Second phase

This phase involved the appraisal and arrangement of the collection, using the preliminary listing I grouped the records together to preserve the original order of the material. Ideally the arrangement should follow the order it was received in, or as closely as possible if the archive is a complete mess!

A number of interesting items were discovered during this process from ephemera; including an invitation to the opening of Fulbright House in 1993, for which John Cleese was the speaker, to digitised record cards for Fulbright Grantees including famous alumni such as Malcolm Bradbury, Baroness Deech, and Peter Higgs.

Pictured: The Record Card of Professor Peter Higgs, Theoretical Physicist, for his Fulbright Grant to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for post-doctoral research and lecturing. (Add MS 89316/1/2569) © Copyright The Fulbright Commission

See high-resolution record card here.

Third phase

This phase was the weeding and preservation of the records, it is normal practice for archives to remove duplicates and printed material. The British Library is also a Legal Deposit Library so we hold a copy of all material published in the UK already. My aim was to only remove material to improve the order of the records and the access to information for the researcher. Preservation is vital for archives as the material has been selected to be maintained in perpetuity. Water and mould damage are the most common to affect paper archives. Typically, any material affected by mould would be sent to BL Conservation to be treated.

Fourth phase

The final phase in the process was cataloguing and repackaging. This involved transferring the archive from records management boxes into archive boxes. Archive boxes are acid free, with environmental control and protection from atmospheric pollutants and are even capable of absorbing water to protect the contents inside. The information was input into the British Library’s Integrated Archives and Manuscript System (IAMS), and the catalogue was then published on BL Explore Archives and Manuscripts.

Some of the most varied content in the collection comes from the BFSA papers reflecting its role in events organising and raising funds through the alumni community. This includes hundreds of photographs from events like the Fulbright Commission Galas and US Fulbrighters’ Receptions, and garden parties. If you went to one of these events you may be in one of the unlabelled photographs! There are also the application files of Fulbrighters including application forms, record cards, and reports highlighting the thoughts and opinions of US Fulbrighters in the UK and UK Fulbrighters in the US.

Pictured: The US-UK Fulbright Commission Archive © Copyright British Library

These opinions provide insightful analysis into the two cultures but also mention a few well-known stereotypes such as; the British weather, the British obsession with tea drinking, and American colloquialisms! Due to the contemporary nature of this collection, many of the people included in the archive are still alive, this has meant that some of the collection has had to be closed due to data protection laws.

The US-UK Fulbright Commission Archive is now available to research via the BL’s Explore Archives and Manuscripts catalogue and viewable in the Manuscripts Reading room at the British Library.