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Three Years Labour in the Archives at Conway Hall

Carl Harrison tells all…

Conway Hall Ethical Society is probably the oldest freethought community in the world. This proud heritage is embodied in its archives, which form part of the Humanist Library and Archives at Conway Hall.  These unique historical records are the authentic witness of the Society’s evolution from the radical dissenting congregation of the 1790s, through the nineteenth century challenges to thought and belief, to the creation of Conway Hall in the 1920s and the educational charity of today. In 2011 an inspection by The National Archives noted that the ‘collection also reflects the wider secularisation of society and the relative rarity of such material makes it a particularly valuable resource for the research community.  The holdings of personal papers further add value to the Society’s archive, notably to take a recent accession the papers of HJ Blackham (1903-2009).’

For several years, in parallel with the cataloguing of the Library’s book stock, work has been in progress to bring together, physically protect, arrange and catalogue the archives.  Conway Hall is a rambling building and bringing the records together involved searching basements and offices throughout the site, with minutes, accounts, files, correspondence, plans, publicity materials, photographs, sound recordings etc turning up from all sorts of places. The process is still not fully complete!  As we brought them together work began on reboxing the records into acid neutral archive boxes supplied from the conservation studio of London Metropolitan Archives.

A safe home for the gathered archives was the next priority. A temporary store was established in the South Basement while options were assessed for a permanent strongroom (as archivists traditionally call the archive store).  Advice was commissioned from the National Conservation Service, who monitored the environments in the North, South and East Basements over a full year to identify the space with the most stable temperature and humidity, most closely in line with the British Standard on archive storage. The best option proved to be an East Basement room let to the National Secular Society, who readily agreed to exchange this for another space to allow the creation of a strongroom for their and the Ethical Society’s archives.

Once empty the room was gutted and repainted, the raw concrete floor sealed and a fireproof door installed. Archive quality steel shelving was erected, specified to accommodate the archive boxes in the most space efficient way. At the time of writing the room is ready and, with reboxing well advanced it is hoped to move all the collections in by April 2013.

As this work has gone on, arrangement of the archives into a rational order, and the beginnings of detailed cataloguing, have also begun. While many of the records are still in ‘as found’ (dis)order, a very rough and ready survey has allowed a preliminary classification scheme and ‘high level’ summary description of everything found to be created. The latest version is attached as an appendix to this account (but note it will be subject to further revision as work progresses).

The summary description, while useful in indicating the overall ‘scope and content’ of the archive is of limited value to researchers. Cataloguing at a more detailed level, down to the content of individual volumes, files, letters etc is essential if the full richness and variety of the resource for a range of studies, is to be revealed. Nowadays any library or archive catalogue must be available online to reach the widest audience, so some tweaking of the Library’s cataloguing database was necessary to enable it to better reflect the nature of the archival documents described. In the process catalogue entries for the deeds of the Conway Hall site (from 1685/6), early minutes of the predecessors of the Ethical Society (from 1807), letters of Moncure Conway (from 1871), records of the South Place Sunday Concerts (from 1887), and the Blackham archive (from 1919) were created on the online Library catalogue.

This work was undertaken by the writer and Anita Miller, another Conway Hall volunteer with archival experience. In the process the scale of the task became apparent; to complete the detailed cataloguing at the present rate would take decades. The answer, obviously, was more (people) resources so at this point work began on an application to the annual round of the National Cataloguing Grants Programme for Archives. Under this scheme The National Archives channels charitable funds to make accessible archives of national significance that would otherwise languish uncatalogued.  As we drafted an application to catalogue the archives of the Ethical Society and National Secular Society at Conway Hall, we became aware that Bishopsgate Institute was working on a parallel application for the archives of the British Humanist Association housed there. The grants scheme is heavily oversubscribed and clearly it made no sense for such closely related bids to compete against each other. Very quickly we came together to mount a joint bid under the heading of ‘Alternatives to Religion’.

Although our initial application in 2011 was unsuccessful, the assessment panel commented favourably on ‘the potential of the collections…to transform research and understanding of the alternatives to religion’ and invited us to submit a ‘fast track’ reapplication in 2012. This we did and the revised application, with strengthened project management (including a memorandum of understanding with Bishopsgate Institute on ‘cooperation to develop the Archives of Humanism’) and proposals for enhanced outreach and online presence (including an Alternatives to Religion website), was successful in obtaining a grant of £41,250. The partners are now in the process of recruiting a suitably qualified archivist to work for a year and a half at Bishopsgate and Conway Hall to complete the task.

So looking back on the ‘three years’ labour’, while at times it seemed that we were pursuing a number of work strands as tortuous as the basements of Conway Hall, actually they are all beginning to come together quite nicely.  And the next couple of years should see a great leap forward in both accessibility and visibility for the archives at Conway Hall.

Carl Harrison

Hon Archivist

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