Banishing a backlog: reconciliation at the National Railway Museum

Anne Sharman, Documentation Officer at the National Railway Museum, talks us through her experience of the reconciliation stage of banishing a backlog.

Collection of railway hand-lamps.

At the National Railway Museum we have been working to reconcile our historic documentation with items in our collection. The catalysts for this project were a desire to fully understand the scale of our backlog and to easily identify ‘quick wins’. We started by gathering the richest source of information at our disposal – files.

To give some context it is useful to understand the background of our collection. When the Railway Museum opened in 1975 it was an immediate success and sparked an outpouring of offers from railway companies, workers, and enthusiasts, to share their long-hidden treasures. Naturally, many of these offers were gratefully accepted and the collection grew. Records were kept of offers and objects, in paper files and on a file index.

Acquisitions to the collection were variously categorised as Desirable Acquisition, Miscellaneous Items for Display, Offer of Objects, or Purchase of Objects at Auction, and recorded in the filing system. If an item was accepted into the collection the paper file was transferred to an Object History or ‘Technical’ file, numbered to match the object’s accession number. When we went digital the link between object and file could be made clear using our Collections Management System (CMS).

The rate of collecting, exacerbated by the winding-down of the nationalised rail industry, closures of factories and carriage works, and privatisation, continued to be high. This resulted in a backlog of outstanding Desirable Acquisition files.

Many of these files were uncatalogued and fell out of the museum’s collective consciousness, leading to uncertainty as to what had happened to the objects they refer to. The diversity of our collection, from locomotives to teaspoons to tickets, means that tracing an object is not a ‘one-size-fits-all’ exercise. Working out the status of these acquisitions was step one in the process of reconciling our backlog.

Volunteers were recruited to complete the initial file review, supervised by the Collections Documentation team. We were unsure of how much material we were likely to encounter, so we decided not to place strict timescales on the project. Progress was reviewed every six months.

Since the start of the project volunteers and staff have reviewed roughly 1,500 of these donation files. Our volunteers read through the files, looking for clues as to what happened to a particular donation – for example was it accepted or rejected? Is there a detailed description of the objects donated? The Collections Documentation team would then create the digital record for the file, along with a detailed description based on the notes from the volunteers.

The museum’s process for reconciling existing documentation with items located in the collections.

 

As part of audits and listing exercises of our uncatalogued material, matches are made as objects are found, often with file numbers or donor names written on storage boxes or other locations. Ensuring there are detailed descriptions on the donated items’ file records allows colleagues to search using a variety of criteria, such as donor, key word, or date. Thus, we can match what were previously considered ‘orphan’ objects with the paperwork that had been sitting in filing cabinets for decades.

This has been a key ‘lesson learned’ – the need for thorough descriptions, including physical descriptions. Many of our earliest files simply describe ‘books’ or ‘miscellaneous railway items’ – which does not particularly help with reconciliation! When reading through the correspondence we are often able to identify other key pieces of information which can be used to augment descriptions and help with identification. This has also helped inform our current data entry practices, with standards of data entry being controlled to ensure the same issues are not encountered in future.

Successes include reconciling objects that had been recorded on our CMS as ‘untraced find’ or ‘found in museum’, the paperwork for which has been discovered in the file backlog; in these instances the provenance information can finally be entered onto the database. We have also been able to review paperwork that is no longer needed, helping us to be compliant with the new European and UK data protection regulations.

From the files we have been able to understand how backlogs accumulate, as well as the importance of succession planning. Institutional knowledge is invaluable and as staff move on key information can be lost – this project has brought this issue into focus. We are really pleased with the progress we’ve made as the project has developed and now have a much better understanding of our collections and where they came from.

 

Read the Inventory Spectrum procedure in full here