Methodology for Reconstituting and Rebuilding Lost or Missing Institutional Records at Tate

This methodology was developed by Sarah Haylett as part of the Reshaping the Collectible: When Artworks Live in the Museum research project. It is published here to support the publication of a paper by Haylett in the Archives and Records Journal entitled ‘Reconstituting and Rebuilding Lost and Missing Institutional Records at Tate’, and in the spirit of being transparent about our research and outputs. The methodology has been embedded into Tate’s existing records management policies and will be updated accordingly.

1 Policy

1.1 Existing policies

This methodology is linked to and has been developed to support Tate’s existing records management policies.

Tate is a Public Record Body under the Public Records Act 1958 and is also designated as a ‘Place of deposit’ under this Act. This designation enables Tate to retain information and place it on deposit permanently as historical public records. The Act includes records in all formats: not only written records but records conveying information by ‘any other means whatsoever’ (section 10 (1) Public Records Act, 1958). The records are held onsite and this places a duty upon Tate to require arrangements to be made for their inspection (records) by the public comparable to those made for public records in the Public Record Office (now The National Archives) (s5 (5)).

1.2 Intention and purpose

The intention of this methodology is to support the records management team and Tate staff in identifying, reconstituting and rebuilding missing institutional records in line with established records management policies and practices. It will include a step-by-step guide based on the process undertaken by the embedded archives and records management research as part of Andrew W. Mellon funded research project Reshaping the Collectible: When Artworks Live in the Museum (2018–21). Building on this work, the methodology allows Tate to take control of its missing, lost or misplaced institutional records rather than waiting for them to be identified in response to research requests, and act accordingly and collaboratively.

This methodology is rooted in current practice, policy and archival theory. This is a complex and unfolding issue, one that the Tate Public Records team has not encountered before, and therefore this methodology will undergo ongoing appraisal, review and updating. During the process of writing and reviewing this methodology the Covid-19 situation unfolded and Tate staff were required to work from home; at short notice, a policy was created for working in Office 365 and OneDrive. Eventually, the information created while working remotely will need to be transferred back to the shared drive which remains Tate’s main location for managing its records. This methodology may also be reviewed and updated to include processes that could unfold as part of this large, institution-wide migration should records be missed or lost in the process. Another effect of the Covid-19 situation has meant that Tate undertook a voluntary redundancy process and several members of staff have left the institution. While guidance was produced to ease this transition period and allow staff the time to manage their records accordingly, the period of adjustment may highlight missing and lost records. Finally, it may also be reviewed when a planned electronic records management system for Tate is rolled out.

1.3 Resources/value

This is time-consuming work, and the level of commitment should be weighed against the value of the records in consideration of Tate’s core activities and its obligations as a Public Records Body. This process and justification for undertaking the work, or not, should be transparent and clearly captured as part of the documentation process (see 2.2). This decision should be made in collaboration with the team/department where the records were created as they may be able to share resources, knowledge and systems of value.

1.4 Definitions

These definitions have been sourced from a combination of Tate’s records management policies and external sources as identified.

  • A record is ‘information created, received, and maintained as evidence and information by an organisation or person, in pursuance of legal obligations or in the transaction of business’ (BS ISO 15489 – 1:2001 Information and documentation: records management). The Public Records Act 1958 stipulates that ‘records are not only written records but records conveying information by any other means whatsoever’.

Tate’s definition combines these two definitions as follows for internal training purposes:

  • Records are any recorded information, regardless of format, created, received and maintained as evidence by Tate in pursuance of all of Tate’s legal obligations, activities and business transactions.
  • A semi-current record at Tate is a record that has been initially selected by the team responsible for the activity to be retained for up to twenty years and then appraised for permanent retention.

All information held by Tate is subject to the Public Records Act 1958 and subsequent legislation.

  • Records management is, therefore, ‘the field of management responsible for the efficient and systematic control of the creation, receipt, maintenance, use and disposition of records, including processes for capturing and maintaining evidence of and information about business activities and transactions in the form of records’ (BS ISO 15489 – 1:2001 Information and documentation: records management).
  • The ‘shared’ drive is how Tate staff create, manage and access the documents they produce as part of their work at Tate. Several drives exist at Tate including:
  1. The ‘Project’ drive – a shared drive used by a small group of people who still need access to the capital building projects;
  2. The ‘I’ drive – this holds images, mainly created before the creation of the main shared drive. There is a separate drive used by the Photography Team for short-term storage of images.

Terminology specific to this methodology include:

  • Reconstitute is a word that exists within archival language without a formal definition. Perhaps this is because the language is interchangeable, but neither ‘rebuild’, ‘reconstruct’ nor ‘restoration’ are formally defined either. The term can take on two forms: to directly reconstitute is to have a backup of the lost records knowing that the exact record has been repopulated; to reconstitute as to rebuild is to know that there is a narrative missing and working (potentially collectively) to rebuild this information.
  • Oral history is a process of gathering, preserving and interpreting the narratives of past events. It is the oldest form of historical enquiry and has become a key part of archival practices. In the context of reconstituting records, interviewing staff will be a key part of the process and those involved can look to the Oral History Society for guidance.1
  • ‘Email Archive’ – At Tate emails older than six months are transferred to the email archive server before the email retention policy requires them to be disposed of.
  • Participatory Cataloguing is the process of bolstering the existing, archival cataloguing with other voices and experiences within cataloguing descriptions. In recent archival practice and theory, it is a process for including voices of those usually not found in archival records and offers different, subjective perspectives to archival records.2

2 Methodology

2.1 Trusted records

Establishing trusted records is at the core of Tate’s role as a Public Records Body; to do this in the context of reconstituting lost and missing records is a process of transparency and accountability on the part of those rebuilding the records. Each reconstituted record should be clearly documented as such, including a date, source and the type of record.

In the example of reconstituted records existing among other records, they should be organised and identified as separate records and follow the same cataloguing tree within their own series.

2.2 Documenting the process

It is vital to keep a record of the steps undertaken, decisions made, where the records have come from and the difficulties that arise when reconstituting records. Clear documentation feeds into the necessity to be transparent about this process; it is a duty of care to researchers to know that while these are not the original records, they are still authentic and trusted sources.

Each collection of reconstituted records contains a file of information regarding the reconstitution including:

  • An outline of the steps taken, identifying key participants and decision makers
  • Correspondence between Public Records and record creators, including current and former staff, participants, artists, etc.
  • A list of search terms used when searching the email archive
  • The parameters of value (see 2.5)

This is a part of the methodology that should be continually renewed and updated as the process evolves.

2.3 Identifying lost records

An organisation’s ability to identify lost records is strongly linked to its records management policies, staff induction and actions taken to make staff aware that lost records can be reconstituted and rebuilt and that there is a process in place should a loss be identified.

It is the responsibility of Tate staff members as record creators to keep abreast of the information they are producing as part of their work and build into their working patterns regular checks against the retention schedules and file plan (with support from file plan administrators), and transfers to the Public Records team. Lost records are likely to be older, complete collections that have been neglected due to staff turnover, departmental transfers, and lack of time or resources, or else by file formats becoming corrupted.

When a potential loss has been identified, it should be directed to the Public Records team who will then initiate conversations with record creators to ascertain whether the records had actually been created, what has been lost, what remains and if there is anything else that could be captured as a record. The department should be instructed to undertake a thorough search of their offices and files, and emails (see also section 2.9). The Public Records team will undertake searches of the archive storerooms and any records previously transferred by the department/team in question. The shared drive and the server should be searched with support from Information Services (IS). Where drives do not have a search functionality, every care should be taken to search within the relevant files on the chance that records have been moved or misplaced.

If the loss is discovered by the Public Records team in response to a research request, the steps are similar: a search of stacks and the shared drive should first be undertaken before reaching out to appropriate internal staff who should undertake a physical search of their offices. IS should then be contacted to search the servers in case the loss was recent.

2.4 Comparative projects/work

Should a complete loss be discovered, staff should first turn to the departmental file plan to ascertain what records would have been created. Another useful method is to seek out a comparative project or body of work and examine the sort of material that exists. This is an interesting process that, outside of the file plan, if the records have not yet been weeded and placed on deposit as historic public records, gives an insight into the material that record creators thought was important and valuable enough to print and transfer to the Public Records team.3

The criteria for identifying a similar project will be different each time the methodology is employed but it should follow a similar direction: key principles, similar time and a potential link.

2.5 Setting the parameters of value

When reconstituting lost records, there may be a tendency to overcompensate and retain more information than would have existed originally, but there is also the possibility of generating richer records. Another consideration should be given to considering material generated outside of the institution that would further contextualise the losses and acknowledge that not all gaps will be filled by this methodology.

A balance should be struck between the file plan, the intentions of the record creators and maintaining an authentic representation of Tate’s record-keeping practices.

These decisions should be documented and captured as part of the cataloguing descriptions.

2.6 Identifying record creators

This is key to establishing that any reconstituted records are trusted and authentic. Every effort should be made to identify staff who would have contributed records to those now missing.

Drawing up a list of past and present staff, artists and other external contributors will make organising interviews and email archive searches more effective. This should be done in collaboration with the record-creating department, as they are likely to have ongoing contact details for former staff.

2.7 Interviews

An oral history interview is an alternative pursuit if no records can be recovered or reconstituted at all. However, before establishing oral history interviews, initial conversation should be undertaken with remaining staff to identify key information that will aid the team in their search and reconstitution efforts, including establishing key terms for the email archive searches, a core set of questions relevant to the subject and identifying other key interviewees.

A more extensive oral history interview with key record creators will provide a subjective, but more in-depth insight into the subject of the missing records. If no physical records can be reconstituted, an oral history interview may be the most viable option. These interviews should be transcribed and, alongside the consent forms, included as part of the reconstituted records.

While the questions will be different for each interview, the core questions should include:

  • Can you talk about your role within the project/body of work?
  • Can you discuss which records were core to the project/body of work?
  • What is vital to know about this project/body of work and how it unfolded?

These interviews will also allow the Public Records team to ask interviewees to share any records they may still have from the project in their emails or on personal drives (see section 2.9).

Tate Archive has a collection of Artists’ Lives oral histories in collaboration with the British Library, where more information can be sought about undertaking oral history interviews.4

2.8 Email archive searches

In line with Tate’s email retention policy, if the missing records are older than seven years, email archive searches may not be a viable option for reconstituting missing records and the Public Records team may wish to focus on oral history strategy.

Emails should be recovered by searching any archived inboxes of all former staff linked to the records with the project/subject name as a keyword. Additional wider searches should be undertaken using key terms identified during the interviews – this could be artist or artwork names and project titles or acronyms – and names of former staff related to the project.

A record should be kept of the terms used that can be included in the cataloguing.

2.9 Gathering additional material

The process of waiting for record creators to share records and organising interviews is time-consuming. Public Records staff should consider the following as interim ways to gather material for the reconstituted records:

  • If the record subject had an internet presence, the UK National Government Web Archive and WayBack Machine should be searched and pages recorded using the web archiving policy.
  • An internet search should be undertaken for any press or writing about the subject. This material may be weeded in the end, but it builds context and understanding of the subject and may highlight new record creators to approach. The dates of the days these records are downloaded/added to the files should be clearly documented.
  • For academic papers or texts about the subject, final drafts are appropriate to add to the records for any publications created, for example as part of a research project.

2.10 Cataloguing

The records should be catalogued in the original file series alongside any existing records and highlighted in the fond description. The reconstituted records should form their own series of records that follows the subsequent file structure, clearly marked as reconstituted in the title of each subsequent series, sub-series, file or item. Material that sits outside of the file structure gathered as part of the reconstitution process – such as interviews, transcripts and archived emails – should be catalogued as their own series.

The fonds-level description should include an outline of the steps taken, identifying key participants and decision-makers. Each reconstituted record should be documented as such, including date and source.

It may be beneficial to include a file of information for each collection of reconstituted records that includes correspondence between Public Records and record creators, including current and former staff, participants, artists, etc., and a paragraph about how the parameters of value (see 2.5) were determined.

2.10.1 Identifying records for cataloguing purposes

The following identifiers have been produced to be included when cataloguing records:

  • Reconstituted Record: a recovered, original record produced at the time and in the original Tate context, identified as having been lost
  • Original Record: a recovered record produced at the time and in the original Tate context, but not identified as being lost
  • External Original: a recovered record produced at the time and in the original Tate context, but sourced externally
  • External Record: an original record, produced at the time but by an external source. These records are linked by the context in which they were created, and the trusted source as creator but would not have been included in the original records.
  • Linked Record: a record linked by content, produced in a Tate context but not part of the original records. These records add contextual value and have been included as part of the reconstituting/rebuilding process.

3 Review of Methodology

As a working methodology, this document should be regularly reviewed and updated in line with Tate’s record-keeping policies and practices and as it is enacted.

Sarah Haylett is Archives and Records Management Researcher, Tate.