Archiving in a Time of Covid

ITMA archivist, Maeve Gebruers, reports on ITMA's 2020 Heritage Council Project, Boscaí Ceoil.

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Unsorted music manuscripts from the Derek Bell Collection (DBE-239678).

When the Covid-19 pandemic hit in March 2020 and ITMA staff had to work from home, we were in a very good position.  We have had the ability to log-on to the ITMA network remotely for a number of years now, so accessing our digital and born-digital collections was not an issue. 

ITMA holds both physical and born digital material, including large volumes of digital surrogates created as a result of years of digitisation work carried out on our analogue audio/audio-visual collections, as well as our photographic and print collections. Our digital collections have grown to a size of just over 97 + terabytes, which equates to hundreds of thousands of files. The long-term digital preservation of these files is a huge challenge for ITMA and creating the infrastructure to preserve a growing digital collection is now one of our key priorities. 

Producing projects from home such as the Highlights from Scoil Samhraidh Willie Clancy 1986–2020 was made possible because of digital preservation projects such as The Digital Audio/visual Preservation (DAP) Project funded by the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht as part of their national digitisation investment programme. This saw the digitisation of over 2,500 carriers. These were all media formats that were no longer widely used and were in danger of degrading to the point where the information on them may have been lost. 

The investment made by our funders in digitisation programmes over the years has enabled ITMA’s digital door to remain open through-out this pandemic.

There have been positives to working from home during this pandemic but of course many negatives. You miss the camaraderie of your fellow staff and those informal chats over a cup of tea in the canteen. But I think what I have missed the most as an archivist is being away from all the wonderful physical collections which we house here in ITMA. 

Over the last number of years ITMA has benefitted from the generous donation of large multi-media collections from significant members of the traditional music community. The on-going preservation of these collections is an area of work which could not be done remotely and had to be paused during the pandemic. At the beginning of September 2020 when the Heritage Council announced that it was opening its Community Heritage Grant Scheme, which is part of the Heritage Council’s Rebuilding Heritage: Covid-19 Stimulus Fund, ITMA took this opportunity to apply for funding to continue work on the preservation of these physical collections. 

Online Hc Grant Portal
The Heritage Council's Online Grant Portal.

ITMA’s project application, Boscaí Ceoil: Preserving the legacy of traditional musicians was successful and at the beginning of October 2020 ITMA was awarded funding to re-house, preserve and enable responsible public access to the personal multimedia archives of: Derek Bell (1935-2002) Chieftains harper, oboist, arranger, composer, researcher and recorded artist; Gráinne Yeats (1925-2013) professional female harper, teacher, arranger and recorded artist; Tomás Ó Canainn (1930-2013) uilleann piper, composer, researcher, lecturer and recorded artist; Hugh & Lisa Shields (1929-2008 HS) collector, researcher, publisher, author and lecturer.

What does a Heritage Council project like this entail?

The funding from the Heritage Council enabled ITMA to purchase specialised archival boxes, binders, folders and labels from suppliers of archival equipment. Just under 260 acid free boxes and clam-shell binders were purchased from a company in Wicklow called the Archival Box Company, 750 four flap archival board folders were purchased from Secol and 300 specialised labels from Conservation by Design, both companies which are based in the UK. All equipment was delivered by the beginning of November but unfortunately by this time ITMA had closed again due to new Covid restrictions. 

Boscai Ceoil Archival Materials
Specialised acid free archival boxes, binders and folders, November 2020.
When ITMA re-opened to the public on the 2 December 2020, after the second lockdown, it was a race against time to get the project completed in time for Christmas.

Work began with the music manuscripts which form part of the Derek Bell Collection. The Derek Bell collection was donated to ITMA by Derek's widow Stefanie Bell in 2015. Stefanie was introduced to ITMA by Lindsay Armstrong, one of Bell's first music pupils. The collection contains music manuscripts, sound recordings, printed items, photographs, personal papers, artefacts, musical instruments etc. which were compiled by Derek Bell during his lifetime.

The music manuscripts had been categorised by Stint intern, Casey Burgess in 2016 but were still housed in old plastic containers. The manuscripts have now been re-housed in large A3 sized clam-shell acid free binders and a box-list of what each binder contains has been created in an Excel spreadsheet. This collection contains many wonderful items including original music arrangements for The Chieftains, a number of original compositions by Derek Bell and arrangements for some of the ‘stars’ who have appeared with the Chieftains over the years including Van Morrison, Mark Knopfler, The Pogues, etc. 

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The Derek Bell music manuscripts re-housed in A3 clam-shell acid free binders.
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The Coolin, Derek Bell music manuscript.

Another collection which has benefitted from Heritage Council funding is the Gráinne Yeats Collection. This collection arrived in ITMA in April 2018 following a meeting with Gráinne's daughter Caitríona Yeats and Harp Ireland Chair, Aibhlín McCrann. It is an extremely rich collection of printed books, music manuscripts, photographs, slides, lecture scripts, diaries, music arrangements (mostly for the Irish harp), research notes, ephemera, artefacts, and commercial & non-commercial sound recordings (acetates, vinyl, reel-to-reels, audio cassettes etc.). Gráinne's huge interest in the Irish harp is very much reflected in this collection. 

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Gráinne and Michael Yeats, World Harp Congress, Vienna, 1987
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Files from the Gráinne Yeats Collection (GYE-255503) before re-housing.

Because of the varied nature of this collection a number of different sized boxes, folders and binders are needed to re-house the collection. Old plastic pockets, and different filing systems, like those seen in the picture above are disposed of and any metal paper clips and staples are removed. A general list of files in each box has been created in an Excel spreadsheet and this will form the basis of a more detailed catalogued of the whole collection in time. 

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The Gráinne Yeats & Tomás Ó Canainn collections after re-housing.

Work will now continue on the detailed cataloguing and digitisation of all these collections.

ITMA would like to thank the Heritage Council for this generous funding and for enabling us to continue with the work of preserving these important collections for present use and for future generations.  

from Laoithe Chruit ársa na hÉireann. London: Printed by Robson, Levey, and Franklin, 1835. A book from the Gráinne Yeats Collection.

This blog was written by Maeve Gebruers, ITMA Archivist.