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Preserving memories

By Jenny Hugo

Fiona de Villiers’ article ‘Establishing and maintaining a school archive’ in the autumn 2010 (volume 13, number one) edition of Independent Education was interesting and challenging. I would like to respond here to her invitation to share the story of our school’s archive.

In 1950, Stanley Dodson who, the previous year, had retired as headmaster from St John’s Preparatory School, established St Peter’s Preparatory School for Boys on what was then an agricultural smallholding outside Johannesburg. As part of the 50th anniversary of the school in 2000, a celebratory book on the history of the school was published, authored by Rex Pennington. In 2002, Greg Royce (then headmaster and now rector of the school) called me into his office and asked if I would start a school archive, handing me numerous boxes of ‘stuff ’ that had been used to write the abovementioned book. This was the genesis of our official school archive. A daunting challenge, but what an exciting adventure it has been!

Alumni critical in creating an archive

Although a trained librarian, I have had no training or experience in archival work. I invited an interested parent to assist me with obtaining alumni contact details, and to sort the materials and catalogue them using an old library manual catalogue. The nondescript boxes full of material proved to be a greater boon than one could ever have dreamed. To create some sort of structure, I found it useful to divide the material into two categories, namely the first 50 years of the school’s existence and then the subsequent years. Visits to schools with well-developed archives proved particularly helpful, and the archivists shared their knowledge and ideas with me both graciously and generously.

Alumni resident in and around Johannesburg were particularly helpful in providing information and documentation, as well as conducting current scholars on historic tours around the school campus. A small part of the history syllabus was also devoted to teaching the history of the school. Alumni interest in the school and its development is something we cherish. Although we are a mere 62 years old, many Old Boys have children and grandchildren at the school. The great-grandson of the first chaplain is also enrolled.

One Old Boy (1952), who had retired after a successful career in business and relocated to Johannesburg, was glad to donate diverse documents after attending an Old Boys function, where he had thoroughly enjoyed reminiscing about his time at St Peter’s while observing and discussing with his peers the archival material on display. This gesture is by no means isolated, and many Old Boys who visit the school are more than willing to provide information, both verbal and in the form of photo albums, old school textbooks and other types of documentation and artefacts.

We keep interest in our history alive. In 2010, the year St Peter’s celebrated its 60th birthday, we published a book entitled Crossed Keys, Paths and Crickets Bats, compiled and edited by Hilary Nothard, based on alumni anecdotes.

A celebratory newspaper, The Crossed Keys Chronicle, outlining the history of the school, was also published to mark the event.

The challenge: keep or discard?

To a large extent, material for the first 50 years merely needed sorting before forming part of our archive. Collecting material for the subsequent years created far more of a challenge! As De Villiers mentioned in her article, a collection policy is of prime importance. This document will assist the archivist to chart the imaginary course between official recordkeeping and the bare minimum required for an archive. This remains problematic and relatively subjective. For example, Rex Pennington, in his search for documents, unearthed a linen list that the matron had drawn up as a budget for sheets at the end of 1965. This linen list revealed that the total budget for sheets (87 beds) in 1965 had been the monumental sum of R76.25. This document was a source of great interest as it gave the perspective of 1965 prices, which other socalled ‘important’ documents did not do. I am not suggesting, however, that all the laundry lists of yesteryear be preserved for the archives. On the contrary, one must guard against the archives being cluttered with irrelevant rather than with historically relevant material. The more items contained in an archive, the more difficult it is to trace relevant documents and, therefore, the better one’s indexing and retrieval system has to be. The archivist must develop a gut feel concerning the inclusion of such sundry material and the quantity to be preserved.

Diligent recordkeeping

Since 2007, St Peter’s has been compiling a list detailing, among other things, school academic, sporting, campus development, community partnerships and other important achievements and accomplishments for each particular calendar year. These lists are a valuable guideline for the archivist to check that all documents relating to important events have been included in the archive. It is also advisable to meet with the relevant people once a year to review new material stored in the archive and to ensure that no important items have been left out.

Scrapbooks compiled by class teachers documenting teaching themes, interesting anecdotes, photographs and unusual events are to be encouraged. Photograph albums documenting the different sports teams and their accomplishments also make for interesting viewing at alumni functions. This documentation is also useful to show sons and daughters their parents’ achievements and what they looked like when they were at school. Experience has taught me that producing timelines is particularly useful and provides a concise record of past events.

Living in the electronic age brings about benefit but also a host of new challenges. It would certainly be useful if any readers have suggestions on how to manage an archive using electronic storage devices, particularly with regard to indexing and retrieval. And then, how does one cope with the everchanging modes of reproducing electronic images? Photographs still seem the best option, as they have seen the cine and video come and go. What is the future of the CD and DVD?

Dawn of an interschool archive society?

I would encourage any new schools, or schools in their early years, to start an archive – or, at the very least, to encourage all stakeholders to collect relevant material and appoint an interested party to collate it. In most cases, the task is unfortunately tagged on to someone’s portfolio, viz. the librarian or media specialist. Early in each new year, the major events from the previous year should be reviewed to ensure that they have been captured. Further meetings can be scheduled for the rest of the year, according to requirements.

Category: Winter 2013

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