Chronicling the past, and the future

For a company as old as HarperCollins its archive its literally and historically part of its DNA. When two weeks ago HarperCollins unveiled its 200th anniversary website chronicling the 200 years since J & J Harper began and the 198 years since William Collins began, it demonstrated the importance of that shared past and the chronicling of its business activities.

The HarperCollins archive is based in Bishopbriggs on the outskirts of Glasgow. Our Bookfile room houses around 80,000 books from the mid-1800s to the 1990s – many of them incredibly rare and valuable, such as a first edition of The Mysterious Mr Quin by Agatha Christie from 1930; our records management store has around 9,000 boxes of semi-current and historical records plus two copies of every book we publish. We have a large artwork collection (approx 5,000 pieces), including work by Pauline Baynes (original illustrator of C.S. Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia) and Paddington illustrations by Peggy Fortnum; a bible collection dating back to the 1840s, while another part of our collection is housed in Glasgow University Archive Service, allowing students and researchers access to some of our older business records. We have a variety of material and objects dating back to the earliest days of the business, much of which was created and collected by the Collins family.

However, when I started in 2012  the archive had been without stewardship for several years. The collection was spread across many rooms around our Glasgow site. I have long had a passion for history but having completed my undergraduate degree in German and Russian in 2009 I realised that I was also interested in the idea of preserving stories for the future. This led me to take an MSc in Information Management and Preservation, which I completed in 2011. On being appointed the archivist at HarperCollins, I set about rationalising available space as a priority, as well as getting to grips with the company’s history. Some rooms needed extra attention but after a few months’ hard work, the archive as it is now, took shape. It now occupies nine rooms across the site. It includes physical books, but also a growing digital repository.

The joy of my role is that I don't have a typical day. There are certain tasks which are undertaken regularly – room and temperature checks – rooms should be between 13 and 20°C, general requests for deposit and retrieval of archive boxes, and, of course, cataloguing. However, every day can bring up something new. Whether that is helping an editor find correspondence and editorial from an old author we would like to republish or finding the date of publication of a book from 1800s for an external enquirer. Researchers contact us from time to time and between myself and my archive assistant, we will provide material if we have it. We also do outreach within the archival community: speaking at conferences, publishing articles and being involved with projects such as the Working Archive ran by the Scottish Council on Archives.

Some of the Crime Club books in the HarperCollins' archive.

The sheer range of material in the archive is a challenge but it is also wonderful as it means we have such a rich resource for understanding our heritage. We have worked with some of the most noted authors and illustrators over our 200-year history. A personal favourite of mine is our copy of The Blind Beauty by Boris Pasternak, in the original Russian. Collins played an important role in the story of Pasternak in the 1950s and was the first publishers in Britain to release an edition of Dr Zhivago in English, in 1958. However, every time I do more research in the archive, I find my 'new favourite' item – from a mini book case of books to beautiful company stamps dating from the mid-1900s.

Our archive serves as a trusted repository of our history but it is also about our future. Departments deposit current records to ensure their preservation and to give us a record of work. We provide guidance on depositing material in the archive but the editors, production managers, designers and administrative staff know their own records best and what is necessary to be kept. In today’s digital world, obviously born digital records – those articles of correspondence that never exist in a printed form – are incredibly important. Correspondence provides us with an insight which was easily captured in paper form. Digital communications are more ephemeral but nonetheless are important, so as well as having a digital asset management system, we are also archiving key digital correspondence as we would with paper.

Our global bi-centenary is a wonderful chance to showcase HarperCollins’ history and celebrate what we have achieved in our 200 years. In the future, I hope to make the archive more accessible to the public – this isn’t just a collection of importance to one business, it is one with links to every aspect of British life, and it deserves to be seen and celebrated.

Dawn Sinclair is HarperCollins' archivist.