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Don Clark
9th September 2020, 02:17
National collections and their guides and catalogues
Casual readers or beginners present or future may sometimes wonder whether looking up the war service and/or death of a relative is a black art, without initiation in to which it is all-but impossible to find the way. As that is really very far from the case, perhaps these notes may be a useful entry to finding basic help with records in national collections.

In virtually all Commonwealth countries, the great national collections are just that.
As decade after decade passes, they keep safe the documents and other treasures that they are required to by law, and give all the public access that they are able to by law.
They don't exist by accident nor do they operate mindlessly, without authority, without legal basis, or without standards or oversight.

For the RAF alone in World War 2, well over a million personnel, countless Squadrons and other Units, and thousands upon thousands of aircraft.
Yet, all these decades later, other than the occasional mistake, loss, or theft, a firm useful record of (virtually) every man, unit and aircraft is still held safe and accessible, at modest cost or in other cases, free.
Not every single piece of paper but, out of that vast morass of paper, selected (and not by mindless accident) for preservation there remains a publicly accessible, useful, worthwhile, trustworthy summary record.

Keeping all these remaining items safe and accessible comes at a financial cost, while properly and transparently respecting privacy, any remaining secrecy requirements, and the physical integrity of the collections.
Governments of every flavour in every country tend to think of their national collections as necessary but low priority, and endlessly squeeze funding as hard as they dare.
Ultimately, all this collecting, curating and public access has to be paid for, both indirectly (through our taxes), and directly (by the often quite modest fees sought for certain items).
How you value those records and rate the cost of accessing them is in the end entirely up to you.

Now, the plain fact is we were all beginners once. We start looking with whatever small piece of the puzzle came to hand.
The great national collections of the Commonwealth and their staff all know this very well. Their response is universal.
Every national collection worthy of its task makes a serious effort to publish advice showing how to use their collections and how to find things from a small start.
As well, staff will able to help, within sensible limits given the level of staff and the volume of enquiry.

When I began looking into my late father's by then rather obscure ("lesser known"?) RAF Squadron in the 1990s, this was already the case (and had been long before).
In those far-off days some on-line search was already possible, and on-line catalogues and guides were developing quite rapidly.
On visiting, of course, a forest of helpful pamphlets was on hand as were the (all-but invariably) willing, able staff.

Which leads us to today, where the great national collections have very good on-line presence, with catalogues, with guides, with in many cases digital downloadable versions of some collection items, and open (pandemic aside) for public visit. Bearing in mind that it is simply not possible, given the volumes of material, for every and all items to be available in digitised form. As an introduction, some selected UK examples of help pages and/or catalogues for reference:

British Library

The National Archives
Research Guides: RAF

Royal Air Force
Dept of Research and Information Services (DoRIS) Enquiries
Navigator (on-line catalogue)
Record of RAF Service

The same applies in Australia, Canada and New Zealand for example: national collections and archives, ready and willing to help, within their practical limits, with publicly accessible records, on-line and printed guides aplenty, plus catalogues and in many cases, extensive digital collections within practical limits. The same can be said in many many countries, and in my own work I've been most grateful for the level of service so willingly offered by similar agencies not only in my own country Australia but in Denmark, in Sweden, in the Netherlands and in the UK.

For those with any remaining appetite to read even further, I'll offer two pages of my own 211 Squadron RAF website, with rather more scope on collections and their use
(choosing to illustrate by using the current copy held in Australia's National Library archive of websites, via Trove):
Do it yourself https://webarchive.nla.gov.au/awa/20200805184711/http://pandora.nla.gov.au/pan/24825/20200806-0406/www.211squadron.org/do_it_yourself.html
Sites and Links https://webarchive.nla.gov.au/awa/20200805184711/http://pandora.nla.gov.au/pan/24825/20200806-0406/www.211squadron.org/sites___links.html

Don Clark
9th September 2020, 22:04
On further thought, in the light of recent experience perhaps I should have also included these points

The detail of eg personal records kept does vary from country to country.
For aircrew, for example, the national make-up of a crew may help.
For example, RAAF and RCAF (and RNZAF?) personnel files inc casualty files may include loss information not currently readily available for all RAF crew members.

Next, on requests. Conditions may apply to making a request, costs and charges may apply, there may be conditions on access, and on use of material supplied, regarding eg acknowledgement of source and reference, and image copyright and the like.

In Australia eg, a record may be already assessed as Open, if not yet Open you may request that.
Personal files may, eg for RAAF men, be Open with restriction: nothing suspicious there, simply the X years access rule, mandated for privacy.
The file will be open for access, albeit with its more recent folios sealed from your eyes.
And if you object to any of that, yes, there's a form to request review of the restriction.

All these conditions are explained in the easily found range of Guides, Help Pages, in advice links on Item pages, and in Request forms.
They vary from country to country. Attention to this sort of detail is not time wasted.

Costs may vary greatly from Collection to Collection, country to country.
It may well turn out worthwhile to ask an independent researcher to image files for you, when that becomes practical in your country once more.

If you have spent some time searching with no success, it's time to regroup. Why might that be so?
Are you looking for guidance and information with an open mind, with open questions?
It is fruitless to assume that You can't find things because They have hidden it all.
In all but the very few really very exotic* (and mostly quite well-known) cases, they didn't and they haven't.
Don't you know there was a War on?

So if really really stuck, and you really have looked attentively at all the available guides and any on-line records, it may be time to ask for help.
But don't ask me. I'm just an old retired scribbler. Ask Them. Ask politely with an open mind.
For publicly available records help will be given if you ask. Start there.

For already publicly accessible records, there is no need to bring on Freedom of Information action.
Not just no need: no point.
You'll just add irrelevant time-wasting complexity to what would have been a pretty straightforward search.

*And even then, it won't likely be hidden as such - it'll be firmly marked Restricted until XXXX date or the like.

Don Clark
13th September 2020, 00:35
Beginning with National Collections as the clear scope, I chose to list a selection only, and of only UK bodies.
Still, You could argue that I ought to have included the Imperial War Museum.
Here, then, some IWM help.

Imperial War Museum

Beyond the great national collections, there are a great many independent collections in many Commonwealth countries. Access to them, and the conditions applying, vary very widely indeed. Personal papers and the like may be lodged with one or other with particular purpose: preserved then. However, access and even enquriy is commonly more difficult, some times much more difficult. By personal visit only is one such. Imposition of conditions of use that many would find hard to meet or justify is another.

The value of the great national collections is that, for a great amount of material, research, access, and copying is entirely possible whether you live in the Collection country or elsewhere.

Errol Martyn
13th September 2020, 01:39
"For example, RAAF and RCAF (and RNZAF?) personnel files inc casualty files may include loss information not currently readily available for all RAF crew members."

Yes, too, for RNZAF p/fs but it's much more hit and miss than those of the RAAF and RCAF as much careless (improperly supervised) 'weeding' of files took place as late as 1989 without the RNZAF's knowledge. Where casualty papers do survive these can vary from one to about five pages.


Don Clark
26th September 2020, 02:59
Past imperfect
While national archives and collections are invaluable, it is not in the nature of things that their collections, their guides, nor their catalogues, be perfect.

Of the records themselves, apart from the weeding referred to in my #1 above and by Errol (#4 above), it has been remarked many times and in many places that they are prone to some level of error from the time of their making, as well as to war-time loss whether by enemy action, accident or of necessity. Some examples under Mistakes both here (http://pandora.nla.gov.au/pan/24825/20200806-0406/www.211squadron.org/do_it_yourself.html) and here (http://pandora.nla.gov.au/pan/24825/20200806-0406/www.211squadron.org/sources.html).

Present imperfect
In the present day, national agencies have had to find ways to address collection access against lack of funds.

Another factor altogether is human frailty, which puts some items in such treasure troves at risk. Sadly more than one collection has been bedevilled by theft of irreplaceable items, stolen for simple greed. Occasionally, forgeries are substituted or inserted, for the same reason.

As important, from the research point of view, are weaknesses in the agencies policies or systems. Some of this is due to the penny-pinching referred to earlier. You might reasonably think that an archive or collection deemed worthy of longest term custody would be worthy of proper funding as a matter of course. Not so. The result is that some parts or systems of the archive or collection have, or develop, weakness that may trap the unwary.

While some of us may have come across one or more of these imperfections, some or all of them may be news to others, especially to those starting out.
There may well be others. Sometimes, there are ways around the problem (eg, multiple, variant search terms gets over the spelling errors noted).

Catalogue errors
Once a little reading of original sources brings some familiarity, these occasional blunders may amuse, though a source of trouble for others. Some examples

Imperial War Museum
In the online search (https://www.iwm.org.uk/), the RAF standard personnel title Aircraftman (ie, the AC1s, the AC2s and the LACs) became, either by ignorance or by some other blip, "Aircraftsman", adding an s in defiance of sense and of the provisions of King's Regulations and Air Council Instructions (Air Publication 958) Par 481.
This might not matter if it weren't for the fact that Search on both terms gets different sets of results, which is a significant failing.
Only Aircraftman is correct, but you'll need to use both. Tedious. And for the less familiar, apt to cause error and extra work. Since this was brought to IWM attention in 2017, nothing has been done.

National Archives of Australia
A similar error lies in the RecordSearch (https://recordsearch.naa.gov.au)catalogue, where by some blunder, blip or sheer blistering ignorance, the historic Western Australian port of Fremantle (named after a personage, not a state of being) became "Freemantle", with an egregious extra e.
Again, this might not matter if it weren't for the fact that the two terms produce differing results.
Again the NAA has been unable to date to fix the erroneous entries. The NAA has been strapped for funds for a number of years.

Digital archives
These too are prone to blips and glitches. Some examples:

The Internet Archive (US)
Here, site copies in this notionally global archive have become easier to find since keyword search was added in recent years. But the takes themselves are frequently imperfect for a range of technical reasons. There was a time when site authors thought frames designs were good: not so for this archive. But many recent non-frames sites, too, are often incomplete for some reason.

National Library of Australia
PANDORA is the Australian webarchive of NLA & partners, now presented through Trove (https://webarchive.nla.gov.au/collection?q=).
Somewhere in the front-end transfer to Trove, an undetected glitch trampled on PANDORA links to some takes, number of affected titles not known.
One example: for my 211 Squadron site the Trove index (https://webarchive.nla.gov.au/tep/24825) now lacks three early instances. Initially, entries were displayed there but led only to the wrong copy, or to a "missing" note.
It appears that whatever the problem was, the underlying PANDORA db takes are still held but the Trove index remains corrupted in some way.
The simplest solution was simply to remove the rogue Trove entries from the index page.
NLA has been very hard pressed for resources in recent years but the staff remain composed under pressure. My thanks to them for looking into it and the partial fix.

27th October 2020, 10:25
Form and artistic value are the basic criteria for museum acquisitions.

Don Clark
27th October 2020, 20:48
Thanks for your comment although I'm not sure of your point, as the topic of my posts was tightly focussed on (post #1) finding basic help with records in national collections.

However, that leads me to think it may help those starting out to add some further notes, on what National bodies have to say about what they collect, and how to offer items for collections.

Like their documentation for enquiry & access, National collections (libraries, museums, archives, web archives and the like) do document their acquisition and artefact donation policies and practices as a matter of course, as they relate to their core functions or focus and as an aid to the public in understanding the extent of their collections and what they themselves might wish to contribute.

As a single example, from Australia:

Australian War Memorial
A museum as much as a memorial, the AWM offers this guidance
On collecting overall
And on donating items, artefacts and memorabilia:

The AWM for example holds "the largest public collection of Victoria Cross medals (https://www.awm.gov.au/media/press-releases/payne-victoria-cross-comes-memorial-collection)in the world, with over 70 of the 100 awarded to Australians currently on display in the Hall of Valour".
A very particular commemorative purpose: artistic value is simply not at issue.

But again, however deserved and however important to family, Great Uncle Alf's sole Defence Medal is very unlikely to be accepted into a national collection, being just one among tens of thousands who simply did their bit and already recognised at some level.

The National Library of Australia, the National Gallery of Australia and the National Museum of Australia each have similar documentation publicly available, for their collection, acquisition and donation policy and practice. Likewise, national collections of the UK, Canada, NZ, and elsewhere. Not just required: it's just good practice.

For National Archives the case is rather different in focus and acquisition: a more formal requirement of national record keeping and less concerned with public donations of items. Publicly documented of course.

A simple summary: if you want to know what they collect, why and how, look it up!

Sources: As linked.