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Collections Management Training

Online Collections Management training

How to preserve your community or family archive

Advice on how to manage and organise your archive

Collections Management 1: "dissociation" (loss of context and meaning)

 

Do you know who the people are in your old family photos? Want to avoid loss of meaning in your collection? Want to preserve important contextual information?
In (Collections Care 4), we identified “disassociation” as one of the 10 “agents of deterioration” which pose a threat to your archive.

We define this as “loss of value caused by a loss of relevant information or access to that information. Loss of key pieces of a collection, loss of original order within a series which destroys context (for example, if an undated letter goes astray from its proper place within a bundle), loss of knowledge, notes, records or identification labels”.

Dissociation is not the most obvious or readily grasped threat. It’s relatively easy to spot when a document is deteriorating physically, for example fading in bright sunlight, and to understand why this is a bad thing. But why does “dissociation” matter? Let’s look at this risk in a bit more detail.

Dissociation can encompass physical loss, such as the whereabouts of an item or items. If you can’t find something, it is effectively lost. It can also be intellectual, referring to loss of knowledge. If you don’t know what a document is or when or why it was created, this automatically lessens its value and usefulness. Or to turn that on its head: the more you know about a document or collection, the better. Think how often the experts on the Antiques Roadshow mention “provenance’ – the term used to describe the “back story” of an item.

Dissociation can also refer to a group of documents losing their original order. It’s easiest to understand why this might matter by considering a specific example. Imagine you have inherited a bundle of letters written by your grandfather to your grandmother before they were married. Some are dated but some are not. Fortunately, your grandma had kept them all carefully bundled in the order she received them. The undated letters are therefore kept in the correct place in the chronological sequence. This in turn will indicate the date they were written and help make sense of the contents. But if this order is disturbed or lost, the undated letters will be difficult to fit back into the sequence, and the loss of context from the surrounding letters will make their contents less meaningful.

 

Top tips for avoiding dissociation:

• Keep a record of what is where – and update it when things get moved
• Identify items in a meaningful way that other people can understand
• Make sure labels for containers and/or documents are clearly written, in permanent ink, and securely attached
• Find out as much as you can about where an item came from – and write it down.
• This might mean talking to older relatives or other family members.

If you are looking after a community archive, ask lots of questions when a document or collection is offered to you. It’s sensible to have an “accessioning form” for this, to remind you to ask all the relevant questions. We’ll give more detailed advice about accessioning later.

Collections of old photos, whether loose or in albums, often fall victim to dissociation. Tackle this by identifying and writing down everything you can. Start a conversation with older relatives to help you fill in the gaps.

You can read some great cases on dissociation from the Canadian Conservation Institute.

Page updated: 23/11/2020 Page updated by: Ally McConnell

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