Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Visit to the National Jazz Archive in Loughton, UK

It has been a jazzy start to the DIY Archives project. Following my visits earlier this week to the Nederlands Jazz Archief in Amsterdam, today I travelled to Loughton in Essex, UK, to meet with the wonderful folk at the National Jazz Archive.

This collection of jazz artefacts (everything except sound recordings, as these are collected at the British Library Sound Archive) is housed in the Loughton Library where a mix of paid staff and volunteers work on cataloguing and curating the collection.

The National Jazz Archive had definite DIY beginnings. Registered as a charity in the late 1980s, it has achieved good levels of funding over the years. In addition to continuing support from the Essex County Council, the NJA is also supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund. However, as with other institutions in my study, it also depends on financial donations to continue its operations.

Though the archive, like others I've visited, could do with more storage space, the set-up works well, with the book collection on display around the edges of the large, airy room and the other artefacts in filing cabinets and archive boxes in-between. The focal point is the large table in the centre of the room around which the volunteers work. While I was there, three of the volunteers were busy with archival tasks: Christine Smith was cataloguing recently acquired books (one of which was a volume on Australian jazz), Alan Quaife was transcribing some really fascinating hand-written letters by a jazz musician that were written during the 1940s, and John Spurge, the newest of the volunteers, was sorting through a collection of photographs.

In addition to Christine, Alan and John I also spoke with another of the volunteers, George Wilkinson, and two of the paid staff, Fiona Cormack and David Nathan. I came away with a real sense that the material history of jazz's past is in the right hands --- this is a group of people who care deeply about their work at the archive and about the artefacts in their care. This is also very much a 'living archive', as there is a concerted effort by the NJA to connect with the jazz community more broadly and they are also engaged in a range of outreach activities.

Here is an excerpt from the NJA's pamphlet:

"The National Jazz Archive is the UK's research and information centre for jazz, blues and related music, available to the media, researchers, writers, discographers, students and the general enthusiast. ... The Archive concentrates principally on British and American materials but foreign works are also collected. ... Current publications are purchased and the Archive acts as a repository to safeguard old and/or scarce materials, many which come by donations and bequests. ... To enable the collection to grow extra funds are always needed to improve facilities, finance essential purchases and expand the collections in general."