Archive reference numbers are complex, indicating both the collection to which an item belongs and its place within in that collection. The collection code may also indicate something about the collection itself. In our archive larger collections get their own dedicated code letters, but many of the smaller ones will have a reference beginning with the letter X. This indicates that the items belonging to that collection have been deposited with the archive on long-term loan.
While many collections held by an archive will have been donated, with ownership passing to the archive, others are simply deposited for safe-keeping and accessibility while ownership remains with the creator or their successor. In some cases this is a given – hospital records, for example, are classed as public records and remain the property of the health authority, and everything deposited by Church of England parishes still belongs to the Church. Records relating to an organisation or institution that is still functioning are more likely to be deposited on loan. Family collections vary; children may be delighted to get rid of an attic sized collection of local history memorabilia hoarded by their father and happily donate it (and the problem of storing it) to the local archive, or they may want to retain ownership of their great-aunt’s diaries while depositing them for safe-keeping.
When a collection is deposited with an archive on loan, the archive is likely to accept it conditionally. Packaging and cataloguing a large collection is a time-intensive and therefore costly task, and there will often be a penalty clause requiring payment to be made as compensation for this time if the collection is withdrawn within a specified period (typically 20 or 30 years). Arrangements will need to be made for any items that the archive does not consider worth preserving – most depositors are happy for these to be disposed of, but some want them returned. Terms and conditions should always be set out in a deposit agreement so that any future confusion or disputes can be avoided. Unfortunately in the past the need to make sure a deposit agreement was in place was not always taken so seriously, and the paperwork for older collections can be vague or missing. The longer the time since a collection was deposited, the more likely it is that the legal status will be uncertain. It is also more likely that contact will have been lost with a depositor. Inevitably many collections will now be “owned” by defunct organisations or by individuals who died years (or decades) ago. Add to the vagaries of ownership of the records themselves the difficulties of establishing the ownership of copyright and at times an archivist can feel more like a lawyer!