Archiving systems


The car has been retrieved from the University’s Pathology collection.

At present, the University’s collections are autonomously catalogued, with many different systems being used.

There is a plan to standardise all collections into one integrated computerised system using AdLib Information Systems (software for Archives, Libraries and Museums).

Currently the car is numbered by a dymo sticker stuck to the case it’s housed in. The number S.4 positions it within the UCL Pathology collection at the Royal Free Hospital (previously coming from the Great Ormond Street Hospital collection), just after a case of poisonous lead nipple shields (S.3) and before poisoning ‘presumptively due to phosphorus’ (S.5).

The most well known library archiving system is the Dewey Decimal system (although admittedly relating to library books, not objects), which attempts to organise all knowledge into 10 main classes, which are then subdivided into 10 divisions and onto 10 sections [1].

Dewey is a fixed, hierarchical system, which is inherently sexist. Novelist Michèle Roberts reports on her experience of Dewey, informed by stints as studying to be a librarian:

“Under category seven, Sociology, you could find Women, alongside Lunatics and Gypsies. Men were nowhere to be seen: as designers of the universe, and of classification systems, they did not need to be visible.” [2]

We need systems to be able to find, retrieve and locate information and objects. These systems (and the humans who design and maintain them) are often less than perfect.

Within our case, the object in question originally entered the collection of the Hospital for Sick Children, Great Ormond Street in 1963. In 1985, this collection was transferred into the care of the Pathology Collection at the Royal Free. However the paperwork for this transfer did not follow until 20 years later, when UCL sought to transfer the collection into the care of their Pathology Curator leaving some to believe the collection had been mislaid [4].

Misplacing items (or entire collections) is not an uncommon occurence. Earlier on this year, the British Library admitted to ‘mislaying’ 9000 books.

‘The library believes almost all have not been stolen but rather mislaid among its 650km of shelves and 150m items – although some have not been seen in well over half a century.’ [5]

The University’s digitalisation of analogue collection catalogues has in some part influenced the conception of Object Retrieval. Artist Joshua Sofaer was shown the new AdLib categorising system whilst developing this project.

Objects entered into the new AdLib system will be able hold up to 300 fields of information. Will our car exceed this limit when it re enters the University’s collection after midnight on Wednesday 21st?

Will this extra information be lost, when the computer says ‘no’?

3. See entry ‘Correspondence between Professor Michael Worton and Dr Jane Collins’
4. British Medical Journal, Volume 296, 12 March 1988, p.795, Alas! poor Merrick