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VU archives will soon be accessible for everyone

30 November 2021
On December 3, the first transfer of VU archives to the Amsterdam City Archives will take place.

The first batch of paper archives of the Vrije Universiteit (VU) will officially be transferred to the Amsterdam City Archives (‘Stadsarchief’) on December 3. This doesn’t mean that these archives are lost to the VU, on the contrary! In the period 2020-2023 the entire historical archive (1880 - 2002) of VU University will be made publicly accessible. It will be described in detail, stripped of unnecessary material, sustainably packaged and the inventory will be made digitally searchable. Good news for researchers!

The VU has an extraordinary, and sometimes turbulent history. This is reflected in dozens of archives, which until recently were largely stored in cellars and closets on the VU campus. This meant that they were not always easy to consult. Archives were often not organised or described. This is all about to change. Mirjam Brouwer works as a record manager at the Document Management and Archive Department (BZ/DMA). Her work entails keeping the VU's information in order and making it accessible. She is also the project leader for the VU archives.  We’ve asked her to tell us more about this special project.

When did the idea of transferring the archives arise? And how?

The idea of transferring the archive came about gradually. Initially, the VU wanted to make its own archive cellars suitable as an archive repository. In 2017 I started investigating the possibilities. We quickly realised that would cost a lot of money. A next, logical step was to investigate whether the archives could be placed in an already existing archive repository. In 2019, this led to the VU and the Amsterdam City Archives signing an agreement to transfer the archives. In doing so, the VU - like many other universities – complies with the Archives Act and regulations.

What archives are we talking about?

This project concerns the historical company archives from the establishment of the Vereeniging voor Hooger Onderwijs op Gereformeerden Grondslag and the foundation of the Vrije Universiteit in 1880 until approximately 2002. These include the archives of the central administrative bodies: Executive Boards, Curators, Senate, University Council and the Board of Governors. In addition, the archives of the faculties and services are being inventoried (described) and transferred: in total, some 1.35 kilometres of archives are involved.

Why did the university decide to transfer the archives to the Amsterdam City Archives?

When the university decided not to set up its own archive storage facility, based on the high costs involved, a repository within the meaning of the Archives Act came into play. These repositories are in  the core business of managing, and provide access to archives and collections.

So, this meant there were three options: transfer to the National Archives in The Hague, to the Noord-Hollands Archives in Haarlem or to the Amsterdam City Archives. The Amsterdam City Archives is not only close by, but the VU also has close historical ties with Amsterdam. In addition, the City Archives also manage the archives of the University of Amsterdam. What could be nicer than to be able to consult the archives of both Amsterdam universities in one and the same repository?

Will the archives be transferred to any other organizations besides the City Archives?

The City Archives stores the material that is legally required to be stored; in other words, the core archive of national importance. Besides this, the UBVU also includes material in the special collections of the University Library. These are archives that are important to the VU as heritage and that say something about the broader academic life and identity of the VU. For example, materials from study associations, from introductory weeks for first-year students, information leaflets and recruitment material.

This is a huge project. Who's involved in this team effort?

From the VU, the project is led by BZ, department DMA (Document Management and Archive). I became involved in this project at the end of 2016: Initially in the preparations, from 2019 in the tender process and from 2020 I was in charge of the inventory process. My duties consist of coordinating the preparations for inventory, consulting with all parties, checking the quality of the inventories, monitoring progress, etc.  From the University Library, Jasmijn Vervloet, the curator of the Historical Documentation Centre, is involved in the recording of the part that goes to the University Library, and Ab Flipse, the university’s historian gives advice about the order of the inventory and is the contact person for questions about the history of the VU.

The VU has outsourced the inventory and material care to VADA Archieven B.V. in Nijverdal. There they pack all archive material acid free and remove harmful substances such as metal and plastic. They also make an inventory of all the archives. An inventory is an access to an archive, with which a researcher can determine which parts of the archive are necessary for research. The City Archives are responsible for the inclusion of the inventoried archive material in their collection. The archives coordinator there checks with me whether VADA's work satisfies the quality requirements. The transferred archives are registered in the management system of the City Archives and subsequently the inventories are published on their website.

Were there any remarkable finds during the inventory of the archives?

What I found extraordinary was a report by Abraham Kuyper about the location of the university. Initially, Amsterdam was only one of the possible locations. We could have been in Drenthe or even Germany! That report is one of the first documents I want to have digitized.

How long will this project take?

This inventory project started in 2020 and the inventory will run until 2023. The last archives will be transferred in the first half of 2024.

As a researcher, what's in it for me?

Every researcher should be thrilled! For the first time, the historical archive of the VU will be truly visible for anyone interested in the history of the VU. A researcher can consult the documents in the reading room of the City Archives, and it’s also possible to have archived documents scanned. So the researcher does not even have to leave the house anymore. The third advantage is that BZ/DMA is working hard to also transfer archive material from after 2002 to the City Archives in due course. This will make the entire history of the VU accessible.

There will be a party soon in honour of this project. How does that feel?

It feels like a great milestone. If you include the preparations – organising the archives at the campus and the tender process - we have been working on this since 2018. A large group of people from Pantar (people with a distance to the labour market) worked on the preparations for two years. My colleagues from DMA and I helped organisational units to determine what could be removed and what could not. Now we are seeing the first fruits of all that hard work. Although it is unfortunate that the pandemic prevented us from organising a big party, I am pleased that we can still celebrate this milestone.

The transfer of the first paper VU archives to the Amsterdam City Archives on 3 December marks the first major step in this enormous project. This is only the beginning, the project will continue and many more archives will follow. The ultimate goal is to make all archives (paper and digital) accessible to everyone interested in the history of this extraordinary university. So keep an eye on the news: a lot of beautiful things will become available in the coming years. We will keep you informed.