Cataloguing the archive of the British Guild of Travel Writers

How strange when we’re all supposed to be staying at home to be considering the archive of a body devoted to travel and tourism.

The British Guild of Travel Writers, generally referred to as the BGTW, is celebrating its sixtieth anniversary in 2020. To coincide with this, we have started a project to catalogue and provide online access to the collection.

I was appointed as the Project Archivist, and work started earlier this month. Hands-on cataloguing has now sadly been suspended by the Government’s advice to all of us to Stay at Home because of the coronavirus pandemic, but the crisis has at least provided an opportunity to survey the task ahead, and consider the value of the Project.

The BGTW is a community of accredited travel media professionals. Their current aims remain much the same as when the Guild was founded: to provide objective, specialist journalistic expertise on travel and tourism around the world.

The main BGTW archive consists of approximately forty boxes of material, and the work will involve sorting and arranging the records, and cataloguing them in accordance with international standards on archival description.

A quick inspection of the records shows, confusingly, that the date ‘1959’ appears on many official documents and publications as the year in which the Guild was founded. This, however, refers to preliminary meetings held the year before the organisation was officially constituted – hence the 2020 anniversary.

The first meeting of persons interested in forming a British guild of travel writers took place appropriately at the headquarters of Thomas Cook & Son, the company that had pioneered the modern package tourism industry in the nineteenth century (the Thomas Cook archive itself has recently been transferred into the safe keeping of the Record Office for Leicestershire, Leicester, and Rutland, following the company’s collapse in 2019).

It is customary when starting to think about how to arrange an organisation’s archive to look for the big series: long consecutive runs of records with the same function, built up over an extended period of time.

One such is the BGTW Committee Papers (which will probably be assigned the reference BGTW/1/1 when cataloguing is complete). These record the meetings of the BGTW’s governing body, and date from 1959 up to recent times.

Another, appropriately for a membership organisation, is the Guild’s membership list. The archive contains a long run of these, beginning in the early 1970s in a sober black and white format. This series eventually became the Guild’s Yearbook, now a glossy publication with a beautifully illustrated cover, appropriate for a body that includes many professional photographers. The expansion in physical size of the publication mirrors the expansion of the organisation from only a hundred or so members in the 1960s. This will be probably assigned the archival reference BGTW/2/1.

The British Guild of Travel Writers yearbooks over time

Then there is the BGTW newsletter, which currently fills three boxes. The newsletter was renamed GlobeTrotter in 1992, and will probably have the archival reference BGTW/3/1.

Not all records in the archive will be open to researchers in the Archives and Special Collections Research Room. Many items contain personal or sensitive data (particularly the Committee papers) and it is one of the tasks of staff to establish appropriate periods during which certain records will remain closed.

Long runs of material are not always complete, and there are gaps in some of the series mentioned above. One of the benefits of systematic archival arrangement is to identify what we don’t have as well as what we have. The missing records may still exist, and it is hoped that some of the gaps in the membership lists or newsletters may be filled by members of the BGTW who still have surviving copies in their attics or stuck at the backs of drawers.

The archive of the BGTW is also the record of an eminently sociable body, and a very brief survey of the collection reveals numerous photographs of Guild Annual General Meetings (AGM) and awards dinners. The mixed media nature of the records is also an issue for the archivist. Apart from photographs, the collection contains videos, CDs, floppy disks, and objects, including a large boxed plaque commemorating the holding of the BGTW’s AGM at Zakopane in Poland in 2013. All these items, including the paper and printed records, will need to be assessed for conservation needs, and repackaged and reboxed as necessary, to ensure their long-term preservation. It is important always to remember that many of these records are unique, and need to be treated as such.

The catalogue, when complete, will in the narrowest sense act as a finding aid for members of the BGTW to the archives of their own organisation. However, it will also support the academic aims of the University of Surrey. The University was the first in the UK to offer a degree course in hotel and catering management (in 1964), and it is hoped that the collection will be used in the learning and teaching of the University’s School of Hospitality and Tourism Management. As the archive of an organisation of professional writers, the collection may also be of interest to the University’s School of Literature and Languages.

The history of tourism is also, in general, the history of the society in which we live. As Victor T C Middleton notes in his British Tourism: The Remarkable Story of Growth (2007), ‘Almost everything in tourism reflects or influences what is happening in the world at large, i.e. growth in personal incomes and mobility, education, employment prospects, oil and other energy crises, taxation, congestion, the arts, new technology, issues of global warming, and heritage conservation, international terrorism, the future for the countryside, the quality of life in city centres and rural areas, and even the UK’s creaking transport systems’.

The BGTW has doubtless covered many such themes since the organisation’s foundation sixty years ago, and I hope that greater access to the BGTW’s archive may serve to illuminate the intelligent reaction of its members to these processes.

In the meantime, I’m sure we are all looking forward to a time when we can leave our homes safely, and return to the stimulating, mind-broadening pleasures of travel.