At the end of August I was fortunate to attend the Archives and Records Association annual conference, this year held in Glasgow with the theme “People Make Records”. In this blog post I want to round up some of the key points and interesting discussions I heard at the event. The conference felt like a rousing call to action for the sector, encouraging us to expand access to our profession and to ensure that our collections reflect the full variety of our society. What we need to do next is to ensure that we act on the discussions that were had, and do not come back to conference in a year’s time to find that nothing has changed.
Despite getting the first flight from the Midlands I arrived too late to hear the opening keynote on “Cultural Enclaves” by Professor Gus John, but checking the (very lively) conference hashtag #ARA2018 showed me how much people were engaging with his challenging subject.
Powerful, challenging stuff from Professor Gus John about omission, destruction, falsification, distortion and erasure in #archives and records, sometimes from neglect and prejudice, and sometimes deliberately to create alternate realities. #ARA2018 pic.twitter.com/rPjSRUlLcw
— Lucy Janes (@ELucyJanes) August 29, 2018
The first session I attended was on ‘representation’ and was started by Adele Patrick from the Glasgow Women’s Library speaking on the formation of the GWL and the inclusive approach they take to all their work. Adele emphasised that their equality and diversity policy isn’t a box-ticking exercise that sits on the shelf but a living document which inspires staff across the organisation. She described the high levels of ownership that GWL users feel in the collections, through projects such as the Community Curator’s Group and the Young Critics. She also emphasised the important role that creatives and artists can play in opening up collections and making them accessible to new audiences.
#ARA2018 @AdelePatrickGWL explains that the @womenslibrary has an inclusive approach as default, and prefers to call audiences “easy to ignore”, rather than “hard to reach” pic.twitter.com/4Rhf4r3snL
— Katharine Short (@KatharineES) August 29, 2018
Next Hiu Kam Rachel Wong spoke about her research into the experiences of Chinese community groups in London who have archived their materials. She spoke of the dangers of the archive imposing their authority on the community, taking away items to catalogue them in what looks from the outside to be an arcane system, which she likened to the archives ‘disappearing into a black hole’. She also referred to the dangers of assuming homogeneity within a community group, explaining that many of the archive collections do not reflect the experiences of all members of the group but only certain sections – in this case usually educated males. Rachel recommended a power-sharing model where the community retain equal control over their material and do not put blind trust in the authority of the archive institution.
The post-lunch session on “People Are Records” included a fascinating discussion of PIPS – personal instance papers. Gillian Mapstone of National Records of Scotland described the problems of PIPs – they include such materials as medical records, immigration documents, etc – which contain a high level of personal information and are usually very bulky series. This presents two problems for the archivist – one of access and data protection, and one of size and storage. Such records are often weeded or sampled – in both cases Gillian argued that the result is silencing or undermining, removing the person and the value from the record and leaving us falling short of our mission to document society. PIPs have an enduring value beyond the individual stories, revealing much about social change for example.
After this Robin Scott of Loreto Australia spoke philosophically about truth and illusion in archives. Records can be twisted and distorted, memories are elusive and narratives can be manipulated. Archivists often fall prey to the impulse to curate collections to fit a particular narrative – or indeed they are forced to do so in order to hide truths. Archival ethics should always ensure that a collection is authentic but this is not easy. Dawn Sinclair of HarperCollins Archive had a similar message when she spoke of the bias of the archivist and how we must be aware of our own biases and how these affect the decisions we make about our collections.
The final panel of the day was organised by the Community Archive and Heritage Group. The key message from the engaging speakers was that the community must maintain control and ownership of the process of archiving. Jack Latimer described his experiences assisting community groups to develop catalogues. The technicalities of ISAD(G) tend to fade in importance beside the experience of coming together as a group to look through collections and write descriptions. Marion Kenny spoke movingly about the Qisetna online archive telling traditional Syrian stories and allowing displaced Syrian peoples to remain connected through their shared culture. Finally Alan Butler of Plymouth LGBT Archive echoed the morning’s panel when he warned of the danger of treating a set of diverse individuals as one community, “as if all gay people live on the same street”.
Marion Kenny from @Qisetna spoke about how online platforms can help displaced individuals to find one another and communities to sustain their cultural identity.#ARA2018 #syria #storytelling #ARAconf pic.twitter.com/T779V91rfJ
— Qisetna | قصّتنا (@Qisetna) September 5, 2018
The following morning came the second keynote from Michelle Caswell, Assistant Professor of Archival Studies at the University of California Los Angeles. For me this was the standout talk of the conference, and one which has been occupying my thoughts since I heard it. Michelle spoke about how our social systems enforce white supremacy and heteropatriarchy and how all too often archives reflect this and marginalised groups are silenced. She called for archives to become sites of activism and new political activity, allowing lessons to be learned from the activism of the past and stopping history repeating itself. She called on us to challenge the white dominance of our profession and described an exercise she had undertaken with one of her classes to map the privilege we enjoy in archives as white people, and then generate ways of dismantling these privileges (see http://gracenbrilmyer.com/dismantling_whiteSupremacy_archives_WHOLE.pdf). She ended by decrying the concept of ‘more product less process’ as a product of neoliberalism, and called for more process when dealing with communities.
Hard-hitting and thought provoking keynote speech from Michelle Caswell on white hetero patriarchy and privilege in archives https://t.co/QCfDQBcgUj #ARA2018 pic.twitter.com/XDRa6UBI5S
— UCL Records (@UCLRecords) August 30, 2018
I next heard Janice Tullock discussing research she has conducted into archive audiences. She painted a rather bleak picture of falling visitor numbers, lack of engagement, and lack of coordination in the keeping of statistics across the sector. The average archives researcher is white and over the age of 65. Even audiences who attend other cultural or heritage sites, such as museums or galleries, feel that archives are ‘not for them’, ‘locked away’, ‘only for people studying’. She ended by discussing some ways that archives can expand their audiences and break down these barriers – such as giving them a compelling reason to visit such as an exhibition, having more participation, and asking people what they would like to do rather than assuming interest. Barriers were also identified by Sarah Hayes-Hickey of Limerick Archives in her lightning talk that afternoon, which elaborated on the concept of ‘archives anxiety’ and had one of the most entertaining PowerPoints of the conference! On the same panel Erin Lee of the National Theatre spoke about the difficulty of archiving performance and outlined the concept of the “embedded archivist”, someone who could be a fly-on-the-wall during development and rehearsal of a piece, record the process and advocate for the archive.
Sarah Hayes Hickey putting a name to something that was discussed by @JTullock earlier – ‘archive anxiety’ – the negative reactions, such as trepidation, felt by those who might use archives #ARA2018 pic.twitter.com/7kmpyI8xkN
— Vicky Woodcock (@sun_sea_sky) August 30, 2018
On the final day of the conference, the third keynote was delivered by disability campaigner Martyn Sibley. His speech was warm and funny but also challenged us not to think that there is nothing we as individuals can do to break down barriers faced by disabled people – we can all play a part. Martyn described environmental, attitudinal and organisational barriers which disable him. If a restaurant has a ramp access and good customer services, then he is fine. It is only if there are steps which prevent access and no assistance from staff that he then becomes disabled. His thought-provoking talk made me think hard about our reading room arrangements and how we could make adjustments to make the space truly inclusive.
Delivered my keynote speech for @ARAconf this morning on inclusion. It went really well to a packed audience! Interestingly I learned so much about Archiving and Recording keeping for disability activism in Glasgow. Giving people a voice and passing on heritage is vital #ara2018 pic.twitter.com/aoQhJ6qzTA
— Martyn Sibley (@martynsibley) August 31, 2018
I then attended three presentations on volunteers in archives. Tamara Thornhill of Transport for London spoke about using the knowledge of recently retired staff to add context to records, especially those that use a lot of railway jargon! Heather Forbes spoke about the challenges of working with multiple collaborators at Gloucestershire Archives, where she has recently been involved in the development of the Gloucestershire Heritage Hub, bringing different heritage groups together with shared facilities. Finally, Caroline Williams spoke about the many positive benefits that volunteering has both for the volunteer and the archive – provided the relationship is well-managed.
#ARA2018 tips for working in collaboration from Heather Forbes of Gloucestershire Archives – soon to be Gloucestershire Heritage Hub! pic.twitter.com/Y4uhDXY3ie
— Katharine Short (@KatharineES) August 31, 2018
The last session I attended before heading back to the airport was an excellent panel discussion on “Widening the Circle”, focusing on how best to support community archive groups. Heather Roberts of HerArchivist, Gail Heath of The Pankhurst Centre and David Smith of the University of Huddersfield spoke engagingly about the various challenges community groups face when they work with archivists – we tend to be intimidatingly official and use too much jargon, for a start! The key message was to work WITH the groups we want to help, develop partnerships, utilise existing networks and skillsets, and always, always bring cake.
#ARA2018 don’t use jargon – appraisal explained as a “kiss, marry or kill” decision by @herArchivist which was immediately understandable pic.twitter.com/g0w0Fn7jba
— Katharine Short (@KatharineES) August 31, 2018
The Archives and Records Association have made several of the conference sessions available to view here: http://conference.archives.org.uk/glasgow-2018-presentation-videos
I have neglected to mention my own presentation at the conference – I will look at that in another blog post!