The National Archives and The Royal Historical Society
Gerald Aylmer Seminar, 21st April 2010
There was no doubting an enthusiasm for collaboration amongst the (appropriately diverse – archivists, academic historians, community activists, outreach professionals) audience at the stimulating ‘Diverse Histores – One Archive‘ seminar (#1arc) organised jointly by The National Archives and the Royal Historical Society, and held at University College London last week. Early in the day, Dr Tony Murray identified what he characterised as the mutually beneficial relationship which exists (or should exist) between community knowledge shared in exchange for capacity-building support from ‘official’ archival organisations.
But I am not sure that anyone was quite expecting another ‘C’, consensus, which emerged from the discussions surrounding the kind of language used in archival description and indexing. Of course, it may be – as Dr Matt Houlbrook pointed out – that there is a greater tolerance for potentially offensive terminology used in archives contexts amongst academics than in the wider community. Nevertheless, participants at the seminar seemed clear that diversity will not be served by sanitizing the prejudices of the past. Or, as the LGBT staff group at The National Archives have commented on Your Archives, “the documents…whilst showing obvious [intolerant attitudes] also reveal to us the vibrancy and diversity of social life… Many valuable resources…still need to be identified and surfaced…and when we find them, make sure people record them in cataloguing projects, with accurate terminology that doesn’t change the meaning of the document, but that doesn’t reiterate [bigotry] found within them”. S.I.Martin commented that the archivist’s role is to clarify, not censor; whilst Beth Brooke from TNA neatly concluded the day’s discussion by calling for two-way learning: the archivist to clarify the language, and the user to ‘read’ the archive.
Pondering further, I wondered how far the day’s outcomes reflected:
- The specific types of communities represented at the seminar (for ‘diverse’ read ‘traditionally marginalised’ or ‘persecuted’) and/or
- An assumption of archival/historical context
To elucidate, firstly, does the campaigning sense of social justice which often underpins historical research into marginalised or persecuted communities make for more willing user-archives collaborators, with greater resilience against potential controversy? In a twist upon conventional archives’ outreach wisdom that equates increased archives access with greater user-empowerment, Dr Jeevan Deol suggested that increased access to historical sources would expose the prejudices of the past to a wider audience, and consequently to greater public dispute. He commented that it is important that archives consider in advance how to deal with the fall-out of such wrangling. This would also seem to require the archivist to relinquish some control over the archives in his or her care, something which (if the delegates’ tales of over-zealous archival gatekeeping are to be believed) the researchers of ‘diversity’ histories may feel to be somewhat overdue. These communities are not likely to be mourning the demise of archival (or indeed any other traditional form of) authority (sorry, an ‘A’!). Consequently, I suspect, such researchers might be more disposed to help enrich archival description with new perspectives and alternative readings – aka user generated content – than the researchers of more mainstream histories.
This said, however, I was struck by how the audience appeared to assume that the user’s introduction to archival sources would come solely (or at least primarily) via the catalogue – see, for example, the quote above, “make sure people record them in cataloguing projects“. Of course, this was a seminar sponsored by The National Archives, which specifically invited delegates to critique cataloguing and indexing in the archive. But I wondered how many of the audience had considered how easily historical records can become decoupled from their archival descriptive context in an online world, surfacing again on facebook, blogs, flickr and web mashups. Surely it is not the language of the catalogue and other archival finding aids which is significant here, so much as conventions of citation which tie the historical record back to its archival context. In the analogue world, citations have not been something that have concerned archives professionals too much¹. A gentleman’s agreement over publication permission has helped to preserve some illusion of control over the contexts in which archival materials are re-used, but on the whole we have been happy to let authors and publishers set their own conventions for referencing our collections. The archivist could concentrate on the catalogue; citation was the historian’s responsibility.
It should be self-evident that collaboration is not a one-way street. User engagement methodologies such as Revisiting Archives invite the user into our descriptive world; social media applications may help to boost the audience for archives and permit greater transparency for our documentation processes. But perhaps as archive professionals, we have not yet begun to look beyond our own established roles to see how we need to adapt our functions to support our users’ worlds.
¹ See http://archives30.wikidot.com/citations-in-the-wild-a-collection-of-preferred-formats which begins to illustrate some of the problems with archival citations by gathering together the myriad ways in which different Archives suggest their collections should be referenced. See also Tim Sherratt ‘Emerging Technologies for the Provision of Access to Archives: Issues, Challenges and Ideas‘ 2009, pp.24-26. A thank you to Tim for pointing me again towards this report, which pre-empts many of my thoughts here on collaboration, control and context.