The second of two posts about the recent ARA 2016 Conference was written by Sian Morgan who won a New Professional Bursary to attend
There isn’t enough space here to do justice to the breadth and knowledge gained from each session but the incredible standard of the talks and workshops meant that the opportunity to discuss and advance our knowledge and commitment to archives cannot be underestimated. The support shown by ARA members in supporting the New Professional Bursary which meant I was able to partake in the conference is something I can’t say thank you enough.
After an early morning train from Chester to Wembley, myself and the other delegates were greeted at the conference by Geoff Pick’s “Hello Wembley” (after all, who could resist?!)
Following our warm welcome the first keynote was delivered by Colin Prescod who gave a passionate talk about the power of the archives in challenging existing narratives and reclaiming histories. In sharp contrast to where the power of the archive lays, you could not help be tempted to answer his call. Prescod’s talk perhaps could be seen as compromising the authority of the archivist as being neutral to the records but it does spark an interesting debate on whether the role of the archivist should be to actively challenge and champion other unrepresented narratives.
What followed was Victoria Doyle’s fascinating summary of her PhD work into the terminology and language of documentation produced by the archival sector. She took us through key documents as examples and highlighted the dominant language. As Prescod had claimed earlier in the morning, the dominant language of white, male and straight cultures maintain these boundaries. What I found interesting was the forced language of shared identity and history when it is debatable if a history is shared. The main conclusion drawn from her talk was that we as individuals all have biases, perhaps this cannot be removed from our work with archive collections, but it can be acknowledged and made visible for the users.
Fellow Aberystwyth alumnus Ann MacDonald continued the day with her work with refugees and asylum seekers at the University of Kent. This focus on the real life situation that displaced people endure, and the work that archives can do to assist them in reclaiming their own demonstrates the human reward that archives can give people. This, again, brought to the front the power of the archives to represent minority groups and, in this particular case, reclaim refugee history to be their own history.
Income generation was the theme of Keith Grinsted’s talk in session 3. Giving a quick summary of how Essex Record Office developed a business plan focusing on income generation, Grinsted’s marketing outlook was refreshing, at a time where archivists and record managers continue to feel the pressure in justifying the value of the service, especially in local authorities. The main change I found was the development of what he saw as a commercially focused mindset in the workforce. The success that Grinsted represents is an interesting move from archives as a cultural service to embed itself within the local authority as a ‘Traded Service’.
The opportunities made possible with integrated systems were the focus of Hannah Barton’s and Alison Foster’s talk. The collections at Tate had been linked via the website to link artworks and exhibitions with archival material. It seemed so simple and obvious but the flawless system gave so much potential for sharing collections and widening the possibilities for research and access. This is something I’m sure that will become in more demand as archives become more in demand, the focus will be to connect other collections to archives to benefit the users.
Day 2 kicked off with another keynote, this time from HSBC Archives’ Tina Staples. The topic of her keynote ‘Big Data in a Connected World: Friend or Foe?’ Tina identified pretty early on that Big Data was a friend. However, she acknowledged that the challenges could only continue as we keep working with such big data.
After lunch, we were treated to what, I think, were the most thought-provoking two sessions. The first, on establishing boundaries in archives, and second, looking at the effect archives have on users and archivists. The boundaries of accepting and making collections available are, of course, dictated by the collections policy of a repository but our discussion in this session was more placed on what to do after the collections have been deposited.
Unpicking through the potential implications and situations that have been put to archivists, it’s difficult to see where and if there should be any lines when access is a question. As gatekeepers we don’t want to limit access to a history which reflects its time or could be interpreted differently in the present. A neutralisation of language, warnings on the catalogue or screening of users, in a sense, labels a collection with our values of what is and isn’t suitable. This brings the conference back to Prescod’s keynote and the challenge of addressing ‘whose history is it anyway?’
After such a challenge of access there is also a great deal of potential work on the emotional responses of audiences on archives but the discussion moved to how this could be recorded – by the users themselves or by vigilant reading room supervisors?
In all, the blend of speakers at the ARA conference was a truly brilliant, I’m only sorry I had to leave early before the closing remarks. Thank you again to all the ARA members that responded to the call for support of the bursary and also to the delegates at the conference for making me feel so welcome. It was lovely to see so many newcomers and also the opportunity to write this piece.