Getting in touch
I find I wear many hats. Archivist. New Professional. English-speaking invader of Lews Castle, Stornoway. The Hebridean fiddle music is playing, dinner over, and Gaelic conversation flowing on my left. The hats we wear are especially visible at an archives conference – there’s no escaping the name and workplace badge!
Day one of the community archives conference is winding down, I’m leaving the fiddle dancers and reflecting on the day’s speakers. Foremost stands Annie MacSween of Comunn Eachdraidh Nis (Ness Historical Society), a community archive located in the northern part of the isle of Lewis.
“Archivists should visit every community archive in their area.”
In fact, it’s one of the first things we should do. Not a direct quote from Annie, but a salient point she made that resonated with the conference audience. It begs questions about the role of archivists in their community, and about networks between different archive groups. It also challenges us to assess the impact of current community archive networks; personally and nationally.
John Chambers, ARA, presented a paper regarding the ARA-UK Community Archives and Heritage Group (CAHG). It was the first paper of the day, and I was interested in particular to hear about the new edition of cataloguing guidelines for community archives, to be published online this summer. The website has a wealth of information available for community archive groups.
The impression from questions at the end of the conference, however, was that many people working or volunteering with historical groups or community archives are unaware of CAHG. Or if they are aware, the engagement is not particularly strong. The conference highlighted an appetite from community archive groups to engage and learn more about archival practice, especially in areas such as cataloguing and storage. This isn’t perhaps a new demand, but it is one with apparent scope for growth. Chambers estimated there are approximately 3000 community archives in the UK; 725 are listed on CAHG.
The question of archivists visiting community archives in their area, was, I believe, not only about networking (for both parties) but about the need for greater skills support for community archives. Is it enough to simply offer our advice at the end of the telephone? Can we, as archivists, do more? John Chambers announced a CAHG survey, ending 17th July 2017, that will perhaps inform ways forward in addressing these and other matters impacting community archive groups. If the demand on Lewis is indicative of wider trends, then we need to do more to advocate resources such as CAHG, and the Irish equivalent, iCAN to our own networks of people working in community archives.
Sound of the Sea (Fuaim na Mara)
Moving away from skills support to outreach, we were delighted then to hear samples from Scotland’s Sound network. This paper, presented by Amy McDonald, focused on innovative ways archives can work with other groups to visualise and re-interpret sound collections. The network of archives, museums, libraries, and community groups resulted in collaborative work with artists, designers (including school kids!), and musicians to produce still and animated media compilations. These were specifically designed to accompany sound recordings, including fragile items stored on metallic wire.
“Working with artists and graphic designers to produce visual representations of sound records increases their visibility and widens access to the collections”. Amy McDonald, National Library of Scotland.
Funding for the project was from the Esmeé Fairbairn Foundation, with events across Scotland. In Canna, guest curator Yvonne Lyon produced 8 songs inspired by the archive collections.
We also heard about an upcoming (and now sold out) British Library course on Archival Management of oral history collections, to be hosted on the 6 Oct in Inverness.
The demand for archival training was a common thread at the Lewis conference, demonstrated by the questions from the audience and also by the sheer range and enthusiasm of attendees. It was a very cheery mixed group of people. Besides traditional archivists, trainees, and community archive staff, the conference was also attended by artists of both a musical and artistic background. It reinforced for me the way heritage can bring so many different people together, in a positive and meaningful way for sharing ideas.
Annie MacSween and Gary West’s papers highlighted something else important: the opportunities for and from interactions between official records and oral or local histories.
Where we store archives is changing. With digitised and born-digital archives, there’s a greater responsibility to place copies or provide access directly into the hands of the communities where records originate. This was critical in gaining trust for the oral history project in Dumfries and Galloway.
The community will only engage with people they trust. What I found interesting and quite instructive was that so much of the conference was about sound collections and their ability to build bridges between community groups and traditional record keepers.
‘Challenges’ or ‘Challenging’?
Sound records, collected strategically, can also be used to inform our archival practice of appraisal. This was an area explored in Jan Merchant’s presentation, describing the method whereby valuable contextual information can be captured at the very stage of acquisition and accessioning.
Jan spoke to conference about ‘ghosts in the machine’, with her experience in interviewing Dundee weaver Lily Thomson and hosting the Talking Textiles event. The interview was specially tailored (excuse the terrible pun!) to enhance the university’s collection of records from Lily’s employer.
Jan also spoke about Strathmartine Hospital Histories, where child patients of the Baldovan Asylum returned as adults. Their visits were video-recorded as part of a project to open up dialogue regarding a part of our history still fairly stigmatised; that of mental health and institutional failure or corruption. The project’s website features a toolkit designed for anyone in the community who wishes to record their own history.
Speaking later with a fellow conference attendee, we discussed the challenges in interviewing anyone with a speech or mental disability. The University of Dundee project demonstrates how we can overcome these sort of challenges. It encourages us to pause, reflect, and act on our moral code as archivists. It made me wonder on the balance of our work in preservation, against the need for outreach and active collecting. The outcome must be to broaden the scope of our collections, contextualise records, and widen our audiences.
‘Archives belong to the community and there is a role for all to play in their creation’. Jan Merchant, University of Dundee.
The conference in Stornoway demonstrated that challenges exist. We witnessed linguistic diversities, in terms of language and speech, and we heard about and observed relative geographical or social isolation. At conference we learned about some truly inspiring projects that overcame these challenges.
The challenge of addressing ‘our history was not told’ was one common theme from the conference, observed by several of the speakers presenting.
In Dumfries and Galloway 227 oral history interviews were conducted by 49 volunteer fieldworkers in a recent project. The recordings are now held by 17 local libraries, as well as the University of Edinburgh.
Conference also learned about important digitisation work at Tasglann Nan Eilean Siar (Hebridean Archives), and of The National Library of Scotland’s plan to digitise 1/3 of their holdings by 2025; some 24 million items. Two HLF trainees completed the digitisation of 37,000 images in just 20 weeks, working with NLS collections to mark 75 years of the Edinburgh Fringe.
All of these projects break down barriers created by the geography and population spread of Scotland. The annual CAHG awards, highlighted by Chambers presentation, is one way conference learned of ways ARA are working to raise the profile of community archives facing some of the above challenges. The impact and energy of these projects made a lasting impression on me as a new professional finding my own feet with local historical groups. I think everyone is looking forward now to Annie’s tour of the community archive tomorrow, and a bit more of the Lewis blackpudding.
Steven Skeldon, Deputy Archivist, Cork City & County Archives
Have a listen to the Fuaim na Mara project online: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ll3vKL-JudI&feature=youtu.be
The second part of this blog will go out on Friday, September 22, 2017.