ARA Conference 2018 – Sarah Wilcock

I applied for the ARA Section for New Professionals bursary pretty sure in the knowledge that there would be many more worthy applicants than me. So when I was successful in attaining the one day bursary I was absolutely delighted, thank you ARA! I was going to my first conference. Now which day should I choose? This was not an easy task as all three days boasted some fantastic speakers. Oral history has come up within my day job at Perth & Kinross Archive on several occasions over the past couple of years and I was very keen to hear Caroline Mulligan, Alistair Bell and Sarah-Joy Maddeaux speaking on the subject. Equally my work with the archive volunteers would have benefitted from hearing Tamara Thornhill and Heather Forbes. Volunteers are often the unsung heroes of archives and engaging with them and encouraging them is of great benefit to us. But, in the end, it was Michelle Caswell, the Mass Observation Archive: Beyond Boxes and Stephanie Neild of the Leonard Cheshire Disability Archives that drove me to choose the Thursday session. I settled on this day, and these speakers in particular, because collecting for communities was not something I had much prior knowledge of. To any prospective bursary applicants and conference attendees that cannot manage to the full event I would say take this opportunity to hear something different, to try something new and I’m very glad I did.

The speakers did not disappoint. Michelle Caswell was inspiring in her keynote address where she called us to be active rather than passive in our collecting of community archives. We, as archivists, need to stand up for the power and importance of these collections. To help break down barriers to archives and to help minority groups ‘take back the narrative’. Tamsin Bookey of Tower Hamlets Local History Library & Archives gave further thought to how this might be achieved. She stressed that we need to facilitate and support communities to do their own collecting and not make the presumption that they wish us to do it on their behalf. They must set the terms and take the lead. We need to work harder to break down those barriers that keep people and their collections out of archives. In the work that I do as an archivist there are no barriers to access. I can relate to the majority of the collections in our care as they were created by my ethnic ancestors. I can walk into the strong room and take anything off the shelf without having to rely on another human being to facilitate this for me. So to stop and consider the perspective of someone else who does not have the privileged role that I do was pretty eye-opening.

White supremacy in archives
‘Identifying and dismantling white supremacy in archives’ poster by Gracen Brilmyer, referenced in Michelle Caswell’s keynote.

While I was inspired by these two speakers I was absolutely fascinated by the work of the Mass Observation Archive: Beyond Boxes and Leonard Cheshire Disability Archives projects. Here were two projects that were an absolute testament to the fact that you can take the archives to the people. Listening to Anthony McCoubrey demonstrate the success that the project had had working with HMP Lewes was fantastic. Stephanie Nield went one step further with a video presentation of the Leonard Cheshire Rewind project, which saw the creation of a whole new oral history collection from service users, staff and volunteers. (If you are interested to hear these you will find them at But these speakers didn’t just stand up and give an account of what they had done, they shared practical advice and the challenges they faced and how these were overcome or worked around.

Leonard Cheshire Rewind oral histories
Oral histories created as part of the Leonard Cheshire Rewind project.

An important part of the day which cannot be overlooked was the ice cream. Thank you Bruynzeel! I would say, however, that ice cream is perhaps not the best treat to have when you are networking. You are faced with the awkward dilemma of trying to converse with your peers and fellow colleagues while trying to either avoid an ice cream moustache or watching it melt down your hand.

If you ever have the opportunity to attend the ARA conference, don’t hesitate, go! I won’t deny that, for me, it was a bit overwhelming and I was exhausted by the end of it, having absorbed so much information. I did, however, leave Glasgow with a renewed sense of purpose that I want to be one of those who help to facilitate change. We still have so much work to do to break down the barriers that are preventing so many people from using archives and records. Since conference I have made changes in the way that I present archives to people through my outreach work. Steering away from trying to impress people with the really interesting and unique records we hold and putting much more emphasis on how the records can be accessed and how the records represent everyday people with everyday lives and interests.

Sarah Wilcock, Perth & Kinross Archive

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