17 November 2008

On Holiday in the Archives

Pierrot troupe, 'Shorefield Gardens Westcliff 1916' Liverpool University Centre for Archive Studies (LUCAS) organised an event on Saturday, with Sefton MBC, at Southport Arts Centre. This was an afternoon of talks and films about what archives can show us about holidays and seaside resorts. There were four films from the North West Film Archive, made by railway companies to encourage visitors to travel to northern resorts, and films showing local people made by cinema owners to encourage visitors to their cinemas. Then Dr Chris Lewis of Victoria County History told us about his investigation into the names of private houses in the seaside town of Goring in West Sussex - an ingenious way to shine light on social history. Allan Brodie of English Heritage showed us some of the evidence he had uncovered that Liverpool (rather than Margate) can make a claim to be the first seaside resort, in the early 18th century. Professor John Walton of Leeds Metropolitan University described some of the lateral thiking and detective work required to track down sparse or scattered records of resort life in Britain (and Spain) in the 19th and 20th centuries. Documented history concerned with these aspects of ordinary lives tends to be thin on the ground, as the whole subject was generally seen as 'trivial'. But there's so much more to history than the 'great and the good'. These archivists and historians were at the seaside, but they were working on illuminating our history... Above: Photo from the collection Papers relating to English concert parties and pierrot shows, held at the University of Exeter. Image courtesy of University of Exeter Library (Special Collections).


13 November 2008

Use of archives by social scientists

I have just attended two seminars as part of a project on Archiving and Reusing Qualitative Data: Theory, Methods and Ethics Across Disciplines. They provided a great deal of food for thought, as seminars like this so often do. These seminars were particularly valuable because they drew together academics, particularly social scientists and archivists. Many of the participants were oral historians, and the challenges of oral history ran through many of the talks.

When archivists think about archival theory and description, they are generally thinking about archives as materials 'created by an individual or organisation in the course of their life or work and considered worthy of permanent preservation' (my quotes, to indicate that this is a classic definition of archives). But if we think about archives as any records considered worthy of preservation and with value for future researchers, then we can expand the definition to include records that social scientists refer to as archives. For them, archives are often data sets, created by researchers in the course of their research and then, possibly, reused.

Social scientists do not necessarily think in terms of business records or personal letters, or archives as a reflection of personal or organisational activity. They think in terms of longitudinal studies and oral histories; quantitative and qualitative data. These are archives that generally are created for the purposes of research, and so the perspective is rather different to those created in the course of individual or organisational activity. We have the UK Data Archive which has 'the largest collection of digital data in the social sciences and humanities in the UK', and this houses the History Data Service which 'promotes the use of digital resources, which result from or support historical research, learning and teaching', but I don't think that there is a general sense amongst archivists that these are part of the archive community, in the sense that trainee archivists don't really think about working for a data archive, and arhcival theory doesn't appear to really encompass this type of archive. Certainly social scientists clearly see archives as both data archives (data sets) and traditional archives (archives as reflections of past activity), and the fact that the two were not explicitly distinguished during the seminars was striking in itself.

It may be that data archives require different ways of thinking to 'historical archives', in terms of how they are organised and managed, but now that archives are increasingly digital, and as all archives are a valuable source for research, surely there is sense in the two communities moving closer together?

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11 November 2008

What Are Archives? (Or, Shameless Plug for Archives Hub Authors)

(And as I am not one of the authors in question, I can do the shameless plugging:) I'm proud to announce that two of our colleagues here at the Hub, Jane Stevenson and Paddy Collis, have been included in this important anthology of essays What Are Archives? Cultural and Theoretical Perspectives: A Reader. The collection has been edited by Louise Craven of The National Archives (UK) and brings together a range of voices around this complex question. Underpinning the question, 'What Are Archives?' is a fundamental change in perspective where new answers to that question are beginning to emerge, as Craven notes. We are now, she says, beginning to adopt a wider perspective, "looking at archives from the outside, rather than from the inside" (Preface). Jane Stevenson's contribution, 'The Online Archivist: A Positive Approach to the Digital Information Age,' is an excellent overview of the practical issues that emerge in the realm of 'online archives.' She considers the evolving skillsets needed by information professionals in general and archivists in particular, especially around emerging technologies. "We need to know how to share and exchange data, how to structure finding aids to enable sophisticated searching, what the advantages and disadvantages are of using controlled vocabularies..."(90). Above all, she says, "If the archive profession does not address this need to change and adapt to meet the needs of the new information society, we run the risk of being sidelined in this most crucial area of work"(105). Paddy (Gerard) Collis's essay, 'Permitted Use and Users: The Fallout Shelter's Sealed Environment' takes an altogether more exploratory and philosophical approach to the central question of the collection. Through a series of meditations on the 'archives' such as the caves at Lascaux, nuclear waste repositories, and avant-garde art exhibits, Paddy asks us to question our perhaps restricted notion of 'the archive,' and significantly the polarising concept of the 'casual' visitor versus the 'serious' researcher. Well done to both Paddy and Jane for these valuable contributions. We're very lucky to have you sitting in desks across from us!

07 November 2008

Collections of the Month: Tom Eckersley

Postcards: Chaplin, Groucho, Keaton, Dietrich, Joan Crawford, Garbo, Laurel and Hardy, Harold Lloyd This month we celebrate the work of Tom Eckersley (1914-1995), one of the foremost graphic designers of the twentieth century working in Britain. With an introduction by Karyn Stuckey, Archivist at University of the Arts London, and illustrated with 14 designs and drawings from their Tom Eckersley collection, including poster designs for Guinness, the World Wildlife Fund, and RoSPA. There are also links to selected websites and a some suggested reading. Above: Image provided by University of the Arts London with all rights reserved by the owners: the Tom Eckersley Estate and London College of Communication. Image of poster taken by Graham Goldwater. With rights reserved by University of the Arts London, contact: archive-enquiries@arts.ac.uk, 02075 149 335.