Saturday, 27 February 2016

Animating Black Archives...some lessons learnt

Today I attended the 11th Annual Huntley Archives Conference, Animating Black Archives: The Next Ten Years at the London Metropolitan Archives.  I went along as the National Theatre looks after the Black Plays Archive and it would be useful to know what is happening in other institutions dealing with black archives.

Although much of the day was taken up with the content of these archives and the research that can be done with it, there were some themes that emerged, which were really useful to consider as an archivist in general.  There were several definitions of archives bandied around, which were very interesting to consider as they are interpretations of archives that were created by non-archivists.  I can feel sometimes that archivists speak to each other in a bit of an echo chamber so it can be very refreshing to hear a variety of academics, historians and activists discussing archives and their importance.

So, what did 'archive' mean to them?  Archives can provide a counter-narrative to accepted norms, they can spur on activism and provide a form of resistance.  They urge us to share and, through that sharing, ensure that the history is handed down for generations to come and the archive services themselves are continuously funded and supported.

One audience member suggested that we treat archives more like libraries, as somewhere to bring your family and browse content.  I am all for this, there seems to be a strict line between archives and libraries, which is understandable in terms of cataloguing, content and storage but when it comes to access, we should make archive materials as open and welcoming as possible, as libraries strive to do.

It is all well and good to keep these histories alive but there are two issues that were flagged.  The first was that many libraries and local community centres are suffering cuts and facing closure so it is an active issue that these archives and facilities for discussion might be lost.  The second is that if the history will be kept alive for the next generations, we need to find ways in which to engage the younger generation by using digital content and social media.  This comes with issues of its own such as how you access digital content and how it is preserved, copyright and rights restrictions, where the data is stored and what the metadata is like.  Digital access, however, will allow deeper immersion in history and encourage people to engage more directly with archive material.

It is interesting to think about what this could mean for archivists.  My role is now considering how to get our archive content out there to people who cannot come to the research room in London and what that digital provision might encompass.  We are subject to vast copyright restrictions and hold so much content that it is very difficult to imagine what an online presence could look like.  Nathan Richards, Black Cultural Archives, talked about this and raised questions such as; how do heritage institutions stay relevant in the digital landscape?  And how do we embed archives in the physical environment to encourage engagement?  And he also suggested the importance of thinking about how we produce our history so that it will be accessible in years to come.  These issues are the same for all kinds of archives and it was useful to have some space to think about them with a different audience.

So, there was plenty food for thought and there was a really lovely quote used by the George Padmore Institute, spoken by John La Rose:

         Slow builders and consolidators, not flash and dash (John La Rose)

Words to work and live by.