The Archives and Records Association (ARA) Annual Conference 2021 was held 1st–3rd September 2021. In this blog post, Rachael Marsay reports on some of the highlights of the conference, held entirely online this year for the first time.
There were three themes to this year’s conference: sustainability, diversity, and advocacy. Though each day of the conference covered one theme, one of the stand-outs of the conference was just how interlinked all three strands were.
Day one’s keynote speaker was Jeff James, Chief Executive and Keeper at The National Archives. Jeff talked about environmental sustainability, as well as the sustainability of the record and of the archives sector. He mentioned how The National Archives at Kew are committed to lowering their carbon footprint, which has been reduced by 80% since 2009. This has been achieved by building on scientific research with regards to buildings, bringing both a financial and environmental benefit. He also spoke of records at risk, referring to the work of the Cultural Recovery Fund, the Covid-19 Archives Fund for records at risk and the Crisis Management Team alongside already established fund streams such as the Archives Revealed grant scheme. Digital records were flagged as records at risk and he stressed the need for the sector to work in partnership and collaboration, both together and with digital giants (such as Microsoft and Google) with regards to developing digital products. Sector skills include the need for records professionals to gain digital skills through schemes and strategies such as Plugged In Powered Up, the Novice to Know-How online training resource created by the Digital Preservation Coalition, the Digital Archives Learning Exchange, and the Bridging the Gap traineeship programme.
The fragility of born-digital records, identified as critically endangered by the Digital Preservation Coalition, was a common theme throughout the conference. Even the most modern of records are at risk (CD-Rs for example, have a lifespan of under 10 years). Particular digital records discussed related to oral history interviews, often seen as ‘history from below’, recording the lives of those with ‘hidden histories’ off mainstream records, such as women and members of the LGBTQ+ community. Challenges to preserve digital material include cost, knowledge, skills and training, technology, and resources, as well as issues surrounding ‘gatekeeping’ and access to material. Rachel MacGregor (Digital Preservation Officer at The Modern Records Centre, University of Warwick) emphasised the need to record, describe, and catalogue born digital collections well in order to ensure that that they can be utilised by researchers, and explored some of the standards and guidance currently available.
Day two’s keynote speaker was Arike Oke (Managing Director, Black Cultural Archives) who spoke about experiences with diversity, aptly described as the equitable and mindful bringing together of difference; diversity should not be seen as static, but as a perpetual movement, both including and evolving difference. In her talk, Arike raised the point of classifying and being classified, and several sessions across the three days referred to how language and terminology impacted the use of records or archives created by or for particular communities. The use of historic terminology can be a barrier to access, particularly when words hold negative connotations that can cause distress to users. This was explored in several sessions in relation to LGBTQ+ related records and archives (including those kept at the Parliamentary Archives of the UK Parliament), as well as colonial collections such as the Miscellaneous Reports Collection held by the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew. Thoughts on how to address the issues included guides or notes explaining the context and why such words were used, including modern terms or names in brackets, inviting feedback, and for events, giving participants time and space to process information.
The importance of being open to keeping more ephemeral material and objects (e.g. pin badges, leaflets and posters) was also highlighted, particularly in shedding light on lives not necessarily recorded in more traditional forms. Christopher Hilton of Britten Pears Arts gave an interesting presentation on the multitude of receipts kept by Benjamin Britten and his partner Peter Pears for tax purposes. The receipts were important in shedding light on their relationship by providing evidence that they maintained clearly separate financial lives, demonstrating how important it was for their professional lives at that period that their records could be used to demonstrate a ‘plausible deniability’ should their personal relationship be questioned. The receipts were also records of businesses in Aldeburgh which are now long gone, provoking memories for older residents and providing a tangible link between the archive and the town.
Day three’s keynote speaker was Deirdre McParland, Senior Archivist at the Electricity Supply Board (Ireland) whose inspirational talk focussed on the importance of advocacy and that ‘archives are for life, not just anniversaries’. Deirdre spoke of how archives should be pro-active and innovative when it comes to advocacy, and that projects should be strategically planned to include promotion as standard. Deirdre’s talk was followed by a talk by Jenny Moran and Robin Jenkins from the Record Office for Leicestershire, Leicester and Rutland, and Richard Wiltshire of the Crisis Management Team. Jenny, Robin and Richard talked about saving the archive of the travel firm Thomas Cook after the company’s sudden collapse: an excellent example of how swift action, negotiation and successful advocacy led to the ensured survival of the archive. The conference was nicely brought to a close by a talk by Alan and Bethan Ward on their project Photographs from Another Place. Their talk, given from the perspective of the archive user, showed how a bit of archival research revealed the names and stories behind a group of forgotten and unlabelled glass plate negatives. It was, for me at least, a timely reminder of the enduring value of archives.
A selection of further reading recommendations made by speakers and participants:
- Jenny Bunn, ‘Born digital archive cataloguing and description’ [PDF, 467kb], Digital Preservation Coalition Tech Watch Guidance Note, 2021.
- Richard Dunley and Jo Pugh, ‘Do Archive Catalogues Make History?: Exploring Interactions between Historians and Archives’, Twentieth Century British History, 2021.
- The National Archives, Project Omega.
- The National Museum for World Cultures (Tropenmuseum, Afrikamuseum, Museum Volkenkunde, Wereldmuseum), Words Matter: An Unfinished Guide to Word Choices in the Cultural Sector, 2018.
- Gloucestershire Heritage Hub, Heritage Hub Collections Care training.