Learning, shaping, defining

A PhD proposal begins with an idea and theme.  The proposal developed by me, Andrew Flinn and Jenny Haynes was focused around the notion of a 'participatory archive' with the idea of an in-depth analysis of methodology and process.  That central theme has remained constant although the context and specifics have shifted entirely.  In the initial proposal we suggested that to explore the 'participatory archive' we would look at scientific collections already held by the Wellcome Library and how people other than the 'professional archivist' could be involved in processing and describing those collections.  

When you begin the actual research process for a PhD, the first year is spent reading, learning, redefining, and shaping what are going to be doing.  You need to think about the questions you want to answer, the methodology you will use, and the context in which you will carry out your research and try and bring it all together in a way that will work given the constraints and boundaries that surround you.

In looking at methodology, I became interested by Participatory Action Research (PAR) which focuses on seeking to transform the world by trying to change it.  There was an alignment between my growing understanding of what 'archival activism' could be about; and the principles that underpin PAR.  PAR is rooted in injustice with the intention of making a positive difference in its given context.  Although, my reading around PAR left me in no doubt of the complexity and tensions that the methodology raises I felt it could be useful in an archival context to inform how we go about documenting our world; I felt there was potential for PAR to help us to address the injustices, the gaps, the silences, the biases in the historical record that we as Archivists are complicit in creating.

My choice of methodology and my understanding that it was the these socio-historical issues that was the context in which I wanted my PhD to be immersed led me to want to move the specific focus away from enhancing collections already held by the Wellcome Library, towards the creation and collection of new material; the archival involvement in documenting the present; with an intention that this focus would point to and address specific silences and gaps in the historical record.

But which silences and gaps? And how is the context of injustice in historical records going to be constrained within my research? My first way of reigning these aims in to something achievable was to concentrate on the context of the documentary landscape provided by the Archives and Manuscripts Collections at the Wellcome Library.  The Wellcome Trust's documentary landscape as a whole is of course much broader than my focus allows for. I am not taking into account the objects in the Wellcome Collection; or the items in Wellcome Images.  I am focusing on a small part of the Wellcome Library's collections that doesn't include the published books or the moving image and sound collections; just archives and manuscripts.  

Given my narrow, but in my opinion workable focus, the question of which silences and gaps still remained.  Looking for bias, injustice and gaps to focus on was an uncomfortable process, and highlights that the academic frame sitting around what I was doing was turning my actions into a contrived process.  It felt like a cold, unattached approach as I spoke with the Wellcome Library team and looked through the catalogues and into the collections. Trying to understand how the collections tell the story of different aspects of the history of health and medicine, and then looking for holes and bias in the way that story is told.  This isn't usually how a Participatory Action Research process begins, the use of PAR usually develops from the concerns of the participants; to look for a concern because you want to hang the methodology around 'something' creates a tension that isn't easily resolved.  I still feel uncomfortable acknowledging that this is how the process unfolded.

Trying to unravel why a focus on mental health became the 'something' to hang the methodology around is difficult.  My own feeling of connection to the theme is one aspect; as I looked into the archives and manuscripts at the Wellcome Library and realised the extent to which mental health is represented through the voice of the professional expert I felt highly motivated to want to change this for the better.  To provide a space where people with lived experience could speak autonomously and create their own history.  I felt connected and commited to wanting transformation.  Another element of why mental health became the focus was the ease in which practical possibilities opened up. Tentatively beginning to ascertain whether there would be individuals interested in being involved rapidly met with enthusiasm and commitment.  It somehow came together.  The context for the development of the mental health recovery archive was emerging.