Personal stories as archives

When I was at the very start of my professional career, I worked as an Archives Assistant in Special Collections at the University of Sussex.  I see the 18 months that I was there as being very foundational to my interests and leanings as an Archivist. Not only does the Special Collections house a wonderful array of literary archives including one of my favourite authors - Virginia Woolf - but it also is the home of the Mass-Observation Archive.

Mass-Observation was a quirky initiative set up in the late 1930s aiming to record everyday life.  Personal narrative and life history pulses through the collection.  The 'mass-observers' submitted diaries and responses to themed questions (called Directives) as well as going out onto the streets to record what they saw and heard and these diaries, directive responses and observations form the heart of the collection.  The original Mass-Observation project wound up in the 1950s but the University of Sussex used the idea of volunteers writing on themed directives to re-launch the Mass-Observation Project in 1981 and this aspect of collecting is still ongoing.

The personal narratives running through the Mass-Observation material affords the collection with characteristics that I have come to value.  There is a richness to the representations; there is an emotive quality to the archive; there are multiple points in which the reader is drawn to make a personal connection to the material; and there are explicit moments in which the material itself challenges and questions the reality it simultaneously seeks to construct.  Personal narrative carries the enabling characteristics for transformation in the reader.  Personal narratives have an inherent value in their ability to touch, move and connect us.

Professional Archivists have usually looked at value in very different terms.  Archival records are appraised for their evidential and informational value.  They are valued for their ability to accurately represent the activities that gave rise to their creation to fulfill requirements of accountability.  The result is an archival documentary landscape in which evidence of mechanisms, structures, and processes in which activities have occurred are highly valued and most likely to be preserved; searching for the personal is too often like searching for the needle in the haystack. Even when Archivists have selected 'Personal Archives' which are woven around the context of an individual life; many of these collections are focused on documenting the procedural, administrative and business related elements of individual existence. 

For me the focus on personal stories in the mental health recovery archive is important because I believe these stories have a transformatory potential.  It is also a statement to Archivists to indicate that I think these types of records should be considered as vital components of an archival documentary landscape.  I think we need to see more recognition by Archivists of the value in personal stories; more appreciation within our profession of the emotive and subjective qualities of records.  I think that our definitions of value are too narrow and too bounded to an administrative view of society.

How was the decision to focus on personal stories made in the context of this archive?  Was this my decision?  Or did it come from the contributors?  Looking back over my journals and the emails between me and the contributors in the early stages of the project it was part of how I framed what we were doing - would you be interested in contributing to 'an archive of personal recovery stories'?  was how I began to try and communicate to the contributors what I might be asking them to become involved in.  It was never an issue that was explicitly discussed, questioned or challenged by any of the contributors.  Do the contributor's themselves see value in their personal stories? Woven into their narratives you can find some very interesting personal reflections on how narrative is of value to them individually.