A personal challenge

Cook and a new archival paradigm

Archivists actively shape collective and social memory 

I did my Masters in Archives and Records Management at UCL thirteen years ago.  The course was designed to teach me everything I needed to know to become a 'professional Archivist'.  Reflecting on the structure of the course, my view is that the theory and the practical tools and techniques that I was taught aligned more closely with a traditional view of Archives and Archivists that a view that embraced any kind of Archival Activism.  The quotation above comes from a postmodern Canadian Archivist, Terry Cook, and his article on archival science and postmodernism was published around the time I did my qualification.  Cook's notion that an Archivist is socially responsible for actively shaping the historical record is now fundamental to how I see myself as an Archivist.  However, I think it was years into my career before these ideas began to really resonate with me.  It was only as I began to see how my own use of traditional tools and techniques were creating a distorted historical record that I realised the importance of recognising my influence.  This recognition then fed into a desire to find new ways of archiving that can better acknowledge and then actively address the historical biases and distortions, imbalances and gaps that I am a part of creating.

To deny one's politics or that one is politically engaged is, of course, itself a political and profoundly ethical act, a covering of one's eyes to the responsibility that society has collectively placed in us to create and shape the archive (Cook (2011) 'We are What We Keep; We Keep What We Are: Archival Appraisal Past, Present and Future', JSA, 32 (20) pp. 175.

When I became the Archivist for Peterborough in 2004; I was setting up the service for the local authority; and I did it according to how I had been taught and how other local authorities were doing it at the time.  I developed a fairly standard Collecting Policy that suggested we were looking to collect already created archives from administrations, businesses, local groups, organisations, and individuals within Peterborough that would collectively tell the story of the City.  Although we actively promoted the service and tried to be proactive; the records that we were offered came from the white middle class of the City.  The records told a selected, dry, and biased history of Peterborough.  Why was this? I knew it, I knew I was complicit in it, I knew I wanted to change it.  Reflecting on it now I think our definition of 'what an archive is' was narrow and off putting and was too seeped in a view of archives as records of activities.  It meant that we got offered a lot of dry administrative material that inadequately captured the "lives, desires and needs" of Peterborians.  I think our definition of archives as 'already created' meant that we were too seeped in the past and didn't pay enough attention to how we could actively be involved in documenting the present. I think our definition was in itself too white and middle class both in terms of the language it used and the concepts it relied on.  I think although we never wanted to be passive - we weren't active enough; we still clung to notions of neutrality and impartiality and objectivity.

I do not want to be overly critical of myself or the service because we were operating in the same way that all local authority archives operate; we were operating in line with the prevailing institutional archival culture in the UK; and we were judged by the National Archives as being good at what we were doing. We were more progressive than a lot of other services; but we were tied into a wider system that did things this way.

In part the 'Forty Years On' project that I was involved in putting together did address some of the issues our wider policies had created.  Funded by £160,000 from the Heritage Lottery Fund and in partnership with the Theatre Company, Eastern Angles, we sought to document and tell the recent history of the City.  Using over 100 local volunteers the project catalogued and did research around the archive records of the Peterborough Development Corporation; it actively collected oral histories from recent newcomers to Peterborough and those with a longstanding connection with the City; it wove the resulting stories into a musical about the City's recent history. For me, putting the 'Forty Years On' project in place was the start of wanting to do things differently.  But I wanted to break the mould even further and I wanted to think about all of these questions I had about what we do and why we do it. So I decided to leave Peterborough to begin my PhD, a journey that has now led to the development of the mental health recovery archive.