Real People, Real Archives: a crucial lesson from ‘Connecting Histories’

‘The Talking Tent’, Birmingham Citizens Day (2005) MS 4786

‘The Talking Tent’, Birmingham Citizens Day (2005) MS 4786

The Connecting Histories Project [CHP] is ten years old this month.  Whilst it formally lasted just two years, its legacy has continued through subsequent projects (Birmingham Stories, Suburban Birmingham) and crucially, through the people it touched.  These included the project team members, but importantly also those members of the public who were encouraged to engage with archives in many, varied ways.[i]

The CHP was a partnership between Birmingham Library & Archives Service and the universities of Birmingham and Warwick.  Funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, it set out to engage with communities who were largely marginalised from the cultural / heritage mainstream.  A multi-disciplinary team was assembled, consisting of established and trainee archivists, academics, researchers, outreach officers and a web editor.  It strove to make existing archives more accessible through cataloguing and outreach exercises, whilst demonstrating their relevance to wide ranges of people.  It also sought to make the institution of ‘the archives’ more welcoming to diverse communities, by attracting new collections relevant to them and through greater participation in the archive profession by under-represented groups, as employees and as volunteers.  To this end, the project mentored two cultural / heritage graduates as they studied by distance learning to become archivists, whilst working directly as cataloguers and organising practical sessions with volunteers drawn from community groups.

The Somaliland Diaspora (2007) MS 4786

The Somaliland Diaspora (2007) MS 4786

A major lesson learned early on was the crucial role that archives have in validating peoples’ notion of self-worth – both as individuals and as members of communities (however defined).  Whilst many archivists recognise this at an intellectual level, the pressures and practicalities of daily duties sometimes dull this awareness.  The CHP was forcefully reminded of this key role as we encountered people for whom self-identity was a precious possession.  Migrants and especially refugees often had little to affirm their original cultural identity and they cherished those records, mementoes and memories that survived with them.  The CHP (and its successors) encountered Jewish and Polish refugees from World War Two and its aftermath, as well as refugees from more recent conflicts.

The example of Ahmed reflects this.  As a refugee from Somaliland, he is anxious that his personal story is recorded and understood, as well as that of his community.  As Twenty First Century arrivals in Birmingham, the traditional pattern of archival accruals would not normally reflect this aspect of City life for many years.  Through patient encouragement and dialogue with Ahmed and others, the CHP has addressed this and ensured that the issues relating to a distinctive Somaliland community are recorded.[ii]

One City – Many Stories (2006) MS 4786

One City – Many Stories (2006) MS 4786

Unfortunately, refugee experiences are not confined to any one group of people and Ahmed has worked with CHP to enable diverse communities to share experiences and celebrate their own identities.  A series of events was organised to facilitate community interaction, including ‘Citizens’ Day’ (October 2005); ‘One City – Many Stories’ (March 2006) and ‘Connecting Diasporas’ (November 2006). Overall a range of insights into other communities was provided, but for me personally the whole rationale of CHP was encapsulated at the end of the ‘Connecting Diasporas’ event.  Ahmed presented the delegates with a large, sumptuous cake, baked by members of his community and celebrating his pride in being empowered to record his presence in the City through the archives.  That one gesture confirmed for me that archives are truly rooted in reality, reflecting and affecting real people.

Connecting Diasporas Cake (2006) MS 4786

Connecting Diasporas Cake (2006) MS 4786

Acknowledgements

The CHP and subsequent projects are indebted to a range of people, too numerous to list here.  My personal thanks go to Ahmed and to all members of the various communities who worked with us, including Vanley Burke (photographer and chronicler of the African Caribbean community); Zualfqar Hussain (Mirpur community); Judith Joseph (Jewish community) and Pat O’Neil (Irish community).

John Dolan and Brian Gambles provided strategic support in Birmingham Central Library and very many colleagues provided practical support, not least Corinna Rayner and Pete James.

 Nick Kingsley (National Archives) and Gerry Slater (formerly Chief Executive of the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland) embraced the concept of CHP and promoted it across the archives sector.

Colleagues in the project team provided mutual support and practical help across the various disciplines included in the team.

Finally, Sian Roberts deserves a huge accolade for her enthusiasm, inspiration and sheer hard work throughout the project and for her commitment over many years to embedding the ethos underpinning CHP in the archive service in Birmingham and across the sector.

Connecting Histories Team (2005) MS 4786

Connecting Histories Team (2005) MS 4786

This team photograph above shows:

[Back row L-R] Bob Carter (University of Warwick); Ian Grosvenor (University of Birmingham); Brigitte Winsor; Anna Riggs; Jim Ranahan

[Front row L-R] Izzy Mohammed; Helen Fisher; Sian Roberts; Aisling Fox; Arike Oke

 Not shown on this photograph are Sarah Dar, Adisa Folarin and Andy Green.

 Sources

MS 4786 Connecting Histories Promotional Material and Supporting Notes

 See www.connectinghistories.org.uk for details of collections catalogued under CHP

[i] See www.connectinghistories.org.uk and www.suburbanbirmingham.org.uk

[ii] Somaliland is a self-declared state, generally regarded by the rest of the world as being part of Somalia.

Jim Ranahan

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2 responses to “Real People, Real Archives: a crucial lesson from ‘Connecting Histories’

  1. Pingback: A City with No Memory? | Modern British Studies Birmingham

  2. Pingback: A City with No Memory? | Nicola Gauld

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