History, Methods, PhD

Archives in the wild: researching local youth clubs in London and Liverpool

Early in my PhD I had a conversation with my supervisors about locating the relevant sources for my research. We knew it would be a challenge and it was a significant factor in how I chose my case studies. While the main youth associations in London and Liverpool had both deposited significant amounts of material in the London Metropolitan Archive and Liverpool Record Office respectively, until the bulk of the research began it was hard to know what individual club archives would be found, and indeed what state they would be in. Finding the stories of individual clubs, members and workers was one of the reasons I wanted to do this research and so I also chose to do oral history, but I hoped that some clubs would still have documents from the last few decades.

In the Liverpool Record Office I found a few sets of incomplete papers pertaining to a group of clubs that were developed and rebuilt in the 1960s. Senior figures within the Liverpool associations had served on the management committees of these clubs and had left their papers with the associations. These included annual reports, management committee minutes and plans for the new buildings.  Talking to the archivist and volunteers at the Liverpool Record Office also proved fruitful as I was told The Florence Institute, set up for working class boys in Liverpool, had just deposited some papers. As it turned out these were uncatalogued and it was a year before I could see them. This was a promising start but to understand more about youth clubs I was going to have to find more examples and people to interview, especially given how fragmentary some sets of papers were.

Finding sources and oral history

In at least two examples, finding archives was strongly linked to recruiting oral history participants. People heard about my research via my call for interviewees and got in touch to discuss possible interviews and to let me know that they had documents as well. Even if people decided against interviews or were not around during the period my thesis covers, they were often still willing to let me consult their papers. The blog and twitter were especially useful in this regard, giving people an easy way to contact me.

Finding other archive sources was also linked to my oral history method in another way. To look for interviewees that might not have internet access to see my blog, or the emails sent on my behalf by organisations to their mailing lists, I contacted several local library and archive services to ask if they would put up posters or leaflets to help me reach library users. This provided an opportunity to ask what local libraries and archives had. This was useful, but often staff just referred me to local archive catalogues, though a few gave detailed responses about holdings. What was particularly useful in this process is the local knowledge I was able to draw on; people suggested websites, local history networks, local culture blogs, clubs they knew of which were still in the area and more. This provided me with some great leads to follow up as well as helping with my interviewee recruitment. For example, via these conversations I located papers in the Black Cultural Archives as well as finding a local photographer who had photographed young people in a club in Lewisham in 1977 and produced a book and exhibition based on the pictures. Armed with new leads I set about chasing them up. A few were dead ends, such as finding a long defunct website, but not all of them. Phrases in correspondence like ‘rummage in the basement,’ ‘old documents’ and ‘box of old pictures’ filled me with both optimism and dread as I arranged visits to see what people were talking about.

What next?

In the title of this blog I refer to ‘archives in the wild,’ a term used by a few researchers I know to describe the kind of archival research where often, beyond knowing that someone has something for you to look at, you have very little idea what you are going to find when you get there. These archives are not sorted, catalogued, with a reference file or online entry. They are not stored in environmentally controlled strong rooms. When you visit them, you are dependent on the goodwill of the person is giving you access to the papers (though in general I find that people are keen to help researchers). That said, you might not get much time with documents, which is especially tricky when you have no idea of the extent of the documents in the first place. The archives are an unknown quantity and therefore as a researcher, I have to adopt a flexible approach to visiting these places, however the input of the custodian of the documents is often vital to making the most of my time.

To give you an idea of what this type of research is actually like, I have included some pictures from my research trip to Alford House in Kennington in 2014 which explain how I approach a visit to an archive at large. The first picture below is the front of the building as I found it when I arrived.

Alford House, Kennington
Alford House, Kennington

After going into the building and meeting the manager I was shown into a room to set up for the day:

Canteen Alford House. My desk for the day!
Canteen at Alford House. My desk for the day!
And these were my archives!
And these were my archives!

I was lucky with Alford House. The archives were in boxes with some information on them, although unfortunately their extensive unsorted and unlabelled photo archive lived in a cardboard box. I had a rough idea what I might encounter but this is not always the case. During the visit to Alford House I photographed the documents and their boxes, the building (interior, exterior and details), wrote down notes on what I had looked at, and noted discussions with the manager where we tried to date some of the photographs. I also set up an interview with someone I met in the club during my visit.

The Kit

Over the course of my PhD I have developed a ‘kit’ which I take out on these kind of visits to help me deal with whatever I come across. Here is what I include and why:

1. Camera – A good digital camera has been essential in my research to photograph documents and youth clubs themselves. When I am short on time, photographing documents can be especially useful.

2. Notebook/s – Many people have a system for taking notes. There are two notebooks in the picture below (one under 5. Voice Recorder) which I use for different things, one pencil only; for writing quotes, notes and initial reflections which can be taken into an archive. A different notebook is used to plan research and writing, record things I am doing, develop ideas from the first notebook and run my PhD.

3. Pens and pencils – A pencil case with pencils, pens, highlighters and a small ruler is very handy. It is also perfect for storing a USB pen to do an instantaneous back up of the research trip before you even leave the building.

4. Laptop – This is less essential, especially where there is no internet connection, but I have spreadsheets where I record the primary research I have done and if it all possible I like to update them as I work. I deliberately bought a laptop with excellent battery life so it lasts the better part of a day. I also back up pictures and any interviews I have done, using my laptop, before leaving the building.

5. Voice Recorder – Doing interviews, you never know when you will meet someone to interview so I always like to carry my recorder. You might miss an opportunity otherwise. For this reason I also carry copies of information leaflets and consent forms.

6. Mobile Phone – When I am going to be in a building alone with people I do not know I always keep my phone handy. If you are a lone researcher it is always a good idea that someone knows where you are, when you are due to finish and how they can get hold of you. During the ethics process for my oral histories I learned this, and I feel that it applies to a range of lone working situations.

This kit has evolved to suit my research style and I am sure other researchers might tailor their kits differently.

Part of my essential kit for visiting 'Archives in the wild'
Part of my essential kit for visiting ‘Archives in the wild’. A cup of tea is an occasional perk to this kind of archive work over visiting traditional archives, but keep it away from the documents!
Taming wild archives

I find these visits exciting and anxious in almost equal measure. I never know what I am going to find. They have been absolutely necessary to my research and have yielded some great results. Yet these archives are hard to find, many have been destroyed, some are damaged and most are patchy. This is not unlike research in actual archives, but problems with these archives can be on a different scale.

This research can be frustrating, disappointing and time consuming, but for people like me, researching voluntary organisations, there is often little alternative. Many custodians of documents simply do not know what to do with them, struggle to see why researchers might be interested in them in the first place and have little time and money to devote to the issue. Addressing some of these issues might help more researchers like me uncover the histories of the people and organisations that have shaped our society in the past.

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