Category Archives: Reviews

Voluntary Sector Archives: a democratic deficit?

Last week I attended a conference at the University of Northumbria which posed the question ‘Is there a democratic deficit in archives?’ It brought together a range of interested parties such as archivists, records managers, academics and civil servants. I went to see how the idea of democracy in archives could inform the work I do as a Research Assistant on the British Academy funded Research Project ‘Digitising the Mixed Economy of Welfare in Britain’. This project is specifically interested in promoting the preservation of the records of voluntary organisations and civil society groups.

My initial take on the question posed by conference was: Yes! There is a significant and multifaceted democratic deficit in archives. From my perspective working with voluntary sector archives I see several issues which contribute to this democratic deficit.

Firstly, there was the focus on public records – those covered in England and Wales by the Public Records Act 1958 and Freedom of Information Act 2000 and in Scotland by the Act of 2011. In England the archives of voluntary organisations are private – they is no requirement for them to be preserved beyond the regulators requirements e.g. by Charity Commission Annual Return. In Scotland, the Act covers those delivering government contracts and services, and so does cover some voluntary organisations. Yet, overall, in both cases, the archival record of the contribution to our democracy made by civil society organisations is skewed by omitting them from the public record in most cases. This is not only a historical omission, but one carrying on into the present day, where patchy records management practices hinder our ability to mine the records of organisations to show the value they have today.

Secondly, there were some recurring themes in the conference which resonated loudly with issues encountered on the British Academy Project and also with the historical and current concerns of voluntary organisations. For example, frequent reference was made to issues of trust and accountability. This was framed in several ways, by exploring questions such as:

  • How do archives create an authentic and authoritative record of the past?
  • How do we know if archives are authentic?
  • How can archives and records management processes improve trust and accountability?

Via examples such as the Hillsborough Independent Inquiry Panel’s Archive and alternative archives recording institutional abuse, we also considered what it means when the official record may not be trustworthy, or where it contains significant silences which amount to an injustice for victims, survivors and families. In the case of civil society and activist groups, their records really can be a way to hold the state to account – in this way, the creation of an archive can itself be considered a radical act. Yet it also begs the question of how we build trust and accountability within and across voluntary organisations. Some organisations provided the services and residential institutions which are now the concern of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA). Recent reports have included allegations of abuse perpetrated in youth football clubs. From my own research as a historian of youth voluntary organisations I have every reason to suspect neglect and abuse spread beyond the confines of what has been or is currently newsworthy. What chance do we have of holding organisations accountable, learning from past mistakes, or building trust with organisations, if we have no record of their activities or decision making? These questions were on my mind as I heard from IICSA, Sarah Tyacke and Sinaed Ring. Without further support, resources, and perhaps even legislation I see little prospect of a transformation in voluntary sector archives and records management practice to build trust and accountability across the sector. This is vital, as recent research suggests that trust is indeed in decline.

Related to the above is the theme of crisis and tragedy. Elizabeth Denham, the Information Commissioner spoke strongly of wanting to improve the standards of records management without England being compelled to do so by scandal, tragedy or crisis. She recalled her experiences in Canada dealing with records in exactly these circumstances. However, the advice elsewhere jarred with this view. Somewhat tellingly, advice from the experience working in Africa suggested that we ‘never waste a crisis’ and appealed to us to capitalise on situations as they arise to raise standards and awareness of the importance of good records management. This seemed built on a wry appraisal of the likelihood of gaining political will for this kind of work at such times.

I can see how this applies to the voluntary sector. Crisis, tragedy and scandal have all hit organisations in the past and they undermine trust. There is also a sense that the sector is on high alert for the next crisis, scandal or tragedy; this could be about abuse, social care provision or funding for example. I wholeheartedly agree that promoting and facilitating good archives and records management practice in voluntary organisations should be ongoing work and this is what the British Academy Project and our new Public Policy Work seek to do. However, we are a small (but ambitious) project which cannot realistically address all of these issues.

Given the lack of support and resources to help organisations with archives and records management, the lack of capacity in existing frameworks and the low political priority it is afforded, I fear that it may indeed take a scandal or crisis for the importance of this work to really come to the fore. This could have devastating consequences for the people involved and our wider faith in civil society organisations. This would be the biggest democratic deficit in archives – that a lack of attention to the archives of voluntary organisations could eventually be used to undermine civil society itself.

Advertisements

Oral Histories of Voluntary Action

Humanities Research Centre University of York

Humanities Research Centre University of York

On Friday 7th February 2014 I co-organised a workshop at the Humanities Research Centre, University of York for PhD students and practitioner researchers who use oral history or interviewing methods as part of their research. The event was funded by the Humanities Research Centre and supported by the VAHS New Researchers Committee. The day comprised of six papers from PhD students, volunteers and voluntary sector researchers, including myself. The day ended with a roundtable panel where more established researchers helped us to problem-solve and reflect on some of the intellectual and practical issues involved in interviewing methods.

Susanne Martikke from GMCVO comparing academic research with her previous experience as a voluntary sector researcher

I was really pleased with the mix of papers we had on the day. Myself, David Ellis and Jessica Hammett, formed the first panel. We talked from an academic viewpoint on oral histories. David and I discussed why we had used these methods and in what ways, with Jessica offering an interesting paper on re-using oral histories that have already been recorded for a different purpose.

The panel after lunch offered a different perspective. Susanne Martikke from GMCVO talked about the differences between the ‘Quick and Dirty’ interviewing she has done previously and being involved in a more academic project. Katrina Foxton reflected on her experiences as a volunteer conducting interviews on a local heritage project. Lastly, Lucy Binch talked about the difficulties she experiences doing interviews with people involved in sex work, via a charity she volunteers with.

Lucy Binch giving her paper on accessing marginalised groups

Lucy Binch giving her paper on accessing marginalised groups

We had a real mixture of papers and discussion from a range of areas: historians, social scientists, researchers from within the voluntary sector, PhD students, Professors and people who had experiences from more than one of these standpoints. This was one of the real benefits of the day. Not only could more experienced researchers offer their advice, but other people’s perspectives also offered a chance to think through issues from a range of viewpoints, enabling us to learn from each other as well. 

Our Roundtable Panel in full swing

Our Roundtable Panel in full swing

One of the strengths of the day was that it provided a constructive place to talk over issues and discuss problems. While we did not always come up with solutions, it was reassuring to know that some of the challenges of interviewing methods are common. We spent time discussing the often overlooked practical issues of interviewing, from arranging interviews to how the way we will present our research, such as in our theses, affects the approach we take.

I was also particularly glad that we spent some time talking over the personal and emotional impact that this type of research can have on researchers. Many described how they felt that interviewing was a unique and intimate interaction which required an emotional engagement with the interviewee as well as a great deal of the researchers attention. Examining the personal and emotional in research was something academic contributors acknowledged was less familiar to them and perhaps something they could learn from their counterparts interviewing within and on behalf of voluntary organisations.

While there were differences in approach, I think these only helped me as they challenged my previous training on oral history and interviewing which had been rooted in academic practice. On this topic,  I found Professor Paul Ward from the University of Huddersfield particularly engaging as he discussed shared authority and co-production. This is something I have not thought of much to date, but which I would like ponder regarding my oral histories of youth clubs.

Overall I thought the day provided advice and peer support with the practical, intellectual and emotional aspects of conducting oral histories, while providing a positive atmosphere for discussing this research, which is exactly what I was hoping for.

Some more highlights of the day:

Our great venue, the Treehouse, Humanities Research Centre, University of York

Our great venue, the Treehouse, Humanities Research Centre, University of York

Our workshop hashtag, check out #OHVA2014 for more details

Our workshop hashtag, check out #OHVA2014 for more details or our storify 

Never underestimate the importance of conference cake

Never underestimate the importance of conference cake

Central Hall and Lake, University of York

Central Hall and Lake, University of York

All photographs © Charlotte Clements, February 2014

Breaking new ground or digging up the past?

This post originally appeared on the VAHS Blog in March 2013

I’ve been watching the Channel 4 programme ‘Secret Millions’. The programme is a step on from the popular C4 format ‘Secret Millionaire’ where wealthy people give some of their money away to shocked recipients and the good causes they have been working with. The new show is about the distribution of Big Lottery Fund funding to voluntary organisations for ‘innovative and ground-breaking projects’. It uses a line-up of well-known C4 personalities looking to tackle some of Britain’s most pressing issues, working on pilot projects with voluntary organisations, with the prospect of the Lottery windfall hidden until the end.

The first episode featured C4 regular George Clarke tacking the issue of youth unemployment and empty homes. He worked with a local London youth club and the organisation London Youth getting young unemployed people involved in renovating a disused house with the help of retired mentors from the building trade. The programme followed the young people on trips, highlighted some of the social problems they face and showed them working on a house to get it renovated within two weeks. At the end the big announcement was made that they had been awarded funding by the Big Lottery Fund, £1.7 million over two years, aiming to help 1500 young people into work. I really enjoyed the show. It was an interesting way to look at the work of small voluntary organisations, raises several social issues and came with a big feel-good factor at the end.

However, the historian and critic in me was not quite sure how new, big and bold, the innovative idea being tested was. Surely this was just reality television gloss? Then today in the archives while researching London youth clubs I discovered the London Federation of Boys’ Clubs working with the Manpower Services Commission and the Job Creation Programme on a scheme where unemployed youth were trained up in the trades, in 1974. Admittedly these youngsters were renovating youth facilities and George Clarke has long campaigned about empty homes, but I was still struck by the similarities in the scheme: Both used youth clubs to target vulnerable youths, both looked at practical work experience, both projects took place during times of high youth unemployment where many young people lack opportunities to get into work and neither set of youngsters appear to have been paid for their work. Of course it is unlikely that C4 undertook extensive archival research prior to recording and I am sure all involved thought they were on to something new.

The innovation role of voluntary organisations has often been praised and it has been an important justification for their place in our contemporary welfare system. But how many other examples are out there of ‘innovations’ that have been forgotten and rediscovered? How new does an idea really have to be? And if it works, does it matter?

New Researchers at #VAHS2013

This post originally appeared on the VAHS Blog in July 2013

I hope that my positions on the New Researchers Committee and as co-publicity secretary for VAHS do not stop you from taking me seriously when I say how impressed I was with new researchers’ presence at #VAHS2013.

My overriding impression was of the size and strength of the new researchers’ cohort in this area. The conference programme deliberately left out titles, so I was left to do a bit of sleuthing but have found at least 15 papers delivered at the conference by new researchers. One of the most striking things about this was that it was very difficult to differentiate between those papers by established academics and those by new researchers. Indeed, a number of people commented to me that they could not tell them apart. This speaks volumes about the quality of new researchers’ papers, in a conference, where the outgoing chair’s closing remarks stressed how high the overall standard had been.

Because the standard and content of papers was almost indistinguishable most new researchers were only identified where speakers alluded to their paper as part of a wider PhD project. Where this was so, and again echoing a conference-wide theme, there was a great deal of support, helpful questioning and suggestions coming in from other academics. There was a real sense of trying to support and encourage new researchers whilst still taking their research as seriously as that of anyone else speaking.

While it was great to see new researchers so firmly embedded in the main conference programme, a series of events to introduce the work of the New Researchers Committee were also held. A registration meeting, invitation to attend our breakfast committee meeting and what turned out to be a somewhat pub-centred Shut Up and Write all helped to demonstrate the work of the committee. Indeed what better advert could they have had than the announcement on the final day that they had just been awarded full funding to run their next interdisciplinary workshop on Oral History and Voluntary Action in the coming few months.

Finally the bursary and paper prize winners were the icing on the new researchers cake! Emily Baughan, winner of the EHS Bursary and Marie-Luise Ermisch, winner of the HWJ bursary have both blogged for VAHS recently and it was great to see them at the conference presenting their work. In the closing plenary it was announced that Claudia Soares had won the CGAP New Researchers Paper Prize and Gareth Millward had won the VAHS New Researchers Paper Prize. Overall it was a great conference for showcasing the doctoral and early career research being done on Voluntary Action History across centuries, continents and disciplines. Especially exciting are the opportunities for the field in the years to come as demonstrated by our new researchers. I am already looking forward to our next conference, by which time many of these new researchers (hopefully including myself) will have completed projects to report back on, or perhaps will have new ventures underway.

Were you a new researcher at #VAHS2013? Did you hear new researchers’ papers? I’d be really interested in your comments and feedback on the new researchers’ papers and sessions.