Our archivist, Dr. Craig Fees, has been invited to be the guest host for the Archives and Records Association's #ArchiveHour on Twitter on August 30th (2018). He will be online from 8 to 9 pm - posing questions, responding to questions, and taking part (or just standing back in awe at the technology) in the conversation that develops. The #ArchiveHour is a Twitter-based conversation that takes place on the last Thursday of each month from 8-9 pm, with a new theme each time, hosted by one of nine ARA nations/regions/sections and a guest host. It engages archivists and archive enthusiasts from around the globe. Craig will be tweeting on PETT's Twitter handle @pettconnect.
This edition of #ArchiveHour is hosted by the ARA's Film Sound and Photography Group (@ARAFSPG).
The theme is:
3. A Small Charity Archive and The Liberating Joy of the Internet
("In the context of that kind of freedom, an archive can and should be an engine of innovation for the parent organisation" )
The image to the left graced the home page of the Archive and Study Centre website from 1997, when pettarchiv.org.uk was launched, until 2011, when it was absorbed with its domain name into the (upstart!) PETT website. The drawing was by my daughter, and to me it represented everything I wanted to convey about the Archive. It still does.
I say "upstart" because the Trust as such - as an independent entity - came late to the Internet. In that respect it was like many other organisations of the time, including other archives: hence the early fruitfulness of our technological evangelism (see below). We finally got it out of a folder on the pettarchiv.org.uk domain and into its own domain in 2001, as pettrust.org.uk [the link is to that first Trust website on the Wayback Machine].
The Archive also had things like multi-station walk-away phones (good to have when you're back in the stacks), and networked/Internet-connected computers well before the Trust itself took them up. Creating an Archive and Study Centre from scratch, I had been given considerable freedom. In the context of that kind of freedom, an archive can and should be an engine of innovation for the parent organisation: Archives have to look to the future in a way that most organisations don't, can't, and aren't designed to.
The Archive as an engine of innovation and support
The Archive came early to the Internet, thanks to friends and connections, and perhaps those teenage hours in the basement dancing with the PDP8 computer (as per #ArchiveHour 2). Hitting the cybersphere in 1997, ours was one of the earliest archive websites in the UK, pre-dating even the Society of Archivists'.
Spreading the word, developing community capacity
We were joyously service-oriented, and, in the manner of my daughter's drawing, embraced the opportunity to bring the new technology to the wider community. We had the freedom of action of a new service and a small charity. Details of what we did are here, but the quick romp is:
We created the first websites of
- two NHS psychiatric facilities,
- a therapeutic community prison,
- the Association of Therapeutic Communities and the Charterhouse Group of Therapeutic Communities (the two main members-based organisations for therapeutic community at the time),
- and even the Society of Archivists' own Film and Sound Group.
Our practice was to create the sites as folders within the pettarchiv website, as we had for PETT itself, and to develop and manage them there until they were ready to fly the nest under their own steam and domain names. We also created a veritable cornucopia of email discussion lists, including one for the Charity Archivists and Records Managers Group and another for the Oral History Society's Regional Network which are still alive and kicking. We had the tools, we gained the knowledge, and we had fun.
Creating and supporting platforms for digital delivery
All of those sites and resources met our goals for sowing tools of service, communication and connection among friends and colleagues.
The even deeper joy of the Internet for a small charity archive lies in its capacity to deliver content 24 hours a day, around the globe, giving platforms for sharing and growing our collections. I say platforms, plural, because in our approach to community and interest-groups, their capacity to communicate and grow is as important to us as ours. We have therefore helped to create and/or support and even co-manage a number of websites where content from our holdings can be shared and accessed by audiences who are the most likely to be directly interested in it, without excluding conventional researchers and the general public.
We share more of the Archive's holdings in this dispersed, but focused and targetted way, than through our own websites. If you're interested in this material, and so minded, have a look at:
- The Child Care History Network website, cchn.org.uk: conference recordings, presentations and images recorded, edited and uploaded by the Archive, to a website we created and help look after.
- The Wennington School website, wenningtonschool.org.uk: A growing collection of images and documents from the Wennington Archives, many if not most of them scanned and transcribed by Wenningtonians in the course of Archive Weekends. They also help to identify and catalogue. The Archive helps to look after the website.
- The Caldecott Community website, caldecott.org.uk began life as a folder within the pettrust.org.uk website, but took amazing wing under the care of the late Bob Lawton of the Caldecott Community. As with Wennington it is full of images, documents, and recordings from the Archive, and we help to look after it.
- The SquiggleTalks website, squiggletalks.org.uk, was created by the Archive on behalf of the Squiggle Foundation, as a tool for delivering the almost 500 talks and seminars in the Squiggle Foundation archives, which are held by the Archive. We digitised the original audiocassettes, and are progressively editing, mp3ing and uploading them to the site. About 100 so far.
- The Phoenix Unit Reunion website is still nested as a folder within the PETT site, as pettrust.org.uk/phoenix. This is a largely private site, created to support a research and reunion project related to the Phoenix Unit of Oxford's Littlemore Hospital, with documents and recordings most of which are available exclusively to project participants.
(As a corollary to the Phoenix site, and for a sidelight on the Archive's oral history work and its practical outcomes, see a recent paper in the Psychiatric Bulletin which is based on this Phoenx Unit work: Neil Armstrong (Lecturer in Anthropology, Magdalen College, University of Oxford), "What leads to innovation in mental healthcare? Reflections on clinical expertise in a bureaucratic age".)
- One of the most ambitious projects we've undertaken is the Therapeutic Community Open Forum , a website which housed both the 'Open Sources' project, where we could deliver texts from the Archive as well as elicit and inform; and RadioTC International, a kind of engaged multi-media file-delivery platform, where we could again encourage and elicit material and communication, as well as create and share from the Archive. We produced interviews with researchers and donors, shared recordings and documents from the Archive, and even took people into the world of the archivist as he (which is to say, 'I') took in material, processed it, and shared experiences.
The original RadioTC website fell foul of changing technology, but has been re-built here, on pettrust.org.uk, and those recordings of the Archivist can still be heard here: "P7S3: Spotlight on...Archives and Oral History."
Delivering through others's sites
Materials from the archives and created by the Archive are delivered through other sites as well, in which we don't have a direct hand. For example there are:
- Conference video recordings on the "Choose Psychiatry", the Royal College of Psychiatrists' YouTube channel: Search on "Community of Communities" (Annual Forum) and "Enabling Environments".
- Images on the Red Hill School official website
- And conference recordings on the Oral History Society website.
And we have our very own platforms, on which we share a wide range of recordings, documents, images, publications, and the whole exciting shebang:
- pettrust.org.uk (you're here!): One of my favourite online audio offerings is the recently digitised recordings of attempts in 1972 and 1973 by our Founding Trustee David Wills to record a commentary to accompany a silent 1943 film about the pioneering evacuation hostel in Scotland of which he was warden during the Second World War. Those recordings are here: "Hidden oral history in the collections".
But there is so much more.
- the archived site of the 'Therapeutic Living With Other People's Children' project, where there are many images, recordings, documents, and video interviews of Dr. Judith Issroff with Sir Richard Bowlby, among other things: https://www.webarchive.org.uk etc./
- our Vimeo site - https://vimeo.com/pettconnect - Digital Stories, oral history interviews, videoed conversations, and this archivist's walks to work, through the changing English countryside. Giving one answer to "What is it like to be a charity archivist?".
The Internet and a sense of Value
I don't know about other archivists, much less other charity archivists, but from time to time one can become a bit downhearted about what one is actually achieving, and its value. One creates all these digital files and resources, but by and large one doesn't see them being used, and direct feedback is exceptionally rare.
In this mood, I dug down into the pettrust.org.uk log files a couple of years ago, and was somewhat reassured. In the two-month period September-October 2016, original online publications from the Archive had been fully downloaded 980 times, online theses and dissertations had been downloaded 530 times, other files from our online library had been downloaded 132 times, oral history recordings had been downloaded 577 times, digitised archival documents had been downloaded 92 times, and files from the Dennie Briggs Collection - which I haven't mentioned in the resources above, because the Dennie Briggs Living Archive became inaccessible following the death of its driving force, Ian Milne, last year - were downloaded an astonishing 2,215 times.
Even for someone fully committed to being dispirited, these figures were cheering, and I presume the complete picture would be even more uplifting: These were complete downloads from just one of the file delivery platforms on which the Archive has material (the files for Dennie's Archive are on the pettrust server; but they were accessed through a site maintained by Ian), and the access logs only recorded files in mp3, pdf and video formats, meaning documents on the site in the form of text or jpeg images weren't factored in. That's a lot of activity flying off the digital shelves.
One of the defining characeristics of a small charity archive, and maybe all charity archives, is a chronic lack of money. I know it isn't this easy, but I have taken the view that if we can do a thing in our small, austerity-strangled archive, anyone can; and have used primarily open source, free or low-cost platforms and add-ons to see how much one can do on a charitable shoe-string. I think it's quite a lot. But imagine what would be possible with genuinely adequate funding!
Recording oral histories by phone: an ancient device