By Eleanor King
I am a graduate archive intern working for the University of Sussex’s Special Collections held here at The Keep, and until a few years ago, I had never visited an archive. Looking back, I am not sure what preconceived ideas I had about what might go on in a building like this. Whilst I had no doubt as to the intellectual and cultural value of the collections stored here, I don’t think I had any real idea of the range of material, or the variety of ways it can be used or interpreted. I must admit though that my lack of knowledge of archives, or how to navigate an archival catalogue had, in the past, made me apprehensive about engaging with archival material. But then I had never been to The Keep!
Since joining the team here, I have been inspired by the variety of work that goes on, and the range and depth of skills and knowledge possessed by the people who work here. As I consider furthering my career in the archive sector, I am now in a better position to recognise there are many challenges that the sector, and therefore the individuals working within it, face and one of these is user access.
Last Christmas, like all sensible people, I went to see Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and, following repeated viewings, it got me thinking about archival access and the challenges, or perceived challenges, people might face when trying to engage with archival material.
But how can a science fiction film, set in a galaxy far, far away, inspire thinking about contemporary archive access? In the final third of the film the crew of Rogue One, a group of rebels endeavouring to destroy the Imperial super weapon, land on the planet Scarif, home to…the Imperial Archive! Here, the rebels hope to infiltrate the intimidating Citadel housing the archive, navigate the extensive catalogue, locate the plans to the super weapon and then transmit them to the rebel fleet orbiting the planet.
What occurred to me on watching Rogue One, admittedly an unlikely source of inspiration when thinking about archives, was the similarities between the rebel struggle to access valuable data, and the perceived struggle many feel they will encounter on visiting an archive for the first time. From the remote location of the archive building, to the vast undecipherable catalogue, the perception that archives are secret, locked away places, with the contents confusing and difficult to interpret, is a common one. It is not by accident, I would argue, that the makers of Rogue One placed the Imperial Archive in a citadel. For centuries places of worship were the home to records and manuscripts, only accessible to the initiated and the educated and there is still a perception that if you are neither, your access will be denied. At The Keep, however, and in archives across the country, there is work going on to challenge the common misconceptions surrounding archives and their use, and importantly, their users.
Although at The Keep we have many ‘regulars’ (and we couldn’t exist without them), work is also being done to broaden our reach and encourage archive use by members of the community who may not have considered using an archive before, or for whom an archive is out of reach. Beyond Boxes is one such project that aims to break down the barriers some marginalised groups might face when accessing archival material. This two year, HLF funded, project led by the Mass Observation Archive is working in partnership with Brighton Housing Trust, Blind Veterans UK and Lewes Prison to address access issues these groups face. How can you use a service that requires fixed personal details, such as an address, for registration? How can a person with a visual impairment ‘read’ a document? And how can you engage with an archive if you can’t physically get there, or freely access the material?
As a result of this project The Keep is to receive new technology to enable visually impaired users to access our material and a ‘buddy’ scheme is being introduced this summer to assist service users with specific needs or access issues. The project has also worked with both Lewes Prison and Brighton Housing Trust to shape the Mass Observation directives for this year, and both groups have contributed to the 12th May Day Diary for the archive.
There is also extensive work being done daily behind the scenes here to engage with a variety of users including school groups, the LGBTQ community and students. I recently assisted in a teaching session led by Mass Observation Outreach Officer Suzanne Rose, working with a group of year nine students who had never been to an archive before. Our subject was World War 2 and we were instructed it was ‘not to feel like a lesson’. Using material from Mass Observation’s World War II collection, we encouraged the students to assess the material and interpret it back to the group using one of several methods including rap, song, a drama sketch, a news report etc. It is a daunting task trying to get thirty fourteen year olds excited about archival material but they really embraced the chance to be creative with the material we had given them. Feedback from the session included comments like ‘I did not expect to enjoy this, but it was really fun and I learnt something new’. By engaging young people in working with archival material, we can start to break down perceived barriers, and give them the confidence to access material that is held for them. I wish such opportunities had been open to me earlier. Certainly, our rebel friends would have a much easier time of it had they been better prepared.
Sadly, the arts and heritage sector are facing uncertain times and places such as The Keep are having to continually justify their existence as council budgets are squeezed ever tighter. If we cannot prove our worth as a place of value to the whole community, not just the privileged few, then we risk facing redundancy, and material meant to be used by everyone, will return to being used only by the few. I have had the great pleasure to have spent the last 18 months cataloguing the archive of Lord Richard Attenborough, former Chancellor of the University of Sussex, film maker, charity worker, businessman (I could go on, he did!) and some words of his have never been far from my mind since starting here. In his maiden speech in the House of Lords in 1994, Attenborough stated ‘the arts are not a luxury. They are as crucial to our well-being, to our very existence, as eating and breathing. Access to them should not be restricted to the privileged few. Nor are they the playground of the intelligentsia. The arts are for everyone- and failure to include everyone diminishes us all’. Attenborough delivered this speech 23 years ago, but for those of us working in the sector today, they seem perhaps more pertinent now than they ever have. I am proud to be working in such a fascinating and important institution that is constantly striving to improve access, reach out and engage across the community from the regular visitor to the apprehensive student, to those who never knew we were here at all, let alone here for them. The collections held here at The Keep belong to all of us, and although much of it represents our past, they are kept for our future.