The historian and the archives: an overlooked form of interdiscipinarity?

This week’s blog comes with a warning. If you likely to be offended by a gushing, unabashed report of how I’ve been geeking out in the archive, look away now!

Carole and I discussing our work at a recent Knowledge Exchange Forum

Carole and I discussing our work at a recent Knowledge Exchange Forum

As I’ve talked about before, the Social Enterprise Collection (Scotland) -held by GCU- is at the core of my post-doctoral research. Part of the collection has already been beautifully catalogued, however work on the correspondence and personal papers of social enterprise pioneer John Pearce is ongoing. I’ve been working with university archivist Carole McCallum to sort the papers and fit them into a hierarchy ready for cataloguing.

It’s a fascinating process. What differentiates the archival process from library cataloguing is that an archivist will, as far as possible, preserve the original order of the papers. In the John Pearce papers different points of interest may sit together, or they may flit back and forth through time as he revisited an idea. An archivist aims to keep these seemingly disparate materials together rather than sorting by topic and scattering them throughout the library. Therefore the challenge for this project is to look at how John Pearce organised his papers and find a way to label and catalogue them, so future researchers can make the most of them. The value of preserving the papers in this way is that researchers can gain insight into Pearce’s own thought processes and how he saw the different components of social enterprise fitting together.

Carole and I have been discussing how best to label and catalogue Pearce’s papers. Keyword searching and indexing terms will ensure related items will be identified in the archive catalogue. This will be available electronically to allow people across the world to find out what the university holds. I’ve been struck by just how different our skills and backgrounds are and how bringing them together to solve a shared challenge has been really valuable in producing good work. Carole’s experience in working with collections means she is an expert in judging how to balance preserving the integrity of a collection while making it accessible to users. Whereas my background in History means I can help contextualise the evolution of the various organisations Pearce founded and worked with; providing insight into the links between his various interests and projects. For an archivist and a historian to work together in this way is very rare, but we believe it will really enrich the catalogue records we produce.

This made me think about the relationships between historians and archivists more generally; are the discussions between Carole and I an example of an overlooked aspect of interdiscipinarity?

As a history student I was always told to respect archivists and that if you could find a friendly archivist to help you uncover new material your research would be better. Later, during my PhD, funded as an AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Award, I learned from the inside about the pressure that archivists were under to provide an ever growing range of services under tighter and tighter budgets. Recent discussions by AHRC CDA’s (#CDAvalue) have highlighted concerns amongst the research community that the relationships we build with our archivists and the value that they create for research is not recognised in funding opportunities post- PhD.

Rather than seeing the relationship between archivists and historians as taken for granted within the study of history (and other studies supported by archival research), it may be time to recognise the distinct set of skills that archivists hold. We need funding opportunities that allow us to build these relationships and maintain the important resources that archives and libraries store.

A failure to do so may risk us looking back to the library and the archive to see that they’ve gone.