Thursday, 17 September 2015

Public lecture by Andrew Flinn and Anne Gilliland

This evening I was fortunate to attend a public lecture in Melbourne with papers delivered by Dr Andrew Flinn (University College London) and Professor Anne Gilliland (UCLA).

The lecture was hosted by the Records Continuum Research Group at Monash University in celebration of 25 years of archive and record-keeping teaching and research at Monash. The topic under discussion was "Digital Equality/Equity: the contribution of the archive and record keeper".

The first speaker was Andrew Flinn with a talk entitled "Another world is possible". Andrew is involved with the Community Archives and Heritage Group in the UK and is the author of many important pieces on community archiving, providing a way of thinking about community archives which very much underpins my research on DIY institutions of popular music heritage. The second half of his lecture focused on "community-based control over the entire archive process and the recognition of the significance of community-based contexts and value within the record-keeping sphere" and so was directly relevant to my current interests.

Andrew noted there has been a community-centric turn in archival thinking of late. Drawing on the work of Kathy Eales writing in the South African Archive Journal: "A key premise of community archiving is to give substance to a community's right to its own memories..." (Eales, 1998). As this quote suggests, Andrew approaches community archive scholarship with a social justice framing and argues that a community's desire to take responsibility for their records is necessarily a "political step". He called for the archive profession to move beyond the binaries that currently limit our understanding of archiving and record keepers such as mainstream/community and profession/amateur.

In his talk Andrew also referenced a recent article I co-authored with Jez Collins that appears in the International Journal of Heritage Studies. Andrew referred to the framework we offered in that article as providing "a useful way of thinking about community archives and how they might shift between these categories over time".  Here is what Jez and I wrote in our article:

In terms of the physical collections some archives and museums in the database are classed as ‘authorised’ collections in line with the critical and analytical framework for music heritage practice put forward by Roberts and Cohen (2014). This framework seeks to avoid the official/unofficial binary by highlighting three types of interrelated discourse about popular music heritage: officially authorised, self-authorised and unauthorised. Authorised popular music heritage tends to be that which is sanctioned by and/or substantially sponsored by government bodies. Physical—authorised archives and museums are those housed in purpose built or adapted buildings, staffed through a paid workforce and with multiple income streams that aid revenue generation.

Physical—Do-it-yourself (DIY)
Other physical sites are categorised as do-it-yourself (DIY) collections, housed in physical locations that are often ‘make do and mend’ buildings which are run by volunteers. Such archives are often in a continual struggle for their ongoing existence, with issues of sustainability relating to financial, spatial and/or human resources. These are ‘self-authorised’ archives and museums in Roberts and Cohen’s (2014, 248) terminology in that they have limited government support and an absence of the ‘gilt-edged symbolic capital’ that is attached to more prominent institutions. They do, however, often make claims regarding their significance and status, and many seek to achieve professional standards. Archives and museums in this category are ‘DIY institutions’, a term coined by Baker and Huber (2013a) in order to identify collectively a group of popular music archives, museums, and halls of fame that were founded by enthusiasts, run largely by volunteers, and existed outside the frame of authorised projects of national collecting and display. The founders of these heritage sites did, quite literally, ‘do it themselves,’ by establishing their own self-managed archival and museum facilities after identifying the need for a repository for the vast collections of popular music artefacts in their communities.

The digital and online collections in the database include institutional collections and archive holdings that can be understood as authorised practices as we have described above. As such they can also be conceptualised as ‘intentional’ archives in that they have a systematic and ordered approach to the preservation, cataloguing and exhibiting of their digitised artefacts. These organisations will often develop formal policies specifically around their physical holdings that they seek to digitise in order to make them more accessible to their users and also to attract new audiences. Others are linked to the economic activities of record labels or, particularly in the United States, are housed in the archives or special collections of universities. Core challenges for online institutional collections concern sustaining and justifying appropriate levels of funding for digitisation, copyright compliance and increasing accessibility and interaction for users with their archive materials. A further key concern facing such archives is that of ‘future’ archiving; that is, ensuring the availability of appropriate hardware and software to read digital material and contending with rapid advances in technology and platforms.

In contrast to online—institutional sites, online—community archives are driven by activist archivists who seek to preserve and share popular music culture. These are often ad-hoc and either seek to digitise and make available material they collect or come across, or they deal only in digital items. They are also characterised by issues of sustainability through lack of finance and human resources and issues of ownership and copyright. These sites often fall into the third category in Roberts and Cohen’s (2014) framework – unauthorised. This is a variant of heritage practice that does not seek authorisation and in which the emphasis is on everyday practice, cultural bricolage, anti-heritage, and individual and collective memory. As such, many sites in this category might be considered to be unintentional archives, in that they are run by individuals or collectives who do not conceive of their practice as archiving. This is particularly true in the case of the thousands of Facebook Group pages that exist which harvest hundreds of digitised photographs, flyers, posters, fanzines and memories from group members (Long 2015).

It is important to emphasise that we do not conceive of these four categories – physical—authorised, physical—DIY, online—institutional, online—community – as being rigid in character, and there are a multitude of examples of physical archives which have an online component and vice versa. Rather, the categories are suggestive of a wide spectrum of collecting and preservation activity. The purpose of such a framework is to move beyond understandings of heritage activity that rest on familiar binaries such as official/unofficial, expert/amateur, professional/unprofessional and even physical/online. Rather, we seek to recognise that the practice of archiving and curating popular music’s material past in archives and museums can be located on a continuum that registers levels of intentionality and professionalism, that recognises the role of vernacular knowledge and skills in the preservation of popular music heritage, and that accounts for important acts of collection and display that occurs outside the realm of mainstream heritage institutions.

The fluidity of the four categories we propose here can be seen in the movement of archives and museums along the continuum. Archives which were initially characterised as physicaldo-it-yourself, for example, may overtime amass a level of authority and broader public acceptance which would re-classify them as physical—authorised. Our interest here, however is in the capacity of community archives and museums, that is, those sites that are characterised as physicaldo-it-yourself and online—community, to remain sustainable as community archives without being subsumed into already existing prestigious institutions. (Baker and Collins, 2015)
It was lovely to hear that the work I've been doing with Jez is resonating outside popular music studies.

Andrew also touched upon issues of sustainability, proposing three ways in which collaborative approaches could be developed between community archives/archivists and larger heritage institutions. Roughly these three ways encompassed:
  1. the collection remains in the community but record keepers at larger heritage institutions collaborate with community archivists to best ensure preservation of the collection;
  2. the collection is looked after in the larger heritage institution but ownership of the collection is retained by the community (Andrew referred to Michelle's Caswell on 'shared stewardship');
  3. record keepers work proactively in the digital space to connect the collections held in community archives with those in larger heritage institutions. 
I look forward to reading the full account of Andrew's paper once it is published.

Andrew's talk was followed by a very stirring paper given by Anne Gilliland on "the social and ethical responsibilities of the archive and record keepers  toward those individuals least empowered to engage with official records and record keepers". This was a talk firmly and un-apologetically focused on current human rights issues and the ways in which the archive profession is implicated in these.