Stoke: Fourth Workshop
3rd March 2014
For the first time since Pararchive started, this session was held without members of the technology and academic teams. And by default, the nature of the conversations and discussions were refreshingly different – as Danny, our Ceramic City Stories group facilitator informed us. We learned that members were becoming increasingly aware of what Pararchive was aiming to achieve, that members understood the project as an enquiry – one that encouraged experimenting with the creative use of archives and collaborating with a range of different people in different ways. It was interesting to hear that the conversations revolved around often underestimated but crucially important aspects of how to conduct research, particularly historical research.
There was a broad consensus that a starting point could be drafting a simple guide with a very basic plan of how to do research with questions such as: “what is it you are trying to achieve?”, “how could you frame this into a clear research question or a number of research questions?”, “what might be the sources of information that you could draw upon?”, “how could you formulate a set of specific action points?”, and “what might stop you from taking all these initial steps?” Unsurprisingly, given that Pararchive is engaging with archives of all sorts, the conversation fed into what we understand an archive to be. The key question was: “what do we mean by an archive?” For example, Jane – part of whose research is investigating the work history of her late mum – intimated that she has held conversations with family and with people where her mum went to school in order to piece together missing information. In Jane’s view, gathering and documenting this information from such sources in this way can be seen as an equivalent to using archives. Inevitably, this raised the question as to whether an archive means a building in which different kinds of artefacts and assets are deposited or, indeed, any other source of information – human or not. There was mention of the fact that we all have archival material in “our shoe boxes under our beds” or even “in the minds of relatives” while it was acknowledged that the term “archive with a capital A” tended to be mostly associated with the more “formal” and traditional cultural institutions like the British Library. Partly as a result of the ambiguity surrounding what the term actually means, Janis’ research project is investigating what archives exist in the city of Stoke-on-Trent with a view to mapping what is classed as an archive. With the help of a research plan, Janis will determine an appropriate sample of city archivists, draft a couple of interview questions and/or a survey and gather respondents’ perceptions about what an archive is or means. The next phase of Janis’ research will look at how archives can be made readily accessible to young people, especially those from perceived “disadvantaged backgrounds”.
The idea of drafting a basic research plan first as an entry point into systematically approaching historical research was coupled with the creation of a simple “glossary of terms” to clarify meanings of the local area. An illustrative example given was whether the term “local studies centre” meant the same thing as a “library” or “an archive” or even “a Records Office”.
We thought all this is fascinating and fits neatly into both the micro and macro levels of Pararchive. On the former level, members are already developing their research plans in liaison with Danny which they are using to gather materials and resources effectively and to add creative value to such resources that is specific to the industrial and cultural heritage of Stoke-on-Trent. On the latter level, the research plans that members have developed will inform part of the knowledge toolkits that Pararchive is in the process of co-producing. Such toolkits would be of interest to others working collaboratively in terms of highlighting how they might want to consider approaching research with community groups as equitable partners. It was also interesting to learn that a couple of new members have expressed a strong interest in joining the Ceramic City Stories group – and are poised to bring along a host of materials as well as rich local expertise that will further enrich the groups’ overarching research aims. These are exciting times for the Ceramic City Stories group!