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Stoke: Third Workshop

3rd February 2014

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We enjoyed a great third workshop with the Stoke group at the beginning of February, in the town of Burslem, a little north from Stoke. Despite the smaller-than-expected turnout, we still ran out of time, due to the fascinating conversations that took place, arising from the group delegates’ research so far.

We learned about Jane’s progress, who is researching two years in the life of her mother. The story begins with the street of her birth being bombed during WWII, and promptly moving to Longton, aged six. The research so far comprises a good mix of oral history, school records and other knowledge, which is slowly building a picture of her life. There is currently some conflicting evidence about timings of when Jane’s mother started work at a prominent ceramics factory, which is not helped by the fact there was a fire at the factory, destroying much of their records. However, this is not a huge hurdle, with suggestions from the group including checking local tax office records, etc.

It’s clear that undocumented local knowledge could be one of the most vital components of this story, and as such, the group has suggested appealing to people in the area, who use local history sites, to see if anyone knew Jane’s mum, and could provide any further insights into her life, or life at the time in general.

2014-02-03 20.26.45We also heard from Pat, and the huge amount of information she has on the environmental reclamation of Stoke, since the introduction of the Clean Air Acts in the 1950s and 60s. Pat herself has played a huge part in this, and has potentially dozens of stories to tell. From the generational evolution of the peppered moth, to world-class environmental strategies, there’s a lot to cover. The next step for Pat is to focus her efforts, and pick one or two specific stories she’d like to tell, before we can look at her extensive personal archives of BBC factual footage could help bring the stories to life.

One of the big discussion points was the thorny issue of access to archives, and the Catch-22 nature of interrogating them. The ‘what are you looking for?’ / ‘well, what have you got?’ stalemate is often seen as a big problem, both from the point of view of the researcher, and the person who is responsible for the archive. Archives can be huge, poorly or inconsistently indexed. It is thus difficult for the casual browser to request a ‘look around’, and by the same token, archive guardians can have difficulty knowing where and how to add vital metadata that a visiting researcher could provide.

To begin a conversation with an archive you wish to search, you need to provide a specific starting point. If you can tell an archive’s guardian that you are looking for examples of crate-making from the 1920s, this is a clearer starting point than requesting ‘anything you’ve got about crates’. This gives both parties a sense of orientation and focus, from which the broader research can start.

2014-02-03 20.26.26Secondly, the idea emerged that an archive can only become more useful when external parties have a mechanism to provide metadata that the archive owner couldn’t hope to know. The aforementioned importance of local, specific, yet undocumented information needs to have a way to percolate through an archive. How could that be done? Through a series of open days, where members of the public are invited to help document parts of an archive? People are willing to help document things – just look at the success of Wikipedia. Obviously, issues of trust, security and so on would need to be addressed, but I think one of the useful things to emerge from the Pararchive project would be a set of principles for how archives could run supervised ‘hack’ sessions, to improve the usefulness of their archives.

Things are progressing well at Stoke, and the things we’re learning from this group are already helping us run workshops with the other groups in different, and hopefully more streamlined, ways.