Pararchive won a small grant to participate in this year’s Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) Festival of Social Science which took place from 1st – 8th November. The aim of the Festival was to showcase some of the “leading” social science research being undertaken across the country and to demonstrate how such work – as the ESRC put it – “influences our social, economic and political lives – both now and in the future”. The ESRC were very keen to have the public engaged as much as possible in the form of public debates, workshops, interactive seminars, film screenings and virtual exhibitions among many other activities. As such, we scheduled our event accordingly and made effective use of an interactive workshop-style session coupled with film screenings and a prototype-testing session – more of which follows below.
Fiona kicked off the day by welcoming our attendees who comprised a mix of academics, (library and gallery) professionals, campaigners and students before providing a brief background to the ESRC Festival of Social Science. Fiona then handed over to Simon who – engagingly and passionately as always – talked about how the significance of collecting stories from archives for community groups and the wider public to tell their stories inspired his past and present work. Simon provided an illustrative example, recounting the story of Charles Ward – a Leeds-born member of the Yorkshire Light Infantry – who performed an act of bravery during the Second Boer War, and subsequently became the last person to receive the Victoria Cross – the highest and most prestigious medal awarded for outstanding gallantry to British and Commonwealth military forces in combat. Charles Ward’s appearance on cigarette cards further triggered Simon’s curiosity to dig out more – the search of which led to the discovery of a silent film on a research project Simon was involved with in which Charles was interviewed. The message Simon was putting across was that the deeper one digs and engages with archival material, the higher the likelihood that one discovers interesting people, events and places that can form a basis on which to tell stories that help us understand our own past, who we are and what we might become.
Simon then talked about two previous projects (The Open Archive Project and Fusion) that – in partnership with the BBC – investigated how people can connect with and make use of digital archival resources. The two projects explored how communities might take ownership of cultural and historical materials in which they are represented, and how they could use archival sources to give voice to their own stories and construct their own histories. The research resulted in the joint creation of a series of films entitled Strike Stories. To give attendees a flavour of how communities can make effective use of archival material to challenge official accounts of events and to narrate such events from an experiential position, Simon screened two clips: Strike Stories: Opening the Archives on the Miners’ Strike 1984/5, Introduction (2009) and We Are Women, We Are Strong (2009).
Imran then took over and talked our attendees through the conception and development of the Pararchive digital resource we are co-producing. He narrated that Pararchive was conceived following a subsequent Creative Technology Lab in 2012 (http://www.cciexchange.leeds.ac.uk/what-we-do/business-and-creative-technology/) which built upon Strike Stories by exploring how these community stories and histories as well as aspirations and ideas could be turned into a real resource open to anyone. An online resource named Pararchive was modelled and funding for it secured. Imran explained that it became very clear from the outset that Pararchive would require working collaboratively. To achieve this effectively, Imran highlighted how we worked to build good working relationships and chemistry with the four Pararchive community groups in the co-design lab workshops we held, something that was instrumental in helping us listen to group members’ research interests and affinities, understand their aspirations and motivations, and support them in curating resources around shared cultural, historical and thematic interests and affinities drawn from a wider number of platforms and institutional sites to tell their stories.
Whilst doing all this, Imran stressed that it was crucial that we stayed abreast of primarily non-commercial state-of-the-art digital storytelling technology that might inform and enrich our own work. A look at the news page on this website shows commentary on precisely such work indicating particular aspects that might feed into our work on the prototype of the digital resource. Imran concluded by noting that the prototype is currently being tested by the four Pararchive community groups and that the attendees present at the session would be the very first external group of individuals to test its functionality.
We then asked attendees to introduce themselves after which we broke for lunch over which conversations were continued. Examples of conversations held revolved around how best to work effectively with public cultural organisations as a community group given that the former tend to be preoccupied with a myriad things to attend to and around possible directions into which the Pararchive resource could branch, for example, as a campaigning tool for activist work and as a platform for public discussion, debate and analysis of political events such as elections. The lunch break was followed by Imran’s demonstration of how to navigate the prototype: creating a story, building story blocks, adding artefacts that enrich the story as well as adding other important details and notes that might not sit comfortably within the story itself but might nonetheless be useful, for instance, in providing some context or interpretation. Such details consisted of characters, places and time. It was interesting to observe some of the discussions we have been having on the project over the last thirteen months resurfacing at this session. Time, veracity and the use of concepts were a case in point. Our thinking has always been that the resource would be used in many ways including both as a storytelling platform and as a research space/tool. The discussion revolved around the fact that whereas time and truthfulness might not play a significant role in the former instance, both appear to be crucial ingredients in the latter case. There was an argument that conceptualising time can be problematic and limiting.
With regard to truth, what struck a chord with me was the notion that a story can have “multiple truths” meaning that various accounts of an event, for example, could be valid in their own right, and that acknowledging this multiplicity could actually enrich the value of that particular event or story. Whatever the purposes were, there seemed to be a consensus that it might be best to strike a good balance between “disambiguating and leaving things relatively loose”. In concrete terms, this meant that where a fictional story is told, this should be clearly identifiable and where truth is a requirement, this should be verifiable through artefacts such as birth certificates, pamphlets, cards, badges or whatever else might be relevant in that particular case. In reference to concepts, it was interesting to hear a distinction made between the use of the term “storytelling” and ‘”history telling”. It was mentioned that depending on the context, the former might be preferable because it is understood to be much more flexible than the latter.
The prototype-testing session immediately followed the discussion. From our point of view, comments and feedback from attendees were very useful in helping us think about how best to develop the resource further in as accessible and intuitive a way as possible. Some of the recurring feedback concerned creating hyperlinks within the text, incorporating a prompt tool to remind users to save their work if they hadn’t done so before leaving the page, making the resource accessible for people who are hard of hearing, developing multiple entry points into the resource such as a search box for easier navigation and annotation and tagging tools. Other comments pointed to issues around permissions, copyright and the importing of various website links. It is fair to say that we have been discussing many of these issues over the last thirteen months, so it was gratifying to hear that our thinking and vision throughout appear to be heading in the right direction. Overall, we got the impression that attendees saw a significant potential for the resource and many asked to keep them updated on how we get on. More updates on our progress will follow as and when they become available. We are confident that Pararchive will be instrumental in – to borrow the words of the ESRC – “sharing memories […] past, present and future” and much more!