Yesterday saw us attending ‘Working with the Past’, a panel discussion organised by the Equality & Diversity department in conjunction with ourselves and the Gender Institute that explored the use of archives in studying women’s history. The panel was chaired by Professor Mary Evans and the speakers were Professor Sally Alexander, Dr. Kate Murphy and Professor Barbara Bush.
Sally talked about Sisterhood and After: An Oral History of the Women’s Liberation Movement, housed at the British Library, and her experiences both using an archive and being part of an archive. Sally was interviewed for the project and has also deposited her archive papers at The Women’s Library. She talked about how she went into the interview with a clear idea of what she was going to say, but also what she was not going to say, but that it all went out of the window in the face of the very skilled interviewer, to whom she found herself opening up and revealing information she hadn’t imagined she would.
Kate related her experiences using archives and how they changed her life, with her interest in women’s history and the discoveries she made in archives like those of the BBC and The Women’s Library inspiring her to do a PhD. Kate also told us about her advocacy of The Women’s Library and women’s history, being very proud that she was able to highlight the stories of inspiring women as producer of BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour. ‘The Long March to Equality’ exhibition that has just closed was curated by Kate and she talked about having to choose the “treasures” that would be featured in it from all the brilliant items that are house in the collections.
Barbara told us about her quest to discover the invisible slave woman through archival research and talked about how historians are so often preoccupied with official records, which cover only a very small part of the history of communities. She also talked about her use of the archives at LSE, those of Audrey Richards and Phyllis Kaberry and the changing face of anthropology after women were able to undertake fieldwork.
It was a very interesting event to a student of archives. The speakers touched on subjects such as the concepts of truth and memory and how they are represented in archives. Barbara also mentioned how ephemeral materials are just as important to a researcher as official records, especially in disciplines such as the social sciences. Appraisal and what is kept in archives was also questioned and Sally pointed out that we’ve never kept everything and things like phone calls have never been preserved.
One of the audience members brought up the issue of activism having moved online, to blogs and Twitter and other Web 2.0 applications. They asked who was collecting these materials, which is a pertinent question and interesting that non-archivists are thinking about it, especially to me as I have just finished a module on my archives degree course looking at the preservation and management of Web 2.0 records. It’s such a new area, but moves so fast that archives need to act fast in order to lose as little material as possible.
The discussion ended with the panellists and members of the audience expressing encouraging views on the movement of The Women’s Library to LSE, highlighting the crossover in collections and the commitment of LSE to maintaining and expanding the collection.