Beyond the Fringe: archives of pressure groups

December 5th, 2011 by Sue Donnelly, Archivist

Last Tuesday I was at the Bishopsgate for the British Records Assocation’s annual conference focussing on the archives and history of pressure groups. I was speaking on the Hall-Carpenter Archives and the BRA had gathered a great range of speakers talking about the history and archives of pressure groups. Judy Berg of Hull History Centre,  kicked off the day with a great overview of the issues around managing pressure group archives from the viewpoint of their own collections which include the records of  Liberty. Judy argued that pressure group archives were a vital record of society’s changing attitudes and examples of how to succeed or fail in influencing society. She also outlined the issues of dealing with archives containing a high percentage of ephemeral material and the problems of organisations trying to care for their archives.

Stef Dickers of the Bishopsgate Institute followed on with an amusing account of the pleasures and tribulations of dealing with the massive archive of the radical (and idiosyncratic) historian, Raphael Samuel. The archive consists of over 700 boxes of notes, research papers, photographs and cassette tapes ranging from recordings of folk singer  Ewan Maccoll to the outer wrappings of a Marks & Spencers ‘Traditional Gloucester Pie’. Here the difficulties were off working out the relevance and connections between different parts of the collection and dealing with a wide range of data protection issues. Coming up to date Inderbir Bhullar introduced the meeting to the Women’s Library’s collecting programme for websites and ‘zines‘. There had been some opposition to the collection of ‘zines’ by their creators as it was felt to be the antithesis of the spirit of swapping and sharing that zines come out of. This was followed by a talk about 56a Infoshop archive of leaflets, posters and ‘zines’ a true open access archive in a radical spirit.

After lunch Peter Wadley of the National Records  of Scotland talked about the records of the Scottish National Party - and the story of a pressure group that became a government. Pete pointed out the importance of local party and group records noting that many of the SNP’s ideas and policies and grown from the grass roots. The central party records are deposited with the National Library of Scotland but few of the local records have currently found their way into the archives.

I followed on with Activism and Archives: preserving the records of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transexual community. I covered the Hall-Carpenter Archive’s history as both a community based independent archive and a deposited collection in a university. I talked about the challenges of dealing with issues of sex and sexuality in the context of an archive, the need for trust between archive creators and those who care for the archives and the need for strong connections and collaborations with the creator communities. I also used some images from the archive – including this one of a London Transport guard in drag!

Julian Howes on his final day at work for London Transport

Julian Howes on his final day at work for London Transport

The day finished with Alison Cullingford from Bradford University talking about PaxCat a project to work on the archives within the Commonweal Collection on non-violent direct action. Once again trust was under discussion along with the data protection implications of archives whose creators make no distinction between the personal, political or the professional. Alison also proved the value of having a snappy but descriptive name!

After the main conference the former Liberal MP (and LSE depositor), Michael Meadowcroft, delivered the Maurice Bond lecture. Michael talked of the need to use archives in policy making and with a wealth of stories from his experience as a councillor and MP proved that it is best to understand a little of the past before planning for the future.

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