2003: An Engaged Archive and Study Centre

Craig Fees, “An Engaged Archive and Study Centre “
2003

[A brief article originally written for the Society of Archivists’ Specialist Repository Group Newsletter. Specialist repositories are any of those archives which fall outside the traditional state sector.]

One of my long term projects has been to find ways to open channels of communication with the field our archive serves, and to use those channels to develop understanding and concern for archive material as such, and also to engage and integrate the work of the Archive and Study Centre with the work going on ‘out there’.

I view archives as a form of social memory, and see the role of an Archive in relation to the community it serves not metaphorically, but actually, as the role of memory within an individual. That is complex, but it does involve not only holding and preserving, and making available on call, but also anticipating and bringing forward, and other stuff: Basically, ensuring as far as possible that the day to day work in therapeutic communities – the field I broadly serve – remains or becomes aware of the rich and extensive experience in its own history, and is engaged with it.

Just as you don’t want to swamp the Self with memory, so you don’t want to overwhelm people trying to do difficult and sometimes impossible work (as they do within therapeutic communities) with the claims of an archive; but equally, you don’t want the demands of the present to so overwhelm connection with the past that rare and precious time and energy, not to mention resources, are wasted in re-inventing wheels or coping with crises which could, and should – along with their potential solutions or pre-solutions (with an emphasis on the “pre”) – have been anticipated. In theory a reasonably well-run, appropriately engaged archive conduces to the benefit of the work, to the people served by the work, and therefore to Society at large.

That’s the theory. Finding ways to implement it is another thing. Encouraging visitors and researchers, developing the web-site and responding to queries is all part of it, as is helping others within the field to develop their web-sites, and setting up specialised email discussion groups to facilitate communication among people in the different areas of the work – we have established perhaps half a dozen. It has also felt right, at least for a time, to become a trustee of different organisations within the field, to record conferences and seminars, and to be part of the editorial group for the relevant professional journal. Because of our recent construction, we are also able to host small day or residential conferences and meetings, which seems to me to hold a great deal of potential.

But the thing I am personally most proud of at the moment is the Newsletter, the most recent issues of which are available on-line in pdf format at http://archive.pettrust.org.uk/jointnewsletter. This is a joint venture of the three main British-based charities devoted to this field – the Charterhouse Group of Therapeutic Communities (CHG), the Association of Therapeutic Communities (ATC), and the Planned Environment Therapy Trust (PETT). A little over two years ago the newsletter of the ATC had dwindled, through lack of contributions, into extinction. The PETT newsletter aimed to be annual, but came out every 18 months or so. CHG’s existed only in proposal. As a Joint Newsletter it now comes out regularly three times a year, and could easily come out more – at 56 pages this time, we have had to set material aside for the next issue. More importantly in the current context is the way that matters of direct concern to the Archive – the relevance of past experience and the nature of the future, as well as the nature and significance of archive materials and archiving as such – are present and can potentially be presented in different areas – whether in specific articles on archival subjects, editorials and obituaries, news items or even backpage poetry.

Although a huge amount of work, involvement in the production of the Newsletter also teaches us here in the Archive and Study Centre a great deal about the field as it is now, and therefore what we need to be laying down in the form of archives for the future, and also how, potentially, we can contribute better to it all. The one thing we lack is the money to do all that as fully and deeply as we would like – but that is a different (and no doubt familiar) story.