"Archive problems are fun problems":
BUILDING AN ARCHIVE SERVICE AROUND TRAUMATIC EXPERIENCE: Continuity, change, and thoughts towards the future

Craig Fees

A paper presented to mark and celebrate 25 years of the Planned Environment Therapy Trust Archive and Study Centre, crystallising the philosophy, experience and practice of an award-winning archive service

delivered at:

Survival of the Fittest: strengths, skills and priorities for 2014 and beyond’

Archives and Records Association Annual Conference,

Newcastle-upon-Tyne, August 27-29, 2014




The Planned Environment Therapy Trust Archive and Study Centre was established in 1989 to gather and preserve records, memories and literature relating to a field of work with disturbed, delinquent and distressed people which is generally indicated by the post-war term "therapeutic community", and even more generally by "group therapies" and "therapeutic environments". 'Community' has the advantage of focusing on people and continuities; 'environments' on the dynamics of place.

It is a specialist repository created from scratch at a time of rapid and often traumatic change in the world of therapeutic environments; and was mandated by Trustees to be actively engaged with the various communities it served, as well as the wider lay and professional public. Through its engagement it was named "Most Impactful Archive" in 2011 by the Community Archives and Heritage Group; and "Archive of the Year 2012" by Your Family History Magazine.

2014 marks the Archive's 25th anniversary. With an eye on the future archive, this paper discusses the Centre's history and development, reflecting on some of the issues encountered and raised, including:

    • How is such a service created and sustained? How does it survive?
    • What are the challenges and skills required?
    • How do you engage people and organisations who are immersed in the day to day task of living out the therapeutic demands of children and adults with immense, immediate, and sometimes overwhelming needs?
    • How, why, and what are the implications of engaging with their former residents?
    • What are the implications of working with sometimes intensely distressing archives and memories?
    • Is an archive 'therapeutic'?


The Paper


1. Prologue

[Photograph: Richard Kenworthy for the ARA]

speaker2014craigtfees 200x300

At the call for papers last year my younger self set me an ambitious task. With many hours and several hundred pages it might be do-able; but of course - and he knew this - there are only 20 minutes. So this is going to be a paper of beginnings and introductions, in which indication is going to have to stand in for explication. As the last paper in the last paper session of the last day of this year's conference, dedicated to thinking about the archive of the future, it is probably absolutely right to end with uncertainties and beginnings.

The first introduction is to the title. The Call for Papers coincided with the death at 90 of my old theater professor at Occidental College in Los Angeles, Dr. Omar Paxson. A veteran of the Battle of the Bulge, a George Bernard Shaw scholar, and a deeply loving man, his motto was "Theater Problems are Fun Problems." It's a concept that generalises, and is the answer to just about every question that arises in this paper; the moral equivalent of which is the exclamation my Texas grandmother made when we crested the brow of the coastal range in California, and the immense Pacific Ocean was laid out for the first time before us: "Isn't that cute!"

The Planned Environment Therapy Trust Archive and Study Centre is a specialist repository created in 1989 by a small charity to gather archives and other materials related to people, places and organisations involved in 'planned environment therapy', a pre-War term largely supplanted since by 'therapeutic community'. There are therapeutic communities all around the world: devoted to children and adults; in prisons and psychiatric units; treating addictions; working with dementia - wherever there is trauma or difficult human experience, therapeutic communities can be found, using the power of engagement and relationships to effect amelioration and change. By definition, traumatic experience and attempts to engage positively with it are therefore at the heart of most of our collections.

Five years ago we crystallised 20 years of experience into a project called "Therapeutic Living With Other People's Children: An oral history of residential therapeutic child care c. 1930 to c. 1980". It was HLF-supported, and won two awards. "The Most Impactful Archive" award by the Community Archives and Heritage Group in 2012 arose from a process of self-nomination. The nominations for Your Family History Magazine's "Archive of the Year" award in 2013 came instead from people who had used the Archive and been involved in the "Therapeutic Living" project, and in that sense captures their experiences of it. The magazine's Editor-in-Chief, Nick Barratt, wrote:

"It may be that you have never heard of this archive, but the work that it undertakes and collections it holds are inspirational.

"The Trust was founded in 1966 to support therapeutic approaches to the treatment of children and adults who have suffered severe emotional and psychological hurts. The archive and study centre was formed in 1989, and not only does it collect and curate 200 archival material collections, including 1,100 oral histories, but provides a space for people to share memories and experiences relating to environmental therapy, and so it is continuing to undertake therapeutic work today."

"This, to me, is the essence of family history - practical, small scale and life changing. All this is done on a small budget, showing that you don't need millions of pounds to make a difference to people's lives."(1)

This paper was inspired by Nick Barratt's comment: "and so it is continuing to undertake therapeutic work today": We don't, and I don't believe an archive can, undertake therapeutic work, and retain the balance of archival task and relationship to the community which makes an archive - if it is - a uniquely effective therapeutic tool: I think there is an important distinction between undertaking work which is (or may be) therapeutic, and undertaking therapeutic work.


The first questions set me by my former self were:

2. How is such a service created and sustained? And how does it survive?

In 1996-97 I led the Society of Archivists' 50th anniversary oral history project, "Celebrating Memory: An oral history of the Society of Archivists and its members"(2), in which we recorded and brought together interviews with 72 archivists, conservators and other Society members, and in which I had the personal privilege of recording interviews with a number of senior archivists, such as Len Macdonald of Pilkington Glass, Freddy Stitt of Staffordshire, Michael Willis-Fear of Newcastle. It was an education in being and becoming an archivist, and in establishing, developing, and sustaining an archive service, in which I discovered that our experiences were unexceptional: What distinguishes the creation and development of this or that service, including ours, is principally a matter of personality and context.

In our case, a small charitable trust founded in 1966 by three therapeutic practitioners who had worked together since the 1930s, and were intensely aware of the value of the records of the work, were succeeded by a group of practitioners who saw those records disappearing; and who in 1988 had the immediate problem of what to do with the archives of David Wills, a founder of the Trust, and a towering figure in 20th century therapeutic child care. He left an immense archive including correspondence with some of the best known names of 20th century child care, and the clinical and administrative files of a pre-War experimental therapeutic camp for young men. The Trustees couldn't find a repository to take this extraordinary collection; so after considerable research and discussion decided to work with an existing residential therapeutic school to build a dedicated archive and study centre on the school grounds, bringing history and research together with the living work. I was asked to kick things off, and became the founding archivist. Three years in, the school closed traumatically. The story after that involves a lot of time, energy, and physical labour, as we used limited resources to turn one of the school's empty accommodation buildings into an archive, with secure air conditioned storage, office, users' and work areas, and library. When more resources came in, we wrapped this in two additional stories of dedicated archive space. This new building, because it had not been factored into the architect's plans - and because we were low on money -, required my post-construction drilling of all of the holes for the air-conditioning ducts, through massive walls and floors; as well, of course, as assembling, upstairs and down, rack after rack of shelving; and other stuff.

So far, all of that echoes the crises, serendipities and manual labour you'll find in the origin stories gathered by the "Celebrating Memory" project. However, the new Archive had none of the formal institutional or organisational boundaries of a Pilkington Glass, Staffordshire County, or City of Newcastle. In a very real sense, the community to which the Archive was devoted had to be invented; and it has been a primary function of the Archive since its inception to try to facilitate a recognition of shared identity, history, heritage, and common interest among sometimes very disparate-seeming organisations, institutions, and people. Why do this? Because without a recognition of their very real shared identity, history and heritage they are individually more vulnerable to the repetition of the past: to predictable challenges and attacks, to unnecessary and traumatic closure, to loss of identity and direction; and because, with recognition of belonging, comes a larger and more diverse community to learn with and history to learn from, a consequent greater self-awareness and understanding, of confidence and creativity in responding to opportunities and challenges, of stability and resilience, and best practice: all essential for the people who matter most - the clients - the youngsters with disrupted and traumatic childhoods; the adults wrestling with addiction, loss of identity, disturbance of Self, and/or dangerous and destructive relationships to themselves and others.

As to how such an archive service is sustained and survives, the lessons come from the history and heritage of the field itself, and not least from those many organisations and institutions which have not survived, or which reached crisis-point but managed to revive focus and sense of purpose in time to re-establish their direction. Paradoxically for a field whose fulcrum of effectiveness is an unshakeable belief in the capacity for growth in even the most blasted personality or situation, one of the greatest dangers facing a service such as this is the loss of belief in the future; the taking on of the despair and fatalism which characterise so many of the people therapeutic communities are designed to serve. The lesson to be gained from sharing so much time with the archives of the field, and with the people who make it up, is that we are all vulnerable to this radical loss of belief; and that the cure, if that is the right word, is in the history and the people themselves: Survival is a consequence of healthy community and community processes, which can be actively engendered and facilitated. It comes through an honest grounding in history, and full engagement in the present; through fostering and encouraging open communication. And it comes inevitably, in predictable but sometimes surprising and unexpected ways that can be difficult to recognise and be prepared for, unless one is prepared to be taken by surprise. Essential to survival is knowing that fatalism and despair in however gentle and rationalised a form are not predictors of the future, but transient indicators of loss of identity, belonging and perspective which, left unchallenged, become persistent and self-fulfilling; that the best doctor is the community; and that archive problems are fun problems.


3. What are the challenges and skills required?

That aside, the basic challenges are familiar: cataloguing backlogs; inadequate funding; the digital avalanche; and so on. The skills are also familiar - resilience, resourcefulness, a capacity to juggle time and task and not quite lose the plot, and so on.

We have two specific challenges:

A high proportion of our collections are case records and associated administrative files, filled with individuals' names and details, and therefore closed to most researchers for most purposes for a very long time. This tightly restricts use, and ruthlessly constricts a key indicator of the value of the Archive to potential funders.

To compensate, we use the classic therapeutic community approach of identifying strengths and building on them, without neglecting deficits: Identify and reach out to potential users, proactively offering support, connections, and the encouragement of genuine interest and enthusiasm for their work; actively listen to researchers for the article, book or project crying out from within them to be done, and encouraging them to do it; promoting and encouraging the use of oral history through training, equipment, small grants, and giving a home to recordings and documentation; and if they visit, a warm welcome. Not every researcher cites our help, but we are acknowledged in at least 22 books and monographs, 9 dissertations, 12 articles, and a smattering of radio documentaries and live performances.

We also have the challenge of being surrounded - and sometimes immersed and even overwhelmed - by loss, simply by the nature of the field: punctuated by the closure of an institution; the death of someone who has become a friend through their involvement with the archives, or oral history interviews; the content of sometimes harrowing files that you are cataloguing or preparing for the subject who has requested access; the lifestory of an oral history interviewee; the visitor in the Archive for whom past loss comes forcefully to the present, or indeed never receded.

The skills involved? In her groundbreaking 2006 article "The Role of Archives in the Perception of Self", Judith Etherton noted the advice she was given that archivists dealing with potentially distressed researchers should have training in counseling(3). I spent ten years living and working in a therapeutic community for disturbed children, and it would be disingenuous to suggest that what I gained thereby has not been immensely helpful. But short of specialist training, a great deal can be done in meeting and managing distress in client and staff through the organisation of the service as such. In "Therapeutic Living" we had three members of the project team - archivist, oral historian, admin/transcriber - who did not have specialist training or experience in the area, and yet created a difficult, award-winning project. How? There is a fuller discussion in the project's Final Report(4), but in brief it required a team, meeting regularly and working closely together, developing a vigorous culture of open communication, and the time for it; within a background framework of Trustees and Advisory Group members whose expertise was available if needed: In short: Informed and supported teamwork, and vigorous open communication.


4. How do you engage people and organisations who are immersed in the day to day task of living out the therapeutic demands of children and adults with immense, immediate, and sometimes overwhelming needs?

These are extraordinarily busy people and institutions who can't come to you, and have at best racing-past windows of opportunity to think outside their own work and survival: so, you have to go to them.

Where meeting places exist you join them - in my case becoming a Trustee of the Association of Therapeutic Communities, and Reviews Editor for its journal, for example. Attend conferences; join email groups.

Where forums and opportunities for meeting don't exist, you create them:

    • In 2001 in the absence of a common news and information channel we brought together the Association of Therapeutic Communities - a charity primarily for adult communities - and the Charterhouse Group of Therapeutic Communities - a charity for children and young people's communities - to publish a Joint Newsletter, later including the Royal College of Psychiatrists's "Community of Communities" project as well. Edited and published from the Archive, four years and twelve issues and a brief hiatus later we transferred the collaboration from print to the Internet, joined there by the European Federation of Therapeutic Communities in the still broader umbrella of the Therapeutic Community Open Forum, whose RadioTC International, managed by the Archive, translated the Joint Newsletter's news and features functions into podcasts.
    • We created their first websites - for the Association of Therapeutic Communities, the Charterhouse Group of Therapeutic Communities, the Child Care History Network, and others - a prison therapeutic community, an NHS psychiatric therapeutic community. And we created more than a dozen email discussion groups.
    • With the Centre for the History of Medicine at Birmingham University we created the Institute for the History and Work of Therapeutic Environments, based in the Archive. With current and former practitioners and care leavers we helped to create the Child Care History Network.
    • We organise conferences and seminars; record conferences and events; record oral histories; and more.

Each involvement generates additional work, but creates opportunities to raise the profile of the Archive, brings history of the field into decision-making, illustrates the nature and practical utility of archives, and amplifies the role of the archive as an information and community/networking hub. The Archive in return gains a knowledge and understanding which is unique, and feeds back into its effectiveness in service of and to the field.


5. How, why, and what are the implications of engaging with their former residents?

The principal implication is Time. Time, for out-of-the-blue hour long phone calls, in the middle of cataloguing or more typically lunch, perhaps leading to a series of phone calls which may extend over weeks or months, and are seen as part of the work, not an interruption or distraction from it; Time woven into the fabric of the work to build relationships with people for many of whom relationships are by definition problematic, and more difficult where authority and gatekeeping to information about them are concerned; Time to listen; Time to think; Time to question; Time for difficult emotional encounters, including joy; and Time to recover.

In their short book "On Kindness" psychoanalyst Adam Phillips and historian Barbara Taylor say:

Bearing other people’s vulnerability – which means sharing in it imaginatively and practically without needing to get rid of it, to yank people out of it – entails being able to bear one’s own." (5) [my emphasis]

This hits the nail on the head.


6. What are the implications of working with sometimes intensely distressing archives and memories?

In 2007 we created a PhD studentship with the Centre for the History of Medicine at Birmingham University. The successful candidate, Elaine Boyling, began by cataloguing the archives of what we called, for anonymity's sake, "MacGregor Hall": a residential therapeutic community for sexually abused and/or sexually abusing young men. "The work of archiving the documents" she wrote in her PhD thesis "was emotionally gruelling."

But she then went on to say: "While becoming aware of residents’ case histories was often distressing, this was usually offset by learning about the strength and resourcefulness that residents showed in coping with difficulties, and by learning about the effectiveness of the support that ‘McGregor Hall’ offered them." (6)

The impact of working with intensely distressing material and narratives should not be under-stated. There is a kind of secondary trauma which can distress and debilitate; in attending to the vulnerabilities in others, one's own vulnerabilities come to the surface. A management framework which doesn't support this - and that can range from simple lack of interest in what is involved through to active hostility - will compound the difficulty.

It should also not be over-stated. Distress is one stage in a movement of Self towards understanding which, if it is not arrested, impeded, or diverted from its course by a need to ameliorate or change it - or interrupted by management demands - Arrives: It is not unusual to emerge from an encounter inspired by the resilience, intelligence, and creativity of human being - lifted by the joy of what people can experience and do with and for one another, and for themselves.

As for the final question:

7. Is an archive 'therapeutic'?

Of course, when not being anti-therapeutic. A growing literature tells us that simply engaging with archives as such can increase feelings of wellbeing, confidence, and grounding - basic elements of "therapeutic" (as opposed to "therapy") (7).

More actively, Susan Beckley notes that the term "archive therapy" was coined in West Wales as long ago as the early 1980s for purposefully taking archives into the community to work with the elderly, delinquents, and others, for whom the engagement with archives as such, and with other people in and through the archives, was therapeutic. She links it to bibliotherapy and local history therapy, with an obvious cousin in reminiscence therapy (8), all of which Thomson et al have wrapped into the rubric 'heritage-specific therapeutic interventions' (9).

In the 2006 article I've already mentioned, Judith Etherton further drew attention specifically to archives related directly to the personal history of the researcher, which can be distressing - if they hold secrets, or misinformation, or if they are absent, for example; but can also be, in effect, healing: people can fall into place on discovering information about their families and themselves, however painful; incapacitating feelings of guilt can be resolved through the counter evidence of recorded fact. There is a growing literature in the role of archives in therapeutic discovery of identity, belonging, and grounding of the individual in Self and the community. (10)

Where the archive of the future is concerned, Nick Barratt indicates a direction of journey in his comment that the Archive "provides a space for people to share memories and experiences". The primary task of an archive is gathering, organising, preserving and cataloguing material to make it accessible; that is its brilliance. But the Archive itself can be so organised that relationships with the community and its needs are integral to the organisation, and not added-on; structured to ensure the work it undertakes is therapeutic; and that Archive problems are - as they should be, fun.



1. Barratt, Nick (2013), "The Last Word: Archive of the Year 2013", Your Family History Magazine, April, p. 74.

2. For "Celebrating Memory: An oral history of the Society of Archivists and its members" , see the original project website http://web.archive.org/web/20060615000919/http://pettarchiv.org.uk/fsg/ (accessed 26.8.2014), and the British Library Sound and Moving Images Catalogue, http://cadensa.bl.uk/uhtbin/cgisirsi/?ps=V6O4mPqypQ/WORKS-FILE/326900064/18/X087/XNUMBERS/C1181 (accessed 16.8.2014)

3. Etherton, Judith (2006), "The role of archives in the perception of self", Journal of the Society of Archivists 27:2, 227-246. See also, e.g., Marshall, Karrie and Tilley, Liz (2013), "Life Stories, Intellectual Disability, Cultural Heritage and Ethics: Dilemmas in Researching and (re)presenting Accounts from the Scottish Highlands", Ethics and Social Welfare 7:4, 400-409.

4. Fees, Craig with contributions by Geldart, Gemma (2011), Final Report to the Heritage Lottery Fund: Therapeutic Living With Other People's Children: An oral history of residential therapeutic child care, c. 1930-c.1980: HG-08-16728, Covering the period January 2010 – October 2011, 3rd edition. Planned Environment Therapy Trust.

5. Phillips, Adam and Taylor, Barbara (2010), On Kindness, Penguin Books, p. 10.

6. Boyling, Elaine (2012) Quakerism and therapeutic environments: dynamic resources in the management of a therapeutic community 1962-1995, Ph.D. thesis, University of Birmingham, p. 19.

7. See Neal, Colette (2012) Can creative engagement in museums improve the mental health and wellbeing of people experiencing mental distress? A mixed methods pilot study. Final Report,Welsh Museums Federation; James Northway (2012), "Collaboration" Archeist/An Archives Blog, http://archeist.wordpress.com/2012/11/04/collaboration/ [accessed 30.8.2014. Reporting on the Mid-Atlantic Regional Archives Conference in Richmond, Virginia: "for those who are struggling to integrate back into civilian societies or are dealing with traumatic stress from combat, often recording an oral history or speaking with an archivist can have therapeutic benefits".]; Thomson et al (2012), "Quantitative evidence for wellbeing benefits from a heritage-in-health intervention with hospital patients", International Journal of Art Therapy 17:2, 63-79; Thomson et al (2011), "Evaluating the therapeutic effects of museum object handling with hospital patients: A review and initial trial of well-being measures", Journal of Applied Arts and Health 2:1, 37-56; Cox, Richard (2006), "A 'Therapeutic Function': Personal Recordkeeping", Records and Information Management Report, 22, 1-13;

8. Beckley, Susan (1983), "Archive Therapy in Carmarthenshire", Journal of the Society of Archivists, 7:4, 245-246; Beckley, Susan (1987), "Archive therapy in Carmarthenshire: Some further developments", Journal of the Society of Archivists, 8:3, 199-201; Beckley, Susan (1989), "The use of archives with disadvantaged groups in the community", Conference Supplement, Literary Association Medical Health and Welfare Libraries Group...Initiatives", LA: MHWLG Weekend Study School, 29 September to 1 October 1989, University of York, 114-115.

9. Thomson, Linda J et al (2011), "Evaluating the therapeutic effects of museum object handling with hospital patients: A review and initial trial of well-being measures", Journal of Applied Arts and Health 2:1, 37-56; Thomson, Linda J et al (2012), "Qualitative evidence for wellbeing benefits from a heritage-in-health intervention with hospital patients", International Journal of Art Therapy, 17:2, 63-79.

10. E.g., Humphreys, Cathy et al (2013), "Improving the Archiving of Records in the Out-of-home Care Sector", Australian Social Work, DOI: 10.1080/0312407X.2013.856453; Kertesz, Margaret, Humphreys, Cathy and Carnovale, Cathy (2012), "Reformulating current recordkeeping practices in out-of-home care: recognising the centrality of the archive", Archives and Manuscripts 40:1, 42-53; Cushing, Amber J. (2010), "'I just want more information about who I am': the search experience of sperm-donor offspring, searching for information about their donors and genetic heritage", Information Research 15:2 paper 428. [Available at http://InformationR.net/ir/15-2/paper428.html]; McEwan, Cheryl (2003), "Building a Postcolonial Archive? Gender, Collective Memory and Citizenship in Post-Apartheid South Africa", Journal of Southern African Studies 29:3, 739-757. See Andrew Flinn's and Mary Stevens' querying discussion in Flinn, A. and Stevens, M. (2009). "'It is noh mistri, wi mekin histri' . Telling Our Own Story: Independent and Community Archives in the United Kingdom, Challenging and Subverting the Mainstream', in Bastian, J. & Alexander, B. (eds.) Community Archives. The shaping of memory. London: Facet Publishing; Trivers, Julianna (2005), Writing Wrongs: Archival Theory, Therapeutic Writing, and the Proposed Child Abuse Survivor Archive at the University of Manitoba, MA thesis, Department of History (Archival Studies), University of Manitoba.