Craig Fees (CF)
Interviewed by Bettina Schnurman (BeS)
[An ongoing piece of self-reflection in the form of an interview]
BeS: I am Bettina Schnurman. It is the 1st of March 2018, almost fourteen years to the day since I was last here and last interviewed Craig Fees ["Do ut possis dare: Before the PhD and after"]. Craig, at the end of that interview, back in 2004, you were speaking about the difference between 'do ut des' and 'do ut possis dare', and the nature of archives and oral history as 'sacrifice', in the terms of the old Indo-European understanding of sacrifice.
BeS: Do you mind if I just read what you said then, and ask whether and how you might have changed your mind?
CF: Not at all.
BeS: Okay. So back in 2004 you said:
"Do the right thing, do the kind thing, do the generous thing, and in its own mysterious way, the system will conduce to the good and growing. Not directly, or in the short term, through do ut des – although that has a part to play – but to the fundamentally deeper do ut possis dare: difficult because it tends to be slower, and the relationship between act and consequence can get lost. It’s subtle in other ways as well: easy to take for granted, impossible to control – growth necessarily happens in ways we don’t expect and can’t predict -, and the return is often indirect and impersonal: you may well benefit in some way from the ‘sacrifice’, the right act; but it is more likely to be the benefit that comes from living among people who are themselves growing as a consequence of the 'gift'. The direct benefits are often months, or years or even generations down the line, and without records – in archives or oral history, for example – the cause/effect link is often a matter of faith and belief."
Would you still agree with that?
CF: Yes. If we were starting again I would try to take more time and express it more clearly. It came at the end of the interview, and my memory is that I noticed you glancing at your watch, and began to rush. So it is a bit compressed. But I think the experience of the Archive and Study Centre bears it out.
BeS: Even though the Archive and Study Centre is closing.
CF: Well, the first thirty years are coming to an end -
BeS: Twenty-nine. It began in 1989.
CF: You're right. My report, and the formal decision to establish a comprehensive Archive and Study Centre, are 1989. But they asked me...when do things actually begin?... it was 1988 when they asked me to do the background research for the project, so they must have had an archive of some kind in mind then. Could we say it was conceived in '88 and born in '89? Whatever we decide, I began work on it in 1988, so this is 2018 and my first thirty years are coming to an end.
BeS: Does that mean you are expecting to do another thirty years?
CF: [Laughs]. No, it means I've over-identified with the Archive and Study Centre. My time is coming to an end, and someone else's time is about to begin.
BeS: And is that a good thing?
CF: Yes. I'm still learning, and the work and the potential of the Archive is still deepening, but thirty years is a long time for something to depend primarily on one person. If you look back, you'll see that the golden ages in the Archive have corresponded to times when there was another archivist, or a brilliant volunteer, or a team, like we had in the Other People's Children project. I say "brilliant volunteer", but then you have to immediately think of Archive Weekends, which are made up of teams of brilliant volunteers.
BeS: Golden ages?
CF: Times of productivity and innovation. It's no coincidence that our two national awards came from the brilliant two years of the Therapeutic Living With Other People's Children project, when we had the whole thing - an employed team, brilliant volunteers, Archive Weekends, and adequate funding. And if you tease it out, and trace the multiple threads of its history/ontogeny, the Therapeutic Living With Other People's Children project is itself an illustration of do ut possis dare in action: an 'impossible' outcome nevertheless achieved through layers and layers (and years and years!) of 'giving'. I say 'impossible' because we were told that getting a grant of that scale without a track record in managing smaller grants, and without having proven the administrative bona fides of the organisation, was impossible. But it is possible. Not if you don't believe it's possible, and not if you expect it to simply happen without all the Indo-European 'sacrifices' - and not if you expect it to happen quickly. But otherwise, if you believe, and trust, and do the work necessary, that kind of impossible is possible.
BeS: Is that a bit of advice you'd offer to your successor?
CF: [Laughs] What, to work insanely hard, believe in the impossible, get used to delayed gratification, and see returns when and where you least expect them? Of course.
BeS: No, but seriously, what advice would you offer to your successor?
CF: Seriously? More seriously? To take their time. Fall in love. Get to know the collections. Listen to as many oral history recordings as you can. Enjoy the company of the people who come to use and value the collections. Immerse yourself as fully as you can, before the daily business becomes too intense, so you can hear the direction the future is calling you to take the Archive in. The more fully immersed you become in the Archive and the people and field it serves, and its own history, the clearer and more distinct that call will be.
BeS: Is that from experience?
CF: When I was approached by the Planned Environment Therapy Trust to initiate the work which led to their decision to establish an Archive and Study Centre I had been a full-time researcher for over ten years. I had explored the holdings of archives and libraries all over the Los Angeles basin for my MA, and then all over this country for my PhD. Let me roll out the names from the PhD, the ones I remember: The Modern Archives at Kings College, Cambridge; the BBC Written Archives Centre; the Evesham Public Library's local history and newspaper collection; Collindale - the British Library's Newspaper Library as it was then; the Ashmolean; the Muniment Room at St. James' Church in Chipping Campden; the V&A; the Public Record Office; the Bristol and Gloucestershire Archaeological Society Library; the local history collection in the basement of Gloucester City Library; the local history collection in the main reading room of Cheltenham Library; the Cheltenham Art Gallery and Museum; the Worcestershire Record Office as it was then, in downtown Worcester; the Hereford and Worcester Record Office as it became, outside of town, in new state of the art facilities; the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust; the Gloucestershire Regiment Museum; the Folklore Society Library; the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library; the British Library; Somerset House; the archives of University College London; the University of Leeds and its Institute of Dialect and Folklife Studies Collection. And over in the States, the Harry Ransom Research Center in Texas - Graham Greene lived in Chipping Campden for a while, and his diaries of Campden are detailed and fascinating. And then, back to this country, the Gloucestershire Record Office, as it was then - Gloucestershire Archives now: The GRO was immensely important, both the Shire Hall records side, and the public reading rooms down the road and on the other side of the railroad tracks.
So, over a very rich period, and before taking on the challenge of establishing the Archive and Study Centre, I had been exposed as a researcher to many different types of settings and systems and atmospheres; and, indeed, had worked behind the scenes in some of them: I could contrast the subtle feeling of 'out-of-placeness' I'd experienced at the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library in Los Angeles with the depth of welcome and freedom to settle into the materials and learn that I was given by Dr. Michael Halls, the Modern Archivist at Kings College, Cambridge; and with the generosity, warmth and guidance of the Gloucestershire Records Office team. I had seen a wide range of different handling and management procedures, different approaches to packaging and storage, and experienced the consequences, the implications.
Then I was asked by the Trust to research what they would need to consider if they were going to set up an archive. I got to make more discoveries - the Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine, the Bethlem and Maudsley Museum...I had fantastic help and guidance from my brother, a museum curator in the United States, and from others, professionals like Michael Halls at Cambridge; Julia Sheppard at the Wellcome, and Marion Bowman; Patricia Allderidge at Bethlem...I read widely. And ultimately - the Society of Archivists was a closed shop in those very early days, but I was able to join the British Records Association, and the Society of American Archivists, and draw on their resources. Conference tapes from the SAA, for example.
And Another Then - Well, look, the Archive began. 1989. I began recording oral history after oral history with people in the therapeutic community world - people who had genuinely created the field - , learning volumes from them about the research needs for a comprehensive understanding of therapeutic community theory, history and practice. And then in 1996 I had the amazing opportunity, as the co-ordinator of the Society of Archivists' 50th anniversary oral history project, to sit at the feet of senior professionals all over the country - men and women who had created archive services and helped to create the post-war archives profession as we know it - and learn of and from their experience. I had ten solid years before the tragedy of 9/11 triggered the long shadow of austerity which settled onto the Trust and began to constrict its resources and opportunities. I had time - time and resources to immerse myself in therapeutic community and archives, and to build the collections and the work accordingly. Austerity - I don't think it was called 'austerity' in those days, but we can recognise now what it means - made life increasingly difficult; but then came the miracle of Archive Weekends, and our mutual discovery with members of former schools and therapeutic communities of how much we had to learn and give to one another. Again, we are back to do ut possis dare - the counter to austerity, and even to do ut des. You don't create wealth through constriction, but through generosity, and patience. But the point I would want to make, to whoever gets to be my successor, is to take as much time as you can. Meet, love, learn.
BeS: That seems reasonably straightforward.
CF: If they are given resources and time to work with. The conditions from which the PETT Archive and Study Centre was born can not be re-created, and it will not be handed over running and in situ; so it will necessarily become an entirely new thing. A lot will inevitably be lost. But I hope, whoever they are, that they are given and find the time and the resources to explore the collections and the field in depth before the practicals hit too hard. I hope they are given the opportunity I had to meet and enjoy the people; because in the end they are the real culture carriers, and they are the ones who know best the value and the meaning that are invested in the collections. In a deep and funny way they are the future.
BeS: Which strikes me as counterintuitive.
CF: Archives are counterintuitive. That's why they're so magical, creative and threatening.
CF: But why do you think it's counter-intuitive?
BeS: Do you mind if we pause? I think I need to get my bearings.
This image, by my daughter Enla, graced the home page of the Archive's web-site from its beginnnings in 1996 until I merged the Archive website with the PETT main website about five years ago. I love it, because it expresses all my feelings about archives - about this whole archive thing.