Craig Fees writes:
Archivists and oral historians are both in the business of gathering materials of historical use and interest for future generations. Oral archivists combine the two roles, and actively gather as well as generate audio and video records themselves, of all kinds, including oral history proper. All share the problem of making the records they collect known and available to the public; an area that has been revolutionised by the development of an accessible Internet.
The Planned Environment Therapy Trust Archive and Study Centre was founded in 1989 to gather, preserve, and make available the records of a way of living and working with difficult, disturbed, delinquent and vulnerable people generally which often goes by the term "therapeutic community", the origins of which tend to be found in the early to mid 20th century. It is a way of living and working which requires such commitment and concentrated involvement with extremely challenging and rewarding people in what are often such difficult circumstances that relatively few records of the early work were created, and much of the records that were created have been lost or destroyed. Furthermore - and this remains as true today as it was fifty or sixty years ago - much of the real history and detail of the work cannot be recorded in normal print-oriented ways in any event. Consequently, when the Archive and Study Centre was founded, oral history and oral archiving formed one of its three pillars, along with the Archives and Research Library proper. Over 700 audio and video recordings have to date been directly generated by Archive staff, with another 130-plus subsidised and/or made using equipment loaned by the Archive. In total, the oral history collection currently holds just over 1340 audio and video recordings.
The conventional and in some ways best and most efficient way of making audio-video materials available over the Internet is essentially to replicate online the way these materials are stored and made available in a physical archive or library. With falling costs and rising speeds, whole collections can be digitised and uploaded to the Internet, and can then be accessed through a searchable, descriptive data-base, or through a series of descriptive web-pages. The web-site becomes the search room, catalogue and search room assistant. The researcher's role, and their relationship to the oral history collection, remains largely unchanged and familiar: The online collection is a passive repository of fixed information which is there to be explored; just like its physical counterpart.
The ultimate business of an archive is to make information available, and in the very long-term, one would seek to make the oral history collection of the Archive and Study Centre accessible in this way. In the shorter term, however, the therapeutic field covered by the Archive and Study Centre means that the oral history collection, like the Centre's more conventional archives, contains a disproportionate quantity of sensitive and confidential material, and like the neighbouring paper-based records, cannot simply be made available to researchers without removal of material and a range of restrictions and safeguards which makes it a very expensive exercise indeed. Furthermore, as with many archives of small to medium charities, funding and staffing have been issues since the Centre's founding in 1989, and there is a backlog of consent forms which would have to be fully cleared up before the collections could go online. This includes consent forms signed before the advent of the Internet, and a recognition of the implications of just how globally accessible one's own private recollections as an informant can become. Getting the Centre's oral history collections online will therefore be a time-consuming, labour-intensive and very expensive enterprise; and for the 100 year period of restricted access which archives normally operate for very sensitive materials there will be significant lacunae in any event.
For the Planned Environment Therapy Trust Archive and Study Centre this is not a new problem. Created from scratch in 1989, it has been built into a nationally and internationally recognised archive facility within the paradox of being a research facility the majority of whose collections are either closed to research entirely for the time being, or stringently restricted. The solution has been to become an engaged archive, on the analogy of Memory, which acquires new material and remains useful by being actively engaged in the life and work of the whole person. As archivist, for example, I have been involved in various Committees and editorial boards, and set up web-sites and email discussion lists. The knowledge and information contained in archives and oral history interviews is not simply filed away, therefore, but to some extent returns to and is ploughed back into the ongoing, task-oriented discussion which a community is. By setting up and participating in channels of communication, the oral archivist also raises the profile of archives and oral history, and is in a position to encourage others to create information and to record; adding to the knowledge circulating within the community and available to future generations.
All of this has come together in an online radio station, RadioTC International, "a portal into the vigorous and challenging worlds of therapeutic community, therapeutic environments, milieu therapy and planned environment therapy, where the people involved in the work and life of therapeutic environments make and present the programmes." Suggested on February 10th, 2006, it went live on March 20th thanks to the help of a number of volunteers, with the expectation of uploading one or two programmes a month, but quickly finding itself with considerably more. It is hosted by and is effectively a project of the Therapeutic Community Open Forum, an email discussion group and associated web-site which is supported by the three main British charities devoted specifically to therapeutic community - the Association of Therapeutic Communities, which originated the email discussion group from which TC-OF sprang in 2005; the Charterhouse Group of Therapeutic Communities, and the Planned Environment Therapy Trust, with support also from the Community of Communities project of the Royal College of Psychiatrists. The Radio Station has had considerable support and encouragement from members of the European Federation of Therapeutic Communities as well.
The initial Therapeutic Community Open Forum web-site was conventional html, but thanks to Dr. Mark Freestone of Nottingham University it moved into the user-editable wiki universe on February 14th 2006; which made it possible for Ian Milne and Craig Fees to set up and manage the radio station proper. An entirely voluntary enterprise, it remains time and labour intensive; but wiki brilliantly releases a whole range of impediments, and makes the whole thing not only possible but enjoyable. Programmes which have been received in .wav format by ftp, sent on CD, or emailed in .dss are converted into .mp3, uploaded, and edited into the site usually within an hour, and with experience and templates can be quicker. Files sent in mp3 go up more quickly. All programmes are available as download, podcast, or stream; and remain on the web-site in perpetuity, as a growing resource in the Programme Archives section once they cease to be in the Currently On Air page.
Although not a project of the Planned Environment Therapy Trust Archive and Study Centre as such, the idea arose from my experience as Archivist for the Centre, and is enabling the Centre to select material from the oral history collection, and to present it as part of the living dialogue of the Radio Station as opposed to a kind of static availability somewhere on the Archive and Study Centre's own web-site. Because of the broadcast format, editing out of sensitive material doesn't create an issue. It has also enabled the Centre to create new recordings with the object of going on air. There are programmes online and on the way which specifically highlight archives and oral history as such. There is a long way to go, not least in the area of technical quality; but quite adventurous and exploratory recordings have been made on bicycle in Britain, on computer in the United States, with high quality equipment in Australia, and on a visit from Norway to Poland, narrated in both English and Norwegian. Experience is being recorded, which was not being recorded before; and is being made available to a public which would have access to it in no other way.