Sharon Webb

Sharon Webb

Last updated on 16 August 2018

Sharon Webb is Lecturer in Digital Humanities at the University of Sussex Humanities Lab

Now that the dust has settled on our first 'Digital Archives in Communities – Practice and Preservation' workshop held in June this year, I finally have a chance to contemplate and reflect on the highlights, outcomes, tensions, challenges, and next steps of this project. Rather than go through the presentations and speakers in chronological order, I will instead try to summarise some of the themes and areas of coalescence that emerged.

My door always has weird & amazing posters-it now includes a poster for #preservingcommunityarchives & the new @HAHP_Sussex ambassador Wendy

“Who controls the past controls the future…” (George Orwell, 1984)

Orwell’s quote might be repeated often (and overused) but it remains relevant in this context – it serves as a reminder to the reasons why community, independent and volunteer-led archives and initiatives are crucial to the creation of a historical record that is representative, inclusive and diverse. But this “control” does not necessarily mean control in an authoritarian respect, but rather a freedom to curate and make visible those histories that would otherwise not feature in our national, regional or local records. A “control” that only comes from being part of a community or having a vested interest in the identity politics that these activities manifest. I recently spoke about this at the DH2018 conference in Mexico at which I essentially “outed” myself as being part of the LGBTQ+ community…

I am not saying that you have to be part of a community in order to work with particular histories or archives, but rather I am identifying a significant feature or detail which emerged over the two days – that is individuals were compelled to archival action because it mattered to their identity and history. The majority of speakers at #preservingcommunityarchives spoke of an internal drive to “archive” or work with content that represented an aspect of their identity, or indeed to subvert or counter the perception of their identity in the external world.

Orla Egan‘s work on the Cork LGBT Archive is a case in point – not only did Orla rescue archival material related to the LGBT community in Cork, Ireland,  from a basement she also created a digital representation of the archive using Omeka. Orla’s work exemplifies why community archives are so important – without Orla’s efforts, and of course, those of the original collector and numerous volunteers along the way, the historical record related to the Cork LGBT community simply would not exist. And to be clear, this statement is no exaggeration. Orla was compelled into action because this archive mattered to her personal experience of Irish, or more specifically Cork, queer cultural heritage. Orla wanted to highlight that queer identity and activity was not something that just happened in Dublin – the CORK LGBT Archive, therefore, decentralises Dublin from the historical narrative and highlights important activist work in “other” parts of Ireland.  

Next up the fabulous Orla Egan from Cork LGBT Archives

‘I must create a system, or be enslav’d by another man’s;’

(William Blake, as quoted by Topher Campbell)

In taking control as an ‘archival activist’ Orla, and others like Orla, are not just challenging the/a predominant narrative, they are also challenging formal or traditional archival practices and methods which prevail. Orla challenged the heteronormative perspective or tendencies of “traditional” controlled vocabularies, explicitly highlighting that one standard does not fit all. Instead of using, for example, standard Library of Congress controlled vocabularies to describe the Cork LGBT collection, Orla used Homosaurus as an alternative because these “traditional” vocabularies were ‘unacceptable for ethical descriptions of…queer communities’ (see tweet below from @LM_HATII)

Egan: How do we do metadata description in a standardised way, when some major controlled vocabularies are unacceptable for ethical description of e.g. some queer communities? #preservingcommunityarchives
In a similar respect, Alison Bancroft and D-M Withers’ work with Feminist Archive South reflect this tension between standard archival approaches and those generated, created and produced by or within feminist communities (see also Jenna Ashton,  ‘Feminist Archiving [a manifesto continued]: Skilling for Activism and Organising‘ (2017) and Niamh Moore‘s work on feminist archives).
So pleased to hear someone directly tackling the social and political outcomes of infrastructure development, particularly from a feminist standpoint. #preservingcommunityarchives

These examples demonstrate not only an inherent problem with our archival standards but also how these systems can blatantly obscure specific representations and meaning in archival collections of traditionally marginalized communities. As Topher Campbell highlighted, quoting William Blake, we must create our own systems, ‘or be enslav’d by another man’s’. 

For the record, given my background in digital preservation and TDR research and development, I am all about “standards” but if our metadata standards, controlled vocabularies, and archival descriptions are based on a Eurocentric, white, heteronormative, cis-gendered, gender-biased foundation then we need to start questioning what these systems represent and what they ultimately undermine. Community archives and initiatives are, as it happens, really good at pointing out these problems.

Jan Pimblett (London Metropolitan Archives) also touched upon this when she described hidden LGBTQ+ histories as the ghosts in the archive – ghosts, because the descriptions of the past obscured their meaning and veiled their existence. Jan also pointed out that in some cases records or written documents simply did not exist because individuals feared serious legal and social repercussions. The LMA is working to create ‘contemporary counterpoints to old voices’ and is actively trying to exorcise these ghosts and their voices. 

Importantly, however, these activities (i.e. obscure meanings, hidden histories) within the collection describe the changes in LGBTQ+ history and serve as an important reminder that archives are not always impartial, objective representations of the world but they can track societal changes. 

That is not to say that formal, state, or larger archives, like the LMA, do not have a role. Topher Campbell spoke about the collaboration between the LMA and the ruckus! archive, highlighting the important role of the LMA to community, independent archives. As Jan re-iterated a number of times, the LMA lay no claim to community collections, rather they try to support communities in their endeavors to safeguard their heritage and history. They want to give people control – institutions have, and need, their ‘champions in the community’ but the relationship between the archive and community material can only be built on trust. Trust that the material remains accessible to community members and trust that the material is presented in an accurate, fair and responsible fashion. The LMA want communities to view the archive as their space, they want communities to be involved in the evolution, development, and presentation of their collections. Jan spoke of the LMA’s communal approach to collection development, reflecting Terry Cook‘s (2013) assertions that the fourth archival turn, currently underway, is both community led and community driven. 

“Community archiving, as a model, offers much to archivists, even as archivists have much to offer to community archiving.” (Cook, 2013)

The work of community archives then is to fill these gaps in the historical record, to unapologetically (re)claim, (re)create historical narratives that are/were absent, ignored, hidden. Speaking about the ruckus! archive, Topher states, “we’re not after approval”, these histories exist, they are indisputable…deal with it! 

Topher, “We’re not after approval. We don’t care whether you like it or not”

Absences and gaps in the archival record can also manifest into representations that celebrate lost, hidden or subverted voices. Sophie Dixon’s work with VR and mixed reality representations of archival content demonstrates how we can celebrate fragments, acknowledging in many respects that history is ever only a partial representation of past events and experiences, a sentiment also reflected in Jan’s presentation (see tweet below).

History is a snapshot, it will never be complete, we need to talk with communities and ask what history they want for the future @JanPimblett #preservingcommunityarchives #communityhistory #digitalpreservation

Sophie’s work and collaboration with Abira Hussein is also a powerful reminder of the value community archives have in their status as autonomous entities. Abira’s work on Somalian heritage questions institutional narratives. The physical act of collecting community narratives and heritage enable us, as Abria asserts, ‘to see ourselves’ because it empowers communities and decentralises the institutions which have traditionally omitted these historical narratives and records. Archival theorists write about and note the power and utility of these activities;

‘Archives – as records – wield power over the shape and direction of historical scholarship, collective memory, and national identity, over how we know ourselves as individuals, groups, and societies.’ (Schwartz and Cook, 2002)

Wonderful ideas about creating immersive archival experiences for communities. #preservingcommunityarchives

Important work around how archives help communities locate themselves in society,how marginalised communities become empowered and how Community Archives heal trauma @AbiraHussein #preservingcommunityarchives

Abira talking about ‘Healing Through Archives’, a Somali Digital Archive 

‘Writing your own history is another tool of empowerment’ (Gender Diversity Mapping, 2017)

If the historical record is fragmented we need to make sure that what we do have is somehow accurate and representative  – that is, without bias either inherited from our past information systems or introduced through new ones. 

Kelly Foster‘s work with Wikimedia Commons highlighted this important fact – as we create new knowledge systems, which are often based on our old ones, we need to ensure embedded bias are not replicated. (see also ‘Bad Dewey‘, Maria O’Hara, July 2018). As Kelly asserts, being a knowledge producer (actively challenging/correcting/editing entries in Wikipedia, finding gaps in the knowledge base and writing entries where none exist) helps to address these bias. 

Importantly, Kelly also questions Wikipedia’s strict requirement for reputable “published” citations to verify entries; what about communities with an oral history tradition or alternative publication mechanisms, such as wooden objects carved with symbols related to tribal history (as pointed out by Ian Noah), which don’t match Wikipedia’s idea of a reputable publication? These are still valid, reputable sources even if they don’t conform to Wikipedia’s definitions, this creates a situation where a vast chunk of non-western histories are essentially “unverifiable”. 
Inevitably once we have produced and recorded these histories (or pointed out their absence), we get back to the problem and challenge of their preservation and continued existence in the (digital) historical record?  Indeed, this is the crux of this project.

A number of our speakers responded to this issue. Both Paul Wheatley from the Digital Preservation Coalition and Kevin Long from the Digital Repository of Ireland highlighted the fact that technology is only one part of the digital preservation problem. Digital preservation is a socio-technological problem and solution, the DPC and the DRI reflect and endorse this sentiment. The other crucial factors are organisation and resourcing, that is training, time, infrastructure, staff…the list could go on. 

The DRI offer training services to community archives and are actively engaged in providing essential skills related to metadata creation, copyright legislation, digital preservation, and using the DRI repository for collections. This type of training is crucial for community-led, community-driven and independent archives and projects, especially when these projects rely mostly on volunteers who do not have the necessary skills required for e.g. archiving, cataloging, etc. but have instead passion, commitment, and enthusiasm. However, another major problem community archives face, as cited by Jack Latimer from Community Sites,  is recruiting and keeping volunteers. 

The experience of Queer in Brighton, a project which carried out 50+ oral history interviews with members of the LGBTQ+ community in Brighton, exemplifies this challenge. Lesley Wood and David Sheppeard spoke honestly and openly about ‘the joy and problem of oral history’ especially in using volunteers to carry out oral history interviews – some content is simply unusable because of the way some interviews were recorded.

Significantly, Lesley and David were frustrated about the lack of support for the after-life of their project. As Lesley rightly states, funders like the Heritage Lottery Fund need to ensure that projects have inbuilt costs for sustaining and preserving the archive, that there should be compulsory budget lines to include training so that skills trickle down to community members. 

The long-term maintenance or sustainability of research projects, of course, is a stipulation for many research funding programmes like the AHRC but it is a requirement and a resource that large institutions like a university have to and can support. In many cases, the cost of maintenance is absorbed by these institutions since this activity is part and parcel of their remit in terms of supporting research generated by research staff and students. The question then is, where can community archives go for similar support? 

The reality is there is little in the way of structured, long-term support for community, independent archives. Many of the speakers, who work on such projects spoke of and highlighted this lack of support. This needs to change. 

Organisations like the ‘Community Archives and Heritage Group’ exist and provide important resources and support but many, including Queer in Brighton, didn’t know of their existence. How do we make sure those who need these resources know where to find them?

[Note: I will add a resource page to this site soon…]

Another major tension is with the language used to describe some of the problems community archives face. These problems or issues are not necessarily expressed in the same terms as those in the archival or digital preservation community (e.g. a trusted digital repository, long-term digital preservation, emulation….). There is a gap here that needs to be rectified by those us that are linked to the digital preservation community.

For example, as Alison Bancroft rightly points out,  a website is not an archive but many use basic websites, in lieu of “an” archive, because of resource and training limitations. What cheap, robust options are available to community or, as D-M Withers asked, grass-roots archives? 


D-M Withers talking about ‘Re-imagining the Feminist Archive South’ project which asked what tools, practices, systems are available to grassroots archives that have no/low budget to engage with #digitalpreservation #preservingcommunityarchives

Of course, there are a number of options including open source solutions like Omeka or, as demonstrated by Ben Jackson, AtoM but these still require significant time and resource investment by volunteers  –  and it takes a village to build an archive! (Or one person, as is the case with many community-led projects). 

Orla also highlighted this resource issue and referred to the Ikea model versus a skilled carpenter model (definitely take a look at the twitter thread associated with the tweet below). 

In the end, no matter what option you use, you need to start somewhere, and “somewhere” is always better than no-where! 

I suspect I have rambled on far enough for the moment but it goes without saying that there is a lot of follow up conversations to be had and more work in terms of creating a sustainable, accessible eco-system for community archives to thrive and for their histories to be secured. The digital preservation and digital archiving landscape have changed rapidly over the last decade, and as the DPC note, community archives and content generated by communities are ‘a critically endangered digital species’. This imperative to action becomes even more critical as we move towards a situation where community activity and content is born digital only. But, and here is a critical point,;

‘Rather than taking such records away from their communities…’we should empower  ‘…communities to look after their own records, especially their digital records, by partnering professional archival expertise and archival digital infrastructures with communities’ deep sense of commitment and pride in their own heritage and identity.” (Cook, 2013)

This project and the collaborations I hope it fosters will go some way to thinking about how we might achieve this.


My colleague James Baker took some notes on the day and all the tweets have also been collected here.

There is a mountain of video to edit but slides and video of the day (where permission was provided) will be made available soon.

I am also setting up a JISC listserv and will tweet details of this shortly. Also, a resource page will be added to the website soon. 

[All spelling and grammar mistakes are my very own!]

Scroll to top