Friday, 1 June 2018

Diversity amongst the documents - Part 1

When I was a member of its Committee and for a while its Secretary, BASA (Black & Asian Studies Association) was  unable to get funding to digitise all the material that had been assembled from parish and other records about the black presence in Britain over the centuries. Former BASA Committee member Kathy Chater was able to develop her own database for the work culminating in her book Untold Histories. Black People in England and Wales During the Period of the British Slave Trade, C. 1660-1807. However, this database is not publicly accessible. Another former BASA member Miranda Kaufmann, author of Black Tudors, informed the G. Aylmer Seminar held on 1 June that she was seeking funding to create a database of the material she had collected. This here interconnected projects illustrate the problem involved in ensuring that specialist material on Black and Asian history in  Britain held in archives is publicly available.

Has there been progress over the last 30 years

The Seminar Diversity amongst the documents? The representation of BAME communities within the UK's archives was introduced by Professor Hakim Adi (a founder of  BASA) reviewing BASA and his involvement over nearly 30 years in trying to change the way archives  work to make the material they hold on Black & Asian History publicly accessible. He was pessimistic about whether serious progress had been made, especially in terms of encouraging the training and employment of more Black & Asian archivists.
I am not convinced that he is entirely right. His analysis did not mention the importance of the 2007 work on the bi-centenary of the end of Britain’s official involvement in the slave trade, and the way that many funded projects concentrated on the black presence and role. Former BASA members are at the heart of many projects and initiatives that have been undertaken since its demise.

The limits of the attraction of archive work

My starting off point is  that most people do not have the inclination to research in archives, but want the findings of other people’s researches – whether talks, publications, videos, plays, etc. The sheer amount of original research work that academics, independent historians, and community projects have generated shows how successful they have been in mining the archives. David Olusoga’s BBC TV series and book Black and Britain would not have been possible without this richness. The amount of material accessible on the internet grows year by year.

I felt that most of the other talks at the Seminar were illustrations of the way in which considerable advances have been made by archive organisations and community projects, despite the many practical problems they face such as funding, much material not being catalogued, changes in personnel.

The transformatory role of the internet

Every individual who makes a contribution through research and dissemination does so within the limits of their own work, family commitments health crises etc.

The internet, email and Facebook transformed what I have been  about to do in terms of sharing information and discussing issues whether through specialist emails lists, my History & Social Action and Norbury Watch blogs, the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Network website, and my contributions to Croydon Citizen.

Much money has been put into digitising archival and project material. One of the major problems with the digital world is the sheer quantity of material and sites, the overload of information that comes into our computers, laptops, notebooks and smart phones. It is impossible to keep up with everything. We can only be aware of a small proportion of what is relevant to our own interests. This of course only applies to those who feel comfortable in the digital world, as opposed to those who experience the digital divide in its many facets.

The complexity of academia

Because of my history interests I have many links with academics both pre-and post internet. The academic world has many hidden and semi-hidden research eco-systems, which occasionally interconnect with communities through projects. Sometimes that might be because academics become involved in Heritage Lottery funded projects, which all require a community engagement component. Most people will not know about the multi-million pound Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC) Connected Communities programme.

The AHRC Connected Communities Programme

It is designed to help understand the changing nature of communities in their historical and cultural contexts and the role of communities in sustaining and enhancing quality of life. It addresses a number of core themes including: health and wellbeingcreative and digital communitiescivil society and social innovationenvironment and sustainability; heritagediversity and dissent; and participatory arts. It aims to achieve new insights into community and new ways of researching community that put arts and humanities at the heart of research and connect academic and community expertise.
There have been over 280 project awards working with 400 community partners and organisations. My British Black History readers will know about the black presence in rural communities project led by Suzanne Seymour at the University of Nottingham.

Digital resources

One of the most interesting  projects is YARN which helps community groups produce their own heritage digital resources.

It has created the Pararchive project open access portal for  community storytelling.

In my experience one of the best projects outside the ARHC funding regime is the Legacies of British Slave-ownership based at UCL with its massive and growing database base, and its close liaison with independent and local historians and groups to jointly enrich the content that is freely accessible to all.

There are also numerous websites and blogs associated with local history projects, and in the case of the work I was involved in on slavery and abolition on Tyneside in 2007 and popular politics in the North East 2010-13 the combined database at, which I edit.

To be continued

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