Authentic representation in archives: Reflections from our fellows

Our Research Exchange series features staff and researchers from across The National Archives who discuss their new discoveries and their work’s potential for impact. The purpose of the series is to highlight and demystify the research we do and open up new ideas and discussion.

This edition of the series features our three current Research Libraries UK (RLUK)/National Archives Professional Fellows. The National Archives and RLUK Professional Fellowship Scheme enables staff from both organisations to gain experience and insight from one another, strengthen and diversify the relationship between them, and to overcome some of the collective challenges facing research and cultural organisations. Professional fellowships are structured around a short-term visit to The National Archives for Fellows from an RLUK member institution, and to an RLUK member institution for Fellows from The National Archives, underpinned by a longer period of peer-to-peer mentoring and knowledge sharing. Professional fellowships address a professional-practice question, contribute to a wider piece of work, and facilitate shared learning between The National Archives and individual RLUK members.

As they’re now midway through the scheme, Rachael Minott, Jenny Shaw and Holly Smith answered questions about their projects from Academic Communications and Impact Officer Liz Fulton, discussing their aims, inspiration and new discoveries.

Could you talk a bit about your research project and its aims?

Rachael Minott: My research project intends to explore what is included and excluded in descriptions of record subjects and record creators in archival databases. I explore ways to challenge normative assumptions in the reading of absences, with a particular focus on racial identities. I also explore spaces in the database for this information to be useful and sorted, the polices around collecting and managing this data, differences between living and dead persons, and the conflict between user needs and ethical obligation to these records subjects.

Jenny Shaw: My project looks at diversity and inclusion in archival collections development in the UK. My aims are to raise the profile of collections development work, to identify and highlight innovative practice and to identify barriers to developing diverse archive collections.  

Holly Smith: I chose to research inclusive cataloguing practice, namely the balancing of representation and accessibility. We all want to try to document complex, layered descriptions that authentically represent the voices in an archive, but equally we can’t forget the importance of ensuring easy access through simple navigation and standardised access points. How can we document complexity in a simple way? It’s not an easy answer, but my fellowship is attempting to navigate an answer. 

What inspired you to complete this research project?

RM: The impetus was the growing demand for diverse narratives in our records to be shared, unpacked and made visible. And the starting assumption that standard practice around recording racial identities in the records cataloguing has been inconsistent and often only included as a history of racism. The users’ and archivists’ assumptions in the UK in practice means that if there is no record of a subject’s racial identity, the subject is not considered a part of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) narratives, and as such is assumed to be White (despite White Minority ethnicities included in the out of date BAME acronym).

JS: In my role as Collections Development Manager at the Wellcome Collection, I spend my time developing our collections in support of our mission (to challenge how we all think and feel about health), but inevitably spend a lot of that time dealing with paperwork and logistics. I saw this fellowship as an opportunity to step away from the day-to-day demands of my role to reconnect with archival theory and engage with collecting initiatives that fall outside of my normal interest area of health.

HS: I work as project archivist for the Women’s Aid Federation of England Archive, a collection that tells the story of domestic abuse activism against the backdrop of the Women’s Liberation Movement. It places an emphasis on women’s histories and tackles taboo topics like domestic abuse and gendered violence – themes that historically have been absent in traditional archive settings. Doing the RLUK/National Archives Fellowship alongside cataloguing the Women’s Aid Archive has allowed me to think a bit deeper about the hows and whys of documenting this complex and important history.

What have been the highlights of your research so far?

RM: The exploration so far has revealed that descriptive terms around race and ethnicity only exist as descriptors around records of racial and cultural prejudice. Thus racialized identities are largely framed within the negative and always within the extraordinary (for example, ‘first’ in a position, which are often assumed without the ability to confirm due to lack of recorded racial identities). Thus the ordinary/norm is Whiteness, while also dominating positive and empowered narratives.

JS: I’ve enjoyed having the opportunity to explore archival literature, in particular reading about participatory approaches, community archives, and some challenges to established archival theory, including Michelle Caswell’s article on Feminist Standpoint Appraisal. Another highlight has been finding out about interesting collecting work that seeks to involve individuals or groups that are often absent from the archival record (huge thanks to people in the Regional and Networks Team at The National Archives for generously sharing their knowledge with me).

HS: A personal highlight of the fellowship so far has been getting to network with other archive professionals – whether that’s other fellows, my mentors at The National Archives, or others from the archive and heritage fields also looking into the processes around inclusive cataloguing. For example, my fellowship has given me a chance to talk at conferences, which not only gave me a chance to speak up about my research to a wider audience but has also increased my confidence.

What plans do you have for the future of your research project?

RM: To challenge normative assumptions, descriptions around racial and cultural identities must be used as normal, and words selected need to include terms that are not associated with slurs, or discrimination, and must include descriptors of Whiteness. 

I am at the phase where I am exploring terms researchers currently use when searching for people in archives, as well as terms they would be happy to have used about themselves to be discoverable in search results. This work will look beyond racial identifiers and explore other descriptive terms across protected characteristics and will inevitably have an intersectional lens. This is necessary, as much of the work to date in intervening in the archival databases has been around gender identity, challenging the binary or fixed nature of gender in our standards, as well as exploring representations of women outside their exclusive relationship to a man.

An intended outcome for this project will be an extensive and annotated thesaurus around descriptive terms around racial identities that addresses user needs; ethics of holding and sharing this data for living and dead subjects; positive as well as painful terms; robust in its ability to empower descriptions of whiteness in as much detail as other racial identities.

JS: The next step for my project is to talk to people about their collecting work through a series of interviews. I’m planning to turn some of these into case studies and also want to write more about my research so far.

HS: I look forward to continuing to catalogue the Women’s Aid Archive and to shout about the amazing records and stories we discover, all the while keeping in mind the concept of inclusive cataloguing. Through community engagement I want to ensure the history of Women’s Aid is authentically represented in our catalogue, and by focusing on things like subject indexing, authority files and collection guides, I want to boost easy accessibility for the archive. Hopefully the Women’s Aid Archive will become a solid case study for balancing representation and accessibility.

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