The Women’s Aid Federation of England Archive: A case study for inclusive cataloguing

As well as working as Project Archivist for the Women’s Aid Federation of England Archive, Holly is also taking part in a Professional Fellowship in partnership with The National Archives and Research Libraries UK. Her research is centred around inclusive cataloguing, namely working to address representation and accessibility in archive collections.

This talk for Catalogue Week 2022 will not only introduce you to the Women’s Aid Archive and some of it’s amazing material, but also provide insight into how Holly is using the collection to champion inclusive cataloguing.

Watch on YouTube


Transcript

Hello, my name is Holly Smith and I’m the project archivist for the Women’s Aid Federation of England Archive, held up in the University of Leeds Special Collections.

I’m currently taking part in a Professional Fellowship in partnership with the National Archives and Research Libraries UK. For this I chose to research inclusive cataloguing practice, namely the balancing of representation and accessibility.

The Women’s Aid Archive has provided me with a great case study for my research. As I’m sure we’re all aware, women’s voices are often absent in traditional archive settings. This archive collection is a rarity – it’s records are inspired, created and used by women, and my fellowship has allowed me to focus more time on how I can really do justice.

For this Cataloguing Week chat, I wanted to talk to you about some of the things I’ve been doing as I’ve been cataloguing the Women’s Aid Archive, things that champion that idea of inclusive cataloguing. I’m not here for very long so I’m going to focus this in on three main areas – how we’re using engagement to inform our cataloguing, our approaches to language in the archive, and finally touching on our work around trauma-informed practice.

I believe these three areas play into that balance of inclusive cataloguing – wanting to really bring across that representation in catalogue descriptions but also making sure we’re making our material as accessible and welcoming as possible.

But first – a brief introduction to our archive. I would like to flag at this stage that Women’s Aid is a domestic abuse charity and that our archive interacts with various sensitive issues surrounding this topic. I won’t be overtly mentioning details of domestic abuse during this presentation, but I will still share some details at the end of the presentation for anyone that may feel affected.

So, Women’s Aid is an acclaimed domestic abuse charity that works as the national coordinating body for local domestic abuse services. It provides information, training and resources as well as lobbying and campaigning for women’s right and legislative change. Women’s Aid has been at the forefront of the refuge movement for almost half a century, celebrating its fiftieth anniversary in 2024. 

Women’s Aid emerged out of the activism surrounding the Women’s Liberation Movement and were back then known then as the National Women’s Aid Federation (NWAF). They were initially seen as radical activists, raising awareness of taboo subjects such as domestic abuse and gendered violence.

But our archive tells an incredible narrative of perseverance and progress – in the span of 20 years, Women’s Aid transformed from an organisation met with skepticism and aggression to one that was highly respected for its original research and expertise.

It’s a rich and complex history, covering not only the history of the domestic abuse movement but the history of women’s liberation, refuges, social history, legal history and much more. I wanted to ensure we really represented this in the catalogue.

One way we did this was through accepting that we as archivists aren’t subject specialists, we don’t own this history. Which brings us nicely to the topic of engagement.

I wanted to build up relationships with the groups represented in our archive. For us, the main contender here was Women’s Aid themselves. We want the Women’s Aid Archive to authentically represent the functionality of their organisation, so I made sure to have Women’s Aid representatives provide feedback on things like our collections structure, runs of documents and key names. It’s small interventions, but in doing so we’re ensuring a more accurate representative of Women’s Aid’s voice.

This project has also benefitted from close communication with Feminist Archive North, whose collections are also housed within the Uni of Leeds Special Collections. Feminist Archive North, also known as FAN, is entirely run by volunteers, a lot of whom were involved in the activism of the Women’s Liberation Movement.

This makes FAN a really great group for engaging with as, for a lot of them, this is their story. I’ve found it really valuable to share the material we’re working on with them as their expertise and personal experience is invaluable. For example, the items we can see on the screen here show a march in Birmingham in 1979, on which we had very little information. When we showed it to FAN they were able to tell us that at that time Birmingham was the only large city which did not have a refuge. A local group even went so far as to squat a house, but the council still didn’t cave. So Women’s Aid organised a massive national demonstration in Birmingham and coaches brought women to protest from all over England. Not long after Birmingham council agreed and a refuge was set up.

This kind of feedback shows a level of personal detail and presents the kind of information that can’t be gained through a google search. It highlights perfectly how engagement with relevant groups can really enrich your understanding and documentation of a collection.

I now want to move on to discuss language in the Women’s Aid Archive. Our archive is not without its fair share of historic terminology – one of the main examples being the term ‘battered wives’ which we can see on the slide here, which was used by Women’s Aid themselves in the 70s and 80s. This kind of sensitive language has the potential to cause offense or be triggering to certain individuals, but it also represents an important part of domestic abuse history. It probably isn’t a term that modern day audiences would search with, but historians in this field probably would. It’s a tricky balance and a key debate for my research – wanting to achieve appropriate representation of the history but also wanting to keep language as inclusive as possible.

In the past I’ve conducted research around offensive language in order to write up workflows for our existing catalogues in Special Collections. This produced three approaches:

  • If a term has been used by the original creator, and represents an important aspect of the record, this language should be maintained
  • If the term was not present in the original record and instead came from a curatorial voice, but still describes an important aspect of the record, this language should be replaced with an equally meaningful and accurate term
  • If the term came from a curatorial voice and is also irrelevant to the original record, in these cases the language can be safely removed

Also worth saying that any edits would be tracked and legacy descriptions saved.

When dealing with the Women’s Aid Archive, which is in the process of being catalogued, it’s only the first option we need to be aware of, but the other approaches serve as a reminder of the unconscious bias an archivist can bring to cataloguing which we should all keep at the forefront of our minds when cataloguing.

There are a lot of nuances around appropriate language. It’s hard, if not impossible, to find a term that everyone feels represented by, and even if you do there’s no telling when this will fall out of use and be replaced by another. It is therefore important to thoroughly research language by reaching out to communities like previously mentioned – for example, through chats with Women’s Aid I learnt that ‘victim-survivor’ is the most widely accepted term at the moment, the one they currently use, and the one that women from refuges are most likely to feel represented by. However it’s also important to understand this may change, and to write into archive policies that language should be reviewed periodically going forward.

My third and final pit-stop on this tour is trauma-informed practice.

As you can tell from basically everything I’ve said previously, Women’s Aid is an archive that deals with a lot of potentially triggering subjects. Here on this slide and the one previously we’ve seen some relatively low-level examples that come from posters and postcards made available to the public, but even here we see examples of historic language such as ‘battered wives’ and emotive references to violence.

It was only when we came to discuss our volunteer programme that we really took a step back and realised we needed some set guidelines and measures in place to ensure the wellbeing of people interacting with the archive. So we began to research trauma-informed practice – a growing recognition of the impact trauma can have on people, particularly being aware of the symptoms of vicarious trauma and compassion fatigue such as desensitisation, apathy and burnout and how they can present themselves in people in a number of different ways.

In the archive world it’s relevant because we often deal with very personal and emotive historic material. The popularity of the ‘Trauma Informed Archives Community of Practice’ group is testament to this. On their online forum they regularly discuss case studies of secondary trauma in archives, emotional responses to records, and the emotional labour of archivists. Their resources have been incredibly valuable and I would recommend taking a look.

After further research and networking we came up with two outputs for our projects – a volunteer handbook and a volunteer management checklist.

The volunteer handbook goes over the type of material volunteers may come across during their project, informs on vicarious trauma, shares relevant resources, and explains how they can manage their own approach to dealing with sensitive material. The volunteer management checklist, outlines what should be done by us before, during and after a volunteer project to ensure a duty of care to our volunteers. This included things like introductory tours of the archive, being aware of triggers and how everyone’s might be different, and having set breaks. We made sure to go for a coffee break each session – it got us outside, with some distance from the archive, and gave us a chance to talk.

We had some great feedback from our volunteers, and through this work we’ve also learnt the importance of transferring this research to staff and researcher wellbeing too. The aim behind each being to make the Women’s Aid Archive as transparent, welcoming and inclusive as possible.

So there we have it – a whistle stop tour of some of the ways I’m keeping inclusive cataloguing in mind whilst approaching the Women’s Aid Archive. I’m incredibly grateful to the national archives and research libraries UK for the opportunity to think deeper about these subjects alongside my project archivist role. Although my Fellowship technically ends in February I know that this mind-set is going to continue for the rest of my Women’s Aid contract and beyond.

Thank you, and please do feel free to contact me if you have any questions or thoughts.

1 comments

  1. Sue says:

    Thank you Holly for your contribution to Catalogue Week 2022. An interesting and uplifting read – and great to have the online opportunity to listen to your talk and see the slides today.

    As someone who endured a violent relationship during the early 1980s in Leeds, I appreciate how sensitively you have approached the subject. It is reassuring to know that you have worked collaboratively with victim survivors and representatives of the relevant organisations so that your research and understanding have been applied so effectively to the archive.

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