Posts Tagged ‘Community archives’

Community Archives: the view from Canada

May 20, 2009

I attended an excellent conference in Calgary, Canada, 14-18 May, offered by the Association of Canadian Archivists. There is great interest in community archives and identities in Canada, in particular associated with the treatment of people from the First Nations. One very controversial issue is around the management of Residential Schools run by churches on behalf of the state from 1880 to 1960s. It is complicated, involving claims of abuse, missing children, loss of cultural identity, class actions. Lots of church archives are being kept very busy finding records relating to individuals. Lots of the issues seemed to me to have an overlap with the UCL research into community archives and identities, although from a different perspective.

One thing though is the terminology: ‘community archives’ to them means, the archives of a local community ie a geographic area such as a town, whose archives will go to the Provincial Archives, so they don’t understand why ‘community archives’ has any link to this First Nations archive discussion. Of course, I spoke up but understanding will be greater when more of the project publications come out.
They are having a Truth and Reconciliation Commission now, which is setting up a TRC research and documentation centre, which raises issues about the nature of the record, whether it is real or virtual centre, where the records come from and whose they are, what models of curation, how it overlaps with museum, oral history etc. I think the ideas here from the project on curation models would really help them.

Elizabeth Shepherd


Announcing a joint workshop with, June 5

May 15, 2009

We’re delighted to be able to announce this joint event. Please get in touch if you have any questions – looking forward to seeing you there!


Volunteer opportunity with a community archive

February 5, 2009

The Island History Trust ( is ‘a community history project dedicated to recording and preserving the history of the Isle of Dogs and the people who live there’. The Trust is one of the oldest community archives which has been continuously operating in London since the early 1980s.

The Trust’s long-standing curator, Eve Hostettler is interested in having a volunteer working on variety of tasks within the archive – perhaps for a day a week for a couple of months. This would be an excellent opportunity for anyone who wishes to know more about independent or community archives and history projects.

If you would like to know more about what is involved please contact Eve directly on or 0207 987 6041.

Archives Landmark Award: Call for Entries

December 8, 2008

A great opportunity for community archivists to receive recognition for their work and higher public visibility:

The Archives Landmark Award celebrates projects based in London or with London links, which use archive material to support and promote learning, raise awareness of shared heritage and help strengthen local communities. Now in its fourth year the award continues to attract a wide range of interesting and creative projects and we look forward to receiving your entry.

This year we will showcase all entries, giving more people a chance to share their work with others and get the recognition they deserve. All entrants are invited to the Archives Landmark Award event on 18 March 2009, when the awards will be announced.

Archives for London Ltd (AfL) is committed to supporting and promoting the award and continues to work in partnership with the City of London Heritage Services through London Metropolitan Archives. AfL exists to promote the development and accessibility of archives for all and the Archives Landmark Award plays an important part in that role.

The Archives Landmark Award is open to individuals and groups, either based in London, from outside London but working with a London based project or using London archive sources.

The closing date for entries is 20 February 2009.

If you have any further questions or would like to receive an entry pack please contact the Archives Landmark Award team at

Study day on ‘immigration archives’ (in French)

October 3, 2008

Title: Study day on ‘immigration archives’ (in French)
Location: Archives et Bibliothèque départementales Gaston Defferre, 18-20 rue Mirès, Marseille
Description: I missed this study day but it’s interesting to note what’s going on in France. The terminology is particularly interesting. Rather than ‘community archives’ in France the focus is on ‘immigration archives’ i.e. archives that document the arrival and subsequent history in France of different communities. What would the consequences be if we applied this terminology in the UK? The problem of course is that it risks defining members of diverse communities permanently as ‘immigrants’ i.e. perpetual outsiders. It creates difficulties in talking about populations who held the nationality of the host nation at the time of their arrival, e.g. migrants from the Caribbean. What would the impact be on visual and performing arts archives?

The programme for the study day (in French) is available here.
Date: 2008-09-26


Review: Radicals Against Race

September 22, 2008

I’ve just finished reading Radicals Against Race (Oxford: Berg, 2002) a very interesting book by Brian Alleyne, a lecturer in sociology at Goldsmiths College. Alleyne’s book explores the history and politics of what he terms the ‘New Beacon Circle’ (the collective of activists around what is now the George Padmore Institute) from a (relative) insider’s perspective; the book is based on the ethnographic fieldwork he conducted for his PhD, which included time spent volunteering in the Institute / bookshop and long hours interviewing John la Rose.

Alleyne’s book is fascinating as a model for thinking about how we research the use of history as a resource in a political context. This is a fundamental issue in thinking about evaluating the impact of community archives. Indeed, he refers to history as an ‘important resource and terrain of imagination and action’ (p.179) for the circle and elaborates a useful dialogical model of the role of historical narrative subject construction:

In producing historical and biographical narratives they [the members of the New Beacon Circle] bring a political subject into being; in turn, that new political subject, which exists in the identities and sense of community that the circle construct in their activist work, facilitates the continued production of historical and biographical narratives. (p.2)

One aspect of what, following Eyerman & Jamison (Social Movements: A Cognitive Approach, Cambridge: Polity, 1991) he terms the activists’ ‘cognitive praxis’ (or in other words, reflexive practice geared towards the construction of meanings, specifically, revised self-understandings accounting for the impact of colonialism) was the management of information, both through computer systems and in the archive. Indeed, one section of chapter three focuses specifically on the archive project and includes interesting insights into the suspicion with which many (but not all) professional archivists treated the GPI’s ‘DIY’ archive (p.102) and the importance of retaining control over the material: as he cites John la Rose, ‘You should not depend on an establishment with which you are at times in conflict for the validation of your history and culture’ (p.124). He also confirms one of our own provisional findings, which is that committed activists – whether focused on heritage or any other sector – often pay a price for their engagement, such as ‘following relatively precarious occupations’ or ‘subordinating career development’ (p.171).

Whilst there are some areas in which Alleyne’s research supports our own his book and other articles (e.g. ‘An idea of community and its discontents: towards a more reflexive sense of belonging in multicultural Britain’, Ethnic and Racial Studies 25.4 (2002), pp.607-627) really force us to confront the assumptions underlying our research design. The challenge to our thinking can be divided into two fairly fundamental areas: community and identity.

1) Community

The crux of Alleyne’s argument is the view that the concept of ‘community’, when applied to BME ‘communities’ reproduces ‘historically and theoretically untenable notions of immutable difference’ (‘An idea’: 609). He supports this view with reference to the historical development of the concept of ‘community’ in Anthropology and Sociology, both of which disciplines historically placed ‘communities’ before Western society on a scale of evolutionary progress: ‘community’ is therefore intrinsically the property of the ‘exotic’ other, distanced either in time (sociology) or space (anthropology). Whilst I agree with his argument in so far as it relates to a mode of academic discourse and its reproduction in public policy (where to be white is often to be first and foremost a member of society, rather than a ‘community’ – for example on the census) I think we can justify our use of the term by noting that the interest in ‘community’ archives comes not out of the language of public policy but out of a more grassroots movements. The ‘communities’ that hold archives are by no means necessarily non-white – often quite the opposite. The ‘community’ in the phrase ‘BME community archives’ is must more firmly articulated with archives rather than ‘BME’: i.e we are looking at the ‘community archives’ of BME groups not the ‘archives’ of BME ‘communities’. But this is a subtle and hard-to-maintain distinction. Carrying the language of community over into the world of black subjectivities may have more serious ramifications than we had at first imagined.

For what its worth, Alleyne does not entirely dismiss the idea of community but rather notes that it needs to be reconceptualized in ‘more fluid terms’ (‘An idea’ p.619). One of the examples he cites is Miller and Slater’s work on the Internet in Trinidad, in which ‘community’ is reconstructed in ways that transcend the classic imaginings of social scientists. Archives, as an alternative locus of information exchange, could perhaps also facilitate this reimagining, rather than reinforcing old prejudices.

2) Identity

Alleyne begins his book with an epigraph that sets up a direct confrontation with our research ontology. Citing the French sociologist Alain Touraine (Can we live together? Equality and difference. Cambridge: Polity, 2000) he states, ‘we can live together only if we lose our identity.’ Coming as I do from a background in French Studies I find this citation deeply problematic; I don’t know the precise context of Touraine’s statement but nine times out of ten, what underlies such views when voiced in France is a model of assimilation: some people – particularly those who are not white and/or not Catholic – tend to be seen as having a lot more losing of identity to do than those who are… However, I am symathetic to Alleyne’s personal positioning, which he also sees as that of the New Beacon Circle: a non-identitarian critical humanism. When the New Beacon Circle have explicity positioned themselves within black politics (e.g. in setting up the Black Parents Movement) this is neither because of any perceived essential difference, nor indeed out of subservience for an ideology of black power; rather, it is a form of ‘tactical essentialism’, focusing on the prejudices that underpin inequality. Overall, however, ‘against the grain in much contemporary Black identity politics, the circle turn their backs on the allure of race, to borrow Gilroy’s (2000) phrase’ (p.180). The ultimate goal is the construction of inclusive, transracial, transcultural social identities. ‘Black was the means to an end, not the end in itself’ (‘An idea’ 2002 p.620).


Refoming memory work to reform memory: an early example of a radical community archive?

August 5, 2008

I have just read a fascinating essay by the Greek anthropologist Penelope Papailias: ‘Writing Home in the Archive: “Refugee Memory” and the Ethnography of Documentation’ in Blouin F.X., & Rosenberg W.G. (2006) Archives, Documentation, and Institutions of Social Memory: Essays from the Sawyer Seminar, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press (pp.402-416). Apart from the fact that it is beautifully written, what is so fascinating about this article is that it encourages us to rethink our definitions of ‘community archives’.

The essay concerns the private archive of a Greek aristocrat Melpo Logotheti-Merlier. The archive, known as the Centre for Asia Minor Studies was established with the aim of “salvaging” the history and culture of the Greek Orthodox community of Anatolia, expelled from modern-day Turkey in 1922 [wikipedia entry on Greek Refugees]. The archive, which interestingly was supported by the French state until 1963, aimed to gather both the documentary evidence of this community and, arguably for the first time, oral testimony from the refugees themselves.

The archive probably does not meet narrower definitions of a ‘community archive’ since those who collected the material were not themselves refugees (although I may be wrong – Papailias does not go into a great deal of detail about this). Merlier and her team of researchers mostly also mostly belonged to the elite, educated classes, unlike many (although not all) of the refugees. Despite its independence from the state the archive thus preserved many of the characteristics of the archive as a technology of ordering and disciplining; informant testimony was coralled into certain acceptable forms (the interview schedule) in order to be stamped, catalogued and filed.

Nevertheless, there are many parallels between the archive’s methodological radicalism and today’s community archives (indeed, the essay is concerned with revealing ‘aspects of the relationship of dominant archival cultures to peripheral ones’ (p.413)). As Papailias argues,

‘Reform of cultural memory usually cannot proceed without reform of memory work itself. In addition to disputing national narratives of Greek history, the center also critiqued the methods of Greek academic history and folklore. Given the politically conservative state of the Greek university at this time, true scholarship, Merlier might have argued, could only thrive outside of the academy […]’ (p.404)

Might not today’s community archives be seen as ‘reforming memory work’ in order to ‘reform cultural memory’? And changing archival practice from the outside?

There are also some interesting parallels with regard to the conjunction of the private and the public/professional. Merlier struggled to have her activities recognised as ‘work’, something Papailias attributes to the gendering of historical practice which tends to see the work of men in or on the archives as serious research and the work of women as a leisure activity. (Similar tensions perhaps exist today between public sector archivists and their community-based counterparts). One reason for this is that Merlier divided much of her time between Athens and France/Switzerland and often directed operations from cafés and other temporary sites (reminding me of meetings with participants in this study in all sorts of informal locations, from cafés to their own homes). According to Papailias,

‘The determination [of Merlier] to call her letters [to her staff] work, as well as to do work in spaces of leisure, seems to have reflected her own difficulties in defining what she was doing in the absence of institutional structures. As Merlier seemed aware, the “personal” nature of this archive made it vulnerable to critique as the amateur project of a “lady of leisure”.’ (p.408)

Today’s community archivists often experience very similar pressures; the time they commit to free for a project they feel passionately about may well not be valued or appreciated in their wider personal and professional life, leading to a decline in self-esteem even as they are supporting an activity that they see as enhancing community well-being.

Papailias concludes on the following note (try substituting ‘community’ for ‘private’ in the next extract…):

‘Private archives are not outside of or irrelevant to discussions of state archives; they are important sites in which social actors actively construct their relationship to the state, assimilating its categories of identification or challenging them.’ (p.413)

It is precisely this idea of the (independent) archive as the site where a struggle over identity is played out that makes community archives such fascinating and potentially radical cultural spaces. Papailias also here expresses a justification for a focus on what may emerge as a research theme: the relationship between the mainstream institutions – state archives for example – and community archives. For it is in these struggles that identities are assigned, shaken off or given form.

Above all her research (like ours?) draws attention to the ‘desire and fantasies, fulfilled or not, that both propel the original making of archives and drive their ongoing physical and conceptual reordering’ (p.413). Ethnography (whether textual/historical like her own, or observation-based and present like ours, presumably) is the best way of getting at these desires since it is a way of drawing attention to the process of the production of historical knowledge (rather than just to the resulting paradigm shifts). With regard to the Centre for Asia Minor Studies, ‘[textual] ethnography examines the construction of rhetorical forms and social relations. In the case of the center, producing and archiving documents enacted a complex mobilization of social actors and chronotopes’ (p.414).

What is extraordinary about the Centre for Asia Minor Studies is its very early preoccupation with collating witness testimony. This, I suggest, is what situates it between a private collection and a community archive. Are there any other examples of early independent archives that operated in a similar way, or that drew on the collective experiences of a community to challenge a dominant historiographical framework (in this case the forgetting of a painful and shameful episode of the national past)?


Welcome to the the Archives and Identities website

July 14, 2008

To anyone who has just come to this site from a mailing list or email…Welcome!

You can find out more about our research project on the About page.

Please do not hesitate to contact us if you have any comments about the site, or any links or events you would like us to post. (Events are listed in the sidebar, but you can also search posts tagged as ‘events’ by using the search box). We welcome contributions too so please also feel free to use the contact form to send us reviews, comment pieces, points for discussion etc.

We look forward to hearing from you!

Mary (more…)

Footprints of the Dragon: Chinese Community workshop at LMA

July 9, 2008

We received this email from the London Metropolitan Archives:

Come and celebrate the end of the Footprints of the Dragon Community History Project at this free conference

Footprints of the Dragon
Voices of the Chinese Community in London

Saturday 19 July 2008 10.30am—4.30pm at London Metropolitan Archives, 40 Northampton Road, London, EC1R 0HB

The day includes talks, workshops, family activities an exhibition and archive tours marking the successful completion of the Footprints of the Dragon community history project.
Lunch and refreshments will be served.
Please RSVP by calling 020 7332 3820 and asking for Anne-Marie Purcell or email

Please let us know if you wish to bring young family members to join in the children’s activities.

10.30 Arrival and Registration
11.00 Welcome and Introduction
11.30-12.20 London Chinese Archives: PART ONE
Chair: Eddie Chan of the Chinese National Healthy Living Centre
Summary of Footprints of the Dragon Project and Introduction to Early Chinese Settlement in London

Sharing of Experiences
Dr Stephen Ng, Honorary Secretary, Islington Chinese Association
History of Chinese Community Organisation and Introduction to Islington Chinese Association’s Archive
Introduction to Mr Chinque’s Archive

12.40-1.10 London Chinese Archives: PART TWO
Chair: Eddie Chan of the Chinese National Healthy Living Centre
Dr John Seed, Historian, Roehampton University
Limehouse Blues: Looking for Chinatown in the London Docks (1900-40)

Sharing of Experiences
Mrs Pat Eury and Mr Eury, Donors
Introduction to Mrs Flack’s Archive

1.10-1.30 Panel Discussion
Panel includes: Richard Wiltshire, Senior Archivist, LMA; Nicola Avery, Principal Archivist, LMA ; Dr Stephen Ng; Dr John Seed and representatives from the Chinese National Healthy Living Centre.

1.30-2.30 Lunch. During lunch there will be a chance to view the exhibition and take a tour of the archive.

2.30-3.30 Workshops
(a) Chinese and the Film Industry in Britain led by actor David Yip
(b) Chinese Women in Britain led by Yoke-Moi Koh, Women’s Support Project Co-ordinator, Chinese Information and Advice Centre and Merlene Toh Emerson, Communications and Membership Director Chinese Liberal Democrats
(c) LMA Family Learning Workshop

3.50 Music Performance and Closing Words

Open Space – Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic History in Soho and the West End

July 4, 2008

Title: Open Space – Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic History in Soho and the West End
Location: Kairos: Soho Centre for Health and Care
Description: Ajamu X, photographer and co-founder of the rukus! black LGBT archive is currently developing a unique collaborative project with Kairos in Soho. The hope is to explore and collate the histories of Black, Asian and other LGBT people from minority communities within the context of Soho and the West End.

The project is aiming to build a history of the amazing and often hidden contributions that the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people have made to the area and to our wider heritage.

Be a part of it!

See for more information.
Start Time: 14:00
Date: 2008-07-12
End Time: 16:00

Ajamu - for Outside Edge

This picture of Ajamu with material from the rukus! archive is taken from the Museum of London’s Outside Edge flickr photostream. ‘Outside Edge’ was an exhibition at the Museum in Docklands, curated by rukus!, that explored the history of the black LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community in Britain, with a focus on London.