Andrew Rackley, British Library
This blog is a summary of sorts related to my current research for the British Sociological Association (BSA) and the British Library (BL). In it I discuss how I came to be here, why archives are more relevant to sociological research than they are often perceived to be, and start to address why documents and archives could play a more prominent role in the methodological canon.
My background heavily involves documents. My mother was a librarian. My father made paper. I completed a B.A. in Ancient and Medieval History before qualifying and working as an archivist. So naturally my PhD focussed on the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games. I am being flippant, of course. My principal concern was to understand what became of the documentary heritage: who was collecting material, why, and where to find it; what was termed the ‘knowledge legacy’ (Rackley, 2016). My thesis examined the interaction of actor and agency when documenting a ‘mega-event’; the main contention being that any such endeavour had to be active; supporting the notion that archives are not static containers of information or data waiting to be ‘discovered’ by researchers, but influenced by social forces. I am currently engaged as the BSA Fellow for Sociology at the British Library BL, a mouthful of a title, but one that encompasses the collaborative nature of my research, which aims to investigate why sociologists are (not) using archives, and what could be done to encourage a greater engagement between the two.
An archive may be composed of books, papers, maps or plans, photographs or prints, films or videos and even computer-generated records that are ‘born-digital’. They are the past, present and future records, produced by people and organisations in their day-to-day activities. This includes governments, universities, hospitals, charities, professional bodies, families and individuals. These records are intended to be kept permanently, so the purpose of an archive is to both preserve the past and allow others to (re-)discover it. Following from this it is possible to say that archives are social constructs, they ‘are not natural but are culturally made’ (Gidley, 2017: 298).
This is a key observation for the sociological relevance of archival content, and is an intrinsic part of contemporary archival theory. From the mid-1990s a particular train of archival thought has been to consider an archive as ‘always in the process of becoming’ (McKemmish in Reed, 2005: 128), essentially considering that the meaning of archival content is not fixed, but fluid; able to be (re)created and open to interpretation. Borrowing from the writings of Giddens, Upward (1996, 1997) conceptualised the ‘records continuum’ as an abstract conceptual model for interpreting the multiple actors and agencies that impact upon archives. Observing that Giddens’ writings on time-space distanciation provided a parallel to recognisable patterns in archives and records management, Upward firmly positioned the model as a window onto the multiple relationships and contexts a record can have across spacetime. Thus the ‘creation’, ‘capture’, ‘organisation’ and ‘pluralisation’ of content does not occur in isolation, or indeed in a linear fashion, but are concurrent and traceable to each instantiation of use (Upward, 2000).
Such parallels are important to consider when using documents. Archives play a vital role in documenting and preserving individual, local, regional and national collective memories, which in turn serve to shape and reflect the identities and communities which they represent (Flinn et al., 2009; Ketelaar, 2008; Rackley, 2016). Archives do not exist in a vacuum, and archivists are no longer considered as independent, impartial custodians, just as the archives themselves are not thought to be the product of a passive accumulation of the historical record (Cook, 2013, Brothman, 2010). Rather, archivists have come to reflexively embrace the role which they play in creating the archival record and now recognise it as more of a social product.
As either method or methodology, the use of archives and documentary sources does not feature prominently within sociological research primers, and where it can be identified it is often implicit and bereft of a consistent language with which it is discussed (Moore et al., 2017: ch5). The lack of an explicit methodology for archival research within sociology could somewhat explain the perceived lack of engagement with archives. Yet there are a growing number of sociological texts that bridge this gap (Stanley et al, 2013; Opotow and Belmonte, 2016), including most notably Moore et al’s (2017) The Archive Project. The crucial expression of the text for sociologists is in the recognition that ‘a widely held but misconceived assumption is that the documents that archives hold are always from and about ‘the past’…[however] many archives are organised around contemporary concerns and interests, while of course the contents of all archives are always read and understood within the present moment’ (Moore et al, 2017: ch1, section 1).
Over the last few paragraphs I have discussed why I think archives are incredibly relevant to sociologists and what I perceive as a gap in sociological literature and methodology, in which documents and archival research are frequently overlooked. Aimee’s forthcoming (Grant, 2018) ‘how to’ guide – which I am quite excited to get my hands on – will be a welcome addition to the texts I have briefly included here. I was very excited when I learnt of the DRN and Aimee asked me to contribute to the blog as I felt we shared a similar vision: to engage researchers in conversation, build a corpus of related literature, and increase an awareness of, and engagement with, the fantastic resource embodied in archives and documents. The keystone of my project is a belief that there are many areas of the BL’s collections (and those of other archives) that have high value for the sociological community. As such, I hope the project will prove important to the BL and its users through promoting its content, and providing a richer understanding of the research potential of BL collections for sociologists in a manner that is useful to them.
Brothman, B. (2010). Perfect present, perfect gift: Finding a place for archival consciousness in social theory. Archival Science, 10: 141-189.
Cook, T. (2013). Evidence, memory, identity, and community: Four shifting archival paradigms. Archival Science, 13: 95-120.
Flinn, A., Stevens, M. & Shepherd, E. (2009). Whose memories, whose archives? Independent community archives, autonomy and the mainstream. Archival Science, 9(1-2): 71-86.
Gidley, B. (2017). Doing historical and documentary research. In Seale, C. (ed.) Researching Society and Culture. London: SAGE, 285-305.
Grant, A. (2018). Doing EXCELLENT social research with documents: Practical examples and guidance for qualitative researchers. Abingdon: Routledge.
Ketelaar, E. (2008). Archives as spaces of memory. Journal of the Society of Archivists, 29(1): 9-27.
Moore, N., Salter, A., Stanley, L. & Tamboukou, M. (2017). The Archive Project: Archival Research in the Social Sciences. London: Routledge.
Opotow, S. & Belmonte, K. (2016). Archives and social justice research. In Sabbagh, C. and Schmitt, M. (eds.) Handbook of Social Justice Theory and Research. New York: Springer, 445-457.
Rackley, A. (2016). Archiving the Games: collecting, storing and disseminating the London 2012 knowledge legacy. PhD thesis: University of Central Lancashire.
Reed, B. (2005). Records. In McKemmish, S., Piggott, M., Reed, B. & Upward, F. (eds.) Archives: Recordkeeping in Society. Wagga Wagga, NSW: Centre for Information Studies, Charles Sturt University: 101-131.
Stanley, L., Salter, A. & Dampier, H. (2013). The work of making and the work it does: Cultural sociology and ‘bringing-into-being’ the cultural assemblage of the Olive Schreiner letters. Cultural Sociology, 7(3): 287-302.
Upward, F. (2000). Modelling the continuum as paradigm shift in recordkeeping and archiving processes, and beyond: A personal reflection. Records Management Journal, 10(3): 115-139. Available online: http://www.emeraldinsight.com/doi/pdfplus/10.1108/EUM0000000007259 <accessed 10 January 2018>
Upward, F. (1997). Structuring the records continuum part two: Structuration theory and recordkeeping. Archives and Manuscripts, 25(1): 10-35.
Upward, F. (1996). Structuring the records continuum part one: Postcustodial principles and properties. Archives and Manuscripts, 24(2): 268-285.
Andrew Rackley qualified as an archivist from the University of Liverpool’s MARM programme in 2009 and completed a Collaborative Doctoral Award (2016) funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council working with the University of Central Lancashire, Preston, U.K. and the British Library. He has since worked as the Archivist on a Wellcome Trust project to catalogue and digitise the records of the Queen Victoria Hospital, East Grinstead, at West Sussex Record Office, highlighting the pioneering reconstructive surgery received by members of the Guinea Pig Club from Sir Archibald McIndoe during the Second World War. He is currently employed as the BSA Postdoctoral Fellow for Sociology at the British Library.
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Members of the Documents Research Network