From Strongroom to Seminar

img_4680Today I attended a fascinating conference titled ‘Strongroom to Seminar’ hosted by the Institute of Historical Research and The National Archives. The aim of the conference was to share strategies and ideas as to how to best engage students in the archival method.

The keynote speaker was Professor Jo Fox of Durham University, whose presentation was so good I thought I’d blog about it here!

Jo spoke about the shifting identity of the archive in the 21st Century and the importance, as well as the challenges, of introducing archives to students as part of a holistic pedagogic method in History Departments across universities. It’s a topic I feel strongly about and one we’ve taken seriously at The Hong Kong Heritage Project, where we’ve rolled out a number of innovative oral history and archive programmes for high school and university students.

Everyday Disappointments

One of the most thought-provoking aspects of Jo’s presentation was to touch on the uncertainty and instability of archival research. We’ve all experienced the gradual dissipation of hope and excitement as documents don’t quite yield the answers we expect – but how can be this be taught as part of a history module?

Jo argues that the process of archival study should shape the questions we ask of our sources, and that as historians we need to constantly re-frame our research questions in the face of everyday disappointments. It’s vital to teach students the value of historical problem solving and the difference between finding documents and finding useful documents. Each research journey is personal, and deeply affecting. Research invokes a spectrum of emotion – from boredom, excitement and frustration – feelings that can’t easily be taught as part of a course module. Jo offers practical solutions to this dilemma by turning to public history. A number of universities have recently offered hands-on modules in which students can critically engage – and indeed literally interrogate – their sources. For example, the 2011 Queen Mary University ‘Blair Government’ course introduced students to key players in the Blair cabinet, including Tony himself!

Digital Solutions?

Finally, Jo addressed another more recent challenge facing historians and the archival method – that of digitization. Digital copies of records are often touted as a cure-all to the dual problems of access and preservation. I know I’ve certainly been grateful for online collections that have saved the cost of a train ticket across the country or flights and accommodation abroad. But besides the problems faced by archives – the huge costs involved in digitisation programmes and the relentless pace of technological change – Jo argues that digitization comes at a cost for the end-user too. The sense of a collection’s materiality is being lost by a new ‘smash-and-grab’ culture in which students enter an archive, launch an eight-hour assault with a digital camera and return home to assess their booty. Something valuable is lost in this process. No longer do we spend days contemplating our sources and intellectually meandering through collections. The archive is now considered as a place to raid rather than to think. Similarly, when collections are accessed online, we not only lose the tactile enjoyment of the record but the sense of a collection’s provenance and accessioning history.  Jo asks whether digitization will prompt a change in the way in which we practice history in the twenty-first century, and I agree that it certainly calls into question the hallowed value placed on digitization in the profession today.