Access to archives: out of the box

When a new lift was installed at Tower Hamlets Local History Library & Archives (THLHLA) in 2013, its reading room became accessible to wheelchair users for the first time in over a century. Could we however legitimately promote our newfound ‘accessibility’? How would disabled people across the board engage with our collections? Prevailing concepts of access to archives are based on many assumptions and often the very basics of service provision entail barriers which exclude people.

In order to consider how we might overcome or remove these barriers, with TNA support THLHLA began a partnership with local disabled-led arts agency filmpro with Arts Council funding for a pilot investigation of alternative modes of access to and interpretation of collections.

During 2014 the project has worked closely with local disabled groups and individuals, inviting engagement with our collections in sessions facilitated by disabled artists. Engagement is not restricted by collection format or type of impairment. Instead, new approaches are being trialled with three different groups, led by artist Caglar Kimyoncu – audio, visual and spatial engagement – exploring our archive in ways that go beyond the evidential value of words or images on a page.

A series of workshops (July-August 2014) assisted by archive staff will invite individuals’ creative responses to archival collections, culminating in a collaborative multimedia exhibition at THLHLA during Disability History Month in December, which will tour across the borough’s library network next year.

The theory underpinning this partnership between a local authority archive and an arts company – the deconstruction and re-building of what constitutes access to archives – has relevance to all archive services, and should be of particular interest for those wishing to dismantle barriers to collections and enrich the ways in which the public can understand and interpret them.

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