Building relationships and developing trust – Institute for the Study of Welsh Estates, Bangor University

The Institute for the Study of Welsh Estates (ISWE) is an interdisciplinary, collections based research centre at Bangor University which bridges its archival collections and the university academic schools. The philosophy of the research centre is to deliver projects that bring historic facts and details into the public eye and mind. For example, a project outcome could lead to the improvement of information printed on visitor interpretation boards for heritage sites, or uncovering forgotten knowledge such as the connection that estates and country houses had with the slave trade.

… it’s not just research activity, it’s activities that can be of benefit in relation to cultural heritage  objectives[; that] is something that we’ve been really interested in as well – Dr Shaun Evans, director of ISWE

A purpose supported by partnership

The ethos of the research centre is the joining of the university’s academic force together with its library and archive service so that archival material can stimulate projects that will have an impact on today’s society and culture. Therefore, the research centre has developed close partnerships not only with university departments, ranging from Arts and Humanties to Social Science, together with the library and archives service, but also with outside heritage organisations. This includes: historical societies, national and local heritage organisations, county archives and other research centres.

Proactive relationship building

To support the remit of the institute and to cultivate such partnerships, the role of Director of ISWE involves travelling for face to face meetings with a range of outside partners to take time and effort building long term relationships to support research collaboration. Understanding the priorities and objectives of the partner organisations makes it easier to pitch projects that can be mutually beneficial.  Therefore, the research centre not only produces successful collaborative projects but develops trust and understanding between other heritage organisations, libraries and archives.

We’ve tried to establish a strategic relationship with these organisations that we can call upon and that they can call upon, as and when it’s seems beneficial to do so.

The relationships between internal partners are just as important and there is an established routine of meetings between the university archivist and Director of ISWE which has developed a mutual understanding and opens opportunities for working together.

Developing projects in partnership

Public engagement and participation are key aspects of the work of the research centre.

The groundwork of building strong interpersonal relationships, understanding priorities and developing trust paid off through an AHRC funded project “ Deep Mapping’ estate archives: A new digital methodology for analysing estate landscapes c.1500–1930”. The initial concept came into being through an informal discussion, about a previous project, between Dr Evans, Director of ISWE and an external partner. The “Deep Mapping” project is an extensive exploration of archived land records of a stated region; its ownership and management from 16th Century until the early 20th  century.  The project will  deliver an online resource for exploration of the history of a place and its people.

..create a geographical and landscape framework for understanding changes in landscape ownership and landscape use and management from the 16th Century, right the way through, through the creation of a GIS (Geographic Information System).

The project partners include academic staff from Bangor University, Aberystwyth University, the National Library of Wales, Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales and North East Wales Archives, with an external Advisory Board offering further perspectives from relevant stakeholders . The collaborative approach of the research centre and the trust already established meant that each organisation played a role in the design of the project from the start. The strength of the project is that it is “deeply embedded in multiple organisational strategies” which means that each partner has an interest in the outcome and impact of the work because of its relevance to their own objectives.

Achieving such a situation was not easy because it was challenging to justify the amount of time spent with the partners in order to develop the project and its funding bid. Costing the external partners into the project as equal participants proved to be very time consuming as it presented a unique situation for the university procurement system. The effort and investment in time, commitment and trust taken by ISWE and the partners was ultimately rewarded.

Building trust brings long term benefits

The ISWE and Bangor University were awarded substantial grant funding, which benefits the university and the research centre as well as enabling an exciting public facing project to be implemented, with long term potential. There are two key aspects of ISWEs facilitation for the project. These are, on one hand, the role of the institute’s director, being the connection between academic schools and library and archives. On the other hand is the appreciation of  the knowledge and understanding of the archivists, heritage professionals and librarians with which it works. Such as their specialisms, qualifications and skills with the understanding and recognition that they have different, useful knowledge and expertise, for example, “latest technological development in GIS”. ISWE firmly believes that collaborative work benefits society because the research has a public outcome.

Ultimately, trust is the basis of good collaboration, developing sustainable relationships with partners that will extend beyond a project, and working on projects that can be built on in the future.

New roles to enhance collaboration

The successful linkage between Bangor University Library and Archive and the university academic schools is facilitated by the role of Director of ISWE which is intentionally designed to cross the boundary of school and service. Bangor University shows that other universities should consider new roles for early career researchers who have learnt  a range of capabilities through collaborative doctorships with academia and library and archives. Instead of being faced with a choice of becoming “a librarian, an archivist, a curator or are they going to be an academic” they can be the link  bridging the divide between librarian and archivist or “Academic” to negotiate funding and promote collaboration.

Lessons learned 

  • Developing long term trust and mutual understanding between partners takes time and effort
  • The effort is rewarded by identifying potential collaborative work and developing research that benefits the wider community as well as institutions
  • Individual personality is important in building relationships and developing trust. This can be a strength but also pose a risk when relying on a single individual
  • The creation of hybrid library/archive/academic roles means that there is a facilitator to link libraries and academic schools, identify potential for collaboration and to apply for grant funding

Further Information