By Christina Kamposiori, Programme Officer
Last month saw the Discovering Collections, Discovering Communities (DCDC) conference which brought together around 400 professionals from across the library, archive, academic and cultural heritage communities together for the sixth year. The conference took place on 19th-21st November 2018 in the vibrant city of Birmingham and, more specifically, at the excellent premises of the Birmingham Conference and Events Centre (BCEC). This year’s event, jointly organised by The National Archives (TNA) and Research Libraries UK (RLUK), explored the topic of memory and transformation.
In a wide ranging programme, which included over 70 speakers, delegates explored how recent commemorations and anniversaries have acted as ‘punctuation marks from the past’ (Ellison, 2018), the role cultural memory plays in all our institutions and the way it affects our practices and strategies for the future as well as the transformative role of technology in the ways we remember. More specifically, a number of keynotes, workshops, panel sessions and demonstrations held as part of this three day event aimed to unpack the conference theme and facilitate conversation and knowledge exchange.
Commemoration in the digital age: opportunities and challenges
Debates centred on the important role that commemoration has recently played within society. Our first keynote speaker, Jane Ellison (Head of Creative Partnerships, BBC), through discussing a number of activities organised in the context of recent landmark anniversaries, such as the centenary of the World War One, encouraged delegates to reflect on the reasons why commemoration offers unique opportunities for institutions (e.g. forming new partnerships and engaging with different communities) but also on our responsibility to ‘remember well’ (Ellison, 2018). Doing so will involve careful consideration of the stories that need to be told and the practices we follow to collect, preserve and communicate memories of the past in the digital age.
We are not responsible for what happened in history but we are responsible for remembering it well- great opening keynote,Jane Ellison @BBC on the importance of academic excellence & curatorial expertise working together & the power of technology for cultural institutions #DCDC18 pic.twitter.com/ISZV1GJxiB
— Glucksman Spec Coll (@UL_SpecColl) November 20, 2018
Inspiring keynote from Jane Ellison @bbc to kick off #DCDC18 ‘Anniversaries enable us to open up new perspectives, insights and ways of doing things. They are an opportunity not to be missed and why we choose to look back…but we have to do more than just jog the memory.’
— RB Archives (@SwanUniArchives) November 20, 2018
Thinking about the role of digital media in helping achieve this goal, Nathan Sentance (Project Officer, First Nations programming, Australian Museum), in his keynote talk, focused on blogging (his blog: Archival Decolonist) as a vehicle for resistance and discussion around the role of memory institutions in the destruction, exclusion and misremembering of First Nations culture and history. More specifically, he highlighted the need to decolonise collections in the GLAM sector and insert plurality into the creation and interpretation of records and other cultural material; integrating the community’s voice into the process and preserving both tangible and intangible heritage will be essential steps. Yet, apart from reviewing their practices when it comes to creating and preserving GLAM collections, cultural organisations should also take into account the issue of information literacy and the need to educate their audiences about the power dynamics involved in relevant processes.
Responses to Sentance’s blog have been positive: Decolonising collections is not about rewriting past, but about pulling together more of the pieces to create more balanced representation. Need to stop perpetuating myth of white neutrality to make collns socially relevant #DCDC18
— Kate Jarman (@ErmerlindaJ) November 20, 2018
Diversifying collections in 21st century and making an impact
These ideas were further explored through a number of papers and interactive sessions during the conference. In fact, many speakers recognised the need to diversify our collections and offer a more balanced interpretation of the cultural items and records we hold – aspects of this discussion are also presented in an article by Reisz (2018). Some of the points raised with regards to this theme include the issue of trust in the archival record and concerns about its ‘(non-)neutrality’. A successful response to the challenge of bias in collections and archives will require representing a wide array of perspectives, including any ‘uncomfortable’ memories and stories. Approaches towards meeting this goal should involve the collection of a variety of types and formats of materials – oral histories, particularly, can enrich and diversify institutional records through adding the ‘human experience’ – and community engagement.
The role of community engagement and the importance of cultural heritage collections for today’s society were addressed by our third keynote speaker, Nick Barratt (Senate House Librarian). Dr. Barratt’s keynote speech explored the role of memory organisations in making an impact through their collections and the value of engaging with local communities in 21st century, highlighting the need to gather qualitative evidence (e.g. stories, case-based evidence) alongside quantitative to showcase value. This last point echoed Professor Geoffrey Crossick’s keynote talk at DCDC17 which underlined the significance of the ‘personal experience’ when assessing the impact of culture, something that is not always possible to capture through statistical data alone. Concerning libraries, he argued that they are the natural and trusted heritage partners for universities as they help bridge the gap between research and society and, thus, they have increased responsibility to work towards tackling the global challenges.
Nick Barratt @familyhistorysh challenging us to redefine value beyond the quantitative. Take into account personal stories and narratives of impact. Value shouldn’t be transactional. Inspiring case studies detailing local community engagement #DCDC18
— Helen Worrell (@BodArchAnth) November 21, 2018
Memories in the era of ‘fake news’
Building digital collections and preserving digital memories in the era of fake news is another challenging area for memory institutions. Do libraries, archives and cultural heritage organisations need to collect and preserve fake news? How do you identify this and who owns the copyright? Jo Fox’s (Director of the Institute of Historical Research University of London) closing keynote presentation aimed to explore the phenomenon of fake news and discuss the possibilities it offers for historians and beyond. Professor Fox highlighted that fake news has always existed and been manifested in different ways and through different formats (e.g. propaganda, rumours), while arguing that, regardless of the ‘name’, the interpretation approach is what really matters. She noted that this phenomenon is linked to inherent human behaviour and constitutes a form of response for certain groups in society when faced with difficult circumstances. In that respect, and given that relevant historical sources have been fundamental in understanding aspects of past societies, fake news is worth collecting and preserving as it will constitute a useful tool for the historian of the future. However, both memory institutions and researchers should consider the role of digital technologies in navigating ambiguity in the digital age, such as the possibility of creating algorithms to detect fake news, as well as issues related to intellectual rights and re-use.
More broadly, the part that digital technologies can play in the way we build, manage, and preserve cultural collections was explored by several panel presentations. Additionally, their potential to communicate our cultural memories to various audiences and enable different types of interaction with collections and archives was particularly highlighted; yet, in order to be able to reach different communities, cataloguing practices and our understanding of user behaviour need to be improved to enhance accessibility of diverse library, archive and other cultural heritage content. Finally, the innovative role of technology in facilitating access to and preserving memories of the past for the future was further showcased through projects which took advantage of crowdfunding and crowdsourcing technologies as well as through the use of digitisation as a method of preserving and engaging with endangered cultural heritage.
Transformation in professional practice
Lastly, throughout the conference we saw a variety of examples illustrating how memory collections form the basis for collaborations and audience engagement that has not only an impact on society and its wellbeing but also on institutional practices and identity. Libraries, in particular, are experiencing a cultural shift with professionals very often reaching out to various communities rather than waiting for them to cross the door of the institution. Additionally, and contrary to the observations made by Harvey (2018), several talks at DCDC18 (e.g. panel 10) showed that special collections, archives and other original sources are still greatly used by academics and other audience groups for research, teaching and public engagement. However, given the move towards more cross-sector collaboration, the development of audience-led approaches to special collections and archives as well as the increased opportunities offered by new technologies, engagement with or discussions around this type of original material do not take place anymore solely within the space of the reading room.
Crossick, Geoffrey (2017). Thinking about the value of culture, thinking about the value of collections. Keynote speech at Discovering Collections, Discovering Communities (DCDC) conference, 27-29 Nov. 2017. Available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yW8PMZ8Alpw.
Ellison, Jane (2018). Anniversaries: the milestones of history? Keynote presentation, Discovering Collections, Discovering Communities (DCDC) Conference, Birmingham, UK, 19th-21st November 2018.
Havey, Arnold (2018). Academics are being erased from the archives. Times Higher Education, 15th November 2018. Available at https://www.timeshighereducation.com/opinion/academics-are-being-erased-archives.
Reisz, Matthew (2018). Campuses urged to fill gaps in ‘white, male’ institutional pasts. Times Higher Education, 23rd November 2018. Available at https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/campuses-urged-fill-gaps-white-male-institutional-pasts.