Monday, 11 May 2015

Out of the box: enabling access to archives

The day after the charismatic connecting course, I went on a very different day. This was held at Tower Hamlets Local History Library & Archives, and was themed around the issue of accessibility to archives. I'd thought we were doing OK on accessibility where I work (as a couple of people who use wheelchairs had been able to use our collections with no problem) until a dyslexic student with a looming coursework deadline had arrived needing help with some handwritten autobiographies and I didn't know where to start.

This was a free day organised by THLHLA as part of the "out of the box" project, with support from The National Archives and a local disability arts organisation, Film pro. It started with seven 10 minute case studies (with a break halfway through!) from a range of organisations, demonstrating accessibility projects they had worked on. These included:
  • Out of the box project (Tower Hamlets)
  • Film pro
  • Royal Air Force Museum - which had won an Autism Access Award. Their information packs are available to download from their website.
  • Hackney Museum, which actively encourages people to say how the museum can be made more accessible.
  • Sara Griffiths from The National Archives talked about their There Be Monsters [pdf link], which built a permanent legacy in the grounds, and Prisoner 4099 projects.
  • Surrey Heritage about how they try to be accessible by having a guide on their website, working with groups to tailor a particular approach (e.g. they have records from asylums that have since closed, and they worked with Woking Mind to identify the places and people in photographs), have different mice and keyboards available, have a handling collection for use by people with visual impairments and produce tactile books based on stories from the archives. All the staff have been trained in being dementia-friendly and they are holding trial coffee mornings to try and help stimulate the memories of people with dementia.
  • Chris Haydon from Freewheelers Theatre talked about their work producing a series of films about the history of disability in Surrey and on the Epsom Cluster of mental health hospitals.

A free (and very tasty) lunch was then provided, with plenty of time to talk to other participants about accessibility in their archives and special collections, plus an opportunity to look at the exhibition in the foyer area of the library.

The afternoon kicked off with a poetry reading by one of the Out of the box participants, Sarah. Her poetry was very funny and gave a great insight into how she had felt about using archival collections. As with the There Be Monsters project at The National Archives, it was good to see different, creative, outlets for research in archives, rather than an academic article etc.

The participants then divided into three groups to discuss topics of interest to them from a suggested three:
a) Improving access to the archives searchroom and catalogues
b) Access to collections for people with learning disabilities
c) Use and promotion of archives as artistic/creative stimuli
I opted for a), as I felt this was the most pertinent to my own situation. Ideas that came out of my discussion group included:
  • Having "creative enablers" around to help on targeted days, much like a "buddy" type system. The creative enabler can help to remove those barriers to research.
  • Implications of the Care Act 2014, which encourages co-production between health and social services, service users and providers. It may be that there are funding sources available from adult social care as the key is personalisation - that it's geared to the needs of the individual service user.
  • Have an "access group" with the aim of demystifying a visit to archives/special collections and building confidence to help get people through the door. This might suit a volunteer who is already a keen user of collections.
  • Running a new user induction session, which would apply to any user, not just someone who is disabled.
We also talked about the problems of making archive catalogues accessible. Archives Hub is very clear and easy to use, but specific archive catalogues tend to be much less so. The catalogue at The Keep was recommended as particularly good though. We all agreed that one of the huge problems is lack of resources - everyone had a cataloguing backlog, which then makes it hard to justify spending time doing things like transcribing records.

At the end of the day each group reported back to all of us. I really enjoyed my day on this workshop. There was a lot to think about, and I also made some useful contacts. My thanks to the organisers.

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