I attended the Democratising or privileging: the future of access to archives conference yesterday. It was run by the University of Dundee’s Centre for Archive and Information Studies, and was held at the Apex Hotel beside the River Tay in Dundee. The conference ran over two days, the Thursday and Friday, but I could only attend one, due to my severely disabling neurological disease. And since I was speaking on the Friday that was the day. Even then I had to miss the opening talk, which was apparently a doozy, so I would still be strong enough to speak come the time of my talk at 1pm.
My husband accompanied me as my helper / wheelchair pusher, and we arrived about 10.10am, and parked in a disabled space in the hotel car park, near to the entrance. Once inside we registered, and had a coffee outside in the bar area, before wheeling in at the first coffee break at 10.30am. I was able to meet quite a lot of people I know through Twitter, and when the conference resumed at 10.50am we were able to get a good seat near the exit. My husband, a research fellow in computer science / space technology research, had his laptop with him, and happily worked on various things on there while I enjoyed the conference.
The next panel, from 10.50-12.20, saw three speakers talk, variously on privacy concerns, copyright and digitisation, and the archives situation in South Africa. I was particularly intrigued by the last talk, and the state of archives in a nation of political and social upheaval.
Then my panel was 12.20-1.30. All of the speakers sat at the front table, with Caroline Brown from the university archives who was chairing it. The first speaker was French Canadian, talking about the horrific archives experience in Canada at the moment, as the government slashes budgets and sacks archivists. I thought the next speaker, also Canadian, would be talking about a Canadian topic, but she talked about her PhD research in Edinburgh, using the NAS and Edinburgh City Archives. For the latter she praised the knowledge of the archivist and stressed how important it is to talk to archivists. But I just found it terrifying how that archive doesn’t have proper catalogues, and that only one archivist knows their collection inside out. What if something happens to him? And he must retire sometime.
Whereas every other speaker walked over to stand at the podium, I stayed seating on the front table, and used a portable microphone. I was quite weak, and struggling at times, but I got through, and inside my 20 minute slot. I managed to cover almost everything in my plan, and remembered to advance the PowerPoint slides. I think people particularly appreciated my list of recommendations for archivists to help them support disabled users better: I was told afterwards that some people were scribbling frantically at that point. And I had quite a few questions from the audience afterwards, who were really engaged with my talk. One was about archives and how they can support blind users, which isn’t something I specifically addressed in my talk, but had thought about, because of a blind student friend I have in America, who wants to trace his family history and wonders how he will access archives. So I was able to field that question.
After that it was lunch. Many people came up to me on the way to lunch, or there, or at coffee later, to thank me for my talk. They included archivists from Hawick, St Andrews (who sat by Martin and me over lunch), Aberdeen, Perth, and London. And also the former Keeper of the Records for Scotland (also Registrar General), who greatly appreciated my praise for the wheelchair lift they installed at General Register House. The archivist from Hawick, who now works at Edinburgh University, likewise appreciated my praise for the help their archive had given me during my PhD. I was also able to chat to Robin Urquhart from the NRS who helped me in various ways to get access to digital records, both in the past and now.
There were two main panels in the afternoon. I particularly enjoyed the presentation of Dr Karl Heinz from Austria, talking about international archival cooperation and specifically the Monasterium.net project to digitise medieval charters. I asked him afterwards, using the portable microphone to talk, about who could make changes to the meta data in their database, and how it was curated – via submission for moderation, by an expert.
Another inspiring talk was that of Amanda Hill, a Brit now living in Canada, talking of how her archive, Deseronto Archives in Ontario, has experimented in outreach through means such as Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, blogs and so on. All on a shoe-string budget, but highly effective. Should be a big lesson to better funded and larger archives.
After a quick coffee break, it was time for the closing panel, where final thoughts on the conference were presented. Then Caroline wrapped up with final closing thoughts, and we were done.
I was very weak by the end of the day, but pleased I had been able to stay for the entire afternoon session. Overall I’m very glad I was able to attend the conference. It was an eye-opening experience for users of how the archivist’s side of things work, as well, I hope for archivists of user issues, such as those of family historians, academic historians, and, in my case, disabled users. It was also nice to see such a strong Canadian contingent of archivists at the conference, particularly in a time of massive upheaval for archives in their country. They got a big cheer / clap at the end. It was also great to meet various Twitter friends, and to meet so many archivists who had helped me with my research and access needs in the past.
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