A delegate’s view of ALES’ latest event…Available presentations from speakers can be found on the ALES website: https://bit.ly/2Zbs9Yp
Q: ‘What’s the point of archives?’
The difficulty of communicating archives’ worth to a general audience – and to schools in particular – is something the recent ALES training day sought to address.
‘Digital Learning for Schools’ was held on a muggy Wednesday at Newcastle University. The content was far from stuffy. Alex and the ALES committee put together a fantastic programme of speakers and workshops from a wide range of backgrounds and institutions.
I came along primarily on a fact-finding mission, hoping to discover something about what other archives were doing in the digital field of learning and engagement. I came away genuinely inspired and excited about what other people had achieved – and not a little bit smug that I could go back to the office talking about ‘cool stuff’ like Scratch and Makey (ok, I realise this shows me to be precisely the opposite).
Sanna Wicks from Treehouse Communications kicked things off with a broad overview of communication trends – as you might have guessed, moving in a multi-channel, participatory direction. We live in a world of many communication platforms – and hey, guess what, young people don’t watch broadcast TV. They stream, vlog and podcast. If archives want to engage, they need to make their content accessible, in ways that facilitate engagement – a recurrent theme throughout the day.
Sanna provided an overview of some of the digital projects Treehouse has been involved in over the last few years. I was particularly taken by the ‘Journey to the Past’ project (http://footsteps.bangor.ac.uk/en/), making imaginative use of historical visuals and travel writings to ‘bring to life’ Wales’ past through digital media.
But harnessing archives to technology doesn’t have to be highly polished or expensive. Thomas Elwick, Learning Officer with Tyne and Wear Archives and Discovery Museum, demonstrated how he used tablet cameras and Flickr to engage schools with archive material. Items from the archive were brought out for pupils to handle and photograph. They were encouraged to think about the materials using the learning format ‘I see/ I notice /I wonder’. After the session, schools were given access to the photos they had taken via Flickr, for follow-up work in the classroom.
Gemma Brace then spoke about the wonderful Oliver Messel collection held at Bristol University as part of their Theatre Collection (https://www.bristol.ac.uk/theatre-collection/explore/theatre/oliver-messel-archive/). The archive gained HLF funding to catalogue the 10,000 odd items in the collection, which included photographs, letters, brochures and beautiful costumes. The university wanted to share the ‘Messel magic’ with a much wider audience. Several hundred documents and artefacts from the collection were digitised to create online resources such as school packs, videos, and exhibitions – all housed on a dedicated area of the archive’s website (https://www.bristol.ac.uk/theatre-collection/explore/theatre/oliver-messel-archive/exploring-the-oliver-messel-archive/#d.en.437635).
The afternoon consisted of workshops led by individuals who had developed digital content for schools. The stand out session for me was run by Megan Wilson. Megan is a PhD student currently on placement at Newcastle University archives. Megan came up with the brilliant idea of using archives as a source of inspiration for after school code clubs. Having been shown material from the Trevelyan archive – a collection rich in local history – school students go on to create computer games based on the content, using Scratch and Makey. It has been a runaway success in local schools, hampered only by lack of resource to sustain it beyond Megan’s placement. We also got to use said Scratch and Makey – the best half hour of fun I’ve had in aaaages.
Martin Bazley gave us a succinct and enlightening canter through do and don’t essentials when creating a digital resource (don’t think so much about what you want users to get out of it, but what they will do with it), and also Dave, Laura and Alan from York Explore Libraries and Archives outlined the inspirational work they have been doing in their Explore Labs – moral of the story, sit an archivist and a community arts officer together and anything can happen, and usually does.
For decades, there has been much talk about widening audiences and increasing engagement in the archive sector. The stand out learning point of the day for me was: make stuff available, and let people get on and make their own discoveries.
Siân Yates – Archivist, Lloyds Banking Group