Doing archival research can cause a range of emotions – joy when you stumble upon something significant, excitement when you get something unexpected, but useful, irritation when there is much of what you don’t need, but little of what you do, or just not much of anything, to anger, when your camera runs out or you are pushed for time looking atuseful items. Uncatalogued items can be an annoyance too.
At the moment I am going through some papers from SOC’EM, none of which are catalgoued. This is not the archives fault – often they have a huge amount of work and little time or staff, or money to catalogue everything. The staff are always helpful and you get faced with box after box of sources, in which there could be anything. I am limited by my timeframe, in terms of SOC’EM as an organisation lasted for 10 years, 1972 – 1982, but I am only interested in the first four years at most. Many boxes have things from the late 1970s and early 1980s, which might be interesting, but you just have to skip over it.
One thing I am learning (and I have only scratched the surface with the records in the archives) is that SOC’EM seemed to have shifted its focus primarily away from issues more often associated with the environment, like pollution, anti-road protests and so forth, and from 1975 looked more towards historic building conservation. This, whilst important, falls outside my remit of ‘environmental’ activism. There are dozens of letters from the late 1970s, and dozens of records from the council’s planning office, concerning local buildings, either asking for them to be added to conservation lists or detailing which buildings are in danger.
Until I’ve anaylsed all the photos I’ve taken and looked at all the minutes of the meetings, I cannot say for certain that there was this shift and how far that happened but it is interesting how their focus shifts during the 1970s towards more civil and historic building conservation and less towards traditional environmental ideas like pollution. I would’ve thought that their interest in environmental issues would’ve increased over time, not waned. I don’t know either why they folded in 1982. They did charge membership fees and so they might have run out of money. This is, as yet, unclear. Hopefully when I’ve spoken to one of the key people involved with SOC’EM at least in the early days, things will become clear …
Doing historical research can be a little like solving a crime, I imagine. Having never solved a crime, I cannot be sure. In oral history mode, tracking people down to interview and then speaking to them can be akin to finding witnesses and interviewing them after a crime. And like a police investigation sometimes they give you the suspect, virtually all packed and ready to go; sometimes they cannot offer you much. The same goes for oral history. Interviewing people can be a challenge. But you also learn an incredible amount, not just about the topic you have spoken to them about, but wider issues of history. And not just history; you can learn all about family structures, environments. You might get to see old photos or ephemera you would otherwise not get to see.
For my research, I will conduct interviews with various members of the environmental community who were active in the post-war period. Their experiences and personal histories vary enormously, but you also get a wide range of different voices, which can offer a rich world through which you can select different aspects to put into research. Late last year I discovered the history of a local organisation on Tyneside, from the early 1970s, in an alternative North-East periodical, Muther Grumble which appeared between 1971 and 1973.
One local group, SOC’EM (Save Our City from Environmental Mess) is particularly relevant as although it began in 1972, at the very end of the period I’m looking at, it is an example of the kind of organisation – local, community-led – that I am interested in. I was particularly pleased when I discovered that Tyne and Wear Archives, in Newcastle, have the papers of that organisation. One article in Muther Grumble mentioned another organisation, Commitment, which was London/South-East based. This is harder to trace; typing Commitment into a search engine or electronic archive catalogue, even with words like ‘environment’ with it, come up either with no entries or thousands, none of which, at first glance, seem relevant.
Just when all seems lost, however, through the detective work you’ve done, someone surfaces who has connections to that organisation and you can begin to slowly build up a picture of it.
This is my first blog post on here (or indeed anywhere). I aim to discuss my research findings, anything of interest that appears through research and general issues in British environmentalism. Feel free to comment on anything on here.