Archival Research (or the pleasure and pitfalls of archives)

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 …


5 responses to “Archival Research (or the pleasure and pitfalls of archives)

  1. Katherine O'Flaherty

    Hi Mark, I feel your pain. Archives can be great or you can end up sitting there among the dusty boxes wondering why you didn’t go to Med school 🙂

    I am curious what types of SOC’EM documents you are finding? Is it mostly meeting minutes or reports or are there pamphlets or correspondence? I would assume some members are still alive….do you think you might do some interviews?

    • Medical school, I didn’t go to as my grades weren’t sufficient to get me in there – had I do better in science I might’ve applied. Instead I opted for History and well now I’m here!

      I haven’t finished going through SOC’EM archives yet – there is rather a lot of stuff which isn’t catalogued, but I’m hoping to hit archives again this week. There was a folder of minutes, which had most of the stuff in there, but there were copies of letters sent to various people (e.g. local council re. buildings that were in danger of being demolished), to organisations, replies to other people’s letters (which are also in there, and ask mainly about information on what SOC’EM is and the various reports it has helped produce). There are also newspaper cuttings and articles about various issues.

      The later stuff from the late 1970s and early 1980s, tend to be towards building conservation issues. In that file there is about 30 letters from the chairman in 1979/1980 ish all about building issues. As for members, I’m speaking to someone this Tuesday actually who was a student in SOC’EM and who dated (and married) the daughter of the founder of it. So we’ll see what happens with that!!

      What is interesting is the number of environmental groups in the area in the 1970s – there was about 7 in 1974. I’m interested (and there was a letter from the person I’m talking to concerning this) why they needed 7 – why they didn’t just all join together.

  2. Katherine O'Flaherty

    Yeah that is interesting… seems like a lot.

    I will be interested to hear about your meeting….

    • Well yesterday’s meeting went quite well. We talked a lot about SOC’EM and other stuff really. I’ll post something up about interviews soon prob, it was interesting. I’m getting a lot of different (and varied) information which is good.

  3. Katherine O'Flaherty

    Oh good, glad it went well. I’m also glad you are going to post something about interviewing…..I heard a discussion here at UMaine some time ago where scholars from different fields talked about interviewing and oral history. Generally they were exploring the differences. The Sociologist spoke about collecting usable data, keeping meticulous field notes, confidentiality and going through IRB (Internal Review Board….do you have this or some equivalent in the UK?) The historian was more focused on the oral history, narrative, etc. Probably not that surprising considering the differences in field. What struck me was that the historians wanted to preserve the oral histories she had collected while the sociologist had built into her release form a date when the interviews would be destroyed. The historian collected for posterity and the sociologist for purpose.The Sociologist was also wary of the re-use of material for purposes other than what it was collected for….anyway, it stuck with me. I wonder if you have encountered anything similar.

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