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Contested Archives

The HRC-funded event, Contested Archives (Thursday 3 December, 5.30-7.30PM at Warwick’s Wolfson Research Exchange) was well attended. Over fifty people came to this roundtable discussion that featured speakers from across Warwick’s Humanities faculty and beyond. Professor Simon Swain (Pro Vice Chancellor for Arts and Social Science Research, Warwick) welcomed everyone and said a few words about Warwick’s commitment to research, and about the crucial role that archives play in much scholarship in the arts and social sciences.

Dr Laura Schwartz (History), Professor David Anderson (History), Mr Connor Woodman (Philosophy; Fossil Free Warwick) and Dr Jennifer Haynes (Wellcome Library) each spoke briefly to the question ‘What’s the use of archives?’ Each of the speakers connected their own experiences with archives to broader questions of access, research and the circulation of knowledge.

Dr Sarah Hodges (History) then chaired the lively question and answer session. The audience was made up of university staff, faculty members, postgraduates and undergraduates. Much discussion centered on questions of what actually archives contain, and who can, or should, be able to use archives. Are they complete, total records of institutions or individuals? Or, are they highly selective, curated collections? How do state (or official) archives differ from business archives? What are the responsibilities of archive users to the people about whom they write (whether dead or living)? How do archives (and archivists) navigate relationships of trust with archive donors alongside responsibilities of access to archive users?

Some of the most compelling discussion was elicited by questions about the relationship between universities and archives. What should each expect of the other? Do archives have a place on university campuses if they are not accessible to the university community? Should universities (such as ours) allow or abet surveillance of students who question whether or not it is legitimate that inaccessible archives remain part of a university campus? Evidence was put forward of collusion between Warwick and the BP Archives (located on the Warwick campus) carrying out collaborative surveillance on members of the student group Fossil Free Warwick. Given its published policy of not allowing qualified lawyers to access the collection, what would the BP Archives do, one member of the university mused, were members of the Warwick Law School to apply to use the collection? Were they necessarily prohibited, would this be acceptable to us as community of scholarly researchers? Particularly in relation to the continued presence of the BP Archive at Warwick, the mood of the room was strongly in favour of BP archive changing its admissions policies and becoming more accessible, in line with recognized archival good practice across other university campuses.