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Help when you need it?

on Wednesday, 06 January 2016.

At the Dublin conference this year, we were lucky enough to hear from Gary Brannan at York University on the issue of the emotional impact that shocking images can have on archivists in the course of their work. If I recall correctly, Gary used the example of dealing with photos of dead bodies in coroners' records from the early part of the last century. (I am told that Gary also did a presentation on this issue in 2014).

Several people have since asked John Chambers and me independently what we were doing more broadly to provide support to members facing difficult or potentially-traumatic work environments. Colleagues raised concerns about coming across disturbing child images in public enquiries and worries about the human and public access implications of budget cuts and restructuring of their archive services or records offices. Some seemed almost embarrassed to bring the subject up. It is easy in such circumstances to treat 'afterthoughts' as rhetorical or not serious, and they get forgotten. But we didn't want to let this one slide by un-noticed. The question is: is there broad demand among the ARA membership for an on-call service to help with emotional support?

The issue came up again just before Christmas when John and I met Sarah Tyacke, whom very many of you will know as one of the UK's most distinguished and (refreshingly) plain-speaking archivists. Her role in the Hillsborough enquiry has given a massive boost to the public accountability value of archives and record keepers. No, Sarah, confirmed, no-one had thought of this when her team of archivists and specialist records managers was drafted in to help get to the bottom of a tragedy that claimed 96 lives 26 years ago. We have seen, in the past fortnight, reports on the failure of the UK Ministry of Defence to protect important archives located in south-east England related to the Troubles in Northern Ireland. It is going to be down to archivists to clear up this mess; some might understandably be concerned about being placed in roles of such political and legal sensitivity.

It is also clear that archives and records offices everywhere have come under pressure to cut staff, services and operating costs in the past few years. Members who find themselves in difficult decision-making positions and those on the receiving end deserve our support. We are not a trade union, so there are limits on what we can do organisationally and in campaign terms, but if you were facing redundancy or having to make decisions on dispensing with long-standing and highly-valued professional colleagues, would it help to have a confidential counsellor you could talk to?

These days, there seems to be a major public enquiry every year in the UK and Ireland to address some public policy or governance failure from the past. Further, with freedom of information rights seemingly doomed to a major write-down (more on that next time), members may find themselves in more pressured situations. Add to this the prospect of more public records and evidence being retained as images in the digital and smartphone era.

But there's nothing worse than someone telling you what to think – even if well-intentioned – or what's best for you. Many people may prefer to just stiffen upper lips in times of strain and 'carry on.' So, when we ask you on whether you would value having an emotional support service available (as will happen in the next few weeks), please speak frankly either way. Meantime, our sincere thanks to Gary and colleagues for bringing up this important question - and for keeping it alive.

Comments (1)

  • Pamela Temple

    Pamela Temple

    15 January 2016 at 10:46 |
    This seems a positive move to support archivists facing stressful material or stressful situations. As you say ARA is not a Trade Union, but this has the potential to be a valuable service, especially for lone archivists who do not have other archivists around to offer support.

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