If you want to start recording, writing and celebrating marginalised histories where do you start? What if you have no formal skills and don’t technically ‘know’ what you are doing? I’ve asked some of the amazing people I’ve met working on activist and community history projects their advice.
The following tips come from Annie Berry, who describes herself as not liking ‘school, but somehow completed her PhD in 2008, which looked at British women who lived in colonial East Africa and now live in Britain. This was in a Sociology department, but her research meant that she had to learn the ropes in history. She has since been involved in various oral history projects in Bristol, including working with Bristol’s Museums, and on the research and archiving side of the What’s Your Trinity Story project. She now works at UWE as research assistant on the Rhodesian Forces oral history project. Her main research interests are the representation of ‘race’ in history – and in Bristol’s history, white identity in contemporary Britain, and colonial history in East and Southern Africa.
These are her top tips:
Think about what you want and look into the kind of resources available. Books often have lists of sources authors have consulted, or online searches are obviously much easier now. My simple advice would just be to get stuck in. I suppose it depends a bit on what kind of history you are researching, but if it’s archives, then don’t be afraid to ask. Archivists are there to guide people so let them know it’s your first visit and they should happily show you the ropes. It’s always worth asking for advice, or explaining a little about your research, to see if there’s someone there who might specialise in that area – or there might be someone who is going through new additions that could be useful to you, so it’s always worth trying. There is also some ‘etiquette’ in many archives, like you are not supposed to take pens in, only pencils, and you can ask for book supports for delicate things. It probably looks like everyone else knows what they’re doing, but everyone had to start somewhere.
Before your first visit to an archive, it’s worth trying to find a couple of references for things that you want to see, and contact them in advance to check you will be able to see them on the day of your visit. Sometimes it can take a while to order documents, so get your first order in asap and remember to keep ordering so that you don’t have to wait each time you finish with something.
I think the same applies for interviews. Except here it pays to do a bit more research. Try to think about any sensitive topics or rifts for the group(s) you are going to interview, and start making enquiries. It can take a while to gain people’s trust, so the sooner you start the better.
Make sure you make notes – in archives, keep a note of everything you’ve seen, even if it wasn’t useful. Trust me, if your memory is anything like as bad as mine you will forget that you’ve seen it and you might end up looking at the same stuff over again. Also make a note of page numbers so that you can easily find things again. A lot of archives now let you photograph documents, so check if you are allowed to take a camera – and make sure you rename the files with reference numbers or you wont know what you’ve got. Good luck.