Stories from the archives: an archivist explains how storytellers can make history

There is a type of story that surrounds us and affects the way we see the world. It shapes our ideology and colours our reality. You know: history.

Most people think of ‘history’ as meaning ‘what happened in the past’ but that misses the point. Histories are stories that we tell to describe and explain the past and that’s a crucial difference.  Historical narratives, like any stories, are constructed: elements are included or left out, causal relationships are asserted, events are interpreted and made meaningful.

As an archivist I have helped a lot of people to find stories that mean something to them within historical collections. And I’ve researched a ton of stories from the archives myself. Take it from me, history is storytelling and there’s nothing neutral about it.

You’ve heard the phrase “history is written by the victors”, right? Well, there’s more to it than that. Historical documents are mostly created and preserved in pockets of privilege. You know, the landowners, politicians, businessmen, husbands… But there is even more to it than that. Between the creation of original documents and their interpretation through historical research, are the archivists.

Du du duuuuur!

Putting it like that, makes us sound like creepy Dr Who villains but it’s probably the most important job you don’t know enough about.

Having worked as one for nearly 20 years, I can tell you that many people don’t know what an archivist is. No, we don’t turn base metals into gold, nope not even a nugget of purest green.

We know what historians are, because school. The only reason you need to know about archivists is to understand that there are people making value judgements and decisions about what is and isn’t history – before the historians even get their hands on it. As well as a whole lot of collections management and providing access, archivists decide what is worthy of permanent preservation and which historical documents exist. We don’t do this on a whim or according to personal interests – at least not anymore – but this is what we do.

I have literally said yes and no to hundreds of government files either making it into history or being permanently destroyed. (Trying to think up a tinder based joke now. What would the archives disposition app be called – bin-der? Except not like that of course – it’s way more complex, you fools!). Archivists know what they’re doing – but you should also know that they are doing it.

The important thing to realise about cultural heritage is that the stories it tells are based on layers upon layers of value judgements and are both influenced by, and determine, a society’s ideology. This means what we think reality is, what we think humans are like or not like.

How history’s getting better

Don’t worry, we’ve got redressing the balance off to a good start. The history game is no longer dominated by privileged grey-haired men obsessing over kings and queens. Feminists like to call it herstory. You get the idea.

For a long time now, archivists have pursued more inclusive and radical collecting policies and academic historians have researched all manner of progressive topics in the archives as well as revisiting previously documented subjects with greater understanding.

Important collections of protest and activism are filling the gaps in existing archive institutions and specialist organisations and projects have also been set up, such as the Feminist Archive, Black Cultural Archive, Humanist Library and Archives, Black Performance and Carnival Archive, Peace Museum Archive and People’s History Museum, to name a random few. Archivists and history collaborators also run profile raising events such as LGBT history month (February) Black History Month (October) and Women’s History Month (March) – all in the spirit of giving everyone their place in history and telling it like it really was.

Historians in academia and in the media are busy sharing hitherto forgotten histories – e.g. David Olusoga’s recent BBC series ‘Black and British: A Forgotten History’. And so is Hollywood.  True stories like that of NASA scientists and ‘Hidden Figures’ Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, need to be told. We had heard about Watson and Crick’s work on DNA and, thanks to feminist history, people are now aware of Rosalind Franklin’s contribution too.

The point of all this radical and revisionary history is to redress the balance, to update our dominant ideology and to provide a more accurate understanding of human reality. About time.

What role can life writers and storytellers play in all this? You can add your voice, your experiences, reflections and meanings into the archives for future historians to read. If you get your stories into a library, then great, get your writer’s archive into a collection, even better. Perhaps you’ll find a place in a zine library, or the Self-Publishing Archive or future historians will read your blog via the Internet Archive – but history and the dominant ideology won’t include you (or it will speak for you) if you don’t find and share your stories in the first place. Find a project like StoryCorps, keep records of your campaign, or archive the graphic novels you make. Write yourself into history with your stories.

For me, the progression from archivist to Life Writing is about moving closer to the action. I’ve been a story warrior after the fact, analysing and presenting stories that have gone before, and now I’m ready to tackle all this at source – by motivating storytellers to find their voice and edge themselves into the collective narrative.

The first step is to show you that yes, you do have stories. Don’t let celebrity worshipping culture tell you otherwise. Just as archives are never created with posterity in mind, but come into being as a side product of everyday life, the really important stories can be found in the everyday moments of our lives.

What storytellers can learn from historians

And there are other storytelling tips we can learn from historians too. And I don’t mean the walking and talking to camera thing.

Both history and life writing derive their power from real life events that actually happened. In both cases, we have to trust the storyteller. Historians convince us of the stories they tell by including documentary evidence – and by referencing it so that we could go to the archive and read these documents for ourselves. The equivalent for true life storytellers is to include details from your lived experience. We have to believe you really were there and that it really happened.

The other element of true stories – whether historical and second-hand or contemporary and first-person – is that it has to mean something. Historians aren’t banging on about ‘this happened, then that happened, then that happened’ – but constructing a causal narrative about why and what it all means.

For storytellers, this means some kind of personal reflection. Even if it only happened yesterday – reflection is the difference between an account and a story. This is why we listen to your story – we want to know what it means for you and we want to learn from what you learned.

Storytelling doesn’t have to be about posterity. We can use storytelling to redefine cultural ideology by getting all heritage about it, but the aim of life writer’s needn’t be to make it into libraries or archives at all. The same ideology-shaping happens when you share your story (or comedy routine or song writing or theatre piece) with a live audience; person to person.

Either way, we’ve got some storytelling to do. Check out the app and Story Catcher to get started.

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