This post is written by Craig Fees, archivist at the Planned Environment Therapy Trust Archive and Study Centre, 1988-2018.
The phone rings. Out of the blue: A former child in residential care, from a place whose archives we hold. This is already special. Here is a voice reaching sixty years into the past to bring this children’s community into the present, and bringing a subsequent lifetime with it.
He’s heard we may have his file. We do. Can he come to see it? He can. He’s partly disabled; he will take the train to a nearby station – we have a small rural one I recommend. Can I recommend a taxi firm? No, I will pick him up (and take him back!). We have onsite accommodation if he wanted to stay overnight. No, he wants to come up and go back on the same day. This first conversation lasts the better part of an hour – because I know something about the place and know the names of members of staff and even fellow children as he mentions them, and he wants to talk to someone for whom the place is important and has meaning. It’s fascinating, and I ask whether he might possibly be willing to record such a discussion, if there’s time, when he’s here? The recording would be confidential unless or until he agreed otherwise, having had a copy of the recording (we don’t always have the resources to provide a transcript; but that would be ideal). I explain how it’s held securely, and that people either could or could not see it, depending on what he wished; it would be entirely in his hands. But there might not be time, and it might well be something he would not want to do anyway. But I do want to convey that what he is saying is important, and would be of immense interest to future generations. Or should be! I want him to know that he and his experience are important.
We talk about data protection, and what I will do to make the file available to him: I will go page by page through it, with an eye for third party information which might need to be redacted; I explain the legal parameters guiding redaction; and I explain that because the file is a private document about him, and from my point of view is none of my business, a) once I have been through the file I am unlikely to remember in any detail what is in it, because I will be reading it instrumentally and not for information about him or his life, and b) I will not redact anything unless it is absolutely legally necessary, because the more detailed and complete the record I can put into his hands, the more value it is likely to have for him. I ask him for three things before I start: some proof that he is who he says he is, so that I don’t release information to someone I shouldn’t; any information he can share about who I might encounter in the file (family members; fellow children; foster carers…), and if he can let me know whether any are alive or dead; and formal permission to go through his file. Of course he is unlikely to say no to the latter; we both understand that. But it is important to me that he is the one who makes the decision, and gives the permission for this stranger to go into his intimate childhood. It is not just a formality. Are there any charges? No, although as a small charity we never say no to donations. But we don’t want anything to stand between an individual and access to their file.
I meet him at the station. We readjust the car to meet his physical situation. I tell him we have a twenty-five minute ride. We talk: it’s beautiful countryside; he’s come from London. He asks about me, about my background and where I’m coming from, so we talk about that. I tell him I have set up my office with his file, and am happy to be in there with him, or to shut the door and let him have it to himself. He won’t be disturbed if he doesn’t want to be. When we arrive I make coffee and biscuits. I explain the very few redactions I’ve made, how he will know when he comes across them, and what they mean: for example, in the filing system in his childhood children from the same authority often had papers mixed together, or the children were bundled together into a single piece of correspondence. Since he knew who he travelled to and from the place with (and has mentioned them), I would not remove that kind of information. But where there were personal details about the other child or their home situation, for example, I would.
He elects to be alone with his file. The phone is unplugged, there are no limits on time, and there are no other visitors expected. I will be somewhere around if he needs me. Eventually, he emerges and we talk. He shares his views on his file, and his child’s eye view of its depictions. There are factual inaccuracies in it. Some things have fallen into place for him. We don’t record; it’s not appropriate. But he invites me to meet him some time for coffee in London. I take him back to the train. We email. We meet in London, and he talks about the place some more, about his life, about the experience of accessing his file, and something of what he learned. He has a second hot chocolate, and I have a second coffee. London is his home ground, and he makes sure I know the best route back to the train. I am in the loop when I hear, from a member of his family some months later, that he has died.
Each request is unique, comes differently, and unfolds in its own particular way. But if done well the underlying philosophy of welcome, of being at the service and disposal of, of adapting to, of making possible, of conveying the meaning and significance of, of learning about and from should be consciously or unconsciously experienced by every person seeking their file, as is a sense of sharing responsibility and of working together. The ultimate source of one’s orientation as an archivist is love, or, more simply, a profound respect and treasuring of people, of records, and of the possibility when they come together; with a healthy respect for boundaries, and for the potential of traumatic experience to spring surprises, including the surprise of having no bearing at all; the knowledge that archivists are not therapists, but people; and with a fundamental understanding that whatever the emotional dynamics of the encounter with their records, that experience is theirs, and not ours. We are guests in their lives, and the unique privilege of the archivist is to set the stage for their encounter with their file; to provide an environment which is welcoming, informed, and safe; and to be available if and as called for, with the willing understanding that one may not be called or needed at all. Which is excellent; to be invisible and forgotten is a privilege as well.