University of Dundee Archive Services is based in heart of the city campus. The collections include University records which reflect the learning and teaching across the University from 1883, when teaching began, to the present day. As the nominated repository for NHS Tayside, the Archive manage and provide access to hospital and asylum records from across the region. The Archive also boasts a large number of collections relating to businesses, people and places of local and international significance. All our collections are in various formats and media dating from 99AD to the present day.
Working in the University archive brings with it many opportunities. We use the collections to teach students and staff about archives and demonstrate how they can be used effectively. Subject specific archival sources are built into the coursework for some humanities classes. For example Atlantic Empires draws on our rare book collections, Reading 17th Century Scotland looks at legal documents from a number of solicitor’s collections and The Great War module requests students read a number of letters written by a young soldier who is killed on the first day of the Battle of Loos. Archives are also at the heart of a module designed in collaboration with staff at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design. Illustration students are each given an archive box to research and create a new work of art inspired by the contents of their box. The artworks are exhibited alongside the archival material which inspired the pieces, all in the space of five weeks! These examples are a glimpse into how we use archives to support a number of classes across a variety of subjects within the University.
Archive Services, while campus based, welcomes all kinds of users. As such, community engagement features prominently in our work to help raise awareness of the University collections, debunk perceptions around archives, promote their use and connect the public with records that are relevant to their cultural heritage, past and present. Working with local primary schools has provided Archive Services an opportunity to get creative; devising age appropriate activities based on archives to afford local children a new and exciting form of active learning.
Feedback from teachers has proven that engaging children with archives has enhanced their understanding of a topic on a deeper level; physically connecting to the past by handling original items that are not at the teachers’ disposal. The activities we devise always contain a self-reflective element which helps their understanding of the world they live in. As the children have moved on to new topics, they have suggested to their teachers that Archive Services might be able to support their learning, evidence of the positive impact using archives has had on their learning at a young age which will hopefully continue into adulthood.
We regularly give community talks, attend local events and take advantage of opportunities to connect the collections to the community. A project which aims to bring these things together is planned for January 2020. It will include an intergenerational element with secondary school pupils interviewing and recording reminiscences of a local community group. The project will also make connections with other local repositories by borrowing some of their resources. We have recently completed a reminiscence project with a local community centre. Archives were used to help prompt personal memories which were recorded and will form part of the University’s oral history collection and they were encouraged to bring along items from their own collections. The project was initiated by public engagement staff across the University; Archive Services was the conduit to connecting the University with the city.
Other partnership projects include Strathmartine Hospital Histories in collaboration with the Thera Trust. People with learning disabilities who had lived at Strathmartine visited the archives and were invited to record their own personal memories, giving voice to their experiences not captured in the official hospital records. Archive staff also worked with the School of Nursing to welcome a group of mental health services users to explore the collections. The aim was to help them understand their present situation, consider how mental health conditions were dealt with in the past to encourage discussion and promote wellbeing.
As a small team in a large institution there are limitations to what can be delivered. Financial resources and a lack of a dedicated educational space combined with a staff of three limits what can we do in the searchroom, as educators and within the community. However, these limitations do encourage us to think creatively and find solutions, providing a high quality service to a range of users with diverse interests and needs.
Working in such a vibrant service with a wide variety of collections and users is a real perk of the job. A flexible approach is required, as staff react to what is required of any given day in addition to planned activities and not forgetting the bread and butter core archival tasks. Every day is different and this creates an energy and enthusiasm for our daily work which we hope is shared with our users.
Sharon Kelly, University of Dundee Archives