The documents I requested from the university archives were nothing to do with the Saltire project, but a project I might start once I finish up the MLitt. After my first couple of experiences in archives, the visit was just as much an opportunity to get another insight into a different archive.
As with the previous two, the documents I had requested were laid out for my arrival. One was a lovely old map of Dundee in a tube, which gave me a great excuse to use the weights I’d seen in the National Archives. They were so satisfying to hold and lay on the corners of the map! In Dundee I really got a sense of the tactile nature of looking at old records. Something about the small room I was in, the window to my left with a view into the dark stacks and the lovely props all encouraged a hushed care and respect for the documents, but in a far more cosy way than in the National Archives with its airport like security.
Jan the archivist was also extremely generous with her time. Knowing I was coming to the archive to research for my dissertation, she sat down with me for a meandering conversation about materiality, digitisation and storage among other things.
These visits have given me an insight into the wonderful free resources that are archives, and I am now thinking about the next stage of the placement project where I will be gathering together creative responses to the archival documents from the Saltire Society. The contributors to this collection won’t necessarily have ever been to an archive, as the workshops we ran were simply using documents we had found there. I’m interested to see how this project develops, and how being that one step removed might affect the final peices. In one sense it is a challenge, but I think it’s also an opportunity for the creative work to be freer and more inventive, less tied to an individual’s understanding of what an archive, or even history can be.
The first archive I visited was the National Archives of Scotland in Edinburgh. Not having been in an archive before, I had a lot to learn about the process of requesting and viewing the material. There were all sorts of procedures and restrictions to navigate and although none of them were overly complex it was a bit unnerving to start with. For anyone thinking about visiting an archive, here’s the process I went through. Every archive will have slightly different procedures although I think this one is typical.
First I searched and then requested the items I wanted to look at online. It’s best to apply for a registration card and request which items you want to look at ahead of time so that they can get the items ready for you.
The record of what is in the archives is catalogued and I got some instructions from the archivist responsible for that particular section of the archive on how to find relevant material, although searching for key words worked well. The first thing that struck me in searching was how much there is to sift through – I’ve later discovered that this is a common issue. Archival overwhelm is real, so it’s important to stay focussed on your line of enquiry.
The archive is housed in the National Library, just across from Edinburgh Central Library on George IV Bridge. It’s a big confusing old building but the staff are friendly, even if it’s all a bit stern and intimidating at first. You can only take certain things into the room where you look at the materials – you can’t use a pen while in there, only pencil and other than that, you can only bring in a notebook or laptop/phone. There are other rules and its best to read up beforehand. If you have to show up with other things, check how you can store them – you might need a pound coin for a locker.
Once in the reading room, the archivist identified the six items I had requested (you are only allowed six at a time), I was given the items one by one. There were all sorts of lovely soft weights and props for the documents so they didn’t get damaged them. I didn’t use many this time but I enjoyed the idea of books having little sofas to rest on. Once I had gone through all six folders, I was able to request more – if you do this before a lunch time cut-off point, they can sometimes get out more for you by the afternoon. This is worth knowing if you’ve got a lot to get through, so be prepared with your list of what you want next.
My first visit to the National Archives was a bit of a learning curve, but I found some fascinating material for the Saltire project and it prompted visits to other archives, armed with far more knowledge of what to expect.
I’ve visited three archives recently; the National Library of Scotland to see the Saltire Society documents which are housed there; Dundee University archives and Glasgow Women’s Library. Over the next few posts, I’ll give a tast of each of those different experiences and what I discovered there.
When I visited GWL, the papers I had requested were waiting for me on a large round table in the corner of the big open gallery space. The heater next to me was on and there were even blankets on the chairs. It felt cosy and welcoming, like I was in a community space rather than an institution. I was greeted by Nicola the archivist and asked to read an A4 sheet on the table with the usual archive rules on (no pens, food, hand cream etc. near the documents) then she left me to it. She’d brought out several grey boxes containing the records relating to Section 28 resistance. This was a law in place in the UK from 1988 to 2001 in Scotland and 2003 in England which prohibited the ‘promotion of homosexuality’ in schools and council provision. There were many groups who campaigned against it both when it became law and leading up to its repeal. I was inspired to research this topic after reading a short story in Juliet Jaques’ collection Variations, which uses historical records to create short fiction about queer lives in the UK. I’ve long been interested in the resistance to Section 28 because my primary and secondary education took place under its shadow and I often wonder what might have been different if it hadn’t existed.
There were so many documents to go through that I spent almost the entire day going through them, and even then only flicked through. Because I was exploring the documents from a creative writing perspective rather than a historical one, I was fairly scattergun in my approach, passing over anything that looked too dry or procedural. The things I photographed for later were often images or hand-drawn posters – anything that showed the humanity and passion involved in the campaign rather than the ins and outs of law reform.
My favourite artefact was a photograph of a drag queen all in pink, complete with feather boa and impossible platform heels stood in front of a bus, the bus driver visible but blurred. As I flicked through the stack of photos I found another few depicting the same scene a few moments later. She was spraying the number 28 on the windscreen in the same bright pink as her outfit. I haven’t used the images as prompt yet, but I know it’ll make a great story.
Book week was a few weeks ago now. It went by in a flash after all that planning. We had a good turn out for the online event Queer the Record, with Michael Lee Richardson leading some writing prompts inspired by documents in the Saltire Society archives.
After I had introduced the session and given some background to the Saltire Society, Michael started us off with some digital cut-up poetry courtesy of Glass Leaves, a website which manipulates text in all sorts of wierd and wonderful ways. We started with several writer’s rejection letters from the archive. My contribution turned out like this:
I should be a fiction list
in the publishing interest
It is not impossible.
In any case the publishing interest
is not impossible.
Cut-up poetry is a great warm-up activity when in a room together, and we had discussed before about how the same atmosphere might be created online but I had not seen the Glass Leaves website before the event so it was a fun suprise to be able to participate in this activity myself.
Following that short exercise, we explored the idea of creating manifesto poetry inspired the Saltire Society’s 1979 Manifesto for the Arts in Scotland. Then after a short break Michael showed us a series of found images from the archives, stimulating some beautiful and imaginative interpretations.
I was interested to see the different levels of engagement from the participants. One or two didn’t engage at all during the session but contacted me afterwards, there were a couple who joined in the conversation by sharing their own stories and insights, and one person who commented and shared their thoughts in the chat. Usually when I have done zoom events in other settings people have seemed to follow each other’s lead, so if a couple of people engage in the chat, for example, then everyone does. I think it was due to Michael’s skilled introduction and encouragement that the group felt comfortable to participate in a way that suited them which made the group dynamic flow well.
At the end of the session I explained that I was looking for submissions for the Saltire pamphlet and was really pleased that everyone got back in touch to submit work or express interest in doing so in the following fortnight. Through that later contact I was able to find out a bit more about the participant’s interests and am really looking forward to working with them to produce something for publication.