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Feedback from the workshop was overwhelmingly positive, and a notable development was the formation of a network of practitioners who will meet twice yearly to further discuss this area in a specifically Irish context. This is particularly significant for the large number of archivists who work as lone practitioners within their organisations, that there is a professional and confidential space available to them to further explore empathetic archival practice, for both researcher and archivist alike. 

Lisa Shortall

MA in Archives and Records Management, UCD

UCD School of History CPD Workshop for archivists – Implementing Trauma-Informed Practice in Archives

This continuing professional development workshop was generously funded by the Heritage Council under its Stewardship Fund.

Lisa Shortall taught on the MA in Archives and Records Management course in 2022/23 and is currently undertaking a PhD exploring ways to locate, represent, and provide access to records of single mothers and their children in Irish local authority archives.

Many of us will have seen on television shows such as Who Do You Think You Are?, the range of emotions that affect people when they are confronted with their own family history in an archival record, no matter how removed it is in terms of time. The reactions run the gamut of human emotions from joy, elation, and surprise, to sadness, anger, and despair. Certain archival collections can be very difficult to deal with because the content within them is graphic or distressing. Other archives may have incomplete information recorded within them which leads to disappointment and frustration on behalf of the person accessing them. Other archives may contain very sensitive or private information leading to closure periods for legal reasons which affect access.

How best then can archivists deal with the affect that archives may have on individuals accessing potentially distressing information in the research room? And how do archivists themselves deal with graphic or confronting content when working on archival collections before they are made available to the public? These are questions which have been raised internationally in recent years, mainly due to the uncovering of scandals involving organised religion and/or state institutionalisation of vulnerable communities. Ireland is no different with a series of inquiries and commissions of investigation into child abuse (Ryan Reports 2000-2009), Magdalen laundries (McAleese Report 2011-2013), and Mother and Baby Homes (2015-2020), all of which has encouraged a closer inspection by affected individuals of state and religious recordkeeping, with much criticism of both.

On 26 May 2023, a small group of approximately 20 Irish archivists who deal with such issues on a continuous basis partook in an online workshop hosted by UCD School of History and the Australian Society of Archivists entitled Implementing Trauma-Informed Practice in Archives. It was delivered by Nicola Laurent and Dr Kirsten Wright, archivists and academics who work for Australia’s ‘Find and Connect’ organisation. Find and Connect is an online resource for people who as children were in out-of-home ‘care’ in Australia, or in other words, people who were removed to orphanages, children’s home and other institutions for various socially derived reasons. Laurent and Wright have conducted much research into using concepts such as ‘radical empathy’ to improve the experience for such people who seek to use a wide network of religious and state archives to locate their identity records, to recover their early childhood records or to seek redress for events which occurred during institutionalisation. It is an entirely traumatic experience for most of these archive users, who not only have to navigate a formidable and historian-orientated archive, but also have deep personal and emotional ties to the records.

Trauma-Informed practice

The workshop was a three hour online exploration of practical steps to implement trauma-informed archival practice in archival settings, and to facilitate awareness of the impact of archives on researchers accessing the material. It also looked at the impact of sensitive or distressing archival content on practitioners themselves, whether through the cataloguing process or through interaction with distressed researchers accessing the material – this is known as vicarious trauma. The session was not recorded in order to protect the anonymity of the participants and their institutions. The archivists came from a range of public organisations, state bodies, local authorities and religious orders across the island of Ireland.

In terms of archives and trauma, the key takeaway is that for many people, such as for instance survivors of institutionalisation in Ireland, archives and memory organisations are not safe spaces. Not being able to access records or to discover that early life information was not recorded or was destroyed can be just as traumatic as viewing records with sensitive content. Archives can be representative of institutional power and to work in a trauma-informed way, archivists must work collaboratively with users of the archive, and to change how an organisation provides a service, rather than changing the service itself.

Trauma-informed practice sets out to make an organisation a safe and empowering space for both users and staff under five key principles – Safety, Trust and Transparency, Choice, Collaboration and Empowerment. Each of these areas was discussed at length during the workshop and the facilitators provided practical guidance in how to implement each action. This was followed by ‘brainstorming’ sessions where archivists explored how this could be implemented into Irish archival practice. Examples of actions that could be undertaken would be to design a safe space within the research room to allow people privacy and support when looking at distressing records; to update information in finding aids and on websites about records that have been lost or destroyed and why/how this happened; to collaborate with survivors by asking the person where and how they would like to receive their records, with who, and the contextual information they would like to receive as part of that process; and to explain any redaction in plain rather than legalistic language.

Vicarious or secondary trauma was explored in the second half of the workshop and looked at how archivists who are continuously exposed to working with graphic or distressing records can experience similar symptoms as experiencing direct trauma. There can be informational trauma from continuously dealing with records evidencing war, human rights issues, abuse, or indeed trauma because there are no records extant to meet requests due to loss or destruction. This can be upsetting as the archivist represents the institution that caused the trauma and this can point to a broader pattern of uncaring behaviour across the institution – it can be difficult for archivists, whose motto could be summed up as ‘to preserve and make available’, to deal with this dissonance. Practical guidance in this part of the workshop dealt with health and safety issues within organisations and developing advocacy actions in this area, such as designing vicarious trauma policies, rotating staff in larger repositories so that that the emotional burden of working with such records is distributed across the institution, and empowering staff to share their voice and lived experiences to management.

Feedback

Feedback from the workshop was overwhelmingly positive, and a notable development was the formation of a network of practitioners who will meet twice yearly to further discuss this area in a specifically Irish context. This is particularly significant for the large number of archivists who work as lone practitioners within their organisations, that there is a professional and confidential space available to them to further explore empathetic archival practice, for both researcher and archivist alike.

For more information on the network please contact lisa.collins.2[at]ucdconnect.ie 

This continuing professional development workshop was generously funded by the Heritage Council under its Stewardship Fund.

Nicole Laurent and Kirsten Wright’s most recent research, a report commissioned by the International Council on Archives Understanding the international landscape of trauma and archives was published in February 2023 and is available at https://www.ica.org/en/report-understanding-the-international-landscape-of-trauma-and-archives. They presented the Irish and UK findings from this research at the ARA conference, 30 Aug-1 Sep in Belfast.

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