Making history, challenging absence and erasure : community archiving in the UK and beyond by Andrew Flinn

Par Rose-Marie Oger, Marguerite de Billy, Estelle Cepparo

Dr Andrew Flinn has worked in and with independent and community archives for many years. Most of his work is focusing on a politically engaged community archiving activity. He presented us some of the common characteristics of community-based archives, with particular emphasis on social movement archiving, but also the motivations and objectives of community-based archives to understand them through three linked objectives which are recovery, use and then aspiration and change. He ended with few words on some of the challenges that they face.

The Community Archives and Heritage Group (CAHG) is a national group which aims to support and promote community archives in the UK & Ireland
Recensement des archives de communauté au Royaume-Uni disponible sur

Community-based archives can be defined as archives of “self-organizing groups bringing together people working and interested in community archives”. So they are diverse and concern local, regional,social, political or religious movements. These archives also enable us to build a memory about minorities  which are excluded by historians. But it is important to underline that community-based archives aren’t just collections of documents, objects about a community but beyond they are a community building itself and identifying itself around that collection or the activity of collecting”. So, each community has its own definition of what are community-based archives. This explains the varied forms of archives that we can find.

These community-based archives has several objectives. First of all, there is the creation of memory which gathers people of the same community. Archives become a social object. They are also a tool to fix the tangible and the ephemera and to keep a tradition, especially for the social movements. This preservation of traditions by archives enables to connect the past with the present and to bring innovations from what has been done. Finally, these community-based-archives are places where people have the possibility to think, to argue and to talk.

But community-based archives are especially a tool for the minorities to promote their place in history studies. By the validation of their archives, they claim their legitimacy to be known. It is the case for example of the Marx Memorial Library in London from Communist tradition which was created in the 1930s. There is also the Black cultural archives which have been active in the early 1980s and then the feminist and queer archives, with this one from New York which have a continued presence since the 1970s. Similarly, there is also a muslim archives set up mostly online established in the last 10 years also. Thus, this is a longstanding tradition of community-based archives activity.

Dr Flinn spoke also of the American author Michelle Caswell, who is both working at the UCL but also within a community archives called the South Asian American Digital Archive (SSAADA), an online repository that provides access to stories of South Asian Americans. She spoke of a symbolic annihilation, a kind of erasure of people and their stories. She spoke of community archives that strongly challenged that symbolic annihilation, talking about community archive works creating a more inclusive society.

In the UK, there is the availability of public funding to support community history workings, primarily through a fund called the National Lottery Heritage Fund created in 1994. However, more and more community-based archives become more recognized since 2000 thanks to the development of networks and social Information and Communication Technology (ICT) that provide a sort of platform to connect communities around the shared heritage.

Dr Flinn stated that community archives are preserved to be used both by the community archivists but also by the communities themselves. Thus, there is a notion of a useful past being employed in the present. To illustrate this notion, he gives the example of the Lesbian Herstory Archives (LHA) in New York, in which the collection is both as a way of challenging that silence about Lesbian history but also to connect the present struggles to the past and show the legacy of resistance. Archives can also be used as part of justice struggles. Dr Flinn gave the example of the Syrian archives which are preserved to be used in cases of some kind of war crimes, struggles or police violence.

To end, Dr Flinn explained the profound impact of community-based archives in terms of recovering ignored history. According to him, these archives can act as a resource for change and thinking about change. They have an impact on emotional well being as well in life and work skills.

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