PhD placement students, Rachel Tavernor and Catherine Oliver, in collaboration with the British Library, are launching a new website. In this post, Rachel discusses her work encountering stories of housing activism in the British Library. Later this year, Catherine will launch a new section of the website on food activism and will discuss a new British Library acquisition of the Richard Ryder archive. We hope this collaborative initiative will grow with new sections added showing the diversity of our British Library Collections.
The brief for my time with the British Library was to investigate 20th and 21st Century anti-poverty activism in the the British Library Collections. In particular, to make connections between archives and to explore the value of the British Library’s holdings as a whole. I am not a historian, nor an archivist, so my approach to working with the collections was informed by my background in the arts, as well as my own involvement with institutional and grassroots activism. Having worked with smaller archives, I was interested in exploring how radical and rebellious voices are preserved in a large scholarly institution. Before working with the British Library, I had wrongly assumed that institutional voices would be the focus of the collections. While these voices are dominant, and at times privileged, the rebels in the archives are also there to encounter.
After a preliminary mapping of the collections and available material (there was lots), I narrowed the focus of my research to housing activism in the UK. Struggles for decent and affordable housing, with secure and fair tenancies, are at the forefront of many anti-poverty movements today. The decline of social housing, rises in private rents and poor living conditions, are a catalyst for many forms of activism (demonstrations, squatting, housing cooperatives and rent strikes).
One of the greatest strengths of researching activism in the British Library Collections is the diverse range of materials, from personal papers to government documents. Housing activism, as with many political struggles, stretches across institutional, community and mediated spaces. The Library’s collections offer ways to explore the everyday experiences of activism, preserved in oral histories, diaries and letters. Alongside examining how campaigns are shaped by, or in reaction to, housing policies. Researchers can trace these differing, and at times contradictory, narratives throughout the collections. By exploring these stories in tandem, the public have the opportunity to listen to these voices, and explore them alongside one another, to weave new histories, and perhaps new stories of housing activism.
While exploring the different collections archived at the British Library, I also conducted a small research project on ways to archive contemporary forms of activism. It was a privilege to conduct this research, which included interviewing archivists at feminist libraries, housing activists and academics that engage with archives of activism. You can read a section of the report on our new website. One of the themes that emerged in these interviews was that archives are a living resource, which can inspire and influence contemporary forms of activism. However, many people may experience different barriers to accessing materials archived at institutions like the British Library. It was these conversations that inspired Sarah, Catherine and I to collaborate on a website that would act as a guide to materials archived at the British Library. We hope that the Archiving Activism website may inspire people to further engage with some of the histories of housing activism, as well as the British Library Collections. If you have an idea for a new section or would like to contribute, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
With thanks to the Arts and Humanities Research Council for funding my placement at the British Library and to all the copyright holders for granting us permission to publish images of the items archived in the Collections.