Back in November, a lifetime ago now, the storyline editors of Radio 4’s long running soap opera The Archers, looking for a stirring and dramatic start to the new decade, sifted options including teenage pregnancy, modern slavery, or a global pandemic to mirror that of a century before. Dismissing the latter as too far-fetched they made a choice for slavery that now seems timid at best. So there’s no coronavirus in Ambridge. No lockdown, no physical distancing, no shortage of toilet roll. There’s cricket on the green and banter in The Bull. If it felt quaint and out of touch before it’s doubly so now, listening in to this carefree parallel world from our silos and bunkers.
By the way, according to my Bluffer’s Guide To Stereotypes (2016 edition) every archivist listens to The Archers, but if you’ve somehow slipped through the net then go here first, then see me after class.
Of course we all live in Ambridge to a greater or lesser extent. We are interconnected with each other with various degrees of separation and the little dramas of our lives play out against the vast indifferent backdrop of history. Sadly, just now we are living in interesting times. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought a stirring and dramatic start to the new decade, upending plans and projects and carefully structured ways of doing things. Some of us have suffered the illness, some have lost friends or loved ones to it. Many are experiencing financial hardship, stress and anxiety, insecurity and fear. We’re all displaced. Against that new and startling backdrop we look for ways to continue with family life, obligations, work.
Like Ambridge, we could simply pretend it’s not happening, or hope to wait it out until things return to ‘normal’, whatever that was. But the ground is shifting beneath our feet. New ways of doing old things are emerging; meetings by video, home office setups at the kitchen table or in the hall cupboard, online collaboration tools, virtual gym and yoga sessions, cloud-based classrooms. Some of it is make-shift, a compromise, but some of it makes sense. All those meetings could have been e-mails after all. That training workshop could be a webinar, with four times as many attending from near and far. That cataloguing only took half the time without all those office interruptions.
I’m not advocating a permanent lockdown, attractive as that is to my introvert nature, but the current crisis offers us options when we finally do return to our places of work. In education, for instance, the anachronistic edifice of the schooling system – modelled on early 20th century industrial production lines – is being challenged by the agility and flexibility of teacher-led online learning systems that can respond and adapt to individual students’ needs and learning styles. It might still be beneficial to bus or walk to a school building for some shared lessons and experiences, but perhaps not every day? There are new approaches to add to the old ways, and in some cases replace them.
Archive records are reassuring at times like this. We’ve been here before. Kingdoms rise and kingdoms fall. Lives play out, dramas happen, quiet revolutions unfold. Archived stories give us context and points of reference; the lives of others were very much like our own when you boil it down. There will be a time after this. And the new ways of doing things offer new ways for our archive records, with their precious cargoes of story and context and learning and reassurance, to be shared.
Digitisation, bandwidth and processing power have been expanding exponentially for over a decade. This crisis, with its restrictions on movement and the economic storm that promises to follow in its wake, means that now is the time to deploy these tools in new and imaginative ways. Yes, I know; a digitised parish record doesn’t offer the texture and sound of rough paper, the smell of age, the experience of turning the pages of history. But it whets the appetite and carries something of that experience to a far wider audience than the one we reach in the search room. And we can now film our records and storerooms, capture the sound of leather bindings and maps unrolling, compare and cross reference their data, talk to people around the world about them with nothing more than a smartphone and an internet connection.
When the current emergency eases there will be a reckoning. You know the drill; budget cuts, mergers, service and staff reductions. Notwithstanding any statutory protection, our Scottish archive services will come under pressure to reduce their costs along with everyone else. In recent years those archive services with strong links to their local schools and communities through active education and outreach programmes have proven more resilient to these pressures.
And archives-based education and outreach work is going to change considerably over the next 12-18 months, bringing longer-term changes to ways of working with schools, groups, researchers, and local communities. With limits on travel and face-to-face meetings, budgetary restrictions and the rapid adoption of digital tools and online capabilities, remote delivery of outreach programmes will take precedence over on-site visits. There will always be a place for physically meeting and working together and experiencing archival records first-hand, but for now the world has tilted a different way.
Over the next few months I’ll be consulting with you about this. I’ll be looking for new ways for us to be in touch with each other and with our schools and communities. I’ll be researching and demonstrating innovative ways of working online and with digital tools. Here at SCA Towers we’re developing a new virtual version of our Education Coaching Programme, as well as online learning modules, live webinars, new exemplar resources and regular updates on what’s happening in Ambridge. I want to hear from you about any and all of this (except Ambridge). How we can be of most value to you in responding creatively to the restrictions imposed by the pandemic?
Drop me an e-mail via the form below. Let me know if you’re available for a chat by Skype or Zoom or Teams or your preferred video app. Tell me how I can assist with getting your outreach work online and out to the people you want to reach. Tell me what you need to make these changes happen.
The Archers editors missed an opportunity, I reckon. Ambridge under coronavirus lockdown would be an interesting place. Sure, there would be a lot of Netflix watching and endless new things to do with stewed apples, but think of the clandestine activities, the intense family dramas, the chance to get rid of some frankly tiresome characters. And they’d all be listening to their radios. Do people in Ambridge listen to The Archers on the radio? Of course they do, but in their version there’s a global pandemic underway.
SCA Education Development Officer