PAHC Archives Group: Sarah-Joy Ford and her use of Archives

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The arts and humanities archives group was set up in 2019 to help first year PGRs navigate archival research. As a group of friends from a range of backgrounds including history, design, English literature, textiles, sculpture and art, we thought it would be an opportunity to help each other get to grips with the daunting prospect of starting our research and discussed how we could support each other. We had a range of experiences in our first forays into the archives and our informal get togethers allowed us to discuss our problems and queries without feeling stupid. We could compare research techniques, talk about our research needs and also work together to secure funding for research trips. 

Our first trip away was to London over the summer of 2019 which allowed us to take advantage of accommodation paid for by PAHC through their student initatives fund. We found an apartment close to the V&A and with good links to the British Library and Wellcome Collection. We pooled resources for food and drinks and, as group of women researchers, it was a much better option than staying in a hostel to keep the cost down. Our trip also meant that we could talk through our problems and research strategies after long gruelling days in the archives. The chance to have a chat and share the experience with someone lessened some of the loneliness possible when working indepth with archival material. Some of us were researching unsettling things, others were struggling to find what we needed. Together we could share challenges and work through problems. 

In 2020 we are now a larger group with more first year PGRs having joined us. This has meant we have PGRs from first and second year and we have used the group to help each other at various stages of the PhD experience. During lockdown and with many of us working from home and unable to access archives, the group has been there for people to share their frustrations and for us to discuss how we can overcome problems. This has included alternative sources, digitised collections, navigating primary sources references, overcoming the practicalities of archives and catalogue systems. We have also looked in more depth at the nature of archives themselves, what they represent, and how they affect us as researchers and influence our work. 

With this in mind one of the group, Sarah-Joy Ford, gave a zoom presentation on her work looking at the lesbian archive in the UK and how this informs her textile art practice. Working with digital embroidery techniques and with images that reflect lesbian experience, Sarah-Joy used archives in a different way to those of us in history or English literature. The archives not only provide Sarah-Joy with reference material and photographic images; they also shape her creative work as she reflects on how the UK’s range of lesbian archives (held in various locations around the country) are compiled, curated and contested.

Unlike many historians and artists within the group who use the British Library, National Archives, V&A, or Design Museum, Sarah-Joy often finds herself at the Glasgow Women’s Library or even in people’s garages when looking for material. Her experience is with well-established collections but also those in the process of being catalogued and formalised. With this comes different challenges but also different techniques that could be useful and informative for others working in various fields. For one, Sarah-Joy spoke about how the proto-archives, still in the process of formation, allowed her to reflect on their constructed aspect and how collections are archived in a political way. Different collectors and archivists were very passionate about what should be included, but also what should be excluded from the lesbian archival record. Those of us working with well-known and long since crystalised collections are aware of how political their formation was, but Sarah-Joy experiences such conflict in the present. She, in her own words, wants to ‘reconstruct the archive’ in her textile pieces and envisage ‘possible futures’ for the material. She describes her work in the archives as being a feedback loop: the material informs the artwork she produces but also her pieces then influence and strike up a dialogue with the archives themselves. Her pieces are another medium with which to catalogue and document this moment in time as the British lesbian record is formalised. 

As the UK lesbian archive is not all held in one central location, and the places it is found are scattered geographically as well as in terms of storage techniques and organisation styles, both the archive and the process of navigating it Sarah-Joy describes as being ‘patchwork.’ This in turn reflects the marginalisation of the lesbian past as well as the marginalisation of some documentary evidence as it is purposefully left out of the archival record.  Such sources mean Sarah-Joy’s techniques match the materials she is studying. Rather than a methodical style practiced by some archival researchers, she prefers to describe her archival searches as ‘rummagings’, or rather as ‘femmage.’ There are no boundaries to the archives she works with as the materials she finds are often placed beyond institutions and formal archival collections. Some archives have been very strict with what she can use and how she can gain access to it, some archives have involved her in the process of cataloguing itself. There are ethical issues when it comes to finding yourself if this position, of what is included and excluded. Also, there is the fact that many of the people Sarah-Joy studies are still alive, and the images of them therefore more sensitive than those most researchers working with more distant pasts have to deal with. However, unlike most historical researchers, she can also talk with those people where she had built up a relationship and can gain deeper insight into those people at the heart of her images. Many of us in the archives group find ourselves looking for very specific information we need for their arguments, Sarah-Joy is instead lead by the archive itself. She follows her impulses. She records the process of her rummagings through auto-ethnography, describing her experiences and feelings in her notes. For her the archives are an affective experience and that connection to particular sources as important as the information they contain. This, in short, is a lot of the motivation in Sarah-Joy’s practice: using the archives to look back and then using the material found to ‘inform the present and future.’ 

There was a lot to consider in Sarah-Joy’s presentation that was relevant to other researchers in the group. So much so that we followed up the session with another a few days later to further discuss her ideas on what the archive is and how she uses it. We aim to have more of these presentations in the near future, to compare our experiences, sources and how we all think about the archives in different ways. If you are interested in joining the group please contact anna.fielding@stu.mmu.ac.uk or keep a look out for the regular zoom meetings which are posted on the PAHC moodle page. If you just want to dip into certain meetings you can do that too without joining the group. 

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