Archives in a digital world … creating social value and community engagement

By Rebecca Jackson

Recording the everyday goings on in our lives has almost become second nature, without most of us even thinking about it. Constant updates on Twitter or Facebook act as a personal archive in a digital age. Events we attend often result in photos being uploaded, tagged, liked and shared; while the advent of new tools like Periscope enable live streaming.

While we may think this is a modern phenomenon, a similar, albeit less personal, chronicling of people and events has been going on for centuries and is accessible to us today in the form of archives and art collections. Giving us a window into the lives of those who lived before us, archives have traditionally been seen as a way to enhance learning and increase understanding about the society we live in today. Archive material has also been used as a fun and accessible way to explore our history that goes beyond (sometimes tedious) reading in books.

But in this digital age, where does archiving fit in? What purpose does it serve and what relevance can it have to local communities?

spa blog photoThe Scottish Political Archive

The Scottish Political Archive (SPA) is a small but dedicated team of researchers and archivists based at the University of Stirling. I’ve been involved as a volunteer since 2012.

The archive, which is almost entirely reliant on student and public volunteers to function, is home to collections which document the recent political, social and cultural history of Scotland. There’s a particular focus on the impact of national events at a local level around Scotland’s Central Belt – preserving the legacy of Scottish politics for future generations.

A modern archive for modern politics

Since its establishment in 2010, the SPA has actively hunted for material to document the recent political history of Scotland, particularly artefacts relating to central Scotland. This includes anything from leaflets and posters to badges, banners, mugs and T-shirts.

It seeks to merge the traditional with the digital, with artefacts held on site (available to browse on request) and a digital Flickr archive which includes photos and videos from events attended by researchers and archivists.

The 2014 independence referendum archive is now one of the largest that the organisation holds, along with the digital archive of the Scots independent photography collection, and the personal archive of former first Minister of Scotland Baron McConnell of Glenscorrodale (aka Jack McConnell).

In addition to this, the archive sends archivists and researchers to public meetings, hustings, party conferences and election night counts so that we can create as complete a documentation of political events from start to finish as possible. This was the case in both the 2014 independence referendum and the 2015 general election campaigns.

  Indyref photosreferendum collage 3

Engaging with local communities

As well as collecting material to add to its collections, SPA engages widely with the local community and in cooperation with the Stirling University Art Collection has organised projects with local primary schools, elderly groups and marginalised groups.

One of the most successful projects to date was a project with inmates of HMP YOI Cornton Vale prison in Stirling. The Create and Curate project, funded by Education Scotland, was designed to provide an innovative way to teach skills and encourage inclusion and participation, with inmates creating pieces of writing and artwork to be displayed in an exhibition.

The project helped to build the confidence of those inside the prison and gave them a creative outlet which many said they had never had before. Their work was initially shown in a private exhibition space within Cornton Vale Prison, but has since been moved to an exhibition space at the University of Stirling, where it will remain open for members of the public to view free of charge.

Archives as a bridge to the past

The SPA doesn’t just engage with local communities about modern politics. This year marks the second year of commemorations to mark the centenary of the First World War, and more specifically this year, the centenary of the Battle of Gallipoli.

SPA and the Art Collection worked with local primary schools in the Stirling area, in cooperation with academics from the University of Stirling and Stirling Council, to host an event to mark 100 years since the outbreak of Gallipoli.

The Gallipoli exhibition included the installation of over 100 handmade poppies, to mimic that of Paul Cummins and Tom Piper outside the Tower of London last year. The poppies were made from recycled material by the schoolchildren. The children were then invited to the University grounds to install them alongside representatives from the Scottish Government, Stirling Council and Stirling University.

poppies

The cultural value of archives

Local authority archive and heritage services have suffered from significant budget cuts in recent years. Demonstrating the value and impact of archives can be hard to evidence – it’s been suggested that the economic value of archives depends on how users make them meaningful. And the sector has suffered from a lack of public and official understanding of their wider benefits.

The SPA projects not only highlight how archiving, art and heritage projects are still beneficial to communities today but also show how local authorities can use them to bring social issues to life.

By collaborating with other organisations in the cultural sector, local authorities can use resources such as archives to promote local community engagement and link the importance of heritage to community values. It can also provide a way to teach new skills and integrate marginalised groups, as well as acting as a useful way to promote the local area.


Earlier this summer, we looked at the question of the use of volunteers to run libraries and archives, and the risks associated with the fragmentation of these public services.

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team.

Is our electoral system going through the biggest change in a generation?

By Steven McGinty

The biggest change in a generation? Quite simply: yes.

Last year, we saw an unprecedented focus on the democratic process, with high profile votes such as the Scottish independence referendum, as well as revolution in the way in which citizens vote through the introduction of the Individual Electoral Registration (IER). It’s likely that this degree of interest in the political system will continue as we move towards the general election in May, with a number of related topics being up for debate.

I’ve therefore decided to highlight some of the most notable election and referendum-related issues, as well as look at which might come up in the general election campaign.

Individual Electoral Registration

The introduction of IER in June 2014 was a major step in the delivery of digital government services. It was implemented to provide a more modern service and to help combat electoral fraud. The IER system is essentially a hub that was built by the Government Digital Service. The hub links up with the Electoral Management Software (EMS) in each local electoral area. There is no central database of voter details and the data has been received and saved locally, and is deleted from the Hub within 48 hours.

Yet although these changes have been introduced to improve the system, Dr Toby James, Senior Lecturer in British and Comparative Politics, suggests that they could have the opposite effect, and lead to reduced levels of voter registration.

Political engagement

The Scottish independence referendum was described by some as a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity, which would have permanently changed the political landscape of Scotland. The plebiscite saw 84.6% of the population voting, the highest turnout a nationwide election has had since the introduction of universal suffrage in 1918. The election also gave 16 and 17 year olds the right to vote, which resulted in 109,533 young people signing up before polling day.

It will be interesting to see if this high level of political engagement and the lowering of the voting age will be reflected across the UK in the future. The Prime Minister, David Cameron, has already accepted proposals by Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, to lower the voting age in Holyrood elections permanently; although a House of Lords committee has raised concerns over these plans.

European referendum

The referendum on Europe could potentially be the big issue of this year’s general election. The United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) and the Conservative Party have promised to hold a referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union if in government. However, the Labour party, at the moment, are against the idea of a European referendum.

Due to the fragmented political environment, it is quite possible that there will be another coalition government. In this scenario, parties will negotiate and smaller coalition partners may change their stance. At this stage, other parities including the Liberal Democrats, the Democratic Unionist Party, the Green Party and the SNP may also have an impact.

The latest polls are too close to call: with Ipsos MORI showing the Labour Party leading the Conservative Party by 1 point and YouGov showing the Conservative Party leading the Labour Party by 2 points. If the Labour Party win, it’s unlikely that there would be a referendum on Europe; however if the Conservative Party win, it’s likely that there will be.

Boundary changes

Boundary changes, although not as high profile as the debate on Europe, could also figure in the next parliament. In 2013, a Conservative backed plan to reduce the number of constituencies was rejected by their coalition partners and the opposition parties.  However, there are currently a number of electoral reviews being carried out by the Local Government Boundary Commission for England. For example, North Dorset Council will make changes to their boundaries that will come into force at the local elections in 2015.

Devolution

Greater devolution within England is also expected to be a major general election issue.  Although directly elected mayors have been part of the political landscape since the early 2000’s, not many cities have chosen to introduce them due to low voter turnout. However, in November 2014, the chancellor, George Osborne announced that Greater Manchester would have a directly elected Mayor, who would have a host of new powers for the region. This increase in powers, alongside a greater desire for more local decision making, may lead to a higher voter turnout than has previously been seen. It will be interesting to see if this triggers demands for mayors from other regions.

Police and Crime Commissioners

The spotlight will also be on the role of Police and Crime Commissioners (PCC). Similar to the mayoral elections, turnout has been very low for PCCs elections, with the average turnout approximately 14.7%. If the Conservative Party wins the general election, it is likely that PCC elections will continue across England and Wales, despite their low turnout. Conversely, if Labour wins the election, it is likely that they will scrap PCCs, arguing that the Conservatives have wasted millions of pounds on PCC elections.

Whatever the result of the UK election, 2015 looks like being another big year for all aspects of elections management and voting.


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