An Archivists View of the Five Communities Project.

As we come towards the end of the Five Communities Project, I thought it may be an idea to step back for a moment and look at things from the perspective of a professional archivist with over two decades of experience of working with in both the museum and archive sector.

Being someone who has spent almost their entire life in Pembrokeshire, with a deep love of history, and a keen awareness of the unique culture and heritage of our county has given me an excellent perspective from which to view the project.

The objective has been genuinely inspired.  To take archive material detailing our communities past and to share that with the widest audience through detailed cataloging of what is currently available and extensive digitisation.

Archival records allow us to do two principal things.  The information within them assists people to develop a greater sense of identity and belonging to their communities through knowledge about them and how they have developed over time.

This is especially relevant in today’s highly mobile interconnected world with people settling in different areas.

The archives themselves also provide inspired educational learning resources.  It isn’t just the information or images they contain but the physical aspect of them.  I can read a history book or watch a film or a drama set in the past but with an actual diary or letter from a person or community written say 100 years ago I can almost literally reach back through time and touch it.

The power of that to actually read the same words and see the same signatures for example written so long ago describing the world around them as they saw it can be truly inspiring.

We may also suggest that learning about the developments and events within our communities over time can perhaps help us to make better decisions for the future based on our knowledge of what has gone before.  We can help inform the future by learning of the past.

Archives form the raw material of history.  Unfiltered by time.  Although they can reflect the views of their writers, in any research it is always a good idea to go back to the original sources as the most accurate.  This is perhaps more relevant today than ever in our world of ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’ where people will insist something must be true because they read it on the internet.

Not only do Archives avoid and counter this by being the raw material of history, they are also colour blind in an often divisive world.  They do not distinguish between race, colour or religion but present information unfiltered as their creators saw it.  They are accessible without discrimination.  As such they have the potential to be a powerful unifying force in a perhaps increasingly divided and diverse world, bringing people within communities together, not and placing boundaries between them.

Personally, I feel Archives are more relevant today not only in regard to our world but as a powerful force for good in the challenging times of the pandemic.

As we begin to hopefully see light at the end of this terrible tunnel archives can be a source of health and wellbeing.

By coming together in groups to study the archives of a community, learn from them and catalogue and record them for others to benefit, they are powerful tools in combating social isolation.  Working with them and seeing progress can also give a sense of purpose and achievement to those who may struggle to find it at times whilst learning and perhaps feeling a greater sense of belonging to a group and community as their knowledge base grows.

As this project works to share and highlight archival heritage it raises the profile of archives in general.  Thus, it massively increases the chance of material tucked away in lofts or cellars gathering dust coming to light to provide yet more gems of information on our shared past.

Communities themselves can benefit from the sense of empowerment that controlling their own history, heritage and culture can bring, not having to hand over material they would perhaps rather keep, to be instead kept remotely somewhere else with limited access.  This in itself being a challenge in times of spending pressures.

Archives though by their very nature are fragile things.  They were created in the past and so in their original form if one is damaged, lost, misplaced etc. it cannot be recreated.  We cannot travel back in time and get another.

There are two key words in the archive lexicon that this project hits.  Preservation and Access.  The creating and successful implementation of a project like this goes an incredibly long way to helping preserve our history and culture not only for us but for future generations as well.  By detailed cataloguing we know what material is available and how to find it.  By means of helpful accessible guides and training we learn about the potential risks and how to minimise them as far as possible.

Access and sharing are then created by the digitisation aspects which also helps with preservation by making copies available.

The hard copy archive catalogues created also assist in removing barriers to those who may be hesitant with computers, insuring information is readily accessible to all.

This project gives those who love and care about their history and communities a real opportunity and potential sense of purpose to step up and become involved with local history and heritage groups, becoming their own archivists and custodians of their own past as well as potentially growing the groups themselves.

It is with the commitment of individuals and the rewards and pleasure that it can bring in working with friends and in groups and discovering new things about places we love that potentially so much of our heritage, history and culture can be saved.

By disseminating skills and knowledge through training and written guides, risks to the loss of archival material are further reduced.

Therefore I return again to the Five Communities Project that has so successfully included all these things.  It has been a truly inspired concept.  I say ‘I learn something new every day’ and also ‘no matter how well I know my county I am always learning something new’.  That has certainly been my experience with this project.  Yes, it has been hard work but also immensely rewarding and a real joy to work with.   One thing it has clearly revealed is that many thousands of items have been digitised and catalogued from just a handful of communities.  There is thus evidently a vast untapped resource of material our there with the potential to bring immense benefits to so many in terms of identity, education, health and wellbeing.

I feel truly privileged to have been just one part of it.

David Llewellyn DipAA