David Beel: EViDAnCE – Exploring Value in Digital Archives and the Comainn Eachdraidh

A large proportion of the work on cultural value centres upon primarily institutional accounts as to how ‘culture’ brings value to both individuals and communities. Research from institutions such as museums, libraries, galleries, theatres and arts organisations dominate the literature in this area, however, very little is written or researched with regards to more everyday and voluntary cultural work conducted by communities. Even more so this is especially pertinent for rural, remote and peripheral locations where such activities often play a central role in maintaining community ties. This is especially true of the Comainn Eachdraidh (Gaelic for Historical Societies) in the Outer Hebrides whose potential cultural value extends well beyond their initial remit as a historical society. There are around 19 active and autonomous Comainn Eachdraidh groups in the Outer Hebrides with the earliest dating back to the 1970s, beginning with a very specific political motivation: to preserve the aspects of their own culture that more official, institutional and mainstream archives saw as irrelevant or unimportant. The larger groups have almost full membership from the populations in their respective areas. As such, the Comainn Eachdraidh represents a medium for the cultural transmission of meaning (McGuigan, 2004) in order to present and preserve a ‘way of life’ (Williams, 2010) that for Islanders is seen as fragile and under threat due to a variety of long-term external influences.

Archives such as these are generated as an articulation of ‘heritage from below’ (Robertson, 2012) and they represent spaces of ‘marginalised memory’ (Creswell, 2011) attempting to give a counterpoint to more top-down and mainstream articulations of history (Mason and Baveystock, 2009). As Stevenson et al. (2008) suggest, their relevance and value extends well beyond the physical site of the archive itself, it is ‘the active and on-going involvement in the source community in documenting and making accessible their history on their own terms’. This makes understanding the practice of archive production amongst volunteers central to comprehending their broader value. Added to this, through the process of digitisation something is both gained and lost in the ‘click of a mouse’ (Latour and Hermant, 2004), and understanding both the production and outcome of such ‘clicks’ is key in understanding the different ways in which value is potentially generated.

Most Comainn Eachdraidh groups have some form of digital presence whether through social media (facebook, twitter and blogs), their own websites or through online digital archives. Digitisation, however has not been a simple process for such small groups to undertake alone. Despite allowing their archives to reach beyond the walls of the archive, it have often meant trading-off autonomy. Due to the expense of converting analogue records to digital form as well the need for long-term hosting solutions, collaboration with other Comainn Eachdraidh groups in order to pool resources has been necessary (for example see Hebridean Connections and their blog . This raises a series of interesting questions about the nature of such practices in term of how digitised content creates value for Island life. And following on from this a series of further questions which this project wishes to understand – How are everyday practices of cultural heritage production represented in digital formats? What value do volunteers/non-institutional heritage work have culturally, economically and socially for communities? Finally, in a broad sense, how does the ‘memory work’ of the Comainn Eachdraidh build identity for individuals and communities?

Project website/blog – evidance-ahrc.com