Three months in: Reflections with Maya Sharma

I’m now in my third month as Collections Access Officer at the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Race Relations Resource Centre. I’ve found these first few months stimulating both professionally and personally, and would like to share some of my early observations.

Documenting the real impact and legacy of Empire.

For anyone seeking to understand the real legacy of the British Empire (and others), time spent in our library and exploring our collections will be time well spent.

Whether the oral histories belong to people who were born here or elsewhere, their heritage is overshadowed by Empire and colonisation. Regardless of current curricula, teaching practices or government policy, we document the impact of Empire, down the generations, making direct links between the early days of European colonialism and Greater Manchester’s communities today. Furthermore, our continued collecting means that we also capture the impact of current domestic and foreign policy on Manchester’s diverse communities.

Our oral histories include voices from communities across Greater Manchester.

In times when Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) people’s heritage and right to belong seems increasingly in question, our collections are more important than ever.

Co-produced collections

As I’ve got to know my colleagues I’ve been struck by the respectful and ethical ways in which they approach their work.  The way we archive donated collections is a great example of this.

From the start, the process is careful and based around the needs of the donor (usually an individual or community group). We discuss the archive process with them over a series of meetings, often in their homes and community locations rather than in the Library. We spend time showing donors our strong room (where archives are stored) and discuss how we might use their collection so they fully understand the care we will take with their donation.

Our Project Archivist Jo Robson (right) delivering training in 2018 on the value of archives to community groups and individuals developing BAME Heritage Projects.

We follow their lead: catalogues are co-created with them ensuring they tell us what is important and significant about the documents and objects they give us, rather than us imposing our ideas about this. We recognise our donors as experts in their history and heritage, not simply in words, but in every aspect of how we work with them.

A special relationship

I also noticed that we have a very special relationship with the individuals and community organisations we work with. Whilst BAME communities are often wary and understandably mistrustful of large institutions, I believe they see us as a trusted friend, with insight and respect for their heritage and as an ally in making sure their voices, experiences and perspectives are documented and safe-guarded.

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The members of Cheetham Hill Advice Centre (CHAC) have been involved in every aspect of creating the CHAC archive our collections holds today. Here are staff from both organisations at Cheetham Cultural Festival in 2019.

It’s hard to pin down the exact ingredients of this relationship, but I’d confidently suggest that our roots in community activism and a strong anti-racist stance are important. Added to this, our insistence that community members and organisations should be active agents in telling their own stories must play a large part: our Coming in From the Cold team support community organisations to develop and deliver their own heritage projects.

You can read about the special relationship we have with our close friend, community activist and archive donor Anwar Ditta here.

Unique and rich primary source material

Thanks to the individuals and community organisations we work with, we hold a wealth of unique primary source material. Our archives document the experiences of people and communities often invisible in mainstream archives, and because they are co-created with the individuals and communities they relate to, they can be richer and more precise. Because of the ways we carefully collect and catalogue with the donors (see above) we are able to gather a level of detail that other archives may not.  This makes our archives a rich source of primary material for researchers and students that may not be available elsewhere.

A group of MA History students from the University of Leeds looking through primary sources from our archive for their research.

You can discover our archives by looking at the catalogues on our University of Manchester Special Collections page here.

Looking forward

Now that the COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to shut down and work from home, I am – like many people – re-evaluating how I work. Whilst it’s really frustrating to no longer have full access to our collections, it’s a good opportunity to think about working with collections in different ways. As a sector we will have to find new and creative ways of supporting access to our collections and however challenging this is, I feel it will shake us up a little and – hopefully – reinvigorate our approaches to our work.