Uncovering childhoods: Accessing archival material for projects focused on twentieth century British History

Samantha McCormack is a DPhil Candidate in History at Magdalen College, Oxford. She is interested – broadly – in the histories of childhood, disability, education, gender, family, welfare and activism in nineteenth and twentieth century Britain. Her doctoral research, funded by the Oxford-Calleva Graduate Scholarship, forms part of the interdisciplinary project ‘Changing Lives: childhood experience, cumulative risk, and supportive environments across the life course’. Prior to her DPhil, she completed her undergraduate degree at the University of Sussex and her Master’s degree at Jesus College, Oxford. She has published an essay based on her DPhil research as well as a post for the History @ Oxford blog about studying with disabilities.

My research examines the lived impact of state policy-making and institutionalised care practices on people growing up with physical disabilities in mid-twentieth-century England. A central aim of my research is to tell this story of professionalisation and institutionalisation from the perspectives of children themselves. My aim is a very deliberate one as, generally, historians have tended to write about children as though they are objects of policy.

The absence of the perspectives of children within scholarship is rooted in primary sources in a number of ways. It is important to acknowledge how archives act to marginalise – by which I mean adult curated archives have disempowered children by not recording and preserving their words, drawings and voices.

I’d like to focus this short piece on thinking about how we navigate accessing primary sources relating to marginalised lives, such as disabled children, when we find them. How do historians traverse the important ethical considerations in the process of trying to uncover the experiences of children?

As well as using a rich set of oral history testimonies, and national policy and governmental records, I use a number of institutional archival records for my research. These often include personal case files, medical reports and correspondence between the institution and children’s families. When using sensitive archival material such as the personal case files I use in my own research, we must be mindful that these records have likely been collected without the consent of children, or their parents or guardians. Those working on twentieth century history are also likely to be viewing the intimate personal records of individuals who are still alive. Rightly, much of this material is subject to a period of restriction: normally 100 years.

cd blog childhood mccormack

‘Disabled boys being taught to paint and write with their toes at the Heritage School of Arts and Crafts for raid-shocked and crippled children, Kitchener Heritage, Chailey’, c. 1914-18, Imperial War Museum, photograph archive collection, © IWM Q 30552. For further details: https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205296431

Helpfully an exemption for academic research does exist. Under the Data Protection Act, 2018, personal data relating to living persons may be accessed by third parties for historical or statistical purposes only on condition that:

  • “The data is not processed to support measures or decisions with respect to particular individuals”
  • “The data is not processed in such a way that substantial distress is, or is likely, to be caused to any data subject.”

In addition to meeting the conditions outlined in the Act, researchers are expected to follow rigorous ethical standards set by their institutional ethics body. This usually involves the completion of a form which asks for: a description of your project and methodology; an outline of the ethical issues concerned for both the researched and the researcher; your intended strategies in regards to the management, handling and storing of personal information; and outlining where you intended to publicly disseminate your research (in talks, books, articles, etc). In order to comply with these stipulations, researchers are generally required to replace all identifying data - real names, birth dates, places, occupational details - with pseudonyms and vaguer descriptors, in order to preserve the anonymity of the people studied. It is particularly important that historians remember that when using such personal and intimate records, they are drawing attention to aspects of people’s lives that they did not themselves make public, and which they might have sought to forget.

Most archives will also have a procedure in place for historians to access restricted material, which outline their regulations in relation to the handling of personal data. This normally involves sharing an overview of the researcher’s project and its aims; sharing proof of ethical approval from the researcher’s institution; and stating which records the researcher wishes to view and how they will be used. An archive might also request a character reference.

However, archives have diverse approaches to the records held in their care. Some archives will not know about the exemption or will not be geared up to follow it. Where they do not have a research agreement in place, for example, a head archivist may still restrict a researcher’s access to closed records. Navigating seemingly arbitrary approaches can feel frustrating, but by outlining the exemption legislation, an archive might be prompted to work towards putting procedures in place for later researchers. My only advice here is the earlier into the project you can contact an archive, the more time you have for finding alternative sources.

Collecting oral histories follows many of ethical standards outlined above but requires additional ethical considerations and procedures, such as gaining the explicit consent of the interviewee. This is because any resulting testimonies can raise additional ethical considerations. Depending on the project, interviewers could be probing into painful and possibly damaging past experiences of their interviewees. There is also the issue of third-party data. In recalling childhood experiences, an individual might name or provide identifying data about third parties who have not consented. A thorough process of ethical review with the researcher’s institution is therefore required. As well as the factors required for closed records, ethical approval for an oral history project will require details of the inclusion and exclusion criteria for selecting interviewees; the method of recruitment; the process of obtaining consent from participants; the process of ensuring the safety of the interviewee and interviewer; how third-party data will be dealt with; and anonymization practices.

It is also important to remember the duty of care we must have for ourselves and our fellow researchers. The most intimate details of people’s lives revealed by oral histories and archival records can be shocking, upsetting, disturbing and sustained engagement can be distressing. I think it is important to have something in place to manage this, whether a support network or accessing such material gradually. There is also a tendency by researchers to assume that the lived experiences they are revealing, particularly of the most marginalised children, are not experiences shared by the researchers with whom they are in discussion and sharing their research. This is not necessarily the case. There is value in thinking about how we approach the dissemination of past adverse experiences, the language we adopt, and the biases and assumptions we might unknowingly reinforce when revealing the lived experiences of those we research.