The Searchlight Archive – Historians as Changemakers

Searchlight archivist and PhD student Dan Jones explains the role of the archive in social impact on the wider community.

Searchlight Archive shelves, photo by the author

This summer the Searchlight Archive celebrated 7 years since it opened to researchers in July of 2013. Since its creation I have been it’s only archivist and have watched it grow, from a single collection of around 200 to 300 archive boxes to now multiple collections spanning over 1000 archive boxes worth of material as well as digital collections. As well as expanding our collections, and becoming involved in providing material to more modules across the University, the Archive has also tried to have an impact on our community and wider society, embracing our University’s Changemaker values. This year this was very kindly recognised by the University when I was nominated for a Changemaker Early Career Researcher Award and our academic liaison, Dr Paul Jackson, won the Pure Diamond award for Research Impact.

Dan Jones and Paul Jackson at the Pure Diamond Awards

History can tell us a lot about both how the world we are in was formed and, for our area of history, it can show us where people and movements have come from, and also teach us about how we can understand these groups and the dynamics that surround them. This is hugely important to our field, to store this information so this work can be done by Historians, Sociologists, Political Scientists, Journalism scholars, and many other researchers – but it is important too that we get out of the archive and share the lessons we have learned.

Some of this impact has been within our field, where we have given talks at the IHR and to the White Rose Partnership on the ethics and challenges of collecting material from extremist groups, sharing our experiences on a practical archival level to enable others to follow and to try and prevent trauma or harm to others. It has also been focused on trying to bring students into History and other related subjects, and make history appeal to a more diverse student cohort. We have run taster sessions for schools, allowing local A-level students to get to grips with genuine archival documents tailored to their A-level syllabus.

Some of the material available in the archive. Photo by the author

We have also run research projects looking at how students learn with archival material from extreme sources. This projects have also examined how we can use the sources from our archive – which recognise the struggles of minority groups by both exposing the hate they receive and the defence organisations within those minority communities – in ways that are engaging rather than risk trauma, and also help all students understand these often understudied parts of our shared society. Finally, through collaboration with Gale Primary Sources, universities around the world are getting to use some of our material as part of a package on Twentieth-Century Radicalism and Extremism.

Siobhan Hyland at the CARR conference at Richmond University, May 2019

The University of Northampton’s Humanities Department, where we sit,  though is dedicated to not just producing high quality research and impact within academia, but also looking at how our work can impact public policy. The Searchlight Archive has been part of the forefront of that. Part of this impact is done through helping the public stay informed through the media – Dr Paul Jackson has appeared across the media, but I’ve also given interviews to Canadian national radio as well as British Forces Broadcasting, Al Jazeera and others to help inform the public on issues such as the attempted infiltration of the military by the far right, and helping media inquiries around the tragic murder of Jo Cox MP.

We have also provided expertise and material to help run training events attended by members of the police force, Prevent and Channel officers, teachers, educational charities, intervention charities, local government and others to make them aware of the Extreme Right and the threat they can pose in the radicalisation and grooming of vulnerable people within society, especially children. The use of genuine archival material in these sessions has that same enhancing effect that we recorded with our own students, showing how the lessons we have learnt in our classroom research are impacting on and improving our contributions to the public policy debates.

Hopefully this small glance into some of the work we do at the Archive shows how Historians can be changemakers, and have real impacts not just on how we understand the past and where we came from, but also in helping us tackle the challenges of today and build a better society for the future.

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