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Wednesday 16th October 2019

By Joanne C. Hillhouse.

I did a research project for a client recently. The client was a UK based film documentary company that needed information from news files in Antigua and Barbuda relating to an international incident from more than three decades ago. Initially they reached out for suggestions as to how to access this information but it quickly became clear that, even in today’s digitized world, they would not easily (or at all) be able to access this information online. I offered to do the work of digging in to what physical news files I could find locally, for a research fee. I, of course, explained that my research skills were specific to my academic training and practical experience in media and as a writer (and pet projects like the one I spoke about in this past Creative Space) – which is not insubstantial but is not the same as, say, a historian (e.g. an anthropologist, archeologist, or archivist) who eats research for breakfast.

The information they sought was fairly obscure and digging through newspaper archives (especially when many of the newspapers of the time no longer exist) seemed a fool’s errand. I reached out to ABS, which I remember from my time there having a video archives though I couldn’t speak to how well preserved it was. I seem to remember some damage and loss during the move after 1995’s hurricane Luis (literally my first month there). Plus unless they had deliberately worked to digitize the tapes from that time and index the content for easy retrieval, I figured the odds were low of me being able to access anything so obscure, or anything at all really, from that time …and I was right.

Photo © National Archives of Antigua and Barbuda

My lifesaver was the National Archives.

I tried searching their website online and emailing, but ultimately had to foot-it to the physical building (that white building just above the East Bus Station). And I have to say the staff, though not effusive, was very helpful. I indicated the time period I needed to research and they brought out these big books of newspapers – the two major print publications of the time – from the indicated period and I sat there going through them. And finding …nothing.

I went back to the beginning.

I am reminded at this point of a conversation with Dr. Natasha Lightfoot, author of Troubling Freedom: Antigua and the Aftermath of British Emancipation, or maybe something she wrote, but the gist of it was that when it comes to under-recorded histories you have to look at what’s said to find what isn’t. She was talking, of course, of trying to piece the history of African people in the Caribbean together from what’s written by and about the concerns of European people in the Caribbean – because often beneath the dominant class’ concerns is some hint of what’s going on with the oppressed class. Obviously, this was not at all the focus of my research but in that direction was a methodology I could draw on in pouring over those newspapers a second time – a way to look in to the gaps, in to the silences.

First, I googled the main subject (right there at the Archives) and pulled what details I could from international sources. The minutiae of the case, so to speak.

Then, I went back over every newspaper for the period and looked not for names but for any small matching detail. I found something in a news bulletin in one paper. It wasn’t much but it was something. I used that to check the archives of the other paper and there was more. Neither of these came at the issue head-on but they were some record of it. And I wouldn’t have found them if I’d just stuck to the search limitations of the assignment.

After some more digging, I determined that that was as much as I was going to get. I then asked that the pages be scanned –they took pictures of the pages (tagging them as being sourced from the National Archives) and emailed them to me (even though that took longer than we expected).

I have passed on the images (i.e. the research) to the client.

A small research project – not my usual deal (my services usually veer toward reporting, writing, editing, workshops etc.)– that underscored a couple of things for me. Things are imperfect at the Archives but where people are helpful and there is a will there can be a way; and our newspaper files (newspapers being the documents of record which is why I get frustrated when we get it wrong or don’t adhere to the editorial standards I learned at the Caribbean Institute of Mass Communications) are vital and should be fully digitized and indexed.

I have recently caught wind of a digitization push at the National Archives (though I’m not sure where newspapers fit as a priority in this project). They actually talk about it on their website:

"The Archives has begun to digitize some of its resources but in most cases you will have to pay a visit. To help you find what you are looking for, we have begun to take the indices to the different types of archival material and make them accessible online. The project that is furthest along are the indices for indentures, which are transactions that involve two or more parties, such as sales of land, mortgages, manumissions, etc., and wills.”

Also on October 14th 2019, they launched a workshop which is a part of this digitization project. I missed the launch but was able to find a report. The lone report I found about this important project and it’s an ABS TV report.

(From the report) “A training workshop is being funded by the endangered archives grant programme of the British Library and Arcadia Foundation…this workshop will focus on archival digitization, creation, and maintenance.” Archives, Museum, and Library staff were identified as the workshop participants. Dr. Susan Lowes, Dr. Natasha Lightfoot, Dr. Christopher Waters, and archives director Joseph Prosper drafted, according to the report, funding proposals for the workshop and other projects. Miguel Asencio, director of the Digital Library of the Caribbean at Florida International University, was identified as the workshop facilitator; and deeds and wills were identified as priority for archival digitization.

So even though this is not specific to newspapers, I decided to write about my recent experience of making use of the Archives to remind us all of the importance of a National Archives, and of research and documentation generally (something I try to do on the Wadadli Pen blog re the literary arts and media in Antigua and Barbuda – with tagging to assist researchers as much as possible). Research matters because history matters, for the record, of course. But also because we must know our stories to understand our story, and imagine our future.

Also, sometimes in the freelancing life, an inquiry becomes a client commission (even a very small commission as this was), and when you have a research commission from a client unconnected with your world, you may need to dig a pebble of information out of pile of pebbles, and having our history properly preserved helps.

This post is part of the online edition of the culture-and-arts-focused CREATIVE SPACE series which gives local businesses an opportunity to boost their brand while boosting local art and culture. Contact author and content creator Joanne C. Hillhouse at jhohadli@gmail.com for more information. The original is posted at her blog – Jhohadli.

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