Disabled people’s organisations and archives

First written in November 2016 

On references

Please note, this is a blog posting so there are not extensive academic references to support each point or assertion made in the discussion.


History is more than a list of dates with the names of kings and queens. We know that social histories are important. We understand now that knowing a shared history is part of what defines the identity of any community. Yet for disabled people’s organisations (DPOs) across England at least, the collection, preservation and transmission of social histories has been neglected and under-resourced.

This article suggests and discusses some of the reasons for this neglect, and describes some of the main actions needed to start to make improvements happen.

The format of this article is in five sections:

  1. cultures,
  2. strategies,
  3. policies,
  4. practicalities, and
  5. access.

Some readers might wish to concentrate on just a few of these areas rather than taking in all of the discussions.

Much of what is written here is based on three sets of personal experiences. Firstly, there are here reflections and lessons from the experience of trying to improve the records of the Greater Manchester Coalition of Disabled People (GMCDP) in 2016 with professional assistance from the staff at Archives+ within the Central Library of Manchester City Council in the UK. At the time of writing this improvement is still a work in progress, in transit from being a store room to being 165 catalogued boxes of mostly documents, and then to be taken into a fully functioning and secure archive.

The second set of experiences are around working with friends and family members of disabled activists who have died. It is public knowledge that one of these campaigners was Kevin Hyett, and privately some other families and friends are also being assisted. It will be for those families to decide if any, and how much, of the personal collections of deceased campaigners are to be shared, and with what safeguards or conditions on their use.

Finally, the third set of experiences come from my research for an MPhil in acknowledging the histories of some DPOs through their old photographs, which was done part-time from 2004 to 2012 and later published for free online.

Section 1: Cultures

There is extensive research on the lack of acknowledgement within mainstream cultural channels (museums, libraries, archives, public broadcasting) of so-called minority histories, although there are also great examples of good practice. The critical research in this area is often based on emancipatory principles, including feminist analyses and voices with the direct experience of oppression.

The classic example is how women, more so than men, are the custodians of the family album of photographs. Young children are sat on the knee, the album in hand, with the stories told as the pages are turned. An oral tradition of family knowledge transmitted, enduring within the family but fragile beyond it.

Similarly oppressed communities would weave a shared narrative, such as are told in church, temple and mosque sermons, in huddles in the corners of cafes and pubs, and at the back of the room at large weddings. However, for disabled people to opportunities to gather together and share stories and histories are fewer.

And as well as mainstream cultural knowledge being filtered, it is also becoming more of a commodity. The days of the university library open to all visitors are gone, the library is now part of “the offer” made to paying student customers, as well as being a source of income for academic publishers who take knowledge – publicly produced, and freely written and reviewed – behind an internet paywall. Making data private, sometimes including donated archival documents, creates a licence to the new “owners” of the data to exploit the intellectual property rights (IPR) opportunities – and yes, some universities do use exactly these types of phrases.

Section 2: Strategies

A typical conversation in the office of a DPO might go as follows:

“This filing cabinet, it is getting too full now.”
“We don’t need most of the files any more. Where shall I put them?”
“Oh right, put them over there, that corner. Anywhere you can. That is our archive.”

At the risk of being too blunt, calling a pile “an archive” doesn’t make it happen. The start of change is to name things for what they are. So, it is really a store room, a cupboard, a cabinet, a pile. And it is a precious collection beyond words but it is not an archive. Not yet.

There is something about managing an archive that causes many organisations to run into difficulties, and DPOs are no exception here. Some of the reasons are probably based in a fear of getting it wrong. Increasingly these days the sheer pressure of direct funding cuts and other reducing resources (such as fewer local libraries and librarians) plus the added pressures on disabled people losing social care, benefits and scarce employment; all these pressures mean that managing an archive cannot be the highest priority for a DPO.

But I would argue it should be a high priority, if only for one reason – that learning from the past will make today’s campaigns at least twice as effective. How did DPOs fight the cuts in the 1980s? How did DPOs campaign so that Parliament eventually passed a law on civil rights in 1995 after years of refusing to do so? How did DPOs get access to driving adapted cars in the 1940s? How did DPOs first campaign for national insurance? Precious lessons.

And yes, today we have Facebook and Twitter. Which, by the way, are a problem for future archivists, but more of that later. But do we really believe that campaigning only started when the Like and Retweet buttons were invented – of course not.

Section 3: Policies

So an archive has valuable lessons and advantages for today’s campaigns, and there are three key policy documents that govern the construction of an archive: the collections policy, the donor agreement, and the user licence.

The collections policy is a set of written guidelines on what the archive will and will not hold. No archive should be used to collect just anything interesting at random, because it makes a nonsense of the archive. Every archive has a purpose, for example to hold records of disabled people’s campaigns and organisations in Greater Manchester, or Birmingham, or elsewhere. Nor will an archive hold every possible piece of paper: for example few archives will keep financial records such as invoices and purchase orders, as they usually have minimal historical value, in contrast to membership records or copies of newsletters which have strong historical interest

As an example, organisations are usually legally required to keep records for seven years, after which they can be destroyed. This rule applies to UK ordinary tax records. At another level, a commercial organisation had a policy of keeping their personnel records until the individuals 80th birthday. But if the seven year rule is the usual one, then a collections policy might include the practice that the archive team will receive all the files no longer required by the organisation, usually once a year, and will decide which are worthwhile for addition (acquisition) into the archive and which are not of merit and are to be destroyed. Staff travel expenses sheets have no particular merit, but the Annual Report will be significant.

The donor agreement is a signed record of any donation of materials and is key to showing the correct provenance or previous ownership/s of an item, as well as setting out who an item belongs to now and whether there are to be any restrictions on its future use. Some archives will always require a full donation, while some others allow for long-term loans (“deposits”) of items as well

Care needs to be taken on the terms and conditions which will apply to the users of the archive. One example is the Creative Commons set of standard licences. One of these licences allows users to make copies of any item provided these copies are not for sale and that the original source is acknowledged. A downside of a Creative Commons licence is that it is deliberately inclusive which can lead to materials being appropriated by organisations and causes which might have little or no connection to the DPO and its aims. The writer of this article found that some of his photographs of disabled people demonstrating for access to buses, which are held in an archive as well as being online, were later used by a disability organisation in a national newspaper to wrongly imply that the organisation had been connected with the radical demonstrations being shown.

Section 4: Practicalities

Doctors are taught, first do no harm. People sorting out archives should follow the same principle. Avoid the temptation to make everything look neat and tidy. An example would be opening every file and taking out any photographs, putting them in a separate box. It seems very organised, but the archive has lost valuable information. Few organisations write all the relevant details on the back of each photographic print, and very often the only way to make sense of a picture is from the other documents it is stored with that provide a probable context.

Nor is it necessary to put everything in date order, or theme order, or whatever. The key point here is to make an item findable. The finding tool will be the catalogue, and a computer search of a catalogue is the most powerful tool an archive can have. So a user will type in a search for “independent living” and “benefit cuts” and the catalogue will as a minimum say “box 23, file 4, item 17”. Depending how much work has been done with the archive, the finding tool might also say “and here is a pdf copy of that item”.

Keeping the original order of items is also important for future research. For example, we can imagine that in ten years time a researcher will go through archive box 23 item by item and spot a pattern that no-one had seen before, such as half of the disabled people in a campaigning group were also members of the same sports club. Maybe it had been remarked on at the time but never formalised because no-one had thought it to be noteworthy. More often, a future researcher will note the gaps in the records, such as where are young people, or where are Black people in all of this?

A key point from the above discussion is that the overall quality of the entries that make up the catalogue, the finding tool, is a major factor in how useful an archive is. As an extreme example, go back to our stacked piles of files and boxes on the floor in a storage room. A researcher arrives and asks the staff, “Do you have records of cuts campaigns in the 1970s?” to which someone says, “Oh yes, have a look in here” and opens the door.

The catalogue entry needs to be as detailed as possible, and dates are especially helpful. Sometimes an exact date is known, for example the date the copy of a letter. Sometimes it is more vague, such as a newsletter which says “Summer 1987” or “March / April 1992”. Sometimes the best you can do with an undated document is mark it in pencil as “c.1972” ( c. or circa is Latin and means around ) based on reading it and knowing some of the context. It is very helpful to include any vague date material within the title of an item, as well as in the box or field for a date. “n.d.” means no date is known.

In an era of the internet, electronic records and paperless offices, it is perhaps humbling to recognise the physical endurance of paper. There are books which are hundreds of years old, scrolls found in caves which are thousands of years old, and papyrus records from early Egyptian society. Yet we have documents written as recently as in the 1990s that are already becoming lost for ever, stored on floppy disks which have decayed beyond use and printed on now-faded thermal paper.

The UK National Archives and similar bodies in other countries have recognised this development in part, and have captured in time a wide range of websites for future reference. But the world of Facebook and Twitter risks becoming “the next thermal paper,” where the social histories of campaigns become lost in the moment. It will be interesting to see how archivists respond to this new need for online record keeping.

A range of tasks for volunteers and staff

The basics, or Level 1 tasks

Protect the materials from sudden loss, such as damage from water leaks, insects, fire and smoke damage, or theft. Remove the hazard, or move the materials away from the hazard to a better location.

If the material is in open piles, store the materials in metal filing cabinets, metal cupboards, or on open shelving in boxes, in the same order as found in the piles. Keep them in a locked room.

Try not to be overwhelmed by the scale of the tasks. People will have tried before to bring some order to the collection, and there may be packing lists or indexes of files which you can usefully work from. Throw away nothing and re-order nothing at this stage. Every list will have clues and pointers to the contents, including valuable contextual information about when the items were created, where they came from, and who might know some more about them.

Level 2 tasks

Make a list of the materials. This can start as high level, such as “a box of newsletters from 1994” and this basic list can grow in time to become a more detailed list of each item. It is helpful later on if the list is made using a spreadsheet program.

Store the materials in the same order you found them, and avoid the temptation to re-arrange them into date order, or any other type of imposed order.

Remove any PVC (polyvinyl chloride) plastics, such as document sleeves or wallets, from the collection. Replace them if necessary with clear polyester or polypropylene sleeves and wallets. Staples and pins should be removed from older papers, and only brass paperclips should be used to avoid staining the papers. Storage boxes should be acid-free and archival quality. Boxes are the recommended way of preventing damage to papers from sunlight, smoke, and over-handling.

Take photographs or photocopies of any items which appear to be deteriorating, such as documents on thermal paper where the print is already fading away. Print these copies on ordinary acid-free paper and store alongside the fading original.

Level 3 tasks

Look for a good quality permanent home for the collection of items. Ideally such a home will be a staffed archive which follows the national standards set out by The National Archives. A good archive room will have no strong sunlight, no water pipes, metal furniture, an even 15C to 17C temperature, steady medium humidity (50% – 60%), plenty of space to avoid dangerous stacking, with good air circulation, and strictly controlled access.

Some items such as photographic prints may require a much lower temperature to keep them chemically stable, and some items (including some very old types of film negatives) may require freezing, for example to stop infested insect eggs from hatching in paper.

If you need to mark the materials in any way, for example to add a date, then write using a very soft pencil, such as a 6B pencil available from art shops. Use clean hands, and wear thin cotton gloves if the materials are very old or rare.

If you need to make digital copies of items such as documents and photographs, try to use a camera rather than a scanner with a paper feed mechanism, unless the documents are recent and robust. There is a risk that a feed mechanism will tear and damage any fragile items.

Backups of the digital copies must be kept safely offline, away from internet hackers, viruses, etc. All digital items need to be transferred to a new medium every ten years, otherwise the recording medium (for example, CDs, hard disks) will deteriorate and lose the digital files.

All these tasks help in the preservation of materials within the archive. The final stage is known as conservation, which moves on from passive measures to active measures which aim to prolong the life of items. Conservation is the professional repair and treatment of items which will deteriorate unless a remedy is applied.

Section 5: Access

In the archive profession, much of the discussion under the title of access tends to be about opening hours and arrangements to make sure that visitors do not damage or steal the materials they are handling. In this article, access means the wider political issues of disabled people’s access to knowledge in their required formats.

We have seen how paper is one of the most resilient carriers of storing information. However, many people are print-disabled, including disabled people with visual impairments, with dyslexia, and with learning difficulties.

It is now technically possible to make a lot of archive materials more widely accessible using scanners and computers. The basic stages are:

– scan the document and create a digital format, usually PDF,
– process the PDF with OCR (optical character recognition) software to convert the shapes into digital words and add the digital words back into the PDF, and
– use screen readers to speak the words on the screen for print-disabled users.

This process enhances the archive, making its contents more accessible now than when the documents were first created. It is also a universal method, so it does not require access to any other software, such as now-defunct desktop publishing programs or old word processors. Everything is taken from the shapes on the paper, and OCR software these days is capable of handling headlines, multiple columns, page headings and numbers, and tinted paper backgrounds, but not cartoons and images.

Probably the largest organisation creating accessible archives using OCR software is the Internet Archive, (www.archive.org) a nonprofit organisation based in San Francisco, California, with millions of older books already converted and made available to US citizens within the laws of US copyright. Their process is known as DAISY – the Digital Accessible Information System format

The archives of DPOs in the UK, as well as libraries and archives generally, could usefully follow the initiative of Internet Archive.


To follow one day, the idea is of a network of disability and DPOs archives and collections in the UK, including maybe Belfast, Birmingham, Cardiff, Derbyshire, Edinburgh, Hampshire, Leeds, Liverpool, London, Manchester, and all online as far as possible.


Every project is a team effort and this is no exception. Many people, maybe fifty or more, have contributed in some way to the work in progress that is the GMCDP archiving project, and many names will be found in the catalogue. If we just consider those people who have attended archive project meetings, written reports, or had some direct involvement in donating materials, then credit must include the following:

Colin Barnes, Huda Bashara, Caron Blake, Angharad Beckett, Jane Campbell, David Govier, Lorraine Gradwell, Maggie Griffiths, Brian Hilton, Brian Kokoruwe, Natalie Markham, Linda Marsh, Martin Pagel, Anne Plumb, Alan Roulstone, Audrey Stanton, Dorothy Whitaker, Joe Whittaker.

We must also acknowledge here those disabled campaigners within GMCDP who, now deceased, have left a range of rare and unique items in their personal and work-generated collections for others to learn from:

Cathy Avison, Alison Blake, Kevin Hyett, Ken Lumb, Angela Madeley, Ian Stanton, Neville Strowger.

If there are others missing here, I’d welcome a correction and apologise in advance.


Appendix – Creating a GMCDP Archive

[Extracts from GMCDP Briefing Notes, June 2016]


GMCDP has wanted an archive for at least 14 years, and since 2002 an archive has been one of the five top priorities for the Executive Council. A detailed timeline is available from the office.

In 2005 GMCDP stored around 40 boxes at the Greater Manchester County Records Office (GMCRO). In 2014 Archives+ opened to visitors, now a combination of Manchester Libraries, GMCRO, the North West Film Archive, the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Race Relations Trust Archive and others. Those 40 boxes from GMCDP are currently stored in Archives+.

When GMCDP moved to smaller offices in 2013 a large number of old files were placed in a storage room. This storage room also includes a number of boxes with historic items donated by disabled individuals and by disabled people’s organisations across Britain.

Three main concerns have been raised by GMCDP members about the possible running of an archive:

1. For how long would items be safely stored, such as for 100 years or more?
2. Who would own the items, and must GMCDP give the items away for ever?
3. How can we be sure that the items will not be misused, for example by big charities not controlled by disabled people?

It now appears that a satisfactory solution to all these concerns might be possible.

Recent developments

A GMCDP volunteer has been sorting through and organising these boxes in the storage room, starting to catalogue their contents and adding to the previous work done by other members. This storage covers around 70 boxes and over 20 drawers of files.

GMCDP staff have been in contact with staff at Archives+ which is based at the Central Library in St Peter’s Square, run by Manchester City Council. A good relationship has been establised.

GMCDP staff have worked on disabled people’s campaigning histories with researchers at the Manchester Metropolitan University and with Archives+. Disabled young people have been supported to produce The Accessibles publication and exhibition on the recent history of campaigning for a fully accessible city.

Early discussions with Archives+ staff indicate that:

1. While there are no absolute guarantees, Archives+ are fully geared up to hold items indefinitely, including many items for over 100 years.
2. Items are only loaned, or lodged, with Archives+ and not donated so they can be taken back at any time in the future.
3. Archives+ are keen to work in partnership with GMCDP and are open to talking further about an Advisory Group or similar arrangement where disabled people meet with their staff regularly to discuss the best use of the items in the archive.

Next stages

GMCDP Officers and staff will meet staff at Archives+ to develop a more detailed partnership way forward that is acceptable to both organisations

If these discussions are successful GMCDP Executive Council will consider lodging the remainder of its historic storage boxes with Archives+.

Archive Catalogue

Every archive needs a catalogue if it is to be used to its full potential, otherwise the search for relevant items is often a matter of browsing through boxes. A catalogue also allows the archive to be searched remotely before a visit is arranged.

The building blocks to make an accurate catalogue of the GMCDP Archive are now in place. This currently incomplete catalogue is spread across four connected lists –

(1) this is of around 5,400 items thought to be in the boxes held at the Manchester Central Library in Archives+, each item’s details being a line in a spreadsheet.

(2) this is an estimated further 2,000 items thought to be in the boxes held at the Manchester Central Library in Archives+, each item’s details being a line handwritten on 82 sheets of A4 paper. GMCDP currently does not have the administrative resources to type these entries into a spreadsheet.

(3) this is a high-level list of around 70 boxes of various materials held in storage by GMCDP [in storage] …. This list is not fully itemised, and currently summarises only the general themes of the contents in each box.

(4) this is a high-level list of around 25 drawers of archived materials held in storage by GMCDP [in storage] …. This list is not fully itemised, and currently summarises the general themes of the contents in each drawer. When some or all of these contents are later transferred to archive boxes, the number of boxes might be different to the number of drawers.

Technical Notes

The use of a spreadsheet for an archive catalogue is a preferred method by Archives+ staff because the list can be automatically added to their searchable database. The minimum information usually needed for an archive catalogue is known to archive staff as the “Dublin Core”.

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