Launching Paper Trails: Second-hand book to living book (with sandwiches in between)

This story started with a second-hand book I had ordered from a bookseller in Toulouse. Exploring its uncut pages and recontextualising its material history led me to reflect on the idea of research stories and sparked creative ideas about our affective relationship with archives and collections. Later, in the classroom, the story continued as students reacted creatively to items from Special Collections, challenging my own understanding of the material. Then, in an unexpected twist, the story found me on the Tube, carrying huge shopping bags stuffed with vast quantities of home-made sandwiches on the hottest day of the year. I’m delighted to say that the latest chapter of this somewhat unusual story is an open access ‘living book’ published by UCL Press (and available HERE).

A screen capture of the Paper Trails BOOC published by UCL Press

The first release of this new publication explores fascinating collections, retells detective stories in the archives, and demonstrated the possibilities for inclusive, inspiring work that engages and empowers communities (see here for a full content run-down). It’s interesting for me to think about how that journey began with ideas sparked by academic research, was honed by the experience of object-based teaching, and then realised thanks to wider collaborative partnerships. In a broad sense, those three ingredients make up the ‘research story’ of the piece, but they are also the recipe for what I think makes it a publication with promise.

Paper Trails as a project emerged from working with students, and especially object-based learning with UCL collections in 2014/15. On a course on the Fin-de-siècle, I took students to the UCL Art Museum to explore items from Special Collections, including the collection of Francis Galton. Students were struck by how the material histories of these items conflated stories of science, politics, and racism, and how the affective responses we had to these stories inflected our understanding of them.

Record cards of Francis Galton and Alphonse Bertillon, an image taken during object based teaching using material from UCL Special Collections

We explored these further when researchers, academics, education practitioners and students all came together in 2017 for a conference and series of school workshops which turned the focus onto our affective relationship with archives and collections, and put research stories to the fore (you can find a full rundown of the conference HERE). Amidst a wonderful variety of papers, we travelled from 3,000 BC to the present day, and from Egypt to Iraq, via Paris, Los Angeles, and Bloomsbury itself. At the heart of this vast array of papers, however, was the sense that our encounters with our research material deserved a little more attention, and I was very grateful to Will Pooley for his help in developing how we could achieve that. In two full days of school workshops scheduled afterwards with students from Newham Collegiate Sixth Form School, we explored those ideas of analytical, creative, and affective responses to archives and collections more fully (you can find a rundown of those workshops HERE).

Andrew in a school workshop, teaching with documents

This was also a useful illustration of the importance of collaboration. I couldn’t get any funding for this conference, but thankfully secured a venue by working with UCL Special Collections. To circumvent this lack of funding, I (perhaps unwisely) catered the conference myself by staying up very late the night before and making outlandish quantities of sandwiches, then carrying them from home to the venue in cool bags (for what it’s worth, the reviews were positive!). Given that comical level of naivete on my part, I should note here that the ideas leading to the publication, as well as the conference and workshops could not have happened without the expertise of Vicky Price at UCL, who does a huge amount of outreach work, as well as the amazing subject expertise and organizational skills of Katy Makin and Helen Biggs who helped guide me through UCL Special collections material. Sarah Aitchison and Nazlin Bhimani at UCL Special Collections & Libraries shaped developing plans to create a new type of publication, offering guidance and valuable insight which helped lead us towards the ‘Book as Open Online Content (BOOC)’ format, published by UCL Press. The Press describes a BOOC as a “living book”, which is entirely open access and evolves over time, allowing for different formats of pieces to speak in conversation. This seemed an exciting opportunity to establish a new publication focused on broadening engagement with archives and collections in new ways and illustrated again how creative collaboration (and people enjoying my home-made sandwiches) can lead to opportunities.

To reinforce this link between research, teaching, and collaboration, this publication also gave me an opportunity to develop my portfolio for my Degree Apprenticeship which I’m working on at the University of Chichester. The chance to project manage the publication, helping draw up processes and map out what the editorial board could look like, was another opportunity for me to learn and to reflect on how these ideas came together.

As the first step towards this, we hosted another conference and series of school workshops in 2019, welcoming 12 speakers from Europe, North America, and around Britain to give papers which dealt with serendipity, our affective relationship to research, and the social life of archives and collections. We heard about marginalia, records at risk, tracing life stories across collections and countries, and the ways in which decisions about archiving can shape historical memory. To ensure that this constituted more than a closed academic discussion, we once again welcomed students from Newham Sixth Form College to work with us on material from UCL Special Collections. This series of conferences and workshops in 2017 and 2019 emphasised how potent the links between research, teaching, and collaboration can be in shaping our own research stories and the wider socal lives of archives and collections.

Poster form the 2019 Paper Trails conference

We’ve now built an excellent editorial board of archivists, librarians, and inter-disciplinary researchers and are proud to have published the first release in July 2021. In this rich first crop of material, and as content continues to grow in this ongoing BOOC publication, we want to help build another forum for different communities to collaborate, which puts different engagements with archives and records in conversation. The launch of the project was built on research, teaching, and collaborative partnerships, and the BOOC itself celebrates the potential for connecting these activities. From a second-hand book to a living book (via ill-judged platters of home-made sandwiches), the project has generated its own Paper Trails, and the whole team is excited to see where they lead next.

Paper Trails is accepting proposals for content with a rolling deadline. Check out the Guide for Authors on the Paper Trails site and find out more, or get in touch if you are interested!

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