I recently wrote a short post on historical trauma and self-care. Shortly after writing that post I read Shurlee Swain‘s Public Historian article “Stakeholders as Subjects: The Role of Historians in the Development of Australia’s Find & Connect Web Resource.” Swain’s article reflected on the challenges of creating the Find & Connect digital resource that was created as a result of the 2009 government apology to Forgotten Australians and Former Child Migrants.
The Find & Connect site brings together historical resources and documentation relating to institutional care in Australia. It contains histories of each institution written by public historians that have used a collaborative approach to history; combing information found in official records with oral history accounts of institutional care. Swain’s article highlights the challenges of collaborative history and of historians working as mediators to present the past.
I found a number of similarities in Swain’s discussion of the Find & Connect project to on going work relating to residential schools that attempts to provide a fuller picture of the past, which incorporated administrative/government records with survivor voices. Swain’s also outlined the implications for historians working with this type of project. She argued that “There is a need…as a historian, to ‘get it right’. ‘Getting it right’ is not about finding the truth because the truth is a different story for everyone…It is about finding the “right voice to present history from multiple viewpoints.” Finding balance when writing about historian trauma is extremely difficult.
Working on topics related to historical trauma can also be emotionally taxing and historians need to address the personal toll of vicarious trauma. Swain maintains that the impact of working on a historically traumatic topic is cumulative and that historians need to admit the personal realities of working on difficult topics. In the case of the Find & Connect project a virtual peer network was created to allow researchers to support each other, share experiences, and discuss coping mechanisms.
Researchers tend to work in isolation and creating a support network can be instrumental in creating strong coping mechanisms. Swain’s article was the first time I’ve seen a public history project openly address the needs for emotional supports. Her work also made me wonder about the lack of resources available for most historians researching residential schools and what can be done to emotionally support people who are engaging in important work independently.