Collaborative History and Virtual Peer Networks

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. 

Historical Trauma and Self Care

During the month of December I am participating in #reverb14 as a means of getting my writing habits back on track. I will be altering the prompts as needed to fit within the scope of this blog. Prompt: Energy.  What gave you energy this year? What took away your energy?

Recently on twitter a few historians were discussing the personal impacts of working on projects involving historical trauma.  Working on emotionally charged historical topics can be emotionally draining.  In the past four years while being actively engaged with residential school archives and survivors I have seen and experienced the toll of working with archives relating to historical trauma. 


Archival material relating to residential schools can be triggering and cause emotional distress.  The Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre archives is overseen by the Children of Shingwauk Alumni Association (CSAA) and this group of survivors is actively involved in the management of the archives.  The CSAA also serve as health support for the staff, researchers, survivors, and community members who use the archives.  

 Having this type of health support available to visitors has been invaluable.  I’ve seen people from all walks of life be emotionally touched by residential schools. Having built in mental health supports is essential in creating safe spaces to discuss historical trauma. It is also important to teach front line archival staff how they can support visitors who may be triggered by material they are viewing.  Creating a supportive environment for viewing material relating to historical trauma needs include training staff to spot emotional distress and how to provide assistance when needed.
 
I’ve been lucky to be part of a workplace and community that is supportive of self-care.  The emotional impact of working on topics related to historical trauma is something that isn’t often discussed amongst historians, archivists, and other heritage professionals.  But talking about the toll of working with emotionally draining material is crucial.  Personally, I’ve found taking a step back from the material, focusing on the importance of truth telling and the positive impact of connecting communities with their past helpful.