“I know because I was there”: Archives, social justice and the Hillsborough Disaster

2009 banner to commemorate 20 years since the Hillsborough Disaster. Photo by Linksfuss (CC-BY-SA 3.0)

Victoria Hoyle is York City Archivist and is studying for a PhD in the Department of History.

The role of archives in social justice activity is a hotly contested topic at the moment.  Around the world documentary evidence is being discovered, gathered and made accessible in order to bring to light injustices and inequalities perpetuated in the past.  In The Hague the UN International Criminal Tribunals for Rwanda and the Balkans have collected thousands of linear metres of records for war crime trials. In Australia, the Find and Connect project has collated archives of orphanages, homes and other institutions where generations of aboriginal children were held after being removed from their families. In Canada the same process is currently underway for the records of the Indian Residential Schools, supporting truth and reconciliation with native peoples. Here in the UK the records of the Hillsborough Stadium Disaster have been digitised in consultation with the families of the victims and placed online in an unprecedented disclosure of police and government documents.

On 15th April 1989 ninety-six Liverpool football fans were crushed to death because of overcrowding at Hillsborough stadium in Sheffield during an FA cup semi-final match. Another 700 people were injured.  In the immediate aftermath stories about the violent and drunken behaviour of fans prior to, during and after the tragedy were circulated by the police and received extensive coverage in the media.  The Sun newspaper infamously ran a front page story – “The Truth” – which squarely placed blame for the tragedy on the victims. Out-of-control fans were accused of stealing from the dead, of urinating on police and disrupting attempts to save lives.  It was a version of events that played into what Phil Scraton, Professor of Criminology and member of the Hillsborough Independent Panel, has called “hooligan hysteria”.  By dehumanising the victims – thirty-eight of whom were children – and implicating them in their own deaths, the public’s attention was shifted away from the actions of the police and other authorities.  Archival evidence has subsequently shown this version of events to be entirely false.

After many years of campaigning by victims’ families and several inconclusive investigations the Hillsborough Independent Panel was formed in 2009.  Its purpose was to manage the disclosure of government and police records relating to the disaster, to interpret the records for the public and to create a permanent, discoverable archive. For the first time full disclosure was made of the records of all of the agencies, including those which would ordinarily have been closed.  In 2012 the publication of the Panel’s final report coincided with the release of over 355,000 scanned documents online and the establishment of places of deposit for the 450,000 hardcopy records in Sheffield and Liverpool.

The release of the archive revealed the conflicts between documentation, memory and witness testimony in establishing a narrative of the event.  The testimony of police officials and politicians in the immediate aftermath were directly contradicted.  At the same time the memories of people who were in the stadium and of victims’ families were absent or silenced.  It became clear, for example, that statements made by members of the South Yorkshire Police had been substantially edited.  They had been reviewed by senior officers and solicitors, and rewritten to fixed standards; 116 of the 164 statements had been changed in this way.  The documents were not just evidence of the truth but also evidence of the lies, both actual and by omission.  In order to fill in some of the gaps families submitted their own documentation, including letters to and from the original coroner and witness statements.  The Panel had a policy of ‘families first’, sharing all information with loved ones before releasing it.  The archive was a site of injustice and of justice activity at the same time.

As a direct result of the Panel’s report and the disclosed documentation the inquest into Hillsborough was reopened in 2014.  Just a few weeks ago on 26th April a jury returned a verdict of unlawful killing for all ninety-six victims.  At the same time it concluded that the South Yorkshire Police bore the largest share of the blame because of the poor decisions made on the day by commanding officers.  An investigation into the aftermath and the cover-up, Operation Resolve, is now underway, for which a further 70,000 documents are being disclosed.  These include the original notebooks carried by police officers on duty which were withheld from the Independent Panel.  For the families the Panel’s report and the inquest ruling represent the end of a 27 year battle for justice for their loved ones.

They are landmarks in archives practice too. Preserving and opening up archives in this way has broad implications for how archival institutions and archivists understand their work in society.  Historically the archivist has been positioned as a neutral and objective gatekeeper, whose work to select and catalogue records is an invisible prelude to interpretation and use by others.  More recently postmodernism has challenged this paradigm, re-envisioning the archivist as a subjective, independent actor whose choices impact on what will be remembered or forgotten and what types of history will be possible. The social justice agenda takes this impact a step further, envisioning archives work as a form of activism that can make real changes in the present. In the dark corners of archival theory journals a battle is raging over whether this is a reasonable or desirable shift in perspective.

As a PhD student working on the social, cultural and historical values of archives to communities, as well as a practising archivist, these debates dominate my research context. They ask questions about the relationships between the creators of archives – who may, in future, be implicated in injustices or criminal acts – the people described in the archives, the archivists who decide what should be kept for the future and the people who use them. Who has and can exercise power?  Who decides what is valuable and important? Who has the right to access and interpret surviving documentation? How should it be catalogued and described, and by whom?

Between degrees: history outside academia

Detail from the the Rochester Bestiary (BL Royal MS 12 F XIII, f4r)
Detail from the Rochester Bestiary (BL Royal MS 12 F XIII, f.4r)

Tim Wingard is about to begin a History PhD at the University of York.

I finished my Masters in Medieval History at York in September 2015, and within weeks I was already desperate to return to academia. As things turned out, I now look set to return to begin my PhD research on late medieval sexuality and animality in October this year. The intervening months have been something of a liminal zone – I have needed to continue research necessary to write funding applications, research proposals, conference papers and blogposts, but have done this without formal institutional backing. It is my intention to use this opportunity to talk about my experiences – very much the definition of ‘doing history in public’ – and outline how modern technology makes it possible to participate in academia outside of a formal programme. This is of course merely a snapshot of my own particular experiences and not indicative of everyone who engages in alt-ac research; nevertheless, I hope that I can provide encouragement to current students who are facing the dilemma of applying to further study.

The most fundamental challenge facing the student outside academia is finding the time to do research at all. Since completing my Masters, I found that balancing the demands of working a 9-5 job and then returning home to work on proposals and papers has been tricky to manage even with all the privileges I have benefited from in terms of being able to live with my family, and I have immense respect for peers who tackle this challenge alongside the additional demands of caring responsibilities, ongoing mental or physical health problems, or erratic and unpredictable work schedules due to zero-hours contracts or multiple part-time roles. And, of course, these practical challenges will be a reality for many currently in universities studying while disabled or already undertaking part-time courses alongside work.

Perhaps equally as uncomfortable to acknowledge is the truth that without institutional affiliation, the budding historian faces significant restrictions on access to the material. Much scholarship still remains behind journal paywalls or in prohibitively expensive and hard-to-find books. However there has been a growing movement towards open access scholarship, entailing greater availability of the fruits of historians’ labour to all, and hopefully this trend will continue. In the meantime, open access provides opportunities for learning and research even without access to the full resources of a university. Many researchers, especially younger ones still in the earlier stages of their career, are beginning to make part of their research available for free through sites such as academia.edu. When I was writing initial applications to potential supervisors for instance, I always made a habit of looking up their profile on the site and reading through any of their research which they had published on here.

Open access isn’t just limited to secondary scholarship. Many archives and libraries are beginning to digitise and make available their manuscript collections so that anyone can read the primary sources of history for themselves. Globally, some of the biggest repositories are the British Library, the Danish Royal Library and the National Library of France. For my own research into bestiaries, I found that all three had a number of digitised manuscripts that were invaluable for drawing upon material for my conference papers – see for instance, the British Library’s beautiful Rochester Bestiary. Other ambitious projects seek to make professional, annotated translations of major medieval works available online, such as the Online Froissart Project or the Aberdeen Bestiary.

But ultimately, what was perhaps even more important was to retain links to the academic community and to continue to feel part of the wider body of students and researchers. And that is where the internet really comes into its own, in the form of the connections offered through social media. During my months out of university, Facebook and Twitter enabled me to keep in touch not just with friends from my course, but also with peers and colleagues from around the world. In terms of practical support, it means being able to ask for advice, guidance and reassurance from people who have already navigated the system, which is especially helpful when you may not have access to the formal guidance of a supervisor in the same way as you do during a degree.

Twitter in particular is a great resource for the researcher out of academia. Anecdotally, I have heard that many newcomers can find it intimidating to approach, with all its unfamiliar culture and traditions– but overall, I have found the niches of Twitter devoted to my field to be incredibly friendly, welcoming and helpful. Getting started is a matter of learning the most popular hashtags for your field – in my instance, #medievaltwitter – and starting to follow relevant people. It’s an incredibly diverse, if informal network – undergrads, postgrads, lecturers, archivists, experts in heritage and amateur enthusiasts all intermingle and talk to each other! I cannot overstate how important the site has been to me over the last year.

Overall then, my experience of being a student between degrees has been largely positive. It is hard work, and trying to fit research around the demands of non-academic employment is challenging – and it will make you truly appreciate the resources that are available to a scholar in a university environment. However, modern internet technologies enable the ‘alt-ac’ researcher today to achieve far more than was possible in the analogue era. Crucially, I want this post to be a message of encouragement to current students who are thinking of applying for further study, a position I was in barely a year ago. Don’t feel rushed into applications while you’re still studying! It’s natural to fear that you’ll ‘fall out of the loop’ if you wait until you’ve finished your current study, but the benefits of taking time out from university (another blog post all on its own) combined with the ability to stay connected mean that you should seriously consider it as an option.