Case for the Ordinary - reviewing a collaborative project

Sara Levy at the launch reading from her poetry collection, Some Houses Are Built Without Walls
© Courtesy of Staffordshire and Stoke on Trent Archive Service
Volunteers viewing the exhibition
© Courtesy of Staffordshire and Stoke on Trent Archive Service

Saturday 12th  January 2022 saw the launch of the ‘Case for the Ordinary’ exhibition which concludes a 3-year collaborative project, funded by Wellcome, about the patient experience of mental health care at Staffordshire’s three County Asylums.  The event was attended by those who have been involved in the project as partners, volunteers or staff.  This was an opportunity to look back at the aims of the project and to reflect on its outcomes.

Last year Professor Alannah Tomkins wrote that ‘core tasks of accredited archives … can be significantly augmented by research collaborations’.  This project aimed to build new academic collaborations to secure funding, to widen access to an important collection for researchers at all levels, and to engage with our audiences on a sensitive subject.  The core tasks of the project were:

  • to create a dataset with information extracted from the case records for 35,000 patients
  • 1818-1960, designed for academic researchers; to provide a publicly available database for patient records more than 100 years old
  • to disseminate findings about the history of mental health care in Staffordshire through a blog and exhibition. Professor Tomkins reported on the project outcomes at the launch event.

The benefits of the project from an academic perspective

The initial collaboration between archive staff and academic partners shaped the format of the research resource.  From Alannah’s perspective as an experienced academic, the dataset (now over 40,000 patients) opens up research possibilities that could simply not be contemplated without it.  She can now locate cases relevant to specific themes so, for example, using a search on occupation to locate asylum staff who were admitted as patients.  PhD student, Lucy Smith, reported on her use of the dataset in her study of occupational stress; she was able to identify all patients whose illness was attributable to business worries.  Statistical searching over a wide chronological period has allowed her to make comparisons on gender, place, age, occupation, diagnosis and cause between her selected patients and other groups.

New pathway

The second benefit identified by Professor Tomkins was that the dataset presents an opportunity for less experienced researchers to test out ideas and learn about research processes.  It offers a pathway into a large and otherwise overwhelming archive collection; and is a particularly timely resource given the current interest in mental health issues.

Finally, she welcomed the opportunity to develop the relationship between Staffordshire Archives and Heritage and Keele University.  Staffordshire’s project funded by Wellcome provided a springboard for Keele to secure funding from the Economic and Social Research Council for a collaborative PhD.  As part of this collaboration Lucy has led a research group of both on-site and remote volunteers.  Professor Tomkins particularly values research volunteers because as she says, they present opportunities for shared participation in the direction and conduct of research.  The asylums volunteers have engaged in lively discussions that have helped to develop ideas for dissemination of the project research through the blog and exhibition.

The benefits of collaboration for Archives and Heritage

There is no doubt that the three-way collaboration between the archive staff, volunteers and academic partners (including Professor Tomkins’ colleagues at Keele and Birmingham Universities) made for much stronger outcomes for the project:

  • a research resource tailored to research needs
  • public engagement with academic research into a significant archive collection through the medium of our volunteers, exhibition, events and social media.

Unanticipated benefits of the collaboration include poems by MA student, Sara Levy, which feature in the exhibition.  The collaboration as well as being a stimulating experience for staff and volunteers, had the concrete benefits of helping us to secure funding and raising our profile both internally and externally.  As Alannah put it, ‘it’s not a win win but a win win win!’

Further information

Staffordshire Asylums: A Case for the Ordinary – Asylum records in an English County

Staffordshire Asylums: Patient Database – Staffordshire Name Indexes

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