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Researching railway worker accidents – together

In the past 15 or so years, the academic community has become much more attuned to the value of collaboration with individuals and organisations beyond the higher education sector. Arguably, what has actually taken place is a formal recognition of the importance of work that has for a long time been carried out across this rather artificial divide between universities and ‘beyond’ (writing from an academic perspective!). Historians and many other disciplines have strong links with community groups, museums, interested individuals, professional bodies, family history groups and many more.

The real shift has probably been to do with the level of involvement all of these interested parties have in the creation and practicalities of research. Not that long ago it might be the case that academics would be seen as creators, coming up with the projects and ideas, which (if they involved wider audiences) were then implemented by others. The ‘thinking’ work – including the questions to be answered by the research – were the domain of the academics. This is a rather crude characterisation, of course, but it has grains of truth. Working in this way immediately meant that the bright ideas that those beyond universities came up with or experience and expertise they brought with them might be overlooked – a real loss.

Times have changed, thankfully, and there’s a much greater emphasis on the idea of ‘co-production’: so, all partners involved as equals, bringing with them different expertise that can result in exciting new directions for research that were unanticipated. This is exactly what we’re aiming for in our project – albeit with the recognition that it’s not easy to achieve, and needs to be attempted in a meaningful way.

This means that the sort of thing our project is doing – bringing together lots of different people and organisations, often with rather different interests in the history of railway worker accidents – is being well-supported, and (we’re glad to say) well received. Excellent – though not, of course, why we’re doing this. We’ve been working with experts in various fields – particularly family history, as well as the academic, museum and archives project leaders – to try to frame the project in ways that will be useful for as many people as possible, as well as allowing opportunities for people to get involved.

However, in terms of the widest possible co-production, there has definitely been room for improvement. So we’ve been delighted that our two most recent project extensions – with The National Archives (more here) and the Modern Records Centre (more here) – have provided opportunities to make co-production more of a feature. So far these extensions are in their early days, so we don’t know what impact this will have had – but we’re trying. We’ve made sure that at the outset of the work we’ve held introductory sessions with the volunteers, to outline the area (as so far no-one has had much of a grounding in the area of railway worker safety), to work out what questions people might have at this stage, and to work out how we might all work together to come up with research questions as we go along.

We’ve held one session each at Kew (TNA volunteers) and at Warwick (MRC volunteers). Across the sessions there was a real range of people and backgrounds – unsurprisingly, there’s no such thing as a ‘typical’ volunteer. That’s great, as it brings with it a variety of perspectives and experience. One thing it is fair to say is that everyone has been willing and enthusiastic about being involved – obvious, perhaps, but crucial to any voluntary role like this.

After some initial introductions around the room, we’ve started off with a chance for volunteers to ask any questions. Some of these were going to be answered in what followed, but there were of course some unexpected questions – which meant we could incorporate answers or discussion about them in the rest of the session. Between the project leads at the respective institutions, we’d then given a bit of background about railway safety, including worker accidents, and the records we’re using. After ensuring that any new questions had been answered, we then went into a fluid discussion about research questions, intended to stimulate co-production. Much of that was about being clear that all questions are taken seriously and that as project leads we’re really interested in the ideas and questions that the volunteers are coming up with. After all, they’re handling the records on a day-to-day basis, so will be in the best position to spot links or pose difficult ‘why did this happen in this way?’ type questions!

What was already evident was that the volunteers were thinking deeply about the topic and the records, asking some great questions that got at causation and/ or interpretation. They were able to provide real insight as well, particularly in terms of project methodology and practice. That’s a great start, given they’d not really spent much time with the records or on the area. We’re going to revisit the session when they’ve had a chance to do a bit more of the work, to see how their research questions are developing and what more we can do to support them. As always, we’d like to extend our thanks to all who’ve volunteered with us so far. We’re looking forward to working more with them – and of course we can’t wait to work with everyone who gets involved in ‘Transcription Tuesday’!

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