This post has been brewing for a while – since I took part in the Family Archive Project’s two outreach events last year, in fact. Given the emphasis that’s currently placed on impact, and how important it is in terms of the REF (or so we assume), these two events highlighted the variety of possible kinds of impact and what we actually think we’re doing when we’re doing it.
Before I say anything else, I should sing the praises of Fiona Blair, our research and administration assistant, without whom neither of these events, nor any of the focus groups we also ran as part of the Project, would have happened. She spent fantastic amounts of time putting together all the materials and props needed for the sessions, and was the brains behind quite a bit of what actually happened at the events. She also prodded me into thinking about the issues behind this post. So thank you, Fiona.
The first outreach event had always been built into the Family Archive Project – it was a workshop at the National Archives, with various academics and professional curators, sharing the findings of the project up to that point and getting conversation going around the issue of family archiving. The event showcased some fantastic projects, like the Seacroft Story and My Route, and there was some really interesting discussion around the general questions we raised. The attendees were, as I say, PLU – People Like Us, that is, with qualifications at a certain level, with an academic or professional interest in these issues, or with a personal archive that they were dealing with in a semi-professional capacity. That’s the sort of event that I usually think of when I think ‘impact’ – how to get professionals in a room to tell them things that might make a difference to how they do their jobs, so that they can then tell us how our research has changed how they’re doing things, so we can tick the impact box. There’s nothing wrong with that, but that’s the model of impact I feel that I default to, for better or worse.
The second outreach event was a bit more of a ‘right place, right time’ affair – we were lucky enough to be asked to put on an event as part of the University of Leeds’ participation in the Being Human festival. For this event, we set up a participation station in the Merrion Centre, a lower end shopping centre in Leeds city centre – we were located right outside the Brighthouse store. We set up three tables – one with lots of leaflets and further information, including a lecture and a small workshop we were also putting on as part of the Being Human programme; a ‘touch table’ with photo frames, books, and other objects reflecting the family archive and what might go into it; and an activity table for children where they could make a memory book, as well as sheets with colouring and an activity booklet themed around the family including a word search and other activities. We had a trunk in the middle of the tables where members of the public could submit items they had in their family archive, tangible or intangible, and it got filled up with postcards as the day progressed. (It was a freezing cold and rainy day in Leeds, and we were very grateful for the wind-shield effect we got from the prematurely erected Santa’s grotto in front of us.)
The participation station reached a very different kind of audience. Although we had a couple of banners up explaining about the project and how we were connected to the university, not many people seemed to realise that we were academics or that this was about research; we had a number of people asking if we were social workers, for instance, or whether we were offering family counselling. We had some good chats with various passers-by, and were able to highlight the resources that Leeds City Library have for researching family history. We had lots of interested children making memory books, and plenty of parents took away our colouring sheets and word searches for a rainy day.
So, where was the impact of that? What were we going to measure to report back to the assessors of how ‘effective’ the event had been? How could we count how much change we had made?
Well, I suspect that the thing I have learned as a result of helping to run these two very different events is that those are sort of the wrong questions. They’re questions focused on a particular model of outreach – the one that expects change to happen measurably at the level of professionals and policy organisations, or talks given in urban centres to a particular audience of people, where attendees will be happy to fill out questionnaires afterwards. The participation station had perhaps a couple of hundred people stroll by us or cast an eye over the banners, which may have made them think about something they weren’t otherwise thinking about – but they weren’t going to fill out a survey form and tell us that. The impact is much more difficult to track, although not necessarily smaller.
Yet the sorts of event like the participation station are crucially important, because they get the work being done at universities out into communities who may not see the relevance of it, or even realise it’s meant to be relevant for them. They get the very fact of university and research out there, although you have to find ways of telling that story that fit the context you’re telling it in. It takes the research out beyond the ‘usual suspects’ for talks and workshops and things where you book tickets in advance. The very nature of an exhibition designed to catch the interest of people having a normal Saturday is fundamentally different to the more traditional formats of ‘outreach’ event, and correspondingly more difficult to measure in terms of impact.
It may be that the greatest traceable impact that event has is giving a parent ten peaceful minutes on a rainy afternoon after they have dug out the colouring sheets that they took home from our stall. But in and of itself, that’s a worthy difference to make. So next time I start thinking about impact, I’m going to try and be a bit more aware of this distinction – surely if part of the point of sharing your research is to get it out to the people who have funded it, that includes all sections of our society.