Keeping Archives Active: Access to the Past for a More Peaceful Future

Academic Freedom, Information Access, Intellectual Freedom Issues

By: Lisa M. Rand

Mural with dove of peace in the Bogside neighborhood of DerryReflecting on the many critical roles of libraries, we might overlook contributions to peacemaking. However, by providing access to a range of stories and documentation, libraries can support communities in healing the past and growing toward a peaceful future.

When a community suffers ongoing violent conflict, the story of one person’s experience cannot give the full picture. Multiple voices, narratives from diverse perspectives, become critical for the telling of history. Access to diverse documents that describe multiple sides of a story can be crucial for a more robust understanding. Increased understanding helps to lay a foundation for a more peaceful future.

In Northern Ireland, interpreting history is highly politicized. Twenty-one years after the Belfast Agreement (or Good Friday Agreement), a hard-won peace predominates, but recently has been punctuated by renewed violence. In April a journalist, Lyra McKee, was killed while observing rioting in Derry. The violence and political tension serve as a reminder that peace is fragile and requires commitment, requires structures of justice, requires new ways of living together.

A detailed report from Ulster University, Sectarianism in Northern Ireland: A Review, contends that both religious and political sectarianism strongly persist. The report, prepared by Professor Duncan Morrow, was commissioned by the Ulster Bank’s Sir George Quigley Fund, which aims to promote social wellbeing. Prof Morrow said, “We have a duty of care and leadership to ensure that the expectation, aspiration and potential of the next and future generations is met and not stifled by sectarian polarisation.”

Civil rights mural in Derry, Ireland with jobs not creed signBy preserving stories from all sides, supporting efforts to teach history in a holistic fashion, and honoring multiple perspectives, vibrant libraries and archives can be an important ingredient in moving beyond sectarianism. Libraries can provide access to all people equally, making space for a vision of healing and inclusive community building.

Taking all this into account, the CAIN (Conflict Archive on the InterNet) archive at Ulster University in Derry, curated by Dr. Martin Melaugh and a small staff, performs a crucial role.

Established online in 1997, the project collects source material on the Northern Ireland conflict and politics in the region from 1968 to the present, as well as general information on Northern Ireland society.

Eamonn Baker works on peace building with Towards Understanding and Healing at Holywell Trust in Derry. In a Derry Now story, he described the importance of the CAIN archive. “The CAIN website is the most comprehensive source of information on ‘the Troubles’ and politics in Northern Ireland from 1968 to the present and it is continually updated and expanded.  It is invaluable for fact checking in these days of fake news and contrived historical revisionism.”

Unfortunately, due to inadequate funding, Ulster University might not be able to continue CAIN operations as they stand. The university held a 12-week consultation about the future of the CAIN Web Service as a live research project. The consultation ran from February 7 to May 2, 2019, and the responses are under review as of this writing. Possibilities include preserving online access by making CAIN a special digital collection within the university’s library. If that happens, there would not be dedicated staff to add new material, make updates, or answer queries and permissions. The status of the CAIN archive has been discussed in at least a dozen recent news stories in the United Kingdom and Ireland, and those stories are collected on the CAIN website for interested readers.

Over the life of the project CAIN staff have responded to permission requests and queries from around the globe, and CAIN is cited in more than 2,400 books and articles. It is a heavily used resource, with over 22 million site visits, a quarter of them from the United States. It appears highly likely that scholars and community activists will continue to need the resources and services of the CAIN staff. The report on sectarianism and the news coverage after Ms. McKee’s death point to a hunger for moving into a truly peaceful future, and healing the past will continue to be an important piece of that work.

The need for an archive that is not merely a digital record, but a full-staffed, dynamic growing body of knowledge remains critical. The Troubles may be past, but after effects remain. Fresh political events can aggravate and reopen old wounds. By supporting scholarship, library staff could help ensure that history is told with clarity, and sectarianism laid to rest.


Lisa RandLisa M. Rand is the youth services coordinator at Boyertown Community Library in southeastern Pennsylvania, a role that carries a special interest in protecting youth access to diverse programs and materials. She exercises her commitment to equity and access for everyone by serving on the Intellectual Freedom Committee of the Pennsylvania Library Association. Lisa developed a passion for Constitutional Law and First Amendment issues while at Simmons College, and continued her studies at the New School in New York City. Whenever possible she travels, visiting libraries and walking in the footsteps of favorite fictional characters. Find her on Twitter @lisa_m_rand.

One thought on “Keeping Archives Active: Access to the Past for a More Peaceful Future

  • As of June 19, Ulster University has shared an update on the CAIN consultation. The university has decided to “allow a nine month period (1 August 2019 to 30 April 2020) for staff to explore the opportunities that have been identified during the consultation process.” The aim is to secure additional funding.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.