"Five Years On" No. 4 Preserving Historical Materials and the Role of 'Ordinary People'

"Five Years On" No. 4

Miyagi Rekishi Shiryou Network in 2016 

This is the fourth installment in a series of articles by Satō Daisuke on the activities of Miyagi Rekishi Shiryou Hozon Network, 5 years after the disaster of March 2011. In this installment he writes about the task of preserving historical materials after a disaster, and the role of the non-specialist 'ordinary people' in preserving the historical and cultural heritage of their locality.

4) The Task of Preserving Historical Materials and the Role of  'Ordinary People'

Volunteers: Something More than Just More Hands

Miyagi Shiryou Network has received the support of non-specialist volunteers from the general public in our work of treating and preserving damaged historical materials from since we began these activities in May 2011. These volunteers have come to us through a wide variety of channels. Some have responded to calls through our own Newsletter and announcements on our website, others to calls made through the Outreach organisation of the Sendai Municipal Museum or Senior Citizen Resource Centres, personal connections, or through connections with us predating March 2011. I have yet to tally up the total number of people who have served us as volunteers, but it should be in the order of several hundreds.

At first, I myself thought of these volunteers as little more than a way of dealing with our acute and immediate 'labour shortage.' However, after working with these volunteers for over 5 years now, I have come to realise that my initial reaction was wide of the mark and terribly underestimated the potential of these 'ordinary people.' 

Moving Beyond Just Cleaning: the Growth of Our Core Volunteers

Today, our core volunteers all come from the region of Sendai. Almost all of them had no experience of reading nor dealing with historical documents beforehand. The demise of brushes as the dominant tool for writing has also meant the demise of the cursive writing styles that went with the use of brushes, and the ability to read old handwriting without receiving specialist training. For our non-specialist volunteers, the contents of the documents that they were being asked to painstakingly treat and preserve, were to the greater part an indecipherable mystery.

An important part of training volunteers therefore was to impart to them the importance of the documents that they were treating or digitally photographing in rediscovering and preserving the history of the disaster-affected areas. Our 'specialist' staff would also often decipher, read and explain the meaning of the contents that the volunteers were dealing with.
About one year after beginning to work with us, our core volunteers came to share a common interest in wanting to know what was written in the documents in front of them. In response to this interest, on a once a week basis we started up a class in learning to read handwriting in the old cursive style after we finished the day's usual activities.

The after-hours reading class (photo 18th Feb 2013)
Later, some of the members of the reading class moved on to study reading old documents on their own and further hone their skills, to the level where they can do editing on the reports written by academic members on the contents of the various collections that we are working on. These 'ordinary volunteers' have become so skilled at reading old documents that when I present them with my transcriptions of documents, the manuscript comes back shining a bright red from all the corrections that they make to my misreadings, completely upsetting the 'balance of power' in the 'specialist/non-specialist' relationship. Recently, I am finding myself starting to encourage these volunteers to not just provide information for academics like myself, but to also try their hand at doing their own research.
This year, a group of our core volunteers approached me saying that they wanted to try to do the complete process of preserving a collection of documents, that is, starting with the initial process of recording the state in which the documents were found, sorting, cataloging and drawing up a report on their, relying on me only for advice as needed. The members drew up a plan for preservation work on a collection in private hands in Sendai, and proceeded with this plan working once a week outside of their usual one day of work in our treating room.
Three Reports on Documents Drawn up by 'Ordinary Volunteers'

The Potential of 'Ordinary People'

The turning point which brought so many 'ordinary people' into contact with historical documents through our volunteer activities itself was the chain of disaster following on the events of 11th March, 2011. However, as I have pointed out in an earlier posting, this also served to provide women and the elderly, who are all too often left outside in society,  with a place where they could become involved as active supporters rather than just passive subjects in the recovery process. Moreover, some of these volunteers have started to do their own research using the documents they are treating, and are moving on to become active subjects in the movement to preserve historical documents and materials.

It is often said that society changes in response to disaster. I think that you can say that Miyagi Shiryou Network has now matured into an organisation that is genuinely open to free public participation.

Furthermore, through our activities after 2011, our organisation has become a place where ordinary citizens can turn into amateur local historians who not only pass on the historical heritage of their locality, but also research it and discover new windows on it.

 'Specialist' vs 'Amateur' 

However, not everyone welcomes the idea of amateur local historians. I have been told that 'there are some areas which only specialists can do,' or 'local history can become a hotbed for rabid nationalism and should be approached with caution,' and various people have expressed this kind of opinion in writing.

I agree that there are certain fundamentals which must be observed in the practice of restoring historical materials, and in the research and writing of local history. However, if you want to call yourself a 'specialist' in either of these fields, then surely it should be your social responsibility to transmit the necessary basics of your expertise in terms that interested laypeople can understand. Is that not what 'specialists' are for?

Am I imagining too much if I feel that there is a strong tinge of a superiority complex in the people who want to argue that 'ordinary people are just ordinary?' On the other hand, I myself might be open to accusation of being a condescending 'specialist' if I say that 'I believe in the potential of ordinary people.' That may be true, but over that past year working together with our core volunteers, I have increasingly been astonished by what they have come to accomplish. To put it another way, I feel that their growth has brought me to reflect very critically on the proper social role of the 'specialist historian.'
Non-specialist volunteers sorting documents (Photo 5th Mar 2016)

Beyond the 'Specialist/Non-Specialist' Conumdrum: Everyone is Needed

Of course, I am not trying to say that everyone who participates in historical preservation work should become an accomplished researcher in local history. This is a point that I have repeatedly emphasised to date, but while deciphering and cataloguing old documents is definitely an important part of the process of utilising these documents, viewed from the overall process of preserving historical documents, it still only one small part of the whole.

For example, stabilising the condition of sea water-immersed materials, cleaning documents, procuring a clean environment for the documents'/materials' preservation, doing the organisational work to coordinate all our activities and the diverse groups of people participating,  procuring funding, all of these are essential tasks but which require no special skills in deciphering old documents. There is a wide range of niches within our organisation which require a wide variety of people to fill and function.

Whether the kind of role that Miyagi Rekishi Shiryou Hozon Network has played is fulfilled by a public body or by a volunteer organisation like us is not important.  The important thing is to get bodies who can do the kind of preservation work that we do functioning all over the country, so that we can preserve the historical and cultural heritage of each region from the ravages of disasters, and use what is saved as the basis for a regenesis of the damaged localities. Am I really hoping for too much?

One matter that our core volunteers keep telling me from their wealth of experience of the world in general, is that the way we run our organisation is fraught with problems and pitfalls. I hope that over the next year, we will be able to gain their active participation in the managerial aspects of Miyagi Rekishi Shiryou Hozon Network.

10th March 2016
Satō Daisuke

All Japanese personal names are given in Japanese order, family name first.

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