Because we're worth it

Fed up with being a free research resource, Vanessa Toulmin is capitalising on the skills of her staff at her archive

October 1, 2009

As director of the National Fairground Archive at the University of Sheffield library, my day-to-day job involves building up the collections, researching and highlighting the archive's holdings to the academic and public communities that it serves. So far, so uncontroversial. But another responsibility - income generation - is seen by many of my colleagues in the wider archival community as problematic.

Hearing that our work has included organising erotic film projects and parties for seaside tourist attractions may confirm the fears of many that any foray into revenue-generation leads to an abandonment of pure research and to scholarship being forced to dance to Mammon's tune.

But such a view betrays a lack of understanding of the scope of knowledge-transfer activities and how they can benefit more than just a department's bottom line. Working with the private and public sectors can be challenging, but the narrow mindset of many in the academic community can be just as perplexing.

Five years ago, the archive made an "unholy" pact with senior management in the university library in which we signed away our non-staffing budget in order to control and maximise our earning potential. The result has not only freed us and given us the necessary skills with which to face the potential black hole of funding that faces us, it has also made us, and the wider community, more aware of the unique value of our scholarly work.

In direct terms, knowledge transfer is the means by which we can effectively engage with partners and bodies beyond the academic community and charge a market rate for the expertise that we offer.

The weird and wonderful range of activities we have undertaken under the remit of knowledge transfer and public engagement includes not only the standard supply of materials and images for commercial agencies and media outlets, but also the application of our specialist skills to a wider and less obvious audience. This has included acting as specialist advisers for a legal case to determine what constituted a slot machine in 1933 when a showman client was challenging a major drinks company who opened a children's play area in a public house opposite a theme park; advising on the standardisation of a fairground-ride vocabulary for the industry; providing historical reports on markets and fairs for local authorities; and latterly producing neo-variety and burlesque shows in Blackpool, Margate and elsewhere.

Other projects we have undertaken include programming erotic film shows for Luxembourg's city of culture celebrations; acting as historical advisers to major television programmes such as the BBC's Electric Edwardians; and organising the after-show party for the Blackpool Illuminations.

All of these, one can argue, are unique cases and cannot be replicated beyond our small and specialist world. But this is a fallacy all too commonly repeated. We, like all our colleagues in academia, hold specialist knowledge of our subject. What sets our archive apart is that I, as director, have imparted to my staff and colleagues the ability to turn that specialist knowledge to our advantage by actively seeking clients or partners for income generation, and an appreciation of our worth that is not forgotten when we are approached to participate in a capacity outside higher education.

Two of our most recent consultancies arose from different circumstances. Both, however, grew out of a belief in the economic validity and social impact of our expertise and a willingness on the part of the partners to pay for this expertise.

Since 2002, the National Fairground Archive has worked on a knowledge-transfer partnership with the Health and Safety Executive on modern fairground rides. The spark for this was a realisation that there was not a standard vocabulary applied across the industry to the latest white-knuckle rides appearing at theme parks and travelling fairs throughout the UK, nor was there a mechanism for effectively tracking or logging ownership of such rides. Because we have photographic holdings of more than 100,000 images and a level of cataloguing detail that includes ownership information, we have information about different terminologies and details of past owners at our fingertips.

We approached the Health and Safety Executive and offered continuous access to our expertise coupled with up-to-date information identifying the population of any ride, in a structured fashion and for a fee. Since the completion of this initial pilot project, the archive now holds a rolling contract to help present a safer image of fairgrounds and to provide a mechanism to help the Health and Safety Executive promote regular systematic maintenance of all rides. Information on any discovered faults on any type of fairground machine can be passed on to operators of other active fairground machines that may be susceptible to a similar fault. The archive benefits in that it helps contribute to the safe environment of the fairground industry, but it also gains a steady income from a public body that can be channelled back into enhancing the resources for our users.

The second such consultancy arose through the Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded project Admission All Classes, which created an environment where a programme of deliverable knowledge-transfer events, such as live entertainment shows, heritage-inspired talks and public events could become a model for future profit-generating tourism events with Blackpool Borough Council.

This initial 18-month partnership effected through the first Knowledge Transfer Awards scheme in 2007 created a financially beneficial and creative relationship between the university and the council based on experience, as well as financial incentives for future working relationships. In practical terms, the contract between the university and Blackpool Borough Council - to which I am subcontracted to act as creative adviser for special projects and as creative programmer of Showzam, Blackpool's Festival of Circus, Magic and Variety - generates enough revenue for the archive to employ extra staff when needed and to pay some non-staffing expenses.

These two examples demonstrate that the staff of the National Fairground Archive understand not only the economic potential of its holdings but also the specialist and unique information they have acquired in the course of their work. We have come to this realisation not only through the necessity of revenue generation, but through our frustration at being taken for a free ride by the media and the commercial sector, who believe that academics - in particular those working in the arts and humanities - are a soft touch; "gobs on sticks" who will willingly impart all their knowledge and expertise for nothing. We are not alone in our confidence, as the University of Sheffield has a very long tradition of knowing its worth. Dominic Shellard, for example, produced the definitive Economic Impact Study of UK Theatre for the Arts Council England in 2004, and he now conducts numerous individual studies for theatres on a consultancy basis.

Ironically, media work - the most obvious potential source of income generation for academics in the arts - is the work academics find it difficult to charge for. "Dealing with the media", a workshop offered by the Institute for Historical Research (IHR) in December 2008, offered academics training in how to become more media friendly, how to deal confidently with media outlets and how to get one's message across, along with useful tips on interview techniques, tapes of radio and television interviews and a media manual. However, the one aspect that was not offered and was not addressed on the IHR website was perhaps the most essential: can or should an academic charge for sharing his or her expertise?

A journalist once said to me that academics could always be relied on to write something if one were desperate. Even more important, the journalist added, they were very cheap and often didn't want paying at all. That is not true of all scholars, but many academics say they accept paltry financial returns for appearing in the media because of a pressure to meet their university's need to show knowledge transfer.

According to Tony Collins, professor of the social history of sport at the Institute of Northern Studies at Leeds Metropolitan University: "The problem is twofold. First, most academics are fearful that if they ask for a fee, they will lose the chance to appear in the media. Second, media organisations are far more savvy about money than academics are. Although I've appeared many times on BBC radio and television, not a single BBC employee has ever raised the question of payment with me. I have always been the one to raise it. The only broadcaster that has ever volunteered a fee is Sky. Some years ago, I worked with the BBC as a consultant and interviewee on a major historical series. I received £70 - not even enough to pay the licence fee so I could see myself on TV!"

He continues: "We're paid well to do a job that most of us love. But staff appraisal schemes increasingly focus on the financial contribution that we make to the bottom line. So we need to make sure that we get our fair due from the media, and that university administrators take into account the free but valuable publicity they get from their academics appearing in the media."

A colleague of mine recently observed: "I cannot patent my ideas, I cannot stop others from using my published material without reference to my years of research, and I really do not have the internal mechanism to charge." On all these issues I disagree. The crucial point is not whether we should charge for the use of our intellectual opinions and research, but who we should charge and why.

Many academics would argue that knowledge transfer is just an extension of academic engagement and that through lectures, public appearances and, of course, publications we are actively involved in the community beyond the academy. However, knowledge transfer is more diverse and generally has a greater economic currency attached to it. Quite simply, academics should expect to be paid market rates or a reasonable rate for their expertise and time. In my experience, the majority of academics working in the arts and humanities undersell themselves or cannot differentiate between what is dissemination of their work to the wider public and what is exploitation by a professional or commercialised industry. The latter know the value and importance of our contribution but do not wish to pay the market value.

We, sadly, appear to know the value of everything except our own worth.

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