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The impossible takes a bit longer

    The Biographies Committee         What now?         Key questions         Possible answers    

The US Army Engineer Corps famously claimed to ‘do the difficult at once’. In case you are wondering how that relates to ringing, let me go back to the beginning and explain.

The Biographies Committee

The 1935 Central Council meeting approved a proposal: ‘That a record be prepared of past members of the Council, giving a short account of their work, and where possible a photograph, and that a committee be appointed to undertake this work’, Council was nearly fifty years old then, so laying down a record for future historians was a reasonable move. But a lot has changed in the 74 years since, and that simple brief is no longer appropriate.

Council committees provide services to the Exercise. Some serve the majority of ringers, for example most ringers have come into contact with products of the Education  and Publications  Committees. Others serve more specialist sections of the ringing community, for example Towers & Belfries Committee , and the various committees concerned with peals and methods.

The Biographies Committee  didn’t fit very well into this pattern of service to ringers. Its main task was to record information about Council members, and write it up when they die. In practice, the Committee did more than this, for example its chairman is often asked ‘have you got any information about ...’ by obituary writers. Having once been asked at short notice to give an address at a memorial service, I can vouch for the pressure to gather information from many sources as quickly as possible.

The big flaw in the Committee’s remit was only dealing with Council members. That leaves out an awful lot of people who make a significant contribution to ringing, and creates an image of the Council as a Victorian Gentleman’s club (even though a quarter of its members are women).

At a stroke the 2009 Central Council meeting extended the Committee’s remit by substituting ‘ringers’ for ‘Council members’. The proposers were clear that the change had to be made, though others were daunted by the practicalities. Trying to gather biographic information on Council members is a task of Forth Bridge proportions, so it would surely become impossible if extended to ringers at large. It was this aspect that brought to mind the quotation with which I began, about the impossible taking a bit longer to achieve.

What now?

With its goal posts moved, and with its rationale for existence changed, the Committee had to think how to interpret and respond to its new mandate. Was the task even achievable?

One thing is clear: the Committee’s current task can’t be extended to all ringers, so it has to be reinterpreted. Let me explain why.

Until now, the Committee had two core tasks, the first of which (though it is actually done last) is to write up a one-page biographic record for each deceased member (or former member) of the Council. The pages are in the CC Library .

The second task is to try to gather sufficient information about current and former members prior to death (or in some cases after) in order to be able to complete the biographical records, which can be both time consuming and frustrating. Typically members are asked to complete a biographic form when they join the Council, and to update it after a number of years. That would be simple if everyone filled in the forms, but many don’t. Nor do they respond to reminders, and some who promise to do so repeatedly ‘forget’. A few former members can’t even remember being on the Council! The information gathering task also involves scanning published information, notably The Ringing World.

The record shows that throughout its history, the Committee has struggled to keep up with these two tasks. Interpreting the new terms of reference literally, and trying to scale up from Council members (a couple of hundred currently, and only 1500 since 1891) to the whole Exercise (probably 40-50,000, with several thousand added each year) is impossible.

Nor is such a literal interpretation sensible. It cannot be what the proposers had in mind, or what the Exercise wants. So what should it do?

Key questions

The committee has been trying to answer several questions about its new role, and how best to serve the Exercise.

Who to include? – Common sense says that rather than recording the lives of all ringers, we should focus on ‘significant’ ringers – those whose contribution and achievements (within ringing, and maybe in other spheres) mark them out. But who defines ‘significant’? It would be easy to name some obvious candidates for the upper end of the list, but harder to draw the line between who to include and who to exclude.

Council members? – Council members, like other ringers, vary in the contribution they make to ringing. Many give enormous service and achieve a lot. Some achieve much less. A few never even attend a meeting. Should they be automatically included? Should they be chased if they fail to provide any information?

Where to put information? – Archival records in the library have their place, as do printed publications, but information should also be on-line in order to serve modern day ringers.

What to produce? – Should the committee produce other than a page of up to 3-400 words plus a picture, as at the moment? Or should it produce a range of different outputs, appropriate to the ‘significance’ of the subject, and how much information is available?

Dead or alive? – Should the committee release no information until someone is dead? That means the subject can’t complain, but nor can he/she correct any errors or fill in any gaps. Is the Exercise only interested in dead ringers?

Obtaining information? – Are there better, and more effective ways to obtain information?

Doing more? – Should the committee just gather and process information, or should it also seek to foster more awareness among ringers about the history of ringing, and how we got where we are today? Should the Committee work alone, or should it seek to form a network of people interested in, and collaborating on the history of ringing and ringers, including those writing biographies for local use? Should it seek to achieve more prominence for ringing by facilitating more ringers’ biographies to be published in the national media? [The Committee's terms of reference  were broadened in 2015.]

Possible answers

To comply with its new mandate, the Committee has considered several options, and looked at different ways it could provide services to ringers.

The web – To start with the obvious, the Committee should put information already produced on-line. This could include both searchable data and scanned images of the historic records  held in the Library. [Since implemented.]

In the longer term it might be possible to link these in different ways. For example this site: www.undiscoveredscotland.co.uk/usbiography/  supplements an alphabetic list with a geographical perspective, and a timeline: www.undiscoveredscotland.co.uk/usfeatures/timeline/ .

Public contribution – The web also provides an effective way for ringers to contribute information. This seems the most realistic way to handle information on the greater number of people now in scope. Most people (especially the younger ones) are familiar with the concept of a Wiki where many people can contribute or add information on. Obviously there need to be some checks to ensure that information can be relied on, and these need thinking through.

Open nomination – Opening up contribution also goes some way to solving the problem of who to include. In fact there are two selections to be made. The first is deciding to start accumulating biographical information on someone, and with public contribution and automatic storage, the simplest solution is to allow anyone to nominate suitable people, by providing some initial information. They may nominate people they know, or even themselves. Other people would then be free to add more information in future.

The other decision is about publishing. That decision is made simpler when there is already a factual record showing what people have (or have not) done.

A ringers’ who’s who? – If we invite ringers to contribute new information, it makes sense for them to be able to see what is there already. People get sensitive about showing any information on live ringers, but factual information (home tower, association offices, peal total, notable achievements, etc) is already published somewhere (association reports and newsletters, The Ringing World, or on the web) but it is scattered and much harder to find. Putting a prominent ringer’s name into Google typically gives hundreds of hits (even not counting namesakes). Having information in one place would be like who’s who for ringers. There are who’s who websites for other activities, as well as famous people.

Individuals would be able to check the accuracy of anything about them, and if they so chose could request information to be removed.

Some might see this as a controversial suggestion from a stuffy old Committee. But the main message from the 2009 CC meeting is that the Biographies Committee should stop being stuffy and introverted, should engage with ringers at large and should provide something useful. This article is intended to stimulate discussion and feedback on what ringers feel would be useful and worth doing.

John Harrison (for Biographies Committee)

Published in The Ringing World  on 27 November 2009

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