In Transition: energy and archives

Past and present members of the Special Collections team recently travelled to Paris for the annual European Oil and Gas Archives Network conference, kindly hosted by the energy company Total.

The Network, known as EOGAN, aims to bring together researchers, historians, archivists and energy sector representatives from across Europe to share their work, make new friends and discuss contemporary issues.

The theme of this year’s conference was ‘Transition in Energy History’ and the two-day programme was put together by the EOGAN board led by our former Head of Special Collections, Siobhan Convery.

Total headquarters in La Défense, Paris – venue for the 2017 EOGAN Conference (Image: Miles Oglethorpe)

The programme included presentations from the ‘Capturing the Energy’ Project Development Officer, Joe Chapman, and our Deputy Archivist Andrew MacGregor alongside Terry Brotherstone, an Honorary Research Fellow in History at the University of Aberdeen.

Joe’s talk looked back at the early days of the oil and gas industry in Aberdeen, and gave a sense of the remarkable transformation that has occurred in the city since then as a result of the industry.

Nowadays, many would find it hard to imagine a time when the city wasn’t seemingly defined by ‘the black gold’, and there is much pessimism about the city’s future economic prospects in the light of the recent downturn in oil prices, which has made exploration and production far less profitable.

But Joe reminded us that the arrival of oil and gas came at a similar turning point in Aberdeen’s history, when traditional industries were themselves declining, and highlighted efforts that are being made to ensure that the industry can survive for many more years to come, albeit as part of a more diverse local economy.

The recurring theme of Joe’s presentation was that there are lessons to be learnt from similar events in the very recent history of oil and gas in the UK, and that preserving evidence of the past through archives is therefore vital for informing the future.


MS 3892_5_1244 Altens 1974
The transformation of Aberdeen following the arrival of the oil industry is exemplified by this 1970s photo of what is now Altens Industrial Estate (Image: MS 3892/5/1244 Fitzpatrick photographic collection)


Joe was soon followed by Andrew and Terry’s analysis of the role of oral history within archive collections, with reference to the Lives in the Oil Industry project by the University of Aberdeen and the British Library.

That collection includes a range of perspectives on the realities of working offshore, as well as eyewitness accounts of major events such as the Piper Alpha disaster; examples of these were played during the presentation to demonstrate the value of the spoken record. Reference was also made to the many ways in which the collection has been used over the years, both for academic purposes and as inspiration for creative works.

Andrew also reflected on how oral histories are intended to complement ‘official’ written records, not only filling in gaps but also injecting the emotions, opinions and beliefs of key actors – creating a narrative that can be very valuable in understanding past events.

He also talked about new, more proactive approaches to collecting such records, as events unfold as well as retrospectively – leading archivists to be not just custodians but also curators and even creators of the historical record.

Brent crew
Oral history collections such as MS 3769 Lives in the Oil Industry capture the human experience of history, complementing official records (Image © Shell UK)

The conference also featured other case studies of past and present transitions in energy industries in Europe and elsewhere, a look at how film and visual culture are being used to present oil and gas-related archives to new audiences, and a vision of how the future might look as technology continues to evolve.

More information about the Network can be found on the EOGAN website where content from the conference will be posted throughout the rest of 2017. The EOGAN team – including Joe and Andrew – are already looking forward to next year’s Conference, which it is hoped will be held in the Norwegian ‘oil city’ of Stavanger.


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