Archival Community, Research

Why Understanding Identity is Integral to GLAM

In Private Lives, Public History researcher Anna Clark examined the Australian public’s relationship with history. Through her research, Clark established that the ‘everyday Australian’ (yes she knows how problematic this concept is) was mostly interested in history when it pertained to their personal history and identity. The GLAM sector as a whole has been tapping in to this personal connection between our patrons and our collections for decades, the Immigration Museum’s long term exhibition Identity: Yours, Mine, Ours springs to mind. Indeed some private companies (such as Ancestry) based their business models on this very connection.

This connection between the public and our cultural collections is rooted in identity.

The concepts of identity and cultural institutions are intertwined and to make sense of one you end up considering the other. Therefore, an increased understanding of identity is integral to the work of the GLAM sector and will inform our strategies and the ways in which we interact with patrons and colleagues.

So what is identity?

Every philosopher seems, at some point, to have considered the individual’s sense of self and as a result many theories about identity exist. The body of theories which are explained in this blogpost are one set which has gained traction and general acceptance over the past few decades.

In this post I’m going to step you briefly through Narrative Identity theory and include examples of how each aspect applies to the GLAM sector:


Narrative Identity

‘Narrative identity is a person’s internalized and evolving life story, integrating the reconstructed past and imagined future to provide life with some degree of unity and purpose’.[i]

Narrative identity theory, put very simply, defines identity as narratives which we continually tell ourselves about who we are. These narratives cover everything from who we are as individuals through to how we perceive our place in our family, society, religion and culture. These narratives are informed by the stories that we are told by others and are influenced by our environment. The narratives are strengthened through repetition or through the importance that is ascribed to them  – whether that be through our environment or other people.

The narrative can also adopt a positive or negative slant. Curators of exhibitions, for example, develop narratives and therefore have a political power in the way that communities, individuals and cultures are viewed and/or view themselves. These exhibitions can also have the power to traumatise individuals by contesting their personal narrative (more on this below).


The Fractured Narrative

A fracturing of the narrative occurs when a traumatic event isn’t processed. Traumatic events are ideally followed by a process of sense-making – which involves incorporating the traumatic events back into the continuous narrative. This fracturing in an individual’s narrative occurs particularly among children who aren’t helped to make sense of what occurred. Therefore this is particularly relevant to those in the archival community who help Care Leavers to access records of their time in care.

An understanding of the affect of complex trauma (as opposed to discrete trauma, complex trauma is repeated and prolonged and the effects are cumulative) underpins Trauma-Informed Practice. Trauma-Informed Practice is the ability to adapt our work practices and processes to better support those who have experienced complex trauma (whether they be staff or patrons). If this is relevant to your work I highly recommend undergoing Trauma-Informed Practice training! It will help to protect you as well as those who are vulnerable to being retraumatised.


The Contested Narrative 

The contested narrative describes the jarring which occurs when something/someone from the external environment contradicts your personal narrative. For example, those individuals who access their birth certificates later in life and discover that they have been celebrating the wrong birthday, or that a stranger is listed as their father.

The contested narrative aspect of narrative identity theory is particularly relevant to our reading rooms. An understanding of how the contested narrative can affect those who access our collections will better enable the reading room staff to respond with compassion.

Once again I would recommend undergoing Trauma-Informed Practice training in order to implement processes which support those that have been retraumatised in your reading room.


Narrative Therapy

Narrative therapy involves helping those with fractured narratives to make sense of traumatic events and to form a coherent personal narrative once more. The therapy also involves changing  the dominant personal narrative to a more positive, empowering one. While this will obviously remain the remit of health care professionals, the records of individuals have been used as a tool in narrative therapy.

For example, David Denborough of the Dulwich Centre has previously used the case file of a care leaver to reinforce that individuals’ show of resistance. Whilst the narrative within the records portrayed the individual as a discipline problem, David reinforced the counter narrative of bravery and spirit demonstrated through their continued resistance.

Life story work is a form of narrative therapy which is done with children. It is also an example of personal recordkeeping (you see that GLAM and Identity keeps tying in together!). See my previous posts on life story work for more info: Digital Life Story Work with Aboriginal Children in Care and Personal Digital Archives for Children in Care.


The Cultural Aspect

The last thing I want to mention is that identity theory has variations depending upon the culture of the individual engaging with your GLAM institution. Taking the time to consider this will strengthen your relationships with both your patrons and staff.

“[…] because narrative identity is exquisitely contextualized in culture, future researchers need to examine the development of life stories in many different societies, nations, and cultural groups”.[ii]

I won’t delve into this aspect of narrative identity further as it is a complicated, under-researched and contested space. I do however explore this topic further in a paper which is currently undergoing review. Sign up to my mailing list if you want to receive updates on its progress.


In Conclusion

I hope that you found this brief post enlightening and can see how an increased understanding of the theory of identity is integral to the functions of the GLAM sector. I have suggested further readings (see below) for those who are interested in learning more. Thanks for reading!

As always, I encourage you to leave any questions or comments below.



[i] D. P. McAdams and K. C. McLean, ‘Narrative identity’, Current Directions in Psychological Science, vol. 22, no. 3, 2013, pp. 233-38.

[ii] McAdams and McLean, p. 273.


J. A. Singer, P. Blagov, M. Berry, and K. M. Oost, ‘Self‐Defining Memories, Scripts, and the Life Story: Narrative Identity in Personality and Psychotherapy’, Journal of personality, vol. 81, no. 6, 2013, 569-582.

S. Swain and N. Musgrove, ‘We are the stories we tell about ourselves: child welfare records and the construction of identity among Australians who, as children, experienced out-of-home ‘care’, Archives and Manuscripts, vol. 40, no. 1, 2012, pp. 4-14.

T. Habermas and S. Bluck, ‘Getting a life: the emergence of the life story in adolescence’, Psychological bulletin, vol. 126, no. 5, 2000, p. 748.

McAdams and McLean; S. P. Hammond and N. J. Cooper, Digital Life Story Work: Using Technology to Help People Make Sense of Their Experiences, BAAF Adoption and Fostering, London, 2013.

Michelle Moss, ‘Broken circles to a different identity: an exploration of identity for children in out–of‐home care in Queensland, Australia’, Child & Family Social Work, vol. 14, no. 3, 2009, pp. 311-321.

D. P. McAdams, ‘The psychology of life stories’, Review of general psychology, vol. 5, no. 2, 2001, p. 100.


4 thoughts on “Why Understanding Identity is Integral to GLAM

  1. A terrific summary Annelie. Very stimulating! Some quick thoughts in reaction:
    1. The connection between ‘reconstructed past’ and ‘imagined future’ is important as you say, but I wonder if that connection is mediated or even determined by one’s current life style and opportunities. Homelessness, grinding poverty, ill-health, illiteracy bear heavily on one’s capacity for reflective or contemplative thought.
    2. In the case of Care Leavers who grew up in large institutions, the formation of personal identity may be shaped also by something akin to group identity. The only analogy I can think of is perhaps the difference between being an only child and being one of a family of say ten children. I am always struck by the differences in conversations among Care Leavers when they gather together and share memories of the same Home they were in as compared to when they were in different Homes. I guess I’m pointing to shared identity – or the different types of shared identities – in addition to individualistic identity.
    3. Fractured identity is a complex idea, suggesting something broken in a narrative. Likewise, fractures mend – and some fractures mend better than others. ‘Trauma-informed training’ and ‘trauma-informed practice’ are likely to mean many different things to many different people. I see the widespread adoption of this term by agencies who continue to do exactly what they have always done but now co-opt the language. The term needs unpacking. You point to the difference between one-off trauma and continuing trauma, for example. Children taken from their family obviously suffer trauma at that time of separation, but the continued separation over years, not knowing when or if they might see their family again, coupled with cruel assault or worse suggests that, in addition to what is called ‘trauma-informed counselling’, something more specific to Care Leavers’ experience is required. Dare I suggest ‘Care Leaver-Informed Training’ or Care Leaver-informed practice’? And done with Care-Leavers, not just to them?
    4. The contested narrative is not just about finding surprises in your files – though that is important. It’s also about finding deceitful, hurtful and damaging reports which are out of sync with your version of what happened. I am encouraging Care Leavers whose records are like this to create a counter-narrative – setting the record straight, the process of which might be, as you rightly say, an empowering act. Setting the record straight takes the matter out of the hands of the record-holders placing it properly in the hands of Care Leavers.
    5. The excellent example you gave of the Dulwich Centre’s collaboration with Care Leavers points to an important distinction between ‘voice’ and ‘agency’. Voice is being given opportunity to be heard. Agency is gaining control over the interactions and being an equal partner in the conversation – not because someone gave you permission, but because you asserted you right.
    6. On culture, I am reminded that Raymond Williams described ‘culture’ as one of the most difficult words in the English language. Culture is certainly not out there free-floating independent of structures of power. And it is something much more than ethnic or national ‘values’.

    Finally, lest you think I did not like your blog (not true!), you can see you got my brain working on a Monday morning. I look forward to reading more as it becomes available.

    1. Haha don’t stress – I’m grateful to you for writing such a comprehensive response! I must admit that I really struggled to turn identity theory into an easily digestible blog post. But what you have written has made me reflect on that uneasy/potentially dangerous line between accessibility and over-simplification.
      Does certain topics just need to be approached with gravitas and explored in-depth? I don’t know but I will certainly pop a note into the post to refer to your comment for more analysis.

  2. Brilliant article – and it connects with so many other thoughts. I took the liberty to share on social media.
    My take-away is the message that cultural heritage needs to be made personally relevant for citizens. Everyone ties in to world history, through ancestry, local events, human activity in general. Your article holds an important dose of psychological considerations, and the individual’s perceptions of identity. On the other hand, cultural heritage in GLAMs also holds the concrete documentation of firm relationships of every individuel with personal and collective past. A lot of people have no patience for things that seemingly don’t concern them. When it becomes personally relevant, it comes as a wonderful discovery.

    1. Thanks for taking the time to read, comment and share George! I’m glad that you’ve found it useful. Yes the relevance to an individual’s identity is key- but so is the complex reinforcement/tension which occurs when that individual engages with your narrative. I loved hearing from you and thanks for following the blog

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