Vicarious Trauma – What Is It?, by Sally Middleton

You may have come across this term (we certainly have), and it’s worth exploring what it’s all about. Vicarious trauma is defined as the “emotional residue” from exposure to extremely upsetting records. You may not have been witness to those highly distressing events, but in reading about them you have an acute emotional response. So it’s all about the impact those records may have.

Vicarious trauma is an unwelcome, intrusive, and distressing emotional reaction to documents, photographs, witness statements and other historic sources, which archives’ customers may encounter. You can find a useful set of FAQs for customers here:

Archives’ staff, volunteers and customers may encounter such documents as part of their research. In particular, people accessing their records as part of a Subject Access Request may be affected by vicarious trauma. Vicarious trauma is not merely about feeling sad or upset; by its very nature, it is more than this. It is a distressing and extreme emotional reaction – intrusive, unwelcome and (in some cases) long-lasting. It is not about empathy, but is an extreme reaction to horrific or extremely distressing records.

So how can we deal with vicarious trauma in the course of our research? The first (and most important) thing is to simply be aware that it exists. Do not dismiss your reaction. The second most important thing is to talk to someone about how you feel.

We should all be aware of the impact of historic language that was once used. Some of the terms used to describe those incarcerated in institutions, or people of colour, may well be discriminatory or offensive, and fall far below the inclusive language we would expect today. This was often down to a lack of awareness, cultural norms in place at the time, administrative protocols or simply written with no thought as to the impact on individuals reading the records many decades from the date they were written. Language used then will not necessarily mirror the language we deem acceptable and inclusive today.

The person’s sense of self may well be under duress from reading documents written on and about them. In other words, the records show “The Record” from the institution’s point of view, not from the individual subject’s point of view. The two “realities” may well be extremely different narratives.

Our emotions – whether they make us happy or sad – have an integrity that belongs to us (whatever, others may write about us, in the “official” record). Institutions will create their corporate memory, the institutional record, which may well appear unfeeling, oppressive or far from what the individual recalls as their truthful experience. What may be recorded about us (or our ancestors) is not necessarily a true reflection of us, and of who we are, either then or today. The disability movement in the UK, in the last couple of decades, has had a particularly relevant mantra in regard to this: “Nothing about us, without us.” This could lead us on to looking at participative record keeping (but this is something for a whole new blog of its own!).

Very often, vicarious trauma will come about as a result of someone reading about how they (or others) were “done unto” by an institution or organisation. Lots of research has been done, since the 1960’s, on what we would call the effects of the institution on individuals who may come into contact with them.  

At a time when we are all asked to be mindful of our mental health (and that of others around us) it is worth taking a few moments to think about vicarious trauma. It is a relatively rare phenomenon. And, as with so many other things in life, it’s worth remembering it will pass. It is an infrequent experience for some, and simply part of being human.

Sally Middleton retired at the end of March 2022 after nearly six years working for Gloucestershire Archives as the Community Heritage Development Manager

A pond with decking and seating area
The wildlife pond at the Gloucestershire Heritage Hub community garden provides a calm space in the busy area of Kingsholm, and all are welcome

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