Thursday 4 October 2012

Archival Survival

In the last twelve months, as part of my PhD and its associated project, I’ve visited twelve archives and spent (I think) a total of 48 full days in them, as I try to do a 9-5 when I’m there. It would’ve been more if Glamorgan Archives had a more efficient response system, but as it is, Cardiff will have to wait. This struck me as a lot, especially travel wise, at just short of ten working weeks, (though I could be hanging around with the wrong PhD students) so I thought I’d start the new year on the blog with a post about how I’ve found it. My trips, because of the project I’m based on and the thesis that comes out of it, have taken me almost exclusively to Wales and the Welsh borders and incorporate a lot of hotel stays. Initially I liked this but the novelty wore off fairly quickly. A stay might last for 3 or 4 nights in a new place during which the only person you’re likely to talk to is the archivist. In addition to this there’s the lack of homeliness of swapping hotel rooms each week, and the constant diet of takeaways and cooked breakfasts. On my nights I tend to investigate the local Chinese options, or employ the room’s kettle on pot noodle making if I’m feeling stingy. The option of something fresh like a Tropicana with your umpteenth McDonalds becomes a godsend.
Academics tend to hold a dim view of archivists (one richly once told me he thought they were all folded away and kept there overnight) and I imagine the feeling’s probably mutual. In my mind it’s worth being nice to them, they can be your best friend or your worst enemy. I’ve heard of academics having fall outs with archivists so bad that they can’t comfortably revisit the archives. On the other hand I’ve heard of academics carefully arguing their way through with technicalities or financial incentives from large funding grants (offers to pay for the conservation of fragile documents for instance), though there are probably quite a few less successful stories, told less often. I’m yet to find an instance where I haven’t been able to negotiate to see an original document, after initially being pointed in the direction of some form of inadequate copy. I tend to find they’re all eager to help if you explain what it is you’re interested in, though the enthusiasm may not match the results. Be prepared to put up with inaccurate information about your own thesis topic, and childlike explanations on how an archive works.
My award for favourite archivists goes to the friendly girls at Powys, though this dynamic was helped by their close proximity in the small archives, and the high archivist to researcher ratio (‘it’s busy today’, said one as she rearranged the tables on the arrival of another visitor, taking the number there to four). The man in charge of conservation at Shrewsbury turned out to be the tyrant I’d been warned about, but the archivists more than won me over, staying for an extra ten minutes to allow me to finish as I fought a rechargeable battle with a dying camera battery. The detailed catalogues available at Somerset were most admirable, followed closely by those of Gloucestershire. The Welsh archives are much less organised on this front, as I’m finding with Glamorgan. I’d have to credit Somerset as my favourite modern facility, and the housing of the records office in the old town gaol in Ruthin Denbighshire was really quite impressive. Doncaster council would do well to give a lick of paint to the old school that houses their archives, where I’m informed, quite believably, that they have to put the buckets out when it rains.
I don’t think I’m alone in my pet hate of extreme archive enthusiasts, who crop up everywhere, striding around the room with a spectacular sense of self importance. They’re incredibly good at creating noise without really saying anything, clearing their throats, laughing, or muttering ‘wow’ to themselves. When they do this, don’t look at them, because when you do, they’ll not be looking at their document, they’ll be looking at you, just waiting to give you all the gripping details about Great Aunt Nessie’s haberdashery passion, finishing with the fallacy of, ‘isn’t that interesting?’. Of course these people form a chunk of those who keep the archives alive, and we should never begrudge their love of history.
Overall I really like what I do, and that’s partly because of where this research takes me. Shrewsbury was nice, as was Chester just before Christmas, and why else would I go to the Welsh valley town of Ebbw Vale? I liked the curiosity of a more remote Welsh town, remarking to the hotel receptionist on my departure that it was a nice place, where everyone appeared to know each other, and received the beaming response of ‘yeah, and most of them are probably related..’. I spent a fair bit of the summer in Taunton, as Somerset took me ages. I enjoyed sitting downstairs in the inn I was staying in a lovely little village at nights, soaking up the atmosphere of a place where everyone seemed to look out for each other, then going out one morning to discover some clot had negotiated the minute country laness, only to get to the car park and drive into the side of my car. It was also in Somerset where my keenness for the archives got me locked inside one night, coming out the toilets at the end of the day thinking, ‘bit dark in here’. After discovering how to work the phone on reception (I had no signal), a rescue was mounted from Taunton Library. In my defence no one had checked the sign out sheet.