‘Archives are places for feeling things’

How do archives make people feel? The Gerald Aylmer Seminar on the experience of the archive took place at the Institute of Historical Research (IHR) on 29 April. The seminar was the second of two events that were designed as a pair, the first being the IHR Winter Conference. Both events brought together historians and archivists, and whereas the Winter Conference revolved around questions of archival production, the Gerald Aylmer Seminar was focused on the theme of archival experience and how this has changed over time.

In this blog I’m going to reflect on the papers and discussion – remembering, of course, that I was one of about 100 participants, who will all have experienced the event in a variety of ways.

The day began with a keynote lecture by Professor Carolyn Steedman (University of Warwick) entitled ‘In the archive, hearing things: Lord Mansfield’s voices’. This was followed by four sessions in which pairs of speakers gave papers addressing the theme of archival experience from different perspectives. Each set of papers was complementary, with a historian or academic and an archivist talking about a similar theme in different ways, or discussing a project they had worked on together. As a whole, the seminar showed that archives can be the focus of rich interdisciplinary debate, as well as collaborative practice.

Like the Winter Conference, the Gerald Aylmer Seminar was fully booked and generated lots of stimulating discussion, even beyond the IHR’s Wolfson Conference Suite: we’ve created a Storify of tweets from the Gerald Aylmer Seminar. The Storify brings out not only some of the participants’ thoughts, opinions and comments, but also the theme of voices in the archives that featured strongly in Carolyn Steedman’s keynote. If the experience of archives can help us hear voices from the past, it can also prompt many new voices today.

In her keynote, Steedman talked about her experience of reading the notebooks that William Murray, first earl of Mansfield (1705-1793) kept while carrying out his role of Lord Chief Justice of the King’s Bench. She argued that ‘archives are places for feeling things’, where researchers can experience an intensely close, even physical connection to past lives – in her case, hearing echoes of words spoken in court and transcribed in Mansfield’s notebooks in fragmentary form. When she talked about having cried in local record offices, I was struck by how refreshing and unusual it is to hear an account of research experience and feelings, not just content. Yet she also dealt with various types of separation, including the distance between herself and the record when she had to use microfilm rather than original documents; the requirement to consult records in a place far away from where they were created; and, when she travelled to Scotland for research, her sense of separation from her own previous experience of living in Edinburgh. What she said struck a chord with me, and I’m sure with others in the room: how many of us have set out on a quest to gather information, and ended up uncovering our own emotions and memories?

An image of a song about Cheltenham Poor Law Union, 1852

Detail from Poor Law Unions Song Cheltenham, 1852, catalogue reference: MH 12/3918

Session one was about making sense of archives that are hard to navigate. My colleague Paul Carter and Katrina Navickas (University of Hertfordshire) explored the bewilderingly complex records of 19th century government, in particular the Central Poor Law Archive and Home Office Disturbance Papers at The National Archives. Perhaps surprisingly, these official governmental collections capture moments of emotion: for instance, HO 42 contains a number of letters by radicals imprisoned for taking part in ‘disturbances’. Knowing about the organisational history of archival collections like these and being able to navigate their registry systems can prove fruitful for research and point the way towards material that would otherwise have been missed. Researchers still need to understand the context even after material has been digitised or catalogued online, and both Carter and Navickas attested to the power of experiencing the original record.

Session two was to do with materiality and value, with talks by Maryanne Dever (University of Technology, Sydney) and Jenny Haynes (Wellcome Library). Citing Arlette Farge’s classic account of archival experience and transcription in Le Goût de l’Archive (1989), Dever argued for an alternative approach that considers archives as collections of paper and pays attention to what paper can do: as shown in the Sylvia Townsend Warner/Valentine Ackland Archive in Dorset County Museum, literary papers can be used as love objects or form part of mourning rituals. Jenny Haynes’s talk was more personal, acknowledging that the experience of being an archivist is messier and more ambiguous than might be expected: archivists have to ‘feel their way through’. The role of the archivist cannot be entirely objective or neutral, and different archivists will arrange and select records in different ways – a theme that also came up in January’s Winter Conference. Haynes reflected positively on the so-called ‘archival turn’ that has taken place in recent years, with scholars from different disciplines increasingly turning to archives in their research, and her title, ‘The archivist who came in from the cold’, reflected these changing perceptions of archives and archivists. For me, Haynes’s paper was a great counterpart to Steedman’s lecture, showing us that archivists have feelings too. I also loved her sense of optimism about the new possibilities for archives in a digital world.

The focus of session three was access and use. Michael Hughes gave an insight into the development of the Bodleian Library’s magnificent new Weston Library and the work that goes on behind the scenes of a large university library, from finding resource for cataloguing to putting on exhibitions. Political biographer John Campbell then talked about his own experience of consulting the papers of figures including Nye Bevan and Roy Jenkins. Campbell was appointed Jenkins’ official biographer and was able to consult Jenkins’ private papers in the attic of his house before they were sent to the Bodleian. Biographers sometimes have to make do without access to politicians’ private papers, yet Campbell stressed the importance of not relying too much on these papers if available, both because the extent to which politicians lead a full life outside politics varies, and because published sources are a useful, indeed essential source.

As the practical and sometimes anxious work of co-organising the day recedes in my mind, what I’m left with now is a real sense of positiveness about the possibilities of interaction between the archival and historical communities. Session four, the final session of the day, was a joint talk by Filippo de Vivo (Birkbeck, University of London) and Claudia Salmini (Venice State Archives, Italy) about AR.C.H.I.ves, a four-year project funded by the European Research Council. The project team is doing a comparative study of the production and organisation of seven early modern Italian state archives in their wider cultural and historical contexts. This work is shedding new light on the history of record-keeping in Italy: the various state archives functioned as material artefacts alongside buildings, and were used as tools of political power, for instance to demonstrate a duke’s rights over his territories. The speakers argued that collaboration across professional and disciplinary boundaries is essential to an in-depth understanding of the people and institutions that created these records, and of the different ways that the records have been kept and arranged over the centuries. I found it heartening to end the day with a session that gave such compelling evidence of the benefits of collaboration between historians and archivists.

The National Archives, the Royal Historical Society and the Institute of Historical Research present the Gerald Aylmer Seminar in partnership every year, and this time it was wonderful to have Professor Elizabeth Shepherd (University College London) working with us on the team of organisers. On behalf of that team, I’d like to thank all the speakers and participants who helped to make this year’s Gerald Aylmer Seminar so fascinating and engaging. If any readers of this blog would like to receive regular updates about The National Archives’ events and activities relating to research, you can sign up for our research newsletter and we will hope to see you at a future event.


  1. David Matthew says:

    Government archivists do not have the luxury of arranging records the way they would like or where they could be easier to locate them. Original records should be taken in context but often the context is not easy to find without some digging and the multiplicity of records can create a situation ‘where you can’t see the wood for trees’. Actually touching the original documents is much better than microfilm or digital records and can provide a link to your ancestors.

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