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 Iâ€™m going to reflect on the papers and discussion â€“ remembering, of course, that I was one of about 100 participants, who will all haveÂ experienced the event in a variety of ways.
The day began with a keynote lecture by Professor Carolyn Steedman (University of Warwick) entitled â€˜In the archive, hearing things: Lord Mansfieldâ€™s voicesâ€™. 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 IHRâ€™s Wolfson Conference Suite: weâ€™ve created a Storify of tweets from the Gerald Aylmer Seminar. The Storify brings out not only some of the participantsâ€™ thoughts, opinions and comments, but also the theme of voices in the archives that featured strongly in Carolyn Steedmanâ€™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 Kingâ€™s Bench. She argued that â€˜archives are places for feeling thingsâ€™, where researchers can experience an intensely close, even physical connection to past lives â€“ in her case, hearing echoes of words spoken in court and transcribed in Mansfieldâ€™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 Iâ€™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? Continue reading »