This blog post is part of a series for Explore Your Archive.
Life as a University Archivist
The students have returned for the start of term and the whole campus is buzzing. My colleague has just informed me the new undergrads would have been born in 1995. That was the year I graduated, and I suddenly feel very old. You never feel too old for long in the world of archives though. There is always someone, or rather something, older than you. I work at the Cadbury Research Library: Special Collections at the University of Birmingham, where our oldest document dates back to the 6th century, and our clay tablets to c2000 BC. The content of archival material never ceases to impress, but what also intrigues me is thinking about where these ancient manuscripts have been all the years prior to them being carefully handed over to an archive such as ours for safekeeping.
One of my favourite parts of my job is showing groups of students around our department. During such tours I often quote a phrase my former manager once used. He said archives were the closest thing we have to a time machine. I love that idea and he was right. You can pick just about any period in history and view the written documents that were created at the time to get a real sense of what things were like and what people thought and felt. Reading the actual letter Neville Chamberlain wrote to his sister describing his first meeting with Hitler, or seeing Edward Elgar’s original diaries is not something many people experience. But they could. Our department, like most archives across the UK, is open to everyone and free to visit. If you are interested in history, why settle for second best reading about things in books or on the internet when you can see and touch the original documents? Archives are not just for the privileged few, they are for everyone to enjoy and learn from.