Exploring the nature of archives

What do historians and archivists talk about when they meet? The National Archives has co-organised two events in 2016 to bring the two communities together to explore the nature of archives.

The first event was on Friday 29 January, when delegates at the Institute of Historical Research (IHR) Winter Conference debated the production of archives, looking at who produces archives, how they are produced and how this is changing.

The second event, this year’s Gerald Aylmer Seminar on 29 April, is intended as a sequel to the Winter Conference and will consider the experience of archives. How does the historian’s experience differ from that of the archivist, and what can the two communities learn from each other?

Image of records at The National Archives, on green shelves

Records at The National Archives (Image used under Creative Commons from Wikimedia Commons, attributed to Mr Impossible)

Anyone sceptical about the state of historian-archivist dialogue would have been impressed by the sheer number of people attending January’s Winter Conference, and by the quality of the debate, which ranged over theory and practice. The keynote by Eric Ketelaar, Professor of Archivistics at the University of Amsterdam and previously General State Archivist of The Netherlands, set the bar very high. Three panel sessions, entitled ‘Text’, ‘Digital’ and ‘From Text to Digital’, focused on the production of archives from a variety of perspectives, and were followed by a round table discussion which, among other things, explored the role of national archives (with a small ‘n’). You can view the full programme on the IHR website.

All the delegates at the Winter Conference will have had their own responses to the day. Discussions were lively, and there was a lot of commentary on Twitter (#IHRWIN16). The reflections and examples below are from my point of view.

Dissolving boundaries

For me, the theme that stood out was the dissolution of boundaries. As Eric Ketelaar reminded us, archives can be described as ‘boundary objects’ because they are perceived and understood by different communities in different ways. 1 What, then, do research communities make of archives? To what extent do they trust archivists, and how familiar are they with the reasons behind archival processes and decision-making?

If a historian were to produce an archive for research purposes, it would probably look very different from one based on the fundamental archival principles of provenance and original order. The talk by Alan Crookham, Research Centre Manager at the National Gallery, showed how previous curators (who were art historians) and archivists took very different approaches to arranging the National Gallery’s archives. The curators put together dossiers of documents relating to particular objects in the gallery’s art collection, making the object the primary focus of organisation; the archivists’ approach was based on the contexts in which the documents themselves were created. This case study prompted discussion of the idea that no attempt to select or arrange records will be free from bias. Archives are never innocent, but full of assumptions.

The role of the archivist

The talk by my colleague Sonia Ranade on Traces Through Time, an Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded project delivered by The National Archives in partnership with the IHR and the Universities of Brighton and Leiden, addressed the dissolution of boundaries from another perspective. Sonia, who was Principal Investigator for the project, described how it brought together people working in different professions and disciplines, from data scientists to historians. Sonia argued that this breadth of experience was necessary to produce datasets and algorithms which will help researchers spot connections between individual names across ‘big data’. When applied to Discovery, our catalogue later this year, the project team’s findings will enable us to suggest potential matches between names mentioned in different parts of The National Archives’ collection.

The boundaries between archivists and non-archivists are dissolving in other ways too. In his talk, Luke McKernan, Lead Curator of News and Moving Image at the British Library, alerted us to the exponential growth of self-archiving, where people are using devices like mobile phones to create their own photographs or videos and posting them on sites like YouTube. There are no guarantees, however, that this online content will be permanently preserved, though initiatives like the British Library’s UK Web Archive are now addressing the huge challenge of archiving web content that would otherwise disappear.

As I listened to the debate I became increasingly convinced that, in a world where many people are archiving their own records, archivists have an opportunity to engage with more and more people, share their professional skills and judgement, and play a bigger role in offering advice to individuals and communities who exist beyond the boundaries of archival institutions.

Partnerships and networks

The question of boundaries (or the lack of them) also came up in the round table, where participants talked about how different types of collaboration, from informal networks to partnership, and the shift to digital are breaking down the old distinctions between archive services. The networks don’t end there, of course, because the archive sector as a whole has strong links to other sectors, and particularly to research and academic communities, and events like the Winter Conference and April’s Gerald Aylmer Seminar are a sign of that.

We are delighted to have had the opportunity of organising both the IHR Winter Conference and the Gerald Aylmer Seminar in partnership with the IHR and the Royal Historical Society. We are also very pleased that Elizabeth Shepherd, Professor of Archives and Records Management at University College London, is working with us as part of the organising team.

The Gerald Aylmer Seminar takes place annually and is named in memory of Gerald Aylmer (1926-2000), the distinguished historian of 17th century England. This year’s seminar will complement the Winter Conference, moving from the theme of archival production to that of archival experience. The programme will feature talks from pairs of historians and archivists who have worked together and a keynote by Professor Carolyn Steedman (University of Warwick). How have people experienced archives in the past, and how are they doing so now in a digital age? How do the ways historians experience archives differ from the ways archivists experience them? What insights can be gained from discussing archival experiences from multiple perspectives? The event is fully booked, but if it piques your interest, you can follow the discussions on Twitter on 29 April (#Aylmer16).


  1. 1. See Geoffrey Yeo, ‘Concepts of Record (2): Prototypes and Boundary Objects’, The American Archivist: Spring/Summer 2008, Vol. 71, No. 1, pp. 118-143. ^



  1. David Matthew says:

    This article I think fully shows the issues that non-academic researchers like myself have with TNA and why TNA has troubling filling vacancies on committees. What researchers want and have indeed asked TNA for is a platform for their views. Academics/historians (with some exceptions) may think that they know how archives were created and produced but what they and TNA see are the ‘finished article’, they don’t see years of being surrounded by unfiled papers some going back 10 years before they reach the files. Whilst ‘progress’ has been made the outsourcing of functions to private companies this has lead to major issues and as a former Permanent Secretary at the Treasury has said most Treasury officials know little of their own departments’ history, even TNA have fallen into their category on one occasion. I do think it is time that TNA devoted more attention to researchers, and not only family historians, but for other areas and how about an afternoon devoted to them/us?.

    1. Jacqui Kirk says:

      Hi David

      I will raise this at the User Advisory Group at the next meeting on Mar 15 hopefully as a delegate item on the agenda. There is a monthly User Forum but I agree a one off well publicised afternoon meeting users and talking to them informally or formally would be useful. I agree that the needs of family historians seem to be those most addressed particularly with digitisation projects but this is not actually the case. Have you thought of becoming a rep on User Advisory Group? There is a vacancy for an onsite personal interest rep. Closing date 29 Feb.

      Jacqui Kirk rep Independent Researchers

  2. Emma Jay says:

    Dear David, thanks for your comment on my blog post. TNA’s research audience is very broad, and includes people researching a range of subjects/disciplines, both inside and beyond academia. No one event can cover everything, and the Winter Conference was one of a range of events we offer for the research audience. We will make a note of your suggestion as we work on our programme of future events. As Jacqui notes, there are vacancies on our User Advisory Group. Our recent Academic Scoping Study survey was open to independent researchers as well as academics: http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/about/news/help-us-develop-services-for-academics-and-researchers/ It’s important for us to gather a range of views as we move forward.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

We will not be able to respond to personal family history research questions on the blog.
See our moderation policy for more details.