The secret power of archives

The ‘humble petition’ of Elizabeth Peacock, a widow and mother of five, to the Lord Mayor, asking for financial relief after her inn was ‘utterly consumed by the late dreadful fire’. The Lord Mayor agreed for £10 to be paid out to her. Dated 2 March, 1668. Reference COL/SJ/03/002.

The ‘humble petition’ of Elizabeth Peacock, a widow and mother of five, to the Lord Mayor, asking for financial relief after her inn was ‘utterly consumed by the late dreadful fire’. The Lord Mayor agreed for £10 to be paid out to her. Dated 2 March, 1668. Reference COL/SJ/03/002.

My time at London Metropolitan Archives (LMA) is near its end,  and I have been looking back at that year wondering what, out of the many skills and insights I’ve picked up, would be the one most important lesson. And what kept popping up in my head was ‘the power of archives’.

Frankly, I didn’t know much about archives before coming into this job. The moment my eyes opened to this vast, wondrous ocean of information was a life-changing experience. This past year has changed the way I look at ‘history’, the way I read and absorb information. I feel much more aware of the way historical narratives – so ultimately the reality around me – are constructed. That was the powerful change that archives have effected upon me, personally.

The emotional impact of archives

But I have seen many more ways in which archives are powerful, as I was lucky enough to run many of our adult and school workshops. Archival documents have a fantastic and, I can’t help feeling, somewhat undervalued emotional impact. At LMA, one of our more popular workshops is one on the Fire of London where children get to see documents such as a claim for financial support, presented to the Lord Mayor of London, by a woman who lost her possessions in the fire. ‘This comes from 1668 – from right after the Great Fire?’ they ask, looking at these fragile old pages with awe.

That look of absolute astonishment on the children’s faces is there again when I show them into a strongroom, with its high stacks of books and boxes on tall shelves. I tell them about how we keep the documents secure, try to shelter them from water, fire, pests and dust and mould, how we fix them if they get damaged, and how we surround them with so much care, almost as if they were living beings. ‘You must really care a lot about these documents,’ said a Year 2 girl, in a thoughtful, deliberate sort of way.

Well, we do care about them a lot, I thought. But why? ‘What are archives?’ we always ask at the beginning of each session. ‘It’s where you keep stories about London,’ said a Year 3 boy yesterday. I liked that explanation. So we do – some say we’re ‘London’s memory box’. But we don’t just keep the nice sort of memories. There are lots of stories which are sad or difficult to understand, like evidence of pain caused by social issues from poverty to racism. It’s true that there are also stories of hope and joy: campaigns against those issues, examples of creative activities. They are all snapshots of human activity, there in their original state, before someone uses them to create their own narrative.

Archives and their users

This is, I think, at the root of the power of the archives and their real value. The way the archival documents are created by a multitude of authors, there to be discovered and interpreted by their reader, makes archives naturally democratic, because they invite wide participation.  Without participation, without active interpretation on the part of their user, they’re dead letters. In my view, the essential difference between a museum and an archive is that a museum visitor can only witness a portion of its collection that has been selected for her by the museum’s curator. But in an archive, every user is a curator. The user decides what she wants to see, and how she wants to see it.

Company of Royal Adventurers of England Trading with Africa, Profit on sale of 1200 Africans in Jamaica, image library reference: T 70/124

Company of Royal Adventurers of England Trading with Africa, Profit on sale of 1200 Africans in Jamaica, image library reference: T 70/124

That archives are ‘raw history’ is due to their honesty. It is said that to be of archival value, a document must be authentic. What it means is that this document is what it claims to be (although it can be misinterpreted, if analysed out of context, and it can be used in many different ways.) At times of political upheavals, archives often get destroyed in great hurry. That’s partly because the information they contain can change the way we look at our past and the way we understand the world around us. If I watch a film about slavery and see something that’s difficult to accept, my initial reaction might be to question it. But when I see a document from a plantation in Jamaica that lists people as if they were part of someone’s ‘goods and chattels’, that really makes a certain part of our past clear and undisputable to me.

Which brings me back to my first point – about the emotional impact of archives. Experiencing that moment of discovery is bound to send a shiver down your spine, and that is something that really makes an impact, really stays with you for a long time. I have worked with many community groups this year, exploring their Jewish, Asian, African, Black Caribbean, Polish, and other heritages, and I saw that impact every time. Seeing other people experience that moment of discovery has been the most enjoyable element of my traineeship.

So that’s what I came out with at the end of this traineeship: I’m a bit of an archive convert now, and with all the enthusiasm of a neophyte, I believe there is nothing quite like it in the heritage world in terms of its emotional and intellectual potential. I believe that using archives should be part of education the same way interpreting museum collections or art is. Inviting more people to contribute to archives increases the diversity of voices we hear. Knowing how to use archives is an empowering skill, and giving that skill to others can change both individuals and communities. With such potential to teach people new skills and knowledge, archives can strengthen the society we live in. And that is their secret power.

10 comments

  1. Gerry Creamer says:

    There is certainly a real emotional pull to archives, when you consider the millions of items in an archive and you find something of a real interest or directly related to your own Family, my interest is Family research. Researching archives are very daunting drilling down to get the information is very time consuming and the internet is as yet very limited in what in can do

  2. john aarons says:

    Yes, working in archives is exciting for one never knows what kind of information you can come across. As I tell my students, unlike books, information contained in archives is not created for public consumption so views expressed in letters, diaries etc are often very frank. Many of the persons who wrote them would be horrified to
    know that their personal views and thoughts were being read and analyzed by historiansd other after they have gone.
    A
    Re the matter of honesty in archives. Records are honesit to the extegnt that they convey the tnoughts the writer thinks are correct or wants to convey. Suppose for instance that Jamaican planter a nd by the way, I appreciate the Jamaican reference , deliberately falsified the information in his list of slave returns, what would you say about that? It is theinfo he wants to give for whatever reason.Therefore one must always look at the context in which records are created, who is creating them and for what purpose. All this makes archival records unpredictable and as you discovered, exciting

    1. Marta says:

      Hi John, thank you for your comment. I completely agree that the context is crucial (I hinted at that but didn’t elaborate for lack of space). This is one of the reasons why I think giving people the right skills to understand how to work with archives is so important.

      In terms of the example you gave, I think it depends on what aspect of this document you’re interested in. Even if the Jamaican planter falsified the actual information in there (names or figures), what still remains true is the way this information is presented, i.e. the way people are listed as goods rather than human beings. So the context we need to take into account is not just the context in which the document was produced but also the context of your own research.

  3. ali says:

    I think that we could not depend on the internet we need to complet our reserach at the Archives.

    1. Marta says:

      Hi Ali, I agree – especially since everything that is on the Internet must have been at some point uploaded there by a real person, so without original research this network of resources wouldn’t be as rich as it is today.

  4. Ammara says:

    Nice blog

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  7. Horrace Hanton says:

    I think the National Archives is a well kept secret. I cant beleive more people dont pour in and sit there reading the amazing documents. What I like about the archives is they dont tell a story, you have to figure it out. All the clues are there, but you dont get them from reading a preface. Items are like puzzles in amany senses and its quite a hoot figuring them out. And unlike history books that tell you what things were like, the archives almost let you experience what they were like. At home I have quite a few Times Newspaper Elephant folios 1830-1900 and its a shear pleasure just reading and absorbing the life of the past. Makes you want to visit 14 Acacia Ave, Battersea and not on Mrs Miggles door to enquire about the parrot she has for sale at 1s.

    I dont rate the revolving doors though!!!

  8. Angie says:

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I truly appreciate your
    efforts and I am waiting for your further post thanks once again.

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