All this week, as part of the Explore Your Archive campaign, archives have been sharing their work, opening up their collections and answering your questions. Today we want to celebrate archives – the collections and the people and to really shout about what makes them so great.
Tell us what archives mean to you! Why is archival research important? If you’ve taken part in your local archives’ events tell us what you enjoyed. Tell us why you love to #explorearchives.
In this blog post, Stephen McGann, one of our Explore Your Archive ambassadors, tells us more about why archives mean so much to him:
The word sounds a little dusty and remote, doesn’t it? Like ‘archaic’. A dead thing, viewed from some great distance. A fossilized relic, devoid of blood or passion.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
In fact, it’s hard to think there was a time when I wasn’t aware of the passionate life that crawls beneath the cold stone of that unassuming word.
The first time I discovered archives, I was just 17 years old – a nervy teenager in a northern English town. I’d asked my dad about my ancestors, who had apparently arrived from Ireland to forge a life in the same streets where I lived. He’d heard only fragments. Warriors – labourers – merchant seamen – even a Titanic survivor – vague anecdotes of disasters and heroism. So I plucked up some courage, and ventured out to my local Records Office to see if I could discover more.
When I first entered, I was nervous. The place had an academic hush to it. The other visitors seemed so expert and absorbed – the staff so busy and forbidding. Yet I was put at ease by a friendly staff member, who helped decipher my scribbled notes, and extract a coherent document request: a Victorian parish register of births. I filled my request form in, and waited patiently for the data to be delivered.
Did I say ‘data’? Ha!
How inadequate that word is to describe what actually arrived. You see, regarding archives simply as stored data is a bit like describing Westminster Abbey as a ‘big church’. It doesn’t come near to describing what these wonderful artifacts actually hold.
When my requested parish register arrived, it took me a full minute to get over the impact. An enormous leather-bound book from a different age – stained by candle wax, and the grease of priestly hands, long departed. It was exquisite. If you saw this book in an antique dealer’s window, you would expect to see an astronomical price tag stuck to it. Yet the kind assistant had simply placed the book at my desk and left a 17 year-old in sole custody of it! It was my citizen’s right to view this treasure – a part of our national heritage that I could hold in my own shaking hands.
I opened it – and turned the pages with amazement. It was a handwritten record of the most important life moments in a poor, crowded Victorian city parish. Scrawled with the cramped, over-worked priest’s copperplate writing – sometimes blotted by ink, or corrected with intricate margin notes. As the pages turned, an image emerged of the seething streets in which these people lived, cheek-by-jowl – the family names recurring – the hope of new life – the sustenance of faith. The priest’s remarks betrayed a living character, with passions, moods and cares. The witnesses to each birth spoke of a community bonded in hardship and fellowship.
Sure, archives have lots of data in them – lists, names, numbers, items. But it’s the metadata of the artifacts that you never forget. Many of these records have since been scanned and indexed for online access to the data inside them. This has been a wonderful, game-changing use of modern technology for research. Yet for me, viewing the bare data of such a book online can too easily miss the most informative aspect of these treasures. The human souls that weave through each document – real lives, really lived. The artifacts themselves – artfully constructed and carefully tended by those who used them, showing the marks and scars of a world that was just as real and full of incident as ours.
That 17 year-old boy has seen many more archives since that day. Napoleonic navy maps stained with salt water – handwritten menus from Elizabethan banquets – scribbled memoirs from young RAF pilots braving the dark days of World War Two. Yet whatever I have seen on my journey through the archives, two things remain constant.
Firstly, archives are not mute, dead things. They scream with a million human voices. And as such, they tell us more about ourselves than we could ever imagine. They tell us what it means to be human in any age, and what makes us the way we are today.
Secondly, these archives are ours. They are a beautiful gift from those past souls to every one of us. Anyone in our country can see these priceless things for themselves. They are the crown jewels of our shared civilization – unrestrained by bullet-proof glass or motion-sensing alarms.
The word ‘archive’ – like the word ‘love’ or ‘family’ – conceals its true treasure beneath an unassuming simplicity. Only by exploring and cherishing these things do we discover their true value.
So lift that stone like I did! Look underneath. Explore. Better still, press your ear to listen – like a child’s ear pressed to a seashell. That sound you hear is not the sea, but a million voices whispering back to you from across the ages and the pages.
‘We lived. We cared. We loved.’
‘We are you.’