To commemorate the 100 year anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War many documents relating to the conflict are being made available online for the first time. Digitisation across all archives is rapidly increasing, providing researchers with instant data access and saving valuable time and expense. In 2012, 145 million documents were downloaded online from The National Archives website. However, the consequence of increased accessibility is a reduction in the archive experience.
The term ‘archive’ is dual. It is both a type of data created in the past, be it textual, visual or audible, and the place where the data is housed. The existence of both forms of archive generates epistemological challenges and methodological approaches to be overcome. There is also no specific method for accessing an archive; it can be researched through the way most suited to the individual. The result is the genesis of a very personal and individual relationship between the researcher and history through archival research.
Once the research approach is decided the archive provides three distinct ways in which the researcher can connect with the past. Firstly, the researcher connects through the content of the source. Each source offers the opportunity for the researcher to eavesdrop into the past and develop a more intimate understanding of events and individuals. This can be achieved online as well as at the archive. Whilst the content can sometimes be formal and official, particularly in state archives, it may also be personal and insightful; Thatcher’s omnipresent editing pen across draft documents displays her attention to detail but also provides an illustration of her wider leadership tone and style.
The content of handwritten scrawls of important decision makers can also disclose inner thoughts and behind the scenes workings of Whitehall. During the British intervention in Kuwait in 1961 the War Office were concerned about negative publicity regarding troops living conditions. The Minister of War, John Profumo, sent Under Secretary James Ramsden to drum up some good press. Upon his return a note from Profumo to Ramsden declared ‘Well done indeed. Your visit has been a great success and the publicity here has been splendid…warmest congratulations from us all’. However, another note, written in pencil on the back page of Ramsden’s report, reveals the inner thoughts of a different key player: ‘P.S. Have just seen signal from CinC [Commander in Chief] asking to be protected from such unnecessary visits.’
The second way in which the research connects with the past is through the physicality of the source, which can only be achieved by visiting the archive. The existence of the material object, preserves a moment in time, allows more than a glimpse into history – it physically unites the researcher with the past. It also provides history with a sensuality; a smell and a touch. Documents are often carefully parcelled or boxed up, tied together with string, so that researchers have to engage in discovery by unwrapping the bundle to reach the contents inside. Once inside documents are secured together with treasury tags or pieces of string so that every page has to be carefully turned and placed, especially as many documents are tracing paper thin. The experience of turning over the first page of a folder marked ‘Top Secret’ cannot be mirrored through the clicking of a mouse online.
Finally, the researcher can link with the past through the experience of being within the archive. The building is sometimes of particular significance, the archive may offer the opportunity to commune with fellow researchers who share a particular interest, or it may simply provide a hallowed space for uninterrupted research time. However, there is also something particularly satisfying about working in a place surrounded by sources waiting to be discovered. There is an innate sense of a connection with history which cannot be matched by sitting in front of a computer surfing the internet.
The beauty of archival research is that it does not offer a replication of history or rely upon the accurate recalling of memory. Instead, it provides a direct portal to the past in three ways; source content, the experience of the source and the experience of the archive in which the collection is housed. The latter two provide a physical proximity to history which creates a personal experience that cannot be replicated through a computer screen.
Louise Kettle is a 1st year PhD student at the University of Nottingham
Follow Louise on Twitter @LouiseSKettle