Psychologically traumatising. This was how David Hendy, Professor of Media and Communication, described conducting archival research. And I breathed a sigh of relief; I knew exactly what he meant. As a historian I have a complicated relationship with archives; I’ve always had this notion that real researchers do it in an archive, but at the same time I’m nervous about the reality and the implications for my work. Not by chance I am exploring a field that is not primarily reliant on archives, but I can’t shake the nagging feeling that I am missing some hidden gems. Maybe there’s a treasure trove of unique data buried in the depths of an archive waiting to be unearthed. But, even if you know where to start, it is the how to start that is the most daunting. So, it was incredibly comforting to hear another academic describe that ‘what am I missing?’ moment of panic when faced with acres of boxes and files.
David has been trawling the BBC archives at Caversham to uncover the story of Radio 4. He found that within the notes and memos, policy documents and contracts lie the raw materials that humanise the story of a national institution. These individual voices ultimately point to larger discussions about politics, about culture, about the nation.
Paul Quinn is exploring the strange tales of literary Sussex in the early modern period. The Postdoctoral Fellow in the School of English talked about using archives to drill down into private lives, placing Sussex figures into a national story. Letters complaining about toll roads contribute to discussions on industrialisation, religion and the judicial system in Sussex. Enticingly, he likens the role of researcher to that of detective; looking closely at links, cataloguing relationships and connections. Paul represented his findings with an extensive social map, visualising interpersonal connections, it’s reminiscent of a social media who’s who infographic (although, I am pleased to say, there’s much less bequeathing of jewellery and stabbings in the street within my own Sussex networks). Again, it is the adding up of data that relocates individual stories to a wider context.
I like this idea of archival research as the slow accumulation of details, it removes the pressure to charge in, archive-raider style, questing for that holy grail of documents. Instead, make friends with archivists and take the time to absorb the baggage. Allow yourself to get lost, uncovering patterns and trends. Reassuringly, David said he only managed to look at 10 per cent of the material he had intended to examine, and described the equal pleasures of finding and of not finding materials.
So, whether you’re on an epic archives odyssey or just sauntering through, enjoy the journey because the delight is in the detail.