Archive training: Methods and Sources for Historical Research course

I’ve just returned from an intensive five-day course in using Methods and Sources for Historical Research, a short course offered by the Institute of Historical Research at the University of London, which was held partly in the grand surroundings of Senate House. The training was a really good way to get first-hand advice and tips from an experienced and seasoned archive user, Dr Simon Trafford, the course leader, who is an enthusiastic medievalist, as well as input from Laura Berry, an independent researcher who regularly uses the National Archives. In addition to covering some of the nitty-gritty of archival research – from copyright considerations to the definition of ‘public records’, exemptions, open and closed access and Freedom of Information requests – the course took us on a whistlestop tour of a variety of London’s many resources which are available for historical research, from major institutions such as London Metropolitan Archives, the National Archives and the British Library to smaller, more specialist collections such as the Museum of London Ephemera Collection, Lambeth Palace library, the Parliamentary archives at Westminster (I never knew there was an ‘act room’ piled high with parchment scrolls of every act ever made by Parliament!), Postal Archive, Bishopsgate Institute and the British Film Institute.

Although not all collections were obviously related to my research, it was interesting to hear about the breadth of archives and the range of material encapsulated in archives. There were about twelve of us on the course, mostly from the UK although there was one student visiting from Australia, and we ranged from PhD and Masters students to independent researchers and those whose job involves an element of research. Our list of research interests, which ranged from a comparison between conceptions of the family in the UK and Japan to gender studies, town planning and a project about the memorialisation of the Boer War, were circulated to each archivist we were visiting in advance, and they did their best to dig out material related to each of our projects in their collections, which we had a chance to look at briefly after each archivist or librarian had given us an introduction to their collections.

Whilst not directly related to my project, several of the archives had material of secondary interest – for example, the London Metropolitan Archives had material relating to the London County Council’s commissioning of artworks for public places, including schools, in the post-war period, including a lot of correspondence with the Arts Council, who acted as advisors to the LCC in choosing artworks. One trail of correspondence which made me smile was a number of handwritten and typewritten letters from a school boy to the LCC saying he had designed a sculpture for a housing estate, and his art teacher had recommended he send it to the LCC for consideration. The sculpture was to be three 17 foot-high giraffes in ciment fondu, which the young artist explained would break up the monotony of the grassy areas in a housing estate, but not be so large as to cause an obstruction. The boy said he had difficulty fully communicating his idea in writing, but had created a maquette which could be shown at a meeting. To their credit, the Arts Council did discuss his idea, but concluded that it was too ‘immature’, saying in their reply that they would look forward to seeing his future development as an artist. London Metropolitan Archive also has an open-access ‘Mediatheque’ where visitors can view a number of films produced by the LCC, including several about changing ideas about education, curriculum and school buildings in the post-war period, which may contain relevant background information for my project, and I hope I might have chance to drop in and watch them in future. We also had a fascinating and passionate presentation about the collections at the Postal Archive, which also houses a small museum, and were told anecdotes such as cats being employed by the post office to catch mice which used to eat mail sacks, a post-carrying horse sending a sick note, and Suffragettes attempting to post themselves as packages! The Postal Archive includes information relating to historic educational initiatives by the post office such as its series of prints for schools showing various historical events in the development of the postal service, which may be of tangential interest. Another resource which does not appear to be immediately related but may be useful in future are websites, accessible only from the reading room at the BFI, which host an extensive back catalogue of BBC programmes (this may be useful if I want to track down educational programmes involving artists and art education in the post-war period, which I have seen brief references to in the course of my research), as well as a website which hosts recordings being made on an ongoing basis of all TV currently being broadcast on the main UK TV channels (adverts and all!). Also potentially useful is the BFI’s Screenonline website, which acts as a mini-encyclopaedia of British film and TV and a social history of the UK through film, which has clips and audiovisual material which can be viewed by anyone who is part of an education institution via a portal. As a big fan of twentieth century British film, I have spent a lot of time on Screenonline in the past, but new to me was the BFI’s InView site, which provides access to a range of historical documentary and non-fiction films, documentary and propaganda films to members of higher education institutions. Like London Metropolitan Archives, the BFI also has a Mediatheque where a number of feature films, documentaries and TV series can be viewed for free, and I can see myself spending a lot of time in there if I am ever in London with some time to spare or looking for shelter on a rainy day!

The real value of the course was demystifying some of the bureaucratic hurdles often encountered at larger archives, from the various forms of ID needed to register for a readers’ card to introducing the different reading rooms at the British Library and detailing the process for obtaining records at the National Archives, which included advance ordering, selecting a seat, the time period it takes to retrieve records and where to go for the collection of order requests. It was also useful to be talked through the online catalogues at each institution, many of which have recently been revamped and expanded (although it is important to bear in mind that they are sometimes most effective when used in conjunction with old-fashioned paper catalogues), how to carry out effective searches and to be introduced to tools to help find records on a broader basis such as the National Record of Archives and Access to Archives, which may help locate records held internationally. Meeting a range of archivists was also an opportunity to benefit from their specialist knowledge of their collections, and showed the importance of communicating directly with archivists for guidance and suggestions of relevant material rather than relying solely on catalogue listings, which may be incomplete.

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