A few years ago, during one of my early posts as Stipendiary Lecturer in History at the University of Oxford, I was sat in a supervision meeting with a third-year dissertation student and began to chat with them about starting to conduct their own archival research. As I began excitedly recounting my own ‘Eureka moments’ in the archive (that time in the Bishopsgate Institute I found a 1930s photograph of detectives examining a stepladder used by a notorious cat burglar, or when I was allowed in the Crime Museum inside Scotland Yard to look at the disguises employed by Charles Peace, another famous burglar — if you haven’t guessed it yet, I’m a historian of burglary) I saw my student’s face fall and begin to look anxious. Asking them what was wrong, they replied ‘I just don’t know where to begin. I didn’t know students were allowed into an archive!’ Thus was born the idea for ‘Advancing into the Archives’ an annual archives-skills workshop primarily directed at second- and third-year undergraduates about to embark on their History dissertations.
For the last two years since moving to the University of Manchester I have been incredibly lucky to host the workshop at the fantastic Liverpool Records Office, in its beautifully-refurbished library building that has the added treat of allowing my students and I to take over the fourth floor; a space where research can be conducted in the light of panoramic rooftop views of the city (research is great; research in gorgeous buildings, even better). The wonderful archivist there, Helena Smart, gives generously of her time by offering an introduction to what archives actually are — vast repositories of documents from the middle ages to the present, dealing with subjects from the history of pubs and theatres to family archives, the ephemera of political groups, records of criminals, hospitals, asylums (you name it, they’ve got it). One of the key purposes of this trip is to impress upon students the sheer scale of resources accessible to them, and in fact that what appears on the online catalogue may only be a fraction of the many holdings still being processed and catalogued, so always ask the archivists themselves for help and allow them to apply their own unique knowledge of their collections to the topic you are interested in looking at. They may be able to dig out a document from their collections that, however irrelevant to your research it appeared on the catalogue, is in fact the perfect source on which to build a project.
Being flexible about the direction your research is going to take is another great tip from the day, and one which our postgraduate students — PhD candidate Courtney Stickland, and MA students Lewis Ryder and Amy Healey (above) — were all too happy to talk about. So often when undergraduates are beginning their dissertations, they express worry that they ‘don’t yet have an argument’ — before they’ve entered the archive. This is partly a result of spending a lot of the preceding years concentrating on ways of criticising the secondary scholarship (historiography) on its own merits, without having your own fresh material with which to challenge it; for the dissertation, however, which involves an original piece of primary research analysis, students need to be led by the evidence they find available (rather than attempting to solve the murder without any clues, which is how I usually phrase it). As our postgrads outlined from their own experiences, stumbling across a fascinating, previously-unexamined document in an archive might completely change the whole remit of your project, and students need not be afraid of that. Tackling the unexpected is, indeed, one of the more fun challenges posed by being a historian — and yes I realise that sounds sickeningly chirpy. Its true, though; as is the need for planning. Before going to an archive, students should be prepared for the possibility that the folder they have requested to view which seems to have been created just perfectly to suit their topic might turn out to only contain six letters; or, alternatively, they could get landed with one of sixty relevant boxes that they simply won’t have time to go through. At this stage, if only two days have been allotted for proposed research time, it’s perfectly acceptable to panic — although your supervisor may not wear a particularly sympathetic face if you really have left it that late/allotted such a short amount of time for a piece of work that, in many respects, should be the pinnacle of your undergraduate career. However, if you have planned in advance and set aside multiple slots of time across the two semesters to do various research trips, you are likely to have much greater success.
Thus for the final part of our archives day, Helena and her colleague Will Reid brought out a selection of archives relating to expressed topics of interest for our students, organising a table each for archives relating to the second wave feminist movement; political activism in the north west; the gay liberation movement; histories of folklore and family papers; and criminal and lunatic asylum records — as well as archives relating to the fantastic George Garrett project, a digitised archive of the papers of the Liverpool seaman, radical and writer who lived in America during the Jazz Age. Moving from table to table and getting to examine different materials that caught their interest was both a privilege for our students and myself; in addition, it helped us identify interesting resonances between the archives that we might not otherwise have thought about. One student, for instance, began to consider the similarities in class, political outlook, gender and education of those involved in different civil rights movements throughout the nineteenth and twentieth century, while another made connections between the medicalised rhetoric of ‘hysteria’ apparent in case files from a Victorian female lunatic asylum and the treatment of women criminals in another set of institutional records. The opportunities presented by this workshop are therefore invaluable, both for developing research skills and as an intellectual exercise in exploring the circulation of ideas through texts and genres of material we might otherwise treat as discrete.
So what were our top tips from the session? Over the years via the feedback forms I hand out at the end, I have asked students to say what the most useful elements of the workshop were, and what advice they would give to fellow-students about to embark on their research. Here are their thoughts:
- Have an idea of the sorts of topics and lines of research you would be interested in examining before you go to the archive; that way the archivists can help you identify what sorts of collections you might find interesting to look at.
- Be open to linking different topics and resources together — don’t have too fixed an idea of what you want to look at.
- Go with questions to direct towards the evidence but again, go with an open mind in case the evidence forces you to ask new questions. Similarly, make sure not to go to the archives with a pre-formed conclusion in mind and then try to make the evidence ‘fit.’
- Contact the archivist before going, and make sure to book an appointment so you aren’t disappointed.
- Also before going, do some keyword searching in the online catalogues (found on the archives’ websites) and select a few documents, write down the reference numbers, and ask to view them in advance. Even if nothing seems to appeal to you from the catalogue, have a look at a few sources anyway because it might be worth it.
Eloise Moss, Editor