A week ago I went along to Senate House’s annual History Day extravaganza: a workshop with talks about doing history, with representatives from archives offering advice on how they can help do history.
As a fresh-faced PGR and new historian, this was the first event of its kind I’d ever attended. I very much enjoyed the day, chatting to representatives from archives all over the country about their particular holdings and what could be beneficial for my own research. Consequently, I hope to make some trips to Kew in the new year to examine the Home Office material held in the National Archives, as well as the upcoming Radicals exhibition at Senate House.
The main focus of the event, however, were the three panels. Led by historians, archivists, and librarians, the talks on the practicalities of doing history were both engaging and accessible. Coming from a background of Linguistics and English Literature, I feel as though I’m going undercover when attending history events – although the material I use is centuries old and thus, by necessity, ‘historical’, when it comes to some history methodology I feel like a child trying on her mum’s shoes and finding that they’re far too big.
In this light, the first panel on ‘Public History’ with Dr. Alix Green (University of Essex) and Dr. Susannah Lipscomb (New College of the Humanities) was a wonderful discussion on what it means to be a historian of the public and to give historical work public meaning. Green borrowed John Tosh’s definition of the term as “history with a public purpose” and as a “public resource,” and drew upon her background in policy to call for closer collaboration between politicians and historians. Signing a petition, writing for the Guardian or the Conversation is all well and good, she noted, but called for a more direct impact of historical training to contribute to teams of experienced people to help solve policy issues with public concerns in mind, a ‘collective policy’ being the end goal.
Lipscomb continued in a similar vein, turning to the cultural impact of historians’ work. She contrasted the increasing fragmentation and specialisation of ‘professional history’ with the widening output of popular history including books, radio programmes, and television dramas and documentaries that indicate an upsurge of public interest. Lipscomb, who has previously presented several successful history documentaries for the BBC, noted that “a 45 minute television programme has only 30 pages of script” and that these stories are often limited to ‘big name’ figures such as royals and wars, heavily condensing historical debate in order to create a linear narrative perceived to be more engaging to audiences.
While historians have anxieties about ‘dumbing down’ complex analysis, she concluded with Dr. Green that historical research is of no use if it is not shared, both arguing for the historian to accept their place as negotiator between archives and the public.
Period dramas, such as the BBC’s Versailles, are a great way to engage the public with the past. For many, these adapted fictions are their only source of information on the topic. Image copyright BBC.
Libraries Vs. Archives
Panel two engaged more closely with the remainder of the day, pitting archivists Victoria Northwood (Hon. Sec. British Records Association) and Isobel Hunter (The National Archives) against librarians Dr Richard Espley (Senate House Library) and Lesley Ruthven (Goldsmiths) to defend the merits of their relative institutions – and how they can be used together in future research.
Tugging on the heartstrings, archivists Northwood and Hunter argued that archives are totally unique in both their combination of holdings and the materiality of each object, “waiting to be discovered” due to the notorious backlogs of cataloguing plaguing the industry. Hunter noted the emotional power of the archive too – that of bringing researchers to tears when stumbling upon an important artefact. Noting the real-wordliness of archives, Hunter cited the fall of the Berlin Wall as a striking example of the importance of documentation: newly freed East Berliners began to destroy the GDR’s offices in glee, before realising the necessity of the documents as evidence for bringing their injustices to account.
Comparatively, librarian Espley fought this by noting that libraries are also unique, as each collection is ‘curated’ by the librarian, and that these collections are the eventual the homes of work based on discoveries made in archives, or “promiscuously democratic” repositories of learning. Ruthven followed this by noting the range of libraries and their respective workloads, from helping young children to learn to read and share to special collections libraries that enable access to local history and “straddle the exclusivity between archives and libraries” through establishing a theme, citing the example of the Women’s Art Library at Goldsmiths. This unity, Ruthven argues, brings people together differently to an archive. Although an archive can unite people from across time and space via an object, libraries enable reading groups and discussion, and shared experiences – including the discussions of BME women artists at the Women’s Art Library through a student-organised reading group.
Graffiti on the east side of the Berlin Wall, taken on holiday last July. An archive in itself!
All panellists agreed upon the importance of libraries and archives used in conjunction, and the importance of widening access to all of these collections, following on from the previous panel’s conclusion that historical work must be an open and collective effort. Hunter noted the role of commercial partners in bringing this access to the forefront, through funding digitization projects that enable worldwide access to texts and objects, and Northwood noting the continual work of historians, as each publication of findings represents one individual’s take: “archives are open to interpretation and reinterpretation.” She noted some of the more individual findings and uses from archives, having discovered an extremely dead rat in a desk drawer on her first private archival job, and Hunger shared one output of the extremely varied M&S archive, most recently used to inspire a new design collection by fashionista Alexa Chung.
While I have no regrets in going, and very much enjoyed the day, it still left me with some doubts and questions. Still feeling somewhat of a pretend historian, I would have enjoyed a little about employability: if historical training is so richly varied and transferable, what can I apply it to? How does one apply to work on a BBC programme or offer findings to improve public policy? If we are to eliminate the perception that there are no jobs for arts and humanities graduates, can we not start leading by example and bringing historians to the public eye? (For the record, I have been told four times in two months that there are no jobs in academia. I am aware of this.) Talking about the various ins and outs and defences of libraries and archives is all well and good to a public audience, but for current postgraduate students who have opted to attend an event to find resources for research, it felt a little wasted. While I enjoyed the day, it has made me wonder where it’s all leading to.
I was able to attend this event thanks to small award funding from WRoCAH.