Archives and the voices of history.

Scrolling through twitter, I came across this gem of a tweet.

I’ve worked extensively within archives across the UK. My research isĀ trying to give voice to some of those quieter narratives in history. But, oddly enough, I hadn’t given much thought to the archival process. I look through catalogues, browse collections, and don;t question about what I don’t see.

I was most interested by this idea of choosing to tell or obstruct histories. With my research based in not only mental health history, but military/wartime too, obstruction is something I’ve faced quite a bit. Sensitive data – patient records – come with a standard 100 year closure in Scotland, and so you apply for special permission from the Caldicott guardians and NHS archives. If granted it can come with caveats, like no photography permissions, and when you’re trying to manage huge bodies of data like hundreds of patient files, this becomes a serious hindrance very quickly. I means you have to adapt sampling methods, which means less sampling and deliberately excluding voices purely for the sake of time.

‘Miscellaneous’ files and folders are a strange breed. Sometimes it can be quite exciting, hoping to uncover some wee gem that isn’t catalogued. But some of these ‘folders’ an be massive, with little rhyme or reason to them, and you sit and trawl though it, clinging to that little ray of hope.

Something I also look at are the narratives of civilian and servicemen in wartime – their letters, conversations, notes… After the ‘Voices of Madness’ conference at Huddersfield University, these records can be so hard to find in archives where they do exist, that a future conference on ‘Silences’ seems more than likely.

I have to say, the archivists I’ve worked with have been amazing. At the British Red Cross and NHSGGC archives especially, they’ve gone out of their way to source material that I might find interesting, and I wouldn’t have looked twice at in the catalogue. So I think there’s something to be said for promoting narratives in archives, too.

Conservation and access – preserving the documents and artefacts but educating the public about their meaning and connecting us with our history is the life’s blood of archives, to my mind. But are these two ideas mutually exclusive? Do they silence some voices, whilst promoting others, in the name of conservation? I think it’s a tricky one, and one that reflects the complex responsibilities of archivists and archives.

I’m quite looking forward to learning a little more about this, to be honest.