Using the archives

Physical archives have been the life-blood and laboratories of history and heritage research. They are places loved and shared by academics, independent researchers, community groups, and those involved in the creative arts.

Has the digital revolution consigned them to the dusty corners of academia or do they have a dynamic future at the heart of public history? What other challenges do the archives present us with today?


Helen Casey

DHeritage student at the University of Hertfordshire and Director at Magic Beans Media

Helen CaseyAs more archives make the transition online, allowing visitors to find what they’re looking for through a keyword search of digitised records, you might assume that the physical space in which items are stored has become less important. But, as this podcast argues, this is not true at all. For an archivist, the digital revolution is a real opportunity to find new audiences, and in doing so, they will find they have a vital role as guide and navigator through their collections, both online and in the real world.

When trying to engage with the public, the importance of an archive’s physical space shouldn’t be underestimated. Many collections no longer inhabit a dusty storeroom, or forgotten corner of a warehouse. They are increasingly being housed in purpose-built spaces, welcoming and full of light, allowing visitors to browse, search and interrogate collections in a friendly atmosphere, bringing a number of local collections together and helping to open them up to new audiences.

In this podcast, we hear two examples of collections benefiting from being given new homes: the Hull History Centre, and the Keep in Sussex, which brings together council and university archives including the Mass Observation Project, an examination of everyday life in Britain, started in the 1930s. ‘Star’ collections like these, which have an obvious interest for people who lived through those times, can draw people into the archive, encouraging them to search more widely, and perhaps move onto more ‘challenging’ territory such as hand-written property records or purchase ledgers, eventually allowing the researcher to discover that using a broad range of sources can build a fascinating picture. Archivists in Hull report that bringing a range of collections together has resulted in parts of the archive being searched for the first time in many years.

As well as knowing the contents of their own collections, archivists tend to know where other archives are - putting them at the centre of a knowledge network that can help to link people and stories and promote a wider understanding. In this podcast, we hear from writer Adam Ganz, who uses archives to help him research and write screenplays and radio dramas. After writing a play about his father, a German refugee who was employed to listen to bugged conversations between captured German prisoners of war, he was contacted by a women who asked:

''Were your family ever in Carlisle during the war?’ And I said ‘yes, they were as a matter of fact’. And she said ‘I’ve written my memoirs about my father moving your grandparents into their house in Carlisle in 1940 - would you like to read it?’'

Using real historical records to tell the story sparked a moment of memory and recognition from this apparently unrelated person that allowed Adam to gain a valuable new insight, both as an academic, and in his personal life as a family researcher.

In the same way, successful archivists need to use the online space to ‘broadcast’ their collections, making sure they are fully searchable where possible, and being on hand to lead the amateur through all different kinds of records.

My research, for the Professional Doctorate in Heritage (DHeritage) at Hertfordshire University, is focused on how technology has changed the way museum curators and archivists communicate their collections to the online visiting public. Major digitisation projects have taken place in collections large and small in the past 15-20 years, but I’m asking how this process has been managed, and what decisions did the heritage professionals make when it came to deciding what to digitise, and how to present it to an online audience?

I’ll be trying to find out from them whether the emergence of the World Wide Web has created new audiences for heritage collections, and what these new interactions have taught them about communicating and exhibiting artefacts online. I believe that often, decisions on digitisation and the creation of online collections have been made under policy and funding pressures, which may not have had the results that were intended. I will be testing that theory by asking those who manage heritage sites online whether they feel they have been designed and presented in a useful way.

In my view, a good archivist should be, both online and in the real world, a creative guide, opening their collections up, and suggesting where untold stories might be lurking for those who wish to tell stories through fiction, art or academic research.

Even experienced professionals can find archives difficult to navigate, and can benefit from a friendly face helping them through. Professor Justin Champion at Royal Holloway University of London is President of the Historical Association. He says that, even as an experienced researcher:

'My heart sinks if I have to go to the National Archives, because I can’t remember how to do the online ordering, and they’ve changed the system, and it just becomes a complete nightmare.'

For Dr Ciara Meehan, a lecturer in 20th century history at the University of Hertfordshire, involving people in the creation of archives is one way of drawing them into a digital collection. She describes how, in Ireland, online visitors are invited to help transcribe letters sent between families around the time of the 1916 uprising. Allowing people to take part in the creation of a collection helps them to feel they have a stake in it, and may spark an interest that keeps them coming back for years.

If nothing else, bringing more people in to interact physically with archives is an experience in itself. As Adam Ganz says, while having digital files is convenient and might be useful, 'I don’t think it’s anywhere near as good as going and undoing those tapes and opening those boxes'.

If we want to keep our archives alive, as places of discovery, discussion and storytelling, then the physical space is more important than ever, and far from being consigned to the history books, archivists themselves must lead this information revolution from the front. I believe that just as the emergence of e-books has, despite dire predictions, completely failed to take over the physical books market, the online museum will never usurp the real one, although it may open up new lines of communication to visitors who would not normally have considered passing through its doors. From this point of view, putting archives online, and bringing collections out of dusty rooms and into a welcoming public space are not an either/or decision - both are vital ways of keeping interest in our heritage alive.