Stepping out of the archives

I’ve recently completed a draft chapter on the way in which archives make records relating to same-sex love accessible, both to academics and the public. For most historians, their research begins and remains in the archive and with the records they contain. For me though, the interest is not so much in what the records say (although this is of course important), but what is done with them by the archives – how would I find them as a public user? As a historian, I have a fairly good idea of which search terms to type into an archive’s catalogue search, but in drafting this chapter I realised how much I take this for granted. Without my experience in archives and having read a large amount of literature on the history of sexuality, I might not understand why typing ‘lesbian’ into the search engine of The National Archives returns more results on a steam ship called ‘Lesbian’ than documents relating to love between women. My chapter focuses on how archives make records accessible to users – whether that is through alternative search terms, lists for further reading or through open lectures and talks – but it got me thinking more generally about the way that I and historians approach and use sources both within and outside of the traditional archive.

I feel very lucky in the way that my research for my thesis has played out – but also still a bit uncomfortable. When I first began my PhD I hadn’t long finished my MA thesis on eighteenth-century female prostitution. I had spent most of June and July 2011 sitting in the Rare Books room at the British Library – this felt like real historical research, with dust, documents and silence. Cut to a year later and I’m lost in a farm outside Sissinghurst having been conducting my research for a chapter on historic houses. Writing a thesis on public history has required me to think beyond the research and methodology I was used to – by using different types of sources and using these in a different way. Where pamphlets, criminal records, contemporary plays and newspapers had formed the primary research for my MA thesis, the research for my PhD thesis is based on houses, monuments, digital trails, websites of archives and occasionally archival material. It’s taken me quite some time to get used to this – having trained as a social historian, the archives had become my work place and my safe place, the place where I formed my opinion and gained knowledge of my subjects.

From the archives... (Wiki Commons)

From the archives…
(Wiki Commons)

...to a summer's day at NT's Ickworth (Wiki Commons)

…to a summer’s day at NT’s Ickworth
(Wiki Commons)

Now I don’t necessarily have to visit these archives and see the documents – though I do when I can – because writing on public history requires me to think differently. I do, however, get to visit other places that contain my equivalent of records and manuscripts. I spent last summer traipsing around the UK, visiting historic houses (which are never near a train station) and these became my archives instead. I walked the five mile trail from Halifax Station to Anne Lister’s Shibden Hall and back again, walked across horse fields from Starcross (real place) to Powderham Castle, took trains, buses and B road “pavements” to Sissinghurst and Smallhythe Place in Kent, just a few miles from the town I grew up in, armed with a camera, notepad and National Trust membership card. These and several other historic houses across the UK were the basis to my chapter, which also included more traditional records, such as guidebooks and exhibition flyers. When I came back to thinking about archives a few months ago it struck me how strange it was that I have spent little time sitting in one and going through boxes of documents. After having spent several years relying on archives and the records they contain, researching on public history using different types of sources felt very difficult – not quite academic enough. It’s taken me a while to get used to this, but public history is a fairly young field in academia and as a PhD student I’m still finding my own feet.

The irony of writing an academic thesis on public history is not lost on me – but I still feel at odds with the research and lack of traditional records required to write it at times. The digital age has required historians and the public to develop a new approach to finding the past – but there are many ways of finding it outside of the archives and the records they contain. Perhaps I take for granted that my research doesn’t always feel like work – my NT membership and rail card have been used more than my BL Reader’s Pass – and I must admit, it is a lot of fun.

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