Yesterday, Dr Will Berridge and myself took a group of final year dissertation students from the History Department at Northampton to The National Archives in Kew. This trip had two purposes. Firstly, this was an opportunity to obtain some source material for their dissertations. And secondly, and perhaps more importantly, it was to give students the experience of doing research in a big archive.
Using original documents to study the past is quite different to experiencing them second hand in a modern edition, even when the originals have been reproduced in a book or on a screen. This is something that students come to appreciate over the course of their degree, but the full implications of this only become clear when in an archive like TNA.
It is only in the archive that the size, smell and condition of the documents become clear. I ordered some military inspections from the 1770s, and unexpectedly they arrived in a huge book over a metre long that I was barely able to lift, and had to consult in a special part of the building for unwieldy items.
The students faced comparable challenges. One student was excited to be handling documents from the 1530s, saying that it felt like being a real historian! On the other hand, the handwriting presented challenges of legibility, so the student took the approach of photographing them for later comparison with a modern edition.
Some documents were preserved miraculously well. Others were crumbling, and I advised students using such documents to wash their hands thoroughly before eating anything.
In other cases, the ‘pot luck’ element of documentary research became clear. When you order material on the computer catalogue at TNA, you never quite know what you are going to get. A reference like WO 3/14 might be boxes and boxes of revealing letters, or it might be a single letter of no relevance at all. Will and I passed on our experience of doing research, and encouraged students to hedge their bets by ordering several items at once.
This was also an opportunity for Will and myself to do some research of our own, and for the students to observe us at it. I think the students were surprised to learn that I hardly read anything at TNA. Rather, I quickly establish whether the item is relevant or not, and if it is then I photograph it to consult and transcribe later. Photographing a document so it can actually be read is itself a skill, requiring experience and specialist equipment. I took around 300 photos in a couple of hours, which could potentially keep my research going for the next few months.
Travelling to archives is time consuming and expensive. Few of us have the luxury of spending extended periods poring over documents. Busy historians plan ahead, identify what they need, get there, get it as efficiently as possible, and get out!