How to kick off the first post of our A to Z Blogging Challenge on postgraduate life? Perhaps with the places that a lot of us would usually find ourselves in: archives. Coming in all shapes and sizes, from the tiny back rooms of museums or small businesses to sprawling university vaults, they are a mainstay of postgraduate research.
The term “archives” can mean many things, and I think that part of their charm is their resistance to easy categorisation and broad outlook. Sometimes catalogued to the nth degree, sometimes having gaps here and there in the descriptions, they are the places in which someone’s notes or scraps can become small treasures for the inquiring researcher.
I have been on both sides of the archive, as researcher and as assistant, and in both situations, I have been surprised with what has turned up. Two examples spring to mind. As an archival assistant at the KCL Archives a few years ago, I came across photographs and records of the prison on the island of Aegina during the Greek military junta, which had long-since closed down. The deserted, scruffy-looking building that I had passed time and again suddenly became peopled with the stories and faces of heroic political prisoners.
As a researcher, I have pored over the letters between Anne Nill and Herbert Garland. But what was supposedly business correspondence was actually a glimpse into a friendship and the personalities of these two long-dead people. The books they had been reading, the shows they had seen, and the kind of trade gossip that you wouldn’t find in the textbooks. In both cases, the past became a lot more human, and that was down to material found in archives.
And for the best part of the past year, these magical places where you don’t quite know what you might find have been closed. The stories of the notebooks and letters have remained hidden between their pages. Well, mostly. Thanks to increased efforts by archivists to digitise collections and networks of researchers sharing material obtained in happier times, we can continue the detective work of archival research. And hopefully someday soon, we can get back amongst the papers ourselves.
Written by Natalia Fantetti, IES PhD Candidate
Check out the other A-Z Challenge participants as well!