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Tuesday, 31 May 2022

What is the 'correct' number of archives to visit?

I was, I may say, as both an archivist and a historian, somewhat beswozzled to encounter, yesterday via Twitter, an account of one historian putting down another after the latter had given a talk at the former's institution: 'asked me how many archives I had visited. Less than 10 was not enough'.

What on earth, I thought.

It would be, I tweeted, rather more pertinent to ask 'how many collections' had been consulted, rather than the number of repositories, since there are repositories which are the go-to sites of pilgrimage for the fields in which they collect.

Certainly one should not focus on a single personal or institutional archive to the neglect of all others. When I started my PhD, back when dinosaurs roamed the Euston Road, and primeval word-processors for the home user only came along when I was partway through the endeavour, I had one large and rich primary source in the letters received by Marie Stopes from the public (Wellcome Library, PP/MCS/A). However (although one reviewer of the subsequent book claimed I had only looked at one archive: because there were just so many firsthand accounts from the early C20th by British males of their sexual troubles that I could have used*?) I did consult other sources. Looking at the bibliography of my thesis I consulted seven other collections in the Wellcome, the Stopes papers in the British Library as well as those of her first husband, Reginald Ruggles Gates, the Mass Observation 'Little Kinsey' survey, records of the Church of England Purity Society and the papers of Lord Baden-Powell. Also, since I was fortunate enough to make a trip to Australia during that time, the Norman Haire papers at the University of Sydney.

That's still only half-a-dozen actual archival repositories, poor show?

However, counting up the places I visited in order to write my biography of Stella Browne, it comes to over 30, though I will concede that there were 2 or 3 I didn't visit in person because the kind archivists provided me with copies of the relevant materials. (I'm not totting up the number of actual collections, which would be considerably greater). Three continents. 6 countries.

Do I win? Do I?

It's not a game. You don't get points for visiting X number of archives, it's not a Quest where you have to gather up a certain number of plot coupons. You gain points for knowing where to go and finding relevant material.

I concede that there may be fields of study where seeing the various angles and sides of the issue - I think particularly of anything to do with international affairs - will involve going to different places (though again, is there an as it were canonical number?). However, the extent to which individual scholars can cover the ground is going to depend on a lot of factors not necessarily in their own control.

Even with a fairly local study a certain amount of going somewhere else to follow up the trail may be involved. E.g. the hypothetical case of  'Muck, Brass, and Subterreanean Passions: Sewage Reform in [Victorian industrial centre] 1855-1865'. Yes, doubtless the local record office has the records of the local authority, of local worthies involved, of local bodies agitating for or against sanitary reforms, of the Medical Officer of Health if there was one. Maybe records of the local industries, though with time and change these may have been taken over and amalgamated and if their records survive they may be somewhere else entirely. Ditto for records of local landowners, which may be held at their other estates.

Then, of course, The National Archives and the Parliamentary Archive will have something to offer. There may have been contacts with sanitation reformers whose archives are preserved elsewhere.

And no, not everything is all online now! Physical visits may still be involved. But if you can do it from the comfort of home, no points get deducted.

*Since then, of course, oral historians such as Steve Humphries, Kate Fisher and Simon Szreter and others have undertaken significant work in this field. As a part-time PhD researcher I didn't really have the resources for that. Also, while I think this sort of work is excellent and important, it cannot have the immediacy of the letters written by Stopes' contemporaries.

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