“How do you construct a historical narrative when you don’t have all the facts? To celebrate the launch of The US-UK Fulbright Commission Archive at the British Library, join historian and author Kate Williams, academics Tony Badger and Caroline Bressey, and British Library cataloguer Eleanor Casson, as they discuss archival research, the politics and practices of using archives and the purpose and value they have for historians, researchers and novelists.” – British Library ‘s Event Page for ‘Hidden Histories: Gaps and Silences in the Archives.
The different specialities and research interests of each speaker meant that multiple reasons for ‘silences’ in archives were discussed. For example, Eleanor Casson explained that collections are always socially determined, i.e. follow the collector’s interests and so will only reflect those areas. She also explained that the process of cataloguing and creating an order within an archive can cause gaps. This fact seems obvious but I had never considered it before. Casson explained that archival theory has to question a collection’s value; who created it? why does it exist? Do we have the resources (both money and time) to catalogue this? Eleanor gave a delightful introduction to the life of a cataloguer and spoke with such humour and passion about the subject. She suggested that there needs to be more transparency about the cataloguing process in order for trust to be built between researcher and archivist.
Kate Williams gave a very interesting presentation about the privileging of certain historic voices over others. That it isn’t that 16th- or 17th-century diaries of young maids or courtesans have been lost, it is that they never existed. The lower classes obviously had poorer literacy rates but also, probably didn’t believe their life stories to be worth preserving or worth researching. Even in the 19th century, when the voice of the working class was beginning to be recorded, it was mediated through census takers and upper-class researchers. The second half of Kate Williams talk focused on the archive material surrounding Mary, Queen of Scots and questions the motivations involved in preserving certain material over others. Have certain documents been kept because they portray Mary as especially treacherous? Probably the most enlightening aspect of Kate Williams talk was the idea that just because something survives and we have it, doesn’t necessarily mean that it is important. We shouldn’t privilege a letter, or book, or any other artefact merely because it still exists.
Tony Badger spoke about the wonderful work that archivists have done for him over the years; opening late, early or on a holiday in order to help further research. He spoke mainly about the difficulty of archiving the papers of senators; as the previous century progressed, the volume of papers has increased to the point archivists dread the prospect of having to catalogue them. This was yet another point where resources (time, money, space) came up as a limitation of archive work. Badger also spoke about willful silences. In particular, he spoke of the British Government deliberately sequestering evidence of colonial atrocities and denying their existence when those affected brought lawsuits against the government. This reminded the audience of the political nature of archives and was more than a wee bit unsettling.
Finally, Caroline Bressey talked about her research into the history of people of colour in Britain. She spoke of the difficulty of finding information regarding minority populations, especially because census records didn’t record race until very recently. Instead, one must deduce a person’s race from information such as occupation. As a result, Bressey focuses her research on the latter half of the 19th century after the development of photography. Bressey championed digital archives suggesting that such an archive would allow the whole run of periodical Anti-Caste to be accessible to scholars from all backgrounds and yield much needed scholarship on the paper. However, yet again the issue of resources came up. Who has the time and money to do this? There is a digital revolution to be had, but how do we go about funding it?
This event was a great introduction to both the importance and knowledge that can be gained from archives, but also the frustrations at the gaps within them. Whether those gaps be from the organisation of the archive, represent the disinterest of a collector towards a certain topic or worryingly, deliberate. It also became clear that archivists are now faced with coming up with ways to process born-digital material and keep up with our technological advancements, regarding websites, email, messaging etc.
The only question that I was left with after this event was the idea of who exactly should be filling the gaps in the archives, especially those silences which surround the lives of minorities. Kate Williams made the astute comment that we should be actively cataloguing and documenting things now as we go along. However, I wonder how this would be achieved without that aspect of mediation that was so present in the 19th century. What if certain communities don’t aren’t interested in being involved with such endeavours? Would that make our academic interest, although admittedly coming from a good place, exploitative or intrusive? The only answer I can see is that we must empower communities to preserve their own histories, in ways that they see fit and appropriate. But again, the darn lack of resources seems to be a limitation to that idea as well!
To conclude, this was a great event with a great panel that opened up a much-needed topic for consideration.