Constructing an archive: a reflection on British Library collections

By Mobeen Hussain (@amhuss27)

As historians, we are often used to thinking about an archive as a fixed set of documents kept in a static physical location. An appropriate historical source is often considered as such only if it can be verified by ‘real’ material from a ‘real’ archive.[1] Yet, archives mean different things to different researchers. It can take the form of a conventional repository of documents or a database.[2] For others, spaces like the home are active archival sites.[3] World historians, and specifically those working on the social and cultural history of empire, often contend with the colonial archive and are required to read along the archival grain, as Ann Stoler puts it.[4] One way of combating the limitations of the colonial archive is to supplement it with other materials such as oral memory.

In my case, the collections donated by researchers to the British Library have proved invaluable. In searching the India Office Records and Private Papers at the British Library for impressions of class, caste and race amongst the Anglo-Indian domiciled populations in British India, I came across a collection of detailed research papers written and compiled by historian Christopher J. Hawes. This collection includes 91 files detailing interviews, notes on published sources and correspondence. It was donated to the British Library by his daughter in 2005 following his death. One of the subcategories within this collection relates to an unfinished book on Anglo-Indians with a twentieth century focus. The papers include a series of interview summaries with members of the Anglo-Indian community who lived in India between the 1920s and the 1970s combined with the author’s own impressions of the interviews. These interviews are rich in details about attitudes of race and class both within the Anglo-Indian community and between Anglo-Indian, English and native Indian communities.

However, there are inevitable pitfalls in using this kind of material. In the absence of the fully transcribed interviews, physical tapes and a precise account of what questions have been asked, my reading becomes a secondary reading of the oral testimonies. I am reading an interpretation of the data rather than the data itself. A reader, then, needs to query what has been asked by the interviewer. What has been included in the summaries and what has been lost? Taking an intertextual reading, the interview summaries can be read on two levels: the interviews as texts themselves and Christopher Hawes’s corresponding notes as historical impressions of the interviews he conducted. A secondary reader needs to unpack multi-layered voices to use the interviews effectively. These summaries provide insights into social and cultural identities and help to build a social history of people—which the colonial archive in isolation, in the form of policy documents and ethnographic materials such as censuses—cannot do. In this way, the interview summaries, and the collection as a whole, supplement the colonial record and allow for the construction of a more nuanced archive.

Another collection contains 187 items donated by historian Geraldine Forbes. Forbes donated the books and papers she used for the writing of her Cambridge history of women in modern India.[5] This extensive collection includes rare books written by Indian and British women in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. However, the grouping together of certain books and papers leads to selective readings and connections between the texts, including interpretations about the relationship between English and Indian women, and about social reforms affecting women. Researchers using this material must decouple the books from their collections to use them effectively.

Essentially, then, new readers of these British Library collections are involved in an ongoing dialogue with more seasoned researchers in unpacking the materiality of the archive. We have source material as well as commentary on this material by various researchers from different fields of study. Therefore, when academic research becomes part of an archive, it expands and transforms our ontological understanding of archives as unconventional sites containing constantly moving historical documents. These collections also beg the question: do researchers have a responsibility to leave a research trail for future scholars?


[1] Siobhan Lambert-Hurley, “Life/History/Archive: Identifying Autobiographical Writing by Muslim Women in South Asia,” Journal of Women’s History 25, no. 2 (June 18, 2013): 61–84.

[2] Karin Barber and P.F. de Moraes Farias, “Archiving the Popular. Archive as Work-in-Progress,” in The Popular and the Public : Cultural Debates and Struggles over Public Spaces in Modern India, Africa and Europe, ed. Preben Kaarsholm and Isabel Hofmeyr (London: Seagull Books, 2009): 1.

[3] Lambert-Hurley, “Life/History/Archive.”: 62.

[4] Ann Laura Stoler, Along the Archival Grain: Thinking through Colonial Ontologies (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009): 21.

[5] Geraldine Forbes, Women in Modern India, vol. 4, The New Cambridge History of India (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).


Image: View of the King’s Library, British Library. Photograph by Mike Peel (, via Wikimedia Commons.

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