By Dominic Birch
One of the most pleasurable parts of archival work is discovering new stories, narratives and characters. In the type of work I do (early modern social history) some subjects seem to jump out of the page, demanding attention. Take, for instance, the case of Sara and Elizabeth Mayhew, two women who were taken to court for slander in 1617. The Mayhews were accused of sowing ‘discord, debate and strife’ amongst their neighbours. They had a particular antipathy for Dr. Wells, the vicar of Brockely. The Mayhews interrupted Wells as he attempted to deliver service, sang bawdy songs outside his door, and called his children ‘priest bastards’.
By Dr Marta Musso (@martamusso)
For Historical Archives, investing in digitisation is an extremely expensive, time consuming, and complex endeavour. It is well worth the effort, but it is fundamental to implement all the opportunities that digital technologies offer to archives. Since the beginning of the millennium, archives and cultural heritage institutions have started to reflect on the new challenges and opportunities brought about by the digital age. The guidelines created in 2002 by the International Council of Archives indicated full digitisation and online availability of archival material as the main objective for archives in the digital age. Now, even in a utopic world where archives had infinite budget and resources, this is a very long-term and ambitious goal – we are talking about millions, trillions of paper and analogue documents that need to be digitised and indexed online. At the same time, opening its heritage to everyone in the world is the goal of any archive; and for national and public archives it is part of their mandate.
By Mobeen Hussain | (@amhuss27)
On my first visit to the Punjab State Archives in Lahore this summer, I met with the archive’s Director, Mohammed Abbas Chughtai, who explained that the archive and its libraries have received fewer visitors after the events of 9/11 due to concerns about safety in the country. The archive does, however, receive some non-native and international scholars, and the Research Officer and Director were eager to help as well as point visitors in the direction of other useful resources. Coupled with this enthusiasm is the “chai and chat” culture of Pakistan; before delving into your research, you may well spend some time waiting, chatting, and being introduced to people. While researchers, including myself, will be in a rush to get started, these conversations have proved to be fruitful and a great way into the history and archive culture of Lahore. For instance, through conversations with the Director of the State Archives, I found out about materials at the Punjab Public Library and ended up spending a lot of time there. Indeed, the archives and libraries provide a snapshot of the vast archival and scholarly landscape of Lahore and are great, untapped treasure troves.
By Elissa O’Connell (@ElissaOConnell)
As readers will surely be aware, 2018 has been a historically significant year for women’s history and archives. The centenary of some women gaining the vote has created many opportunities to celebrate women-led activism across the UK, as well as to reinforce the need to document and protect these herstories through archiving and heritage. 2018 also marks the 40th anniversary of the Feminist Archive South (FAS), established in 1978 to document the herstories of international feminist social movements active between 1960-2000. The need to celebrate these vital campaigns for democracy and women’s rights has raised important questions about imperialism in women’s movements more widely.
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. Yet, archives mean different things to different researchers. It can take the form of a conventional repository of documents or a database. For others, spaces like the home are active archival sites. 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. One way of combating the limitations of the colonial archive is to supplement it with other materials such as oral memory.
by Holly Dayton | email@example.com
Few people know that Lady Randolph Churchill, Winston’s American mother, was a playwright. If they happen to know of her, they only know her as the mother of Winston Churchill. Yet she wrote three plays over the course of her life: His Borrowed Plumes (1909), The Bill (1913), and Between the Devil and the Deep Sea (1920). Though her first two plays were produced on the West End and all three were donated to the Churchill Archive Centre in 2012, they have never been studied in detail.
This is not wholly surprising, as Lady Randolph was part of a community of female playwrights from the turn of the century that are barely remembered or discussed. Yet, by the late 1800s, more women were playwrights than ever before, attracted by the potential to make a significant profit through their work. Whereas in the early first few decades of the 1800s, a playwright would only receive a small lump sum upfront for their text, by the end of the century one could reasonably hope to receive 10% of the gross profits from a production. A female playwright could, ostensibly, make a tidy profit from a successful play. However, few female playwrights received financial arrangements equally generous as those given to men. Read more
By Zoe Farrell (@zoeffarrell)
One of the many advantages of being a historian who studies other countries is the ample opportunities for travel. My work focuses on artisans and material culture in sixteenth-century Verona, and I have therefore spent a lot of time in Veronese archives. However, I am also interested in how Renaissance culture travelled, especially through the Alps and into Germany. As part of a major fieldwork trip this year, I decided to follow the route of my research to Germany, visiting archives of interest along the way. In total, I visited thirteen archives in three different countries. During this time, I went from eating lunch outside in the piazzas of Italy, to walking through the snow in -14 degrees Celsius in Germany. No two archives were the same and I learnt a vast amount about research, travel, and independence. Here, I will share some of the most important things I learned. Read more
By Helen Sunderland (@hl_sunderland)
When I first saw the University Library as a new Cambridge student last October it looked like something from a dystopian novel. The library tower loomed above me – a modernist monument to humanity’s pursuit of knowledge. With the addition of a few slogans on the walls, I thought, it would fit right into Orwell’s 1984. What this says about my sense of trepidation embarking on a PhD aside, the library tower has long been a focus of mystery and myth since it was completed in 1934. Now, the new exhibition Tall Tales: Secrets of the Tower, which opened at the University Library earlier this month, uncovers some of its secrets for the first time.
In the third of our series on research abroad, Zoe Farrell (@zoeffarrell) scopes out Verona.
One of the most exciting yet intimidating elements of PhD research is the archival visit. This is perhaps particularly daunting for those of us venturing to foreign pastures and putting into practice hard-earned language skills. However, the rewards of navigating the maze of the foreign archive are substantial and the experience can be enriching in more ways than one. Read more
By Jimmy Chen
Within the collection of Cambridge University Library, there is a piece of sheet music for a Russian song dating from the Napoleonic Wars. Insignificant at first glance, this simple song can provide important insights into European musical culture in the early nineteenth century. Read more
In the second of our posts on doing research abroad, Tom Smith (@TomEtesonSmith) traverses the United States.
Working on American history from a British university as I do, it was inevitable that at some point during my PhD research I was going to have to spend some time abroad. Courtesy of two Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded fellowships, first at the Huntington Library in California, and secondly at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, ‘some time’ rapidly became more-or-less an entire year. While I was somewhat daunted by the prospect of abandoning family, friends, and familiar settings to enter the political inferno that is the contemporary United States, this was too good an opportunity to pass up. Read more
In the first of our posts on doing research abroad, Fred Smith () explores the Secret Vatican Archives.
Aliens? Illuminati secrets? Devices that can see into the future? It seems that no conspiracy theory is too far-fetched for those who speculate what may be hidden within the vaults of the Archivum Segretum Vaticanum.  Indeed, the Vatican’s ‘secret’ archives are perhaps unique in their ability to fire the popular thirst for tales of mystery and machination – think, for instance, of their recent appearance in the 2009 film-adaptation of Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons, which saw an ill-fated Tom Hanks trapped in a bullet-proof reading room, slowly being deprived of oxygen. Read more
By Alex Wakelam @A_Wakelam
The natural course of a life leaves an unintentional trail of breadcrumbs. Generally we never think twice of what we leave in the historical record whether it be major life moments (birth, marriage, change of address) or the little things like the discarded bus ticket or receipt for coffee that gets miraculously preserved. These fingerprints on the tapestry of history are the bread and butter of historians and while they aren’t meant for the view of others we don’t really mind their publicity. But we also leave behind more private records; diaries, love letters, disastrous teenage poetry – things that we’d rather no one else see either due to their embarrassing nature or simply because they are entirely private, they should belong only to us.
By Emily Ward @1066unicorn and Carys Brown @HistoryCarys
If there was one thing that the Making Big Data Human conference made clear, it was that ‘Big Data’, and indeed digital methodologies in general, provide some very exciting opportunities to advance historical research. From the ambitious and wide-ranging National Archives’ Traces Through Time project, which looks to create a generic method to look at historical individuals across enormous datasets, through to the more specific but equally exciting Casebooks Project, the conference participants were treated to a feast of ideas about how historical methods are adapting to the changing nature of data in a digital age.
But what exactly is ‘big data’, and what did the Doing History in Public team have in mind when we decided to explore how we could make it ‘human’? The basic definition of ‘big data’ is ‘extremely large data sets that may be analysed computationally’. For historians this might, as Jane Winters demonstrated in her keynote lecture, be a case of using the archived web as an historical source, or of exploring parliamentary proceedings from three different countries over a period of more than 200 years.
by Marta Musso
On the 3rd of December, the Institute for Historical Research hosted a conference on the challenges and opportunities that the digital world offers to researchers in the humanities. As we live in the middle of the digital revolution, we don’t have full perception of the massive changes that the switch to digital is bringing about. However, over the past 30 years, more and more human actions have been conducted through digital tools (from MS-DOS computers all the way to smartlets) and, especially in the past 15 years, the web has created an exponentially crowded place of action and interaction. As ephemeral as web content is (a tweet is published and lost in just a few seconds), the problem of preserving online data for future studies is now an integral part of research in the humanities.
by Florence Largillière
Archives seem to feature prominently in our blog, but this is not without reason. Talking about archives and how historians deal with them is useful on two main levels. We hope to give some guidelines to new research students – as obvious as some of them may be. And we want to show that the work of a historian is more diverse and complicated than what is sometimes imagined. Before we sit at a desk and immerse ourselves for days in old papers, notes, letters, microfilms, photographs or videos, we spend hours looking for them. Read more
by Marta Musso
When I think of classicists spending hours trying to analyse what is left of a civilisation from a few words on a stone that survived centuries of rain, I pat myself on the back for deciding to specialise in contemporary history. It actually feels like cheating: not only are sources everywhere and the consequences of what happened forty years ago still weigh heavily today (however, being able to discern them is another story). Sometimes you can even talk to the people who made the events you are studying. Not much to dig up then, right?
by Florence Largillière
First some historical context: in the 1930s, Italian Jews were considered as being well integrated into Italian society. They had supported the independence movements of the 19th century, they were heavily decorated during the First World War, and they participated in the political and social life of the country which had emancipated them in 1848. More than 700 Jews joined the fascist movement before the March on Rome in October 1922 and the first fifteen years of Fascism were relatively peaceful for the Jewish community. However, in November 1938, everything changed. Read more