An archive of one’s own

In preparation for my sabbatical, I’ve been trying to reorganise my workspace at home. Mainly, that’s meant trying to find more space to put books, and realising just how much stuff I’ve kept over the years. Like most historians, I assume, I’m a bit of a pack-rat. In some ways, this is easily justifiable. It’s often hard to feel that any project has completely finished, and you never know when those resources might come in useful. But can this really explain not just why I’ve still got all the notes for my undergraduate special subject and dissertation, but why I still feel it absolutely impossible to throw them away? There can be no practical reason for this: I can’t really see any way that I would now make use of the knowledge base I established on the policies of British decolonisation or the Suez Crisis. It’s not like I would turn the dissertation into an article. When I come to put together my own special subject, my undergraduate notes will be of much less use than the teaching materials I’d borrow from my colleagues as a model of what to do. So why are these papers taking up all that much needed storage space?

The reasons, I think, are sentimental and symbolic. These were the first pieces of ‘proper’ history that I ever did, drawing on primary sources rather than summarising and analysing secondaries. I can still feel the excitement of that developing expertise and of trying to reconcile evidence that didn’t fit. Combined with that is the memory of feeling, in my third year of being an undergraduate, that I knew what I was doing – where to go to get the books, how to draw out the information that I needed. These notes are the physical embodiment of a lot of work: but they also symbolise a decisive life-choice. I’d known from an early age that I wanted to be a historian. The experience of studying these subjects at that level confirmed that desire – but it also made me decide that I didn’t want to be a historian of the end of Empire. Instead, I focussed on the area that had most interested me about my other final year course, on the history of the First World War. Who knows what it would have meant if I’d chosen differently? Would I have had the passion to see me through the PhD and into a job? I can’t say, but as a spur to nostalgia and as a sign to the road untravelled, those notes are going to stick around for a while longer.

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7 Responses to An archive of one’s own

  1. I’m the complete opposite. I don’t even have copies of my BA and MA dissertations, let alone the notes I used to write them. I even threw out a lot of my PhD notes. I kept all the computer stuff but all the paper notes and file cards went on the fire. Compared to what’s possible with the technology we have now, the handwritten notes I made in the PRO 10 years ago would be of very limited value. I don’t trust them (even when I can read my own writing!) and would much rather have a digital image of the original document.

  2. Dan says:

    Happy man! I am obviously just a complete romantic. I’ve been reading your posts on developing technology over at Investigations of a Dog and being ashamed by my lack of tech-literacy. But I have to say that I have gone back to the PhD notes several times since I finished and used material that didn’t make it into the final draft or the book.

  3. Jessica says:

    I have just moved several thousand notecards from the MPhil, PhD and book into my brand-new second-office. There is nowhere to put them at the moment, and I seem to have injured my back in some way (although that may be due to the dozen or so book boxes I also had to move), but those note cards are a vital part of my identity. They aren’t going anywhere, for the moment at least. I did finally get ruthless with a lot of the material I had been keeping from my undergraduate days, but I think that was due to finally coming to the personal decision not to pursue a teaching career. At anyrate, you have my complete sympathy!

  4. Victoria Carolan says:

    I’m with Dan on the hoarding front. There’s certainly an element of romance in that but Jessica’s comment about identity I think is the key. As historians spend half their time attempting to provide documentary evidence its little wonder some of us need to keep the proof of our own work. Historians are particularly sensitive to what is kept and what is not- we have to confront it on a daily basis. Though I can’t help but also think that Gavin’s approach demonstrates a particular kind of confidence in his direction as a historian, in knowing what he will no longer need- not that the hoarding extreme shows the opposite (in fact recently when a friend came over they put what I chose to see as a positive spin on my shambolic flat overflowing with books and paper, saying that it showed a level of confidence to allow your house to show who you were…)

    And although I don’t see anyone other than myself being interested in my particular old notes, I have found myself using others notebooks on occasion in my research – a long time ago working on Thomas Hardy it was very useful to know exactly what he was reading and when, in analysing his work.

    And I can’t bear the possibility that one day something I throw out will be needed (even just on a personal level)- I have worked in too many libraries and museums and been heartbroken at what is rejected and thrown away on the back of collection policies that are not only continually revised but which are inevitably only a reflection of the time that you are living in. A case in point was the amount of material re-found by the BBC (Treasure Hunt Campaign) from the general public hoarding old stuff- which the BBC had destroyed under their own policies. I am not sure that technology is an answer- you only have to consider the problems that the BFI have to contend with in preserving film on the many different formats that have been used over the years- even recent formats- much is on VHS for example – fast becoming obsolete. And personally, what about all that stuff I have on floppy disks – an incident with a can of coke killed off my last pc with a disk drive.

    I am not sure if the following is too dramatic (especially in terms of my own notes!) or whether it would be naive to assume that sources will be there to go back to- things get lost, stolen, burnt, flooded and political situations change – leading to extremes like the ransacking of the Baghdad museum.

  5. It’s partly confidence in knowing what I’ll need, but also partly lack of confidence in my own note taking ability. It’s a good point that if the PRO ever gets destroyed everyone’s notes will become much more valuable but I think even in that situation my early handwritten notes wouldn’t be much use.

    I think loss of records is something historians will always have to live with, because it’s never possible to preserve everything.

    Even with “just” the computer stuff I’ve still got a huge amount of material, some of which has never been used. I’m trying to put stuff on Your Archives whenever I can, so that it can be easily accessed by people who might have some use for it. In future I’m going to try to ensure that in the course of my own research I also create digital resources which will be useful to other people.

    Although I tend to get excited about digitization it’s worth remembering that online sources aren’t always completely faithful to the original. Just last month I needed some references from the House of Commons journal for something I was writing. I still have an Excel spreadsheet with my CJ notes from my PhD but because I don’t trust my own notes I wanted to check the references against the original. That led me to discover that there was a whole day of entries missing from the online transcript (although clearly visible in the page images). So maybe I should have more confidence in my old notes.

  6. Ross Mahoney says:

    I have to admit that hoarding feeling must be exist in many of us. I think many historians have an inate need to know that we have the information at hand. How many of us would rather buy a book than borrow it from a library. I know I do. The feeling that I must have the information readily to hand is quite a powerful one. I know it means having people telling me to tidy up all of the time, i’m not the most tidy of historians,

    I do have to agree though with Gavin about digitalisation though. I have taken lots of photos at the TNA archives and while I have printed these off while doing my research I think once my MPhil is finished many of the paper copies of documents will be binned knowing that I have a digital copy. Soon much of our storage will be on terrabyte external hardrives. However, I do not think that the notes themselves will be chucked as these represent our thought process as we go through the myrid of different sources.

  7. […] as well as the older books that provide the basis for our work. I think it goes back to what Dan Todman was talking bout our need to have all the information at our fingertips. In line with my research I […]

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