Wednesday, March 4, 2015

The Joy of Archival Research

by Jacqui Reiter

My first brush with archives was about seventeen years ago. I was eighteen and just returned to London from a five-year sojourn with my diplomat father in Washington DC. My university course was due to begin in September, but in the meantime I had a few weeks to kill so I travelled down to Kew and signed up for the Public Record Office.

Quite a few things have changed in the past seventeen years. For one thing, the Public Record Office is now called the National Archives (turned out it was NOT a good idea to carve “Public Record Office” above the front door in stone).

Before ...
... and after (spot the difference)

All documents are now ordered up via computer, so no more fiddly scrips of paper and no more VERY annoying pagers going “Brrriiiiip!” every time one of your documents reaches the reading room. Photography is permitted, nay encouraged (most desks have integral camera stands).

Quite a lot of things, though, are still the same. The desks are still about the size of a cereal packet. The staff are still super-helpful. And I still get that thrill of excitement every time I open a box, see the reams of off-white foolscap covered in browning ink, and smell the delightful almondy scent from the paper. I love that smell so much I am always reluctant to wash my hands after leaving an archive. I always do, of course, but I always feel regret as I soap up.

How often, after all, do we authors get to handle something that was actually touched by our characters or historical interests? Each letter has so much to say about the person who wrote it, and not just what’s written on the page. There are the scrawls covered in blotted finger-prints that speak of great hurry, or disturbance of mind; the occasional omission or scratched-out words where the author has changed his or her mind and left something out (sometimes you can even make out what it was!).

There are the letters that were clearly considered less important than others, which double as diaries (“Meet Smith Wednesday at 3” pencilled on the back of a packet), or “to do” lists, or sketch paper, or on one occasion was used by the recipient’s three-year-old daughter to practise her penmanship (“I LOV YOU UNKLE JOHN I KIS YOU”). There are the shakily-written letters with a post-scriptum apologising for having been written in a carriage. And then every so often there are the strings of correspondence that come together like a jigsaw puzzle: turns of phrase that don’t make sense unless matched with the responding letter; full-blown arguments conducted across the post. Archives are not just repositories of information: they are museums where users are encouraged to interact with the exhibits.

Over the years I’ve visited dozens of archives. They vary in size and holdings, and in their range of facilities, but I have never yet met an unapproachable archivist who has not been eager to help me in my research. Archivists and researchers, indeed, tend to have a symbiotic relationship of sorts, for archivists rely on users to inform them of documents that are misfiled or mislabelled, or falling apart (I found one full of “woolly bears”, or paper-eating mites, not long ago). And of course researchers depend on the archivists to keep documents well-catalogued and accessible, and in good condition, not to mention all the detective work an archivist can help you with if you ask the right questions…

Nowadays using archives (at least in the UK) is becoming easier and easier. The National Archives is putting more and more catalogues, of various levels of detail, on the web. Now that the National Archives itself is completely based at Kew, a copy of most UK archive catalogues (and some foreign ones too) are held on-site and repay a day or two of examination. But the “gateway to the archives” through the National Archive’s website, comprising of several digitised catalogues and the most wonderful Register of Archives -- fully searchable, and free -- is a truly amazing resource that any historian or novelist MUST become familiar with.

New projects are also coming online every day. For example, Southampton University is currently putting online their marvellous catalogue of the Duke of Wellington’s papers, in time for the bicentenary of Waterloo in 2015. In this case the catalogue is almost good enough to supersede the need actually to read the documents themselves, but the best thing about these catalogues is that they make it so much easier to know what is available. Sixteen years ago when I started university none of this was available. It was only just becoming available when I completed my PhD nine years ago.

None of it, of course, beats actually going to the archives and handling the letters themselves-- not just because historians mistranscribe, and going to source is often the best way to do research. It’s because reading two hundred year old (or older!) letters is the easiest form of time-travel. Sometimes in the reading room of an archive, I try to imagine my character at his desk reaching for a sheet of gold-edged foolscap, folding it in half, dipping his pen in ink, and sketching in the date. I rest my hand lightly against the edge of the page next to the inky fingerprint and think to myself, “He definitely touched this piece of paper, here."

It’s magic.


National Archives catalogue (including what was formerly known as Access2Archives and the National Register of Archives)

ARCHON (National Archives list of local repositories)
Archives Hub
University of Southampton Wellington Database
British Library Manuscripts Catalogue
Institute of Historical Research


About the Author
Jacqui Reiter has a Phd in 18th century political history. She believes she is the world expert on the life of the 2nd Earl of Chatham, and is writing a novel about his relationship with his brother Pitt the Younger. When she finds time she blogs about her historical discoveries at


  1. Spot on! There's no substitute for professional archivists and librarians. I've learned more from them than I have from from academic study.

  2. Excellent post, Jacqui. Archival research has to be one of the best things in a historian's life. It really is magical.

  3. I spent three lovely weeks at Kew, in 1992, when it was still the PRO. I was up to my elbows in diplomatic correspondence and blatherings from Whitehall. I remember those long yellow strips of paper you had to place between the pages you wanted copied. Although the copy costs even then were high, it was worth every penny, or shilling, or whatever. Really nice bathrooms, as I recall.

  4. Great post, Jacqui. I get what might be a similar satisfaction going round the buildings. Such a pity one can't reach out and stroke the curtains, or whatever, but one can tread the stairs.

  5. My first love will always be cataloging artifacts. Fortunately in so many of the Historical Buildings that includes the Documents and letters but also allowed Clothing and furniture. It's as close as living in that century as you can go...


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