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The tolls of archival research and how it has made me a better historian

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This post has kindly been written for us by Joseph Harley, EHS Postan Fellow at the Institute of Historical Research.

Since I was an undergraduate student I have been interested in researching poverty. The poor made up well over half of the British population during the early modern period, yet archives contain very little information on these people as the majority of records were made by the middling sort and the elite of society. This means that I have had to make long and frequent trips to archives throughout my PhD and Post-Doc to find sources.

I have calculated that over the past four and a half years, I have spent around six months of those, from opening to closing time, working at nearly 20 different archives. This number does not even include the months I spent searching online catalogues for records or the time I spent sorting through the thousands of photographs I had taken. This has been very rewarding but also very frustrating. Starting with the negatives: there is the considerable cost of visiting archives. On average, I have spent around £250 for every week that I have been away, even when I have found cheap hotels and economical forms of transport. I have been very fortunate to receive stipends and funding during my PhD and Post-Doc work, but even with this more often than not I am out of pocket. There is also the huge toll that these trips have on your body. For example, I am currently writing this blog on the 4.45am train from Leicester to London, to get to an archive in Maidstone for 9am. Once I am away, I will be eating a greasy cooked breakfast at the hotel every morning and will probably be eating something quick, cheap and thus unhealthy in the evenings.

Most of the archives I have visited are not nearby to where I live. This means that trips can be lonely and isolating as the only face-to-face conversations I have is brief chats with archive and hotel staff. I also do not actually conduct much research while I am away. I am simply someone who finds something, photographs it, and worries about using it later. Every archive has their own quirks, which are funny but also make you want to bang your head on the table. At one archive the staff thought that I was odd when I asked for a pillow to place a source with a broken spine on to. Another brought me out a trolley of sources to see, but would not let me lift things from the trolley to the table for health and safety reasons, even though they were very light and the distance was centimetres. Meanwhile, other archives are carefree and have even offered to bring me coffee and allow me to eat my lunch while looking at fragile documents (I didn’t). It is no wonder that some early-career historians struggle and can suffer from anxiety and depression.

There is a moral to this story. By working so extensively at archives I have had lots of practice of writing funding applications, which looks great on my CV and later helped when it came to writing my for the Economic History Society fellowship. People I have spoken to at archives have offered me opportunities to present my research at talks and write for journals. It has meant that I have the materials to write a dozen articles and ideas for three books. Many of these proposals are also easier to sell to prospective publishers and editors as they revolve around underutilised sources which would never have been found unless I undertook this work.

Moreover, it has allowed me to see the people that I am studying in a new light. One of my favourite things to find is doodles. It helps to remind me that the people we study were once alive and like us, sometimes got bored and would jot random pictures of anything and everything. One of the main sources I use is overseers’ accounts and these list hundreds and thousands of people that received payments from poor law authorities. It is easy to lose sight of who these individuals were when they are listed in such an emotionless way, but these doodles help me to see past that.

 

I have also found numerous examples which I will probably not otherwise use, but which have helped to remind me that I am studying people who were once alive and had worries, problems and dislikes of their own. In some parishes, for example, people would not be given poor relief unless they gave up their beloved pet dog. The elderly or single pregnant women were sometimes only helped by authorities if they entered the workhouse. Workhouse residents who tried to commit suicide were subject to criminal prosecutions if they managed to survive. I can’t imagine the sort of emotional turmoil and dilemmas that these people would have felt. Life could also be very unpredictable and peculiar. In Farningham, Kent, for instance, the parish constables were accused of neglecting their duties in 1827 after children were seen playing with gunpowder in the village. In Rothley, Leicestershire, in 1795, two people were given poor relief after one was bitten by a ‘Mad Dog’ and after the other was shot!

Overall then, as much as I dislike the costs, bad food and long days away from home, these trips have proved to be useful in other ways than providing sources for publications. They have helped me to become a more conscious historian who is appreciative of the challenges and complexities of contemporary society.

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