Adventures in Archives: the second blog from our Carnegie scholarship student

In this blog update I want to focus on my thoughts regarding the use of archives. Last week and this I am working out of the Historical Search room at General Register House in Edinburgh. I have found this to be a truly enjoyable experience. The feeling of excitement that I get when I am touching and holding and looking at documents from the late 18th to the early 20th centuries really makes this process even more worthwhile. I have looked at rent rolls, Congested district board files, and personal correspondence amongst others. These documents should all provide a useful aid in achieving my goals throughout this project.

This is of course just the information gathering part of the project, with the shear mountain of photographs I have gathered from many different sources (well over 300 files and counting) it simply would not do the subject justice to try and analyse as I go. But one issue I have had to deal with is perhaps the discipline required to research within the bounds of the project. As I look through all these documents I find myself wondering about other issues that I uncover so as such I work with the goals in front of me in an effort to force myself back on track.

What has struck me more than ever is how now and my university tutors might not agree, but by just how the three years of university has changed the way I approach looking at sources. Before it would have been my first reaction to dive straight in and get to the main text, but at the archive it has almost been the last thing I have done. It seems to me more important to spend some time with the document, to hold it and look for any marks of scribbles it may have on it, what kind of paper it has been written on, are there any special notes or slips of paper within the document. Then and only then do I examine the text. This allows me to get a feel of the what I think are important, special and valuable documents.

I’ll finish this blog by saying that since I started reading History, I have always believed in the value of primary source based research. It is as one of my tutors once said “where real history comes from”, that is why archives both large and small are so very important. I can honestly say that last week and this one are the most fun I have had in a long time.