I thought this was supposed to be local – and some thoughts on archives

22 Jul

By Peter Steere

I am embarked on a journey that will end on September the 28th with, no doubt, two (or is it three – I must check sometime) hastily bound copies of a 15,000 word dissertation on the relative strengths of the Medical Officers of Health in the nineteenth century. I have chosen three localities close to me: Reading, Windsor and Maidenhead.

When planning the dissertation I chose this subject not least because I was under the impression that all the primary sources would be local to me and easy to access. As I live in Wokingham this seemed to be a sensible use of time.

The reality has been somewhat different. My travels have taken me, not only to the Berkshire Records Office in Reading, but also to the Wellcome Library and the British Library in London, the National Archives at Kew, Cambridge University Library and the good old ‘Bod’ on numerous occasions. So much for local…. Even with all this travel I have now discovered that some of the main records that I was to rely on, apparently have not survived.

In all of this I have been helped by many staff at the various institutions and I thought I’d share some of my thoughts on my experiences…

Wellcome Library London

This Library has an excellent ‘welcoming’ atmosphere and it is free, easy and quick to join in order to gain access to their records. Photography is also free. They are known for archives concerning the history of medicine, created as they were by the Wellcome pharmaceutical company. I am searching for the Medical Officer of Health annual reports between 1875 and 1900. They have very good sets for London but have also kept some for other areas. They wheeled out a trolley containing ten large volumes of bound correspondence, which I spent a happy day sifting through, getting very dirty hands, as they at some time were not stored well, and have suffered some deterioration as a result.

There was not a huge amount of relevant material for me but three reports is better than none. Ideally I need 75 in all before I’m done. Last but not least they have a very good café on the ground floor by the entrance; caffeine being an essential ingredient to stave off the afternoon sleepies that descend on me nowadays.

National Archives at Kew

A national institution – quite literally. There is always a sense of occasion when walking up past the pond and through the revolving doors. There are some extremely rare collections of documents here and because they are irreplaceable there is a slight atmosphere of guarding the heritage which I can understand, but it doesn’t necessarily make for a comfortable visit. However as I have got more used to this and the strictures placed on visitors I now obey the rules without thinking about it and the slight feeling of dread fades into the background. It is free to join (as it jolly well should be says the inner tax payer) and free to photograph here as well. There is an extensive area laid out for lunches and coffees etc. but service can be slow when you are itching to get back to the stats on zymotic diseases in 1886.

Sir John Soundy, mayor of Windsor, 1899

Sir John Soundy, mayor of Windsor, 1899

The British Library St.Pancras London

This is another national institution but it has a very different atmosphere to Kew. Outside the reading rooms it is a busy bustling place where many people congregate to use the free wifi and seating areas. From observation it would seem that meetings of all sorts take place here, from students hanging out together, to academics discussing weighty matters like whether Shakespeare could spell his own name, and even businessfolk having that essential pre-meeting meeting prior to clinching the big deal. However inside the reading rooms it is like entering another world of quiet scholarly investigation. It is a great place to work and for the most part the staff are helpful here as well.

Until this week this would have been given five stars from me but a ‘computer says no’ incident this week thwarted me. I’d ordered up some of the Medical Officer of Health reports that the Library catalogue says they have in their possession, arriving full of hopeful expectation only to be greeted by blank looks from Humanities 2 reading room staff about my request that had been put in more than 48 hours earlier. On pressing them and going to ‘level 2’ support it appears there was a software error which meant that my request, although accepted, never got printed in Yorkshire, so never got picked from the vast warehouse there for delivery to St. Pancras. I’m awaiting developments on that one. Photography here is free and generally not a problem, although there are some limitations. There are cafes/restaurants all over the library. Joining initially takes some time but is an easy enough process.

Berkshire Records Office

This is where I thought I would be spending most of my time researching, but it has not turned out to be the case. Joining is easy and the staff are ready and willing to help you use the catalogues etc. It is a modern building and never seems to get busy, certainly at the times I am able to use it anyway. It does not open at weekends which can be difficult, and the other major negative point is that they charge £1 per copy to photograph – yes that’s right, £1 per copy. There are no day rates and no alterations to this policy despite my pleas to the Archivist there. To be fair to his organisation his hands are tied by the Board running the archives and he has no leeway. On the plus side the staff are very friendly and helpful there too. As I had a lot of tables to photograph, I finally come to an accommodation with them where it was cheaper for them to do the copying work and send me a CD than it is for me to do it myself. I would urge the powers that be at the BRO to look at the policy on photography. Other county archives have different policies. Oxford for instance have a day rate that is used if lots of photos need to be taken.

Digital photography is one of those technological changes that cannot be uninvented. Because it is there people use it to undertake research projects that would not have been feasible in earlier times because of time constraints. My search continues, but I may be calling a halt soon. I have located 39 of the 75 reports and the promise of more if the software glitch at the British Library can be sorted out.

My last thought is a vote of thanks to all those staff in the archives mentioned who have received a pleading email from me asking about these reports. The last of these is the local studies librarian at Windsor who has possibly solved the mystery for me as to why so few from Windsor survive (four of a possible twenty-five). Instead of simply saying that Windsor Library did not have these records he asked around as to why they might not have survived, which gave me a plausible explanation. It would also seem that very few people have requested access to these before, which is good for me in one way, but it does mean that I am having to forge the path rather than follow in another’s footsteps.

Peter Steere is a student on the MSc in English Local History

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