By Fraser Raeburn |

It was the best archive, it was the worst archive…

Ok, that’s about as much Dickens references as I can do before admitting I never actually read any of that particular book. Recently I visited two archives, both in London, but sharing very little in common besides that: the National Archives at Kew, and the Marx Memorial Library.

Just about every historian working in Britain will probably find themselves in the National Archives at some point. I resisted for as long as I could, but a couple of weeks ago I took a deep breath, packed my bags and booked a flight down south. I found it an interesting experience, as it’s certainly the largest archive I’ve ever visited, in terms of the collection, physical space and the number of users. On the surface it’s a well-oiled machine, but it didn’t take me long to realise that it has a few cogs loose.


Is it just me who gets upset when historical institutions get put in modern buildings?

Freshly armed with a newly-minted reader’s card (with obligatory hideous photo), I marched confidently to the collection space, only to find that the six files I had pre-ordered had been mis-assigned in transit, allocated to someone else’s desk. As it turned out, this simple error took an entire day for the archivists to correct. Typical of a complex, organised system I guess: when it works, it works amazingly well, but any mistake is usually impossible to correct quickly. To be fair to the archivists, they only messed up one other set of document requests, which happily took them less than an hour to fix this time around. To be even more fair, my productivity was hampered far more by bringing a broken camera to work with than by anything anyone else did.

The other thing I noticed was that it’s quite hard, even for a junior researcher like me with a network best described as embryonic, not to run into people at Britain’s hub of historical enquiry. I bumped into three researchers from Edinburgh alone while I was there, as well as a friend doing a PhD at Cambridge. It helps make you feel part of a research community in a strangely egalitarian way – you, sir/madam, might have finished your PhD or have a tenured position, but we’re sitting down at the same desks looking at the same sort of material, so we’re equals. Sort of.

The Marx Memorial Library, on the other hand, is not a place you go to observe the latest in archival management practice or network with distinguished colleagues. While in the past there was a professional archivist employed to manage their collection, when I was last there it was run entirely by volunteers. As you might guess from the name, most of said volunteers were of a certain political stripe. Let’s just say, if you desperately need to find an orthodox Communist in this day and age, Clerkenwell Green is a good place to start.



Here, amidst the trendy coffee stores and designer boutiques, the revolution is planned

Which isn’t to say they weren’t lovely. I was made to feel very welcome, the head volunteer was keen to chat about my research (even if he did have a habit of sliding anti-Orwell propaganda onto my desk in case I felt in need of light, pro-Stalinist reading) and I recall being offered cups of tea at regular intervals. In fact, they were almost too accommodating: the document request procedure ended up being more along the lines of ‘Well, here’s the key to the archive, you rummage around and find what you need, give me a call if you need help.’ Fifteen minutes after knocking on the front door, I was left alone with their entire collection.

While I really enjoyed the freedom this gave me (as well as not having to wait when I wanted to look at something), the implications for this sort of approach to archive management are a bit worrying. For an archive that gets a lot of amateur enthusiasts who don’t necessarily have much in the way of experience in handling documents, it’s easy to see how files might get out of order. In fact, some of the main documents I wanted to look at were completely missing. This may or may not have been because of their laissez-faire (ironic really) attitude to archive management, but it’s certainly not a mental leap of faith to join the dots.

In the end, working in these two archives, which are relatively close geographically but poles apart in what they stand for and how they operate, really drives home how rewarding doing history can be. It’s collegial, it’s empowering and above all it’s challenging – not just in how we interpret and understand our sources, but also how we access them in the first place, even in places as well-trodden as London.


(Images: Fraser Raeburn)