The autumn smell of the past

Posted: February 27, 2014 in reading
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One of my best ever reading experiences – possibly the single best ever – was going to the National Archives in Kew. The recent fire there, and Russell Phillips discussing his latest trip into the archives, got me all nostalgic for that great experience.

Doing the Doctorate

In my wild and crazy youth I wanted to be a historian. I got funding to do a PhD in medieval history at Durham, the place where I’d done my undergrad and MA, as well as a department with some pretty big names in that field.

Some pretty big beards too. The fantastic Robin Frame would not have looked out of place in an American Civil War command staff.

PhDs are all about the original research, which in my case meant reading through piles of published primary sources and, once they’d run out of fresh revelations, going to the documents that weren’t in print – the archives at Kew.

So I took a trip down to London, borrowed a friend’s sofa for the week, and settled down to work.

A very modern place for very old documents

A very modern place for very old documents

Into Narnia

Entering the National Archives was a lot like entering any old office building. There was some security – it’s a high profile place full of unique treasures – but at first glimpse it was mostly a cafe, some lockers and a small visitors’ display. I went upstairs to the reading rooms, searched the catalogue for what I was after, and handed my order in at the desk. All those precious documents weren’t just out on show.

Then I waited.

The smell of history

At last out it came. A roll recording lands held and confiscated following the revolt against Edward II in 1321-2. This huge parchment roll, which I had to hold open with special weights, was completely unique. Nearly seven hundred years old, never copied and certainly never published. I could smell the past rising up to meet me, rich and warm and fading as an autumn afternoon. I imagined a medieval scribe scratching away at those very pages to set these details on the record.

Terribly dull details.

Because that’s the thing. The interesting stuff had been published. This document was of value to historians poking into specific corners of history, willing to spend hours reading for just a few new details, but…

Well, lets just say that I never finished that PhD.

Our glorious past

I’m glad I tried the PhD. I’m very glad I went down to Kew and got to spend time pouring over those wonderful old documents in their reading room. There’s a thrill to touching history that you can’t get from other things.

While I’m a big advocate for going digital on reading in general, I’m glad we still have space for the older ways. And if you ever have reason to go to an archive like that one then seize the opportunity. It’s worth every moment.


Photo by Jim Linwood via Flickr creative commons

  1. I just wanted to add that the value of the archives isn’t just in the very old documents. All the documents I’ve gone to examine were from the twentieth century, but it’s still an amazing experience. Some of them had hand-written notes that the writer never intended the public to see. Others had odd little nuggets of information that I’d never seen elsewhere.

    It’s a treasure trove, but some of the treasure is well buried 🙂

    • One of the things I found most fascinating was the hints of what other people were researching. Like you said there’s a lot of good modern stuff there, and among the prominently displayed guide leaflets was one for researchers into UFOs, including a list of documents recording questions about UFOs in parliament. I could just picture the records room staff dealing with their hundredth X-files fan of the day, shaking their heads and heading off to type that one up.

  2. malwen says:

    I agree with the previous commenter. Where I work we have archives that go back no more than 100 years but still throw fascinating light on the early days of the organisation itself and the world of welding in the UK. We hope to make some of this available to the public eventually. Our archivist is very alert to the importance of getting hold of and preserving this history – I was using some very old paper from the “scrap” pile this week, found something curious on the back, after I had written notes on the blank side, and had to hand it over to the archivist as a record of a bit of the history of my database.
    The aura of history from old documents is most intensely experienced here (Cambridge UK) when the college libraries and university library hold exhibitions and open days – well worth getting to if one can manage it!

    • I love that sense of accidentally discovering history. Many medieval documents turned up that way – someone looking for something completely different in an old library finds a previously lost chronicle or letter, and suddenly our understanding of centuries old events is changed.

      Also, note to self – go look at some libraries when next in Cambridge.

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