A recent workshop at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine explored the way in which historians and researchers use archives. While we might tend to view archives as providing “evidence”, there are many questions we should ask ourselves about their very existence. How has an archive been put together? Who has decided what to keep and what to discard over the years? Political, organisational and individual decisions might all contribute to the formation of an archive. Meanwhile, the historian is also necessarily selective, choosing which parts of an archive – or, indeed, which archive at all – to use to make his or her argument.
Piecing together a path through an archive can be a challenge for any researcher. Material may be entirely un-catalogued: Georgina Brewis and Anjelica Finnegan spoke about their use of documents from voluntary archives, crammed into un-labelled cardboard boxes. Thanks to their efforts, the material is now catalogued, and you can find out more about the archives of voluntary organisations, and listen to a podcast of their talk, on the website of the Voluntary Action History Society. In the archives of small organisations, other researchers had found that material was mis-filed, while Ross Macfarlane of the Wellcome Library commented on the opportunities for readers to find new information not listed on the catalogue even in a large organisation like the Wellcome Library, where letters or other material might be found pasted into books (as in our earlier blog post on Theo Hyslop’s Mental Physiology). Another useful resource Ross drew attention to was the Medical Archives and Manuscripts Survey, undertaken by the Library in the 1990s, in which over 100 archives in Greater London were surveyed to highlight items of medical interest.
Speakers also looked at the variety of ways in which archives might be interpreted. The archives discussed varied considerably, although two presentations concentrated on archives and mental health. Paul Sherreard from the London Metropolitan Archives spoke about activities at the London Metropolitan Archives focusing on the Normansfield Hospital Collection. These activities centred around the newly-conserved archives of Normansfield, founded in 1868 by Dr John Langdon Down as a private institution for people with learning disabilities. The former hospital now houses the offices of the Down’s Syndrome Association, and a new Museum of Learning Disability, which will open regularly to the public from January 2012.