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Archives - The Basics: Using Archives

Introduction to the basic concepts surrounding archival material and its use for research, including what are archives, archive creators, archival theory, and using archives.

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“Our memories are constructive. They're reconstructive. Memory works a little bit more like a Wikipedia page: You can go in there and change it, but so can other people.”

Elizabeth Loftus, Psychologist 

Why use archives?

There are many reasons to use archives in your research but at the heart of it, doing so will get you better marks in your coursework.

Such an approach sets your research apart from desk-based research projects, whilst also preparing you for the real world if you wish to pursue further studies or a career in academic research.

More specifically, using archives allows you to:

  • Demonstrate knowledge management, when searching and selecting relevant archival resources.
  • Gain disciplinary experience, when applying archival research as a methodology to approach answering a specific research question.
  • Display self-awareness and awareness of wider context, when critically analysing archival sources for bias, and when using them to support particular arguments.

How can archives be used?

Good research relies on appropriately selected primary sources, and uses these sources to critically explore academic questions. This allows researchers to make conclusions which seek to advance debates within a given discipline.

The information and evidence found in archive documents can be used for this purpose in the following ways:

  • To demonstrate a point
  • To test a theoretical question
  • To develop an argument
  • To critique an argument
  • To propose a new line of thought

Archives can also be used in more creative ways.

Anyone can be creative, and each of us has our own ideas about what this means. When thinking about archives, creative usage might be considered anything that is not the traditional and accepted use of archives for academic historical research.

The following are just some of the ways that archives have been and could be used creatively:

  • research into a period or subject to provide realism and contextual detail to a piece of writing
  • source material to base a character study on when developing fictional characters
  • visual inspiration for a drawing, painting or sculpture
  • raw materials for use in a piece of artwork, for example, creating a digital image of original material and manipulating this to create a piece of digital or physical art
  • raw materials for use in a video or audio installation, by incorporating copies of archival AV material, or filming static documents to create content for a film
  • tracing the history of a particular medium, e.g. photography, audio recording, etc., in order to understand the heritage and development of your own work or discipline

Use the link below to discover how people have used archives more creatively:

Archives & Access project - this project was undertaken by the Tate between 2012 and 2017, and aimed to increase access to the Tate's archival collections through creative projects. It resulted in a number of creative outcomes including:

  • the film 'On Margate Sands', in which young people made their own recordings of life in Margate, whilst examining art, archives, heritage and culture to establish a sense of place.
  • the film 'Exploring Sketchbooks', in which artists and designers talked about the different ways they use their sketchbooks, whilst art historians and archivists explored how sketchbooks are valuable as windows into the creative process.
  • the film 'Drawing From Life', which used archives to reconstruct narratives of life models from the past, and to show how re-imagining the practice of life drawing can challenge and surpass the media's representations of the female body. the sound installation 'Juke Box Meets Tate Britain', in which the artist Yuri Suzuki created a sound installation by selecting hundreds of recordings from the archive across music, audio bites and visitor recordings, to create a soundtrack to the Tate's collection.
  • the 'Time and Influence' fashion project, in which 40 young Londoners took inspiration from the Tate archive to research, design, create and show their own fashion collection.

A workflow for using archives

The table below provides a suggested step-by-step process to follow if you want to include archives in your coursework.

Workflow for archival research
Activity Ask yourself
Think - Look at your research question or project brief, break it down into smaller sections What information do I need to find out in order to discuss each section?
Think - Consider what archives are available What type of records are likely to contain the information I need?
Search - Use online archive portals, finding aids and repository catalogues to look for archive material What keywords are likely to help me find the records I am looking for? For further help with this step have a look at the SkillsGuide Finding Archives, a second SkillsGuide Diversity in Archives, and the Library's guide to Planning a Search Strategy.
Make a list - Write down reference numbers and brief descriptions of any records you would like to use Which records do I want to look at and in what order?
Visit - Email repositories and make arrangements to visit in order to see the records on your list What do I need to bring with me and are there any ID requirements? For further help with this step have a look at the Library's guide to Visiting Repositories.
Make notes - During your visit, note down key information from any relevant records, making sure to organise your notes so that you can identify where the information comes from What does this record tell me? What section of my research question is it most relevant to? What useful contextual details might help me interpret the information in the record more accurately? For further help with this step have a look at the SkillsGuide Notetaking.

 


Thinking critically when using archives

Using archives in your work is a great way to demonstrate your critical thinking abilities.

You can do this by demonstrating that you are able to:

  • search for and select an appropriate range of records to help you explore a research question.
  • critically analyse those records in order to demonstrate the relevance and validity of your argument when answering a research question.

Selecting appropriate archives

The archive material you use should demonstrate that you can select material appropriate to the topic under discussion. You should aim to include a range of different sources that will allow you to discuss the different perspectives on a given issue.

Consider what types of records might be best suited to providing the kind of information and evidence you require.

As records are created for a specific purpose, they tend to contain information relevant to that purpose. Therefore, one particular type of record might be more or less useful, depending on the question you are trying at answer.

For instance, the local authority holds a meeting to decide on a course of action relating to new road development. Minutes are taken to record discussions, decisions and proposed actions. The decision is divisive. Public comments in support and opposition to the decision are sent to local newspapers and published. As a researcher, if you wanted to understand the decision making process, or the intentions behind a particular course of action, you would find the minutes of the meeting useful. But if you wanted to explore public reception of the plans, you would find the newspapers more helpful.

To give another example, you are asked to consider the nature of mother-daughter relationships in the 19th century. You break the question down into reality and perception. Looking at surviving correspondence between mothers and their daughters allows you to study the nature of such relationships first-hand. Looking at published treatise or didactic literature from the time, allows you to study wider understandings of the nature of this type of relationship.

Critically analysing archive material

When answering a research question, you can make your answer more critically analytical by discussing the potential biases and contexts surrounding individual archive records. There are several key issues to consider in relation to archive records:

  • Gaps in the record
  • Inherent format bias
  • Author bias
  • Researcher subjectivity
  • Perspective

Use the tabs below to explore each issue further.

When undertaking archival research you will often come across gaps in the record.

These gaps might be:

  • chronological, with particular dates missing from a series of records, i.e. a run of newsletters or minute books
  • format related, with reference made in one series of records to a second related series which cannot be found, i.e. a series of subject files containing cross-references to an accompanying photographic record.
  • content related, with sections of information missing within a record, i.e. a page torn from a diary, or a line crossed through in an account.

There might be several reasons that such gaps have occurred:

  • Survival - records can easily be lost or damaged, unless something is kept safely, recognised as potentially significant, and deposited with an archive repository.
  • Willful destruction - contemporaries to events did not want existing records or information to survive, or subsequent generations have made a decision to dispose of records or to redact information.
  • Never recorded - contemporaries to events did not see fit or were unable to record details of the events to which they were party.
  • Not deposited - records might remain in the custody of organisations or individuals linked to the original record creator, so their existence is not known.

To provide an example, a researcher might be looking at a series of minute books documenting the activities of a business in the years leading up to, including and immediately following World War II. Having worked through minute books covering the period up to 1939, they might be faced with a gap in the chronology covering the years during which the war took place. The final surviving pre-war minutes make reference to a paper shortage. The researcher might surmise that the business found it difficult to buy paper on which to record their meetings during the war.

To provide another example, a researcher might, whilst using the correspondence of a significant individual, find reference to that individual having kept a series of diaries. Asking about the location of the diaries, they are informed that they were destroyed by the individual's executor following their death, at the request of the individual. The researcher might surmise that the individual was a private person, conscious of privacy.

To provide a final example, a researcher might be using the records of a landed family to trace the development of buildings on the family's estate. They are looking at a series of land deeds which have been kept on the estate since they were created. Key passages in the documents cannot be read because they have sustained fire damage. Whilst the researcher cannot access this particular information, they might surmise that one of the buildings on the estate might have been destroyed or damaged in a past fire.

Instances like this can be very frustrating for researchers, but understanding the potential reasons for any gaps in the record can provide useful evidence.


An archival document should not be considered neutral evidence. Different document types come with their own inherent biases, informed primarily by considerations of audience and purpose.

It is important to remember that, whilst we might use a document for its archival value when contributing to a historical debate, the creators of that document did not necessarily have in mind future researchers as an audience and future research use as a purpose.

Taking a look at a few common document types will allow us to explore this concept further:

Diaries are an obvious case in point. Most people who keep a diary do so for personal use only. The audience goes no further than the creator, and the purpose can be very personal to an individual. Someone might use a diary as a memory aid, as a practical record of things they have done; whilst others might use a diary to record thoughts and feelings for self-therapy. For these reasons, diaries can be heavily biased towards the recording of events and opinions of significance to the writer. Whilst this makes diaries less useful for a factual analysis, it makes them highly useful as a source of qualitative analysis. It can also make using them to study the big events of the day frustrating in the instance that individual writers have not thought it significant enough to themselves to record such events, although this in itself can say something interesting about the writer.

Letters are another example where the audience is not intended to be wide reaching. The same writer might craft letters in a different way depending on who the intended recipient is. If writing to a personal acquaintance for the purposes of keeping in touch, the author of a letter might include more expansive thoughts and opinions, family news etc. If writing to a professional contact, the author of a letter might be succinct and to the point, providing necessary information on a given topic only. The content of a letter is therefore biased by the intended recipient and the reason for writing.

Propagandist pamphlets and posters are a very overt example of inherent bias. The original purpose behind the creation of such material is to persuade an audience of the validity of a particular viewpoint. Devices such as language selection, colour and imagery are employed specifically to make an argument more appealing to a given audience. Analysis of such devices, in the light of thinking about the intended audience, can help reveal the wider context around a particular debate.

Minutes and reports might be considered to be more fact based, and less subject to inherent bias. However, these documents also have an intended audience and purpose. Minutes represent the official documentation of an organisation's decision-making process for stakeholders, whilst reports are usually a summary of evidence intended to inform decisions regarding a course of action. Lengthy discussions highlighting alternative opinions might be held during a meeting, however, the official minutes will usually only record the agreed result. Minutes, therefore, represent an agreed version of events and not a complete factual account. Similarly, official reports are usually the distillation of a research process, crafted to present preferred options once non-preferred options have been disregarded. The content of both document types can thus be considered to be biased by the desire of an organisation to present a particular view of its own decision-making process.

Therefore, before we even start to look at the informational content of an archival document, we must acknowledge that there are inherent biases at play which could affect our interpretation of a source.

When trying to assess the potential influence of the personal subjectivities of a document's author, it can be helpful to think about pertinent elements of that author's background.

Some key questions to ask include:

  • What are the political beliefs of the individual?
  • Is the individual a member of any partisan groups which might colour their view on this particular topic?
  • Does the individual bring an 'expert' opinion to discussions of the area, or merely a casual layman's view?
  • Does the individual have a personal connection to the subject matter, or to persons involved in the area?

Taking these questions in turn, let us explore them in further depth.

Political beliefs: An individual's political opinions are likely to have an influence on how they view a given issue, which will in turn influence how they might write about it. For example, in a debate about the issue of low pay in a given sector of the economy, someone who considers themselves to hold traditional Labour values might be more likely to blame the problem on the ineffectiveness of trade unions and lack of government intervention, whilst someone who considers themselves to hold traditional Conservative values might be more likely to blame market forces.

Group membership or affiliations: Similarly to the above point, if an individual is a member of a group that is known to campaign on particular issues, it is likely the individual will take a stance in line with the objectives of that group when discussing related issues. For example, in a debate about providing financial aid to the government of a particular country, an individual who is a member of a group which campaigns to expose government corruption in said country might oppose the move on these grounds, without necessarily declaring an affiliation to the group in question. Determining such connections can help us to understand the wider context of a debate by allowing us to uncover additional considerations.

Expert vs layman: An expert opinion might be considered to have more weight or validity when assessing contributions to an argument. For example, the opinion of a working further education teacher might be considered to have more knowledge behind it when discussing questions around further education, than say that of a primary school teacher with no connections to further education. Qualifications for having an expert opinion on a given subject might include: first hand experience of a subject; an academic background in a subject; a significant period of time working in areas related to that subject, etc.

Personal connection: Even if we might consider an author to be an expert in the subject under discussion, we must not forget that their view can still be biased and should not be considered 'fact' without question. For instance, an expert might have been carefully selected and paid to create the document in question by a political group, with its own agenda, in order to add validity to a particular argument. Putting aside the question of expert knowledge, any author with a strong personal connection to a given subject will likely be more prone to having a strong a opinion on that subject. For instance, in a debate about the causes of homelessness, an individual who has worked with homeless people with mental health problems might put more emphasis on poor mental health care provision as a factor, whilst someone who has worked with people who have lost their homes as a result of being made unemployed might put more emphasis on inadequate unemployment protection as a factor. Whilst this might be a very simplistic view of a complex issue, it serves to illustrate the potential influence of personal involvement in opinion formation.

The assessment of personal subjectivity is a complex though worthwhile analysis to undertake. It allows us to fully understand the factors involved in an individual's contribution to a particular debate. This in turn gives us a much more complete understanding of the wider context of that debate.

As researchers we strive to achieve an objective review of evidence in order to contribute to the development of academic debate in a given field. However, without thinking, it can be easy to let our own views influence our interpretation of the source material.

This is true right from the outset of a research project. Having undertaken a literature review of a given area, we might start to form opinions based on the debates within that literature. Whilst this can be good in helping us develop questions to test with our research investigations, we must be careful not to unconsciously select archival material based on what most supports our developing argument. Instead, we must try to select a range of sources which present as representative a range of perspectives on the issues as possible, allowing us to test our argument without bias.

When it comes to the sources themselves, we must also be careful not to judge to closely by modern values and ethical considerations. Thinking about the issue of mental health, we would now consider the word 'lunatic' to be a derogatory way of referring to someone with severe mental health problems. If we were to use asylum records as part of a study of historical attitudes to mental health we would often come across the word 'lunatic', we would also commonly find the term 'mental defective'. Using modern values, we might interpret the use of such language as derogatory, negative and unfeeling based on our own feelings of unease. We might unconsciously be predisposed to think that individuals working at asylums were not respectful of persons with mental health problems. However, understanding the context of asylum records further allows us to see that such language was widely employed as a way of categorising non-physical health problems. It is important, therefore, to look past modern understandings and to make assessments based on the evidence of contemporary attitudes and behaviours.

Whilst it is not always obvious when our own subjectivity affects our analysis and interpretation of sources, taking time to think about this (and to expose it where we cannot avoid it) will help us to develop more academically robust arguments.

Archives are not neutral documents. They were created at specific points in time, for a particular reason, by individuals with their own agendas.

This means that archival documents will always represent a biased and subjective perspective on a wider issue, rather than a factual presentation of information that we can read at face value.

We might ask then, whether such documents are not too biased to be considered an accurate representation of the perspectives they purport to provide. But to ask this would be to miss the opportunity that archival research provides us. What we should be asking ourselves is: given a greater understanding of the biases and subjectivities inherent in a document, what more nuanced understanding of the perspective provided by the source material can we determine? In exposing the biases and subjectivities inherent in a document, the perspective we uncover might be even more useful to our research analysis.

Whilst it can be easy make a piece of evidence fit a particular argument by ignoring aspects of context, it is important that we explore the evidence as fully as possible before assessing what perspectives might be represented. Thinking critically about audience, purpose and author allows us to analytically assess the perspective that a given document can bring to an academic debate.

Pulling this together requires us to pick up and follow cues in the source material, undertake background research to gain a bigger picture, and synthesize our findings and thoughts. This course of action allows us to make mini-conclusions as we go along. However, we must be prepared to alter these conclusions if, upon exploration of additional material, we find something that sheds new light on our initial understanding.

As a final point of consideration, the analysis discussed on this page focuses on close analysis of individual archival documents. It is important to note that one document might help to bring several perspectives to an argument when we consider the influence of intended versus actual audience, and purpose versus reception. It is for this reason that, once we have analysed individual documents for their own context, we must then seek to understand them in their wider context alongside other pieces of evidence.

Critical thinking task

Scenario

You are have been set an essay question asking you to explore reactions to the Incitement to Disaffection Bill, 1934. You have searched Hull History Centre's online catalogue and found a description of a file relating to the bill (you can look at the description here). You visit Hull History Centre to look at the file and discover it includes the following printed leaflet:

Task

What does this leaflet tell us about reactions to the bill? Think about the information provided in the leaflet. Is it in support of the bill, or against it? What reasons are given for the position taken?

Now reassess that information in light of the following contextual details:

  • It is a pamphlet - pamphlets were used to persuade the audience around to a particular position.
  • The pamphlet was written on behalf of the Council for Civil Liberties.
  • The Council for Civil Liberties was founded to guard against the rise of Fascism and the erosion of democracy.
  • Because many members of the Council for Civil Liberties were on the radical political left, the organisation was suspected by the UK Government of being a front for Communist activity. The stated position of the organisation was non-party political.
  • Many members of the Council for Civil Liberties were also members of pacifist or anti-war organisations, such as the Union of Democratic Control.
  • The pamphlet was written by Ronald Kidd, founder of the Council for Civil Liberties, previously a radical bookshop owner in London, who was the subject of a Special Branch file which suspected him of being a Communist.

Does thinking about what the document is, who the author is and what their biases might be change how we view the information?

The PDF below provides an example of how the pamphlet might be analysed in light of such considerations:

Summary

Assessing such sources with a critical eye allows us to see deeper into the issues at play. In this instance, taking the recorded information at face value allows us to see that the bill was unpopular in some quarters. Taking into account contextual details and potential author biases gives us the opportunity to explore potential unspoken considerations behind a given position. We therefore understand the subject in a more nuanced way.


Self-reflection

In what contexts might archives be of relevance to you?

For example, archives are relevant to archivists because managing, preserving and providing access to them is part of their job role. Archives are relevant to University Library staff members, with responsibility for social media engagement, because they provide engaging visual and informational content for social media posts. Archives are relevant to curators of exhibitions because they are a valuable research resource and allow curators to illustrate the different aspects of a topic.

Think about a piece of coursework you have written. If you had to do it again, how would you incorporate archives in your research and writing process to give your argument more academic rigour?

For example, a student wrote an essay on the significance of personal photographs in society. When discussing the concept that photographs are kept and treasured as a record of personally significant moments and people, the student could have used examples from the archive collections of families and individuals to illustrate and explore the point.