Friday, 24 February 2012

The End of and Era - A Last Visit to the Archive of a Finishing PhD Student

It has been a while since I have done any archival work. Given that I am in the sixth year of six of my PhD there is very little research to be done and the necessity of getting my fingers dirty and finding new material is really a thing of the past. Currently, my time is consumed by going over drafts of draft chapters, tweaking what I eventually hope will eventually resemble a thesis.

Nevertheless, a few days ago, while editing to death chapter five on the London and South Western Railway's Directors, I was struck by a bit of hole in my work. If I am honest, this was something that my supervisor, Colin, had pointed out to me three years ago. Yet, true to style I failed to follow his suggestion up and it was only a few nights ago, with the experience of two years extra work behind me, that I realised how much I needed the hole filled. Perhaps I shouldn't detail here what was creating the hole here, it's actually quite a boring subject. All I will say is that like a historical cement mixer, the research required to fill it won't take considerable time and will just sure up a slightly shaky section of the chapter. So, yesterday afternoon I placed my advanced document order and pedalled off this morning, with a slight hangover, to The National Archives [TNA].

I have always loved TNA. My initial forays into research were made there and it was the first place where I truly saw how history was made. After all, anyone can go to the Imperial War Museum and gawk at weaponry, while at TNA you can physically interact with the reasons the weapons exists. You can hold the process, rather than the product.

Yet, time and experience jades a historian. On my first visit to TNA, way back when, I was like a child in a candy shop, fervently, madly, reading all I was shown on my undergraduate dissertation topic, the Battle of Britain, in a state of heightened enjoyment. Currently, the feelings I have when researching are not the same. They are altered and more mature. Being at the archive is old news and handling hundreds of years old documents is run-of-the-mill. Nevertheless, I remain just enthused by the process. The fact that touching paper from the past is no longer exciting has not diminished any happiness I feel when discovering new things and adding to my body of knowledge. Just as long as I am productive, I am more than happy in my 'happy place'; being buried in a document.

So, I arrived, hoping fill the gap in my research in one morning. Nothing ever changes at TNA, in that I always find something has changed. Since my last visit six months ago the following is different:

1) There is now an outer front door;
2) We have to now push the revolving door;
3) There is a new front desk in the foyer;
4) ...which is overshadowed by scaffolding and work is being done on something;
5) They have rearranged the first floor 'greeting area';
6) The cabinet doors in the main reading room are now Red;

I always find the regular alterations at the Archives somewhat unsettling, I am someone who likes things to stay consistent. However, the constant change there, I tell myself, is good. It signifies an that the TNA is an organisation that is constantly thinking, that is trying to improve the experience for those who use it and which actually cares about its users. It shows that for all the history contained within its walls, TNA firmly has an eye on the future.

So, I settled down to work on the documents I had requested. Predictably, given the nature of the information I was extracting, I went at a pace, racing through the four documents I had ordered in advance, plus three more I requested on arrival. Mid-way through these seven I ordered three more, and then gathered the information I required from them at an even quicker rate. Another three were sent for...and then I waited.

I am not complaining at all, but when I started visiting TNA documents arrived in twenty minutes. Yet, after changes a few years back you'll be lucky to get them in half an hour, with forty minutes being the standard - but not at lunch time. Having worked at the Archive for nine months in 2005 I can testify to how hard the staff there work, and I do not blame them at all for me having to wait longer than I used to. Indeed, I think it  brilliant that they run such a slick operation, and the notion of getting documents so quickly - given how many they hold there - still amazes me. Yet, within the lunch hours, when I had to be at work down the road in the near future, the wait was frustrating. The documents winging their way to me would wrap up what I wanted to do, freeing me up to continue work on the chapter.

Sadly, fate did not work in my favour, and just as I was leaving the computer screen displayed those familiar words: 'document has arrived in the 1st floor reading room.' In my head I exclaimed 'darn', and shuffled off to work, vowing to return and finish off my research in my precious lunch break tomorrow. But my frustration did not end there. Because of a foolish error when saving my work, the most important part of it, the bit that will fill most of the hole, was absent from my hard drive. Therefore, it is another thing I will have to do in my hour of frantic research tomorrow.

Tomorrow, Saturday 25 February 2012, will almost certainly be the last day that I am at TNA researching for a qualification I am striving towards. That fills me with sadness. No doubt I will go back, and I hope that for a short time after my PhD to set up home there and research whatever I want - for my own enjoyment. But when I cross the threshold out of TNA tomorrow it will truly be the end of an era. Thank you TNA, you certainly have been a beloved friend and a trusted companion through my BA, MA and my PhD.

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