Guest blog

The Hidden World of Archives

by Matthew Stanfield, ONCA & Brighton Festival 2016 Volunteer

When (if) you think of the word “archive”, the images which come to mind are unlikely to be especially exciting. I always tended to visualise yellowing paper on dusty shelves. Yet there is so much more to archives than this.

I’m personally most familiar with the Oxford University Museum of Natural History archive. I did research for my Master’s dissertation there, using the papers of the William Smith Collection. Smith is notable for creating the first geological map of an entire country, using the fossil record as a guide, though despite this achievement, he remains an obscure figure.

There’s lots of material around for anyone with an interest in this area of history, it’s just tended to be hard to access. OUMNH only very recently began employing a full-time archivist to curate the massive trove of writings which it holds. They have also begun digitising some of their documents, although when I was writing my dissertation in 2014, this process was incomplete. If it had been though, I might have missed the fascinating experience of reading through Smith’s notes first-hand.

Being able to look through the collection myself meant that I had access to masses of information which had not yet been filtered by other writers. It is this access to resources which haven’t been heavily processed by someone else that makes archives so valuable and exciting.

Museums often archive the majority of their collections due to space restrictions. This places great responsibility on curators, since they must decide what the public will and won’t get to see. Inevitably, this means that interesting and important material can remain hidden, or sometimes forgotten entirely. Only in the last decade or so has the technology been available to digitise large archives. Sadly, this is not a quick process.

For the time being then, a physical visit to an archive remains the best way to explore this secretive world. However, due to the inconvenience this can involve, I personally hope that archives continue to be digitised. After all, museums are meant to hold their collections for the use of the public as a whole, not just for those few lucky enough to explore their hidden depths first-hand.