The Reading Room at The National Archives is a sacred place, especially when you visit for the first time. A museum where you get to handle the items – what an unbelievable act of trust that is! Do really experienced researchers who have been going there all their lives still appreciate the privilege and experience regular awe? How lucky we are to not only have such a place, but to be actively encouraged to use it.
Studying fellow researchers for subtle codes of behaviour that might make me less likely to be chucked out for trespassing is something I still find myself doing. I also have to stop myself from being obsequiously friendly to the staff – although I do quite like the challenge of breaking down the professional surliness of those warders in whose hands lies our history in its most vulnerable physical forms. I like to imagine a sign at the door: ‘Careless smiles cost lives’ and I wonder if I would be surly if I worked there – is there a gradual erosion of tolerance over years of firefighting against small but potentially catastrophic neglects by well-meaning but clumsy researchers like me? I think it’s more likely I’d get sacked for wasting too much time getting absorbed in other people’s research. It would be like working in a sweetie shop and never ever getting to eat any of them. But I do like to think I’d tell people off nicely.
It is also like being back at school, in that you don’t want to draw attention to yourself by not knowing what you’re doing. Being awkward and British is key to this. My sister-in-law once told me that she’d been smiled at by a nominally harmless farmer when she was out running – and chose instead to continue her jog down a hideously slippery slope, rather than engage him in conversation: ‘I’d rather not be embarrassed, and…fall to my death instead,’ she confessed. I recognise this primitive urge whilst struggling with all sorts of equipment in archives, be it Neolithic microfiche machines or Blade Runner scanners. There’s usually a queue of people at the Enquiries desk when this happens too, and you don’t want to undo all your hard work of grinning inanely at the staff by adding to this vast inconvenience.
Frustration and insatiable curiosity, together with time pressure eventually gets the better of embarrassment. But Process is also key to effective researching, and it takes time to work out the best way to do things; whether it’s deciding the optimum time to break off from documents to order the next lot, or if it’s worth photographing every single combat report from 1916. They’ve taken away the monitors in the TNA café that used to show you at what stage in the underground railway dragged by Victorian urchins your next order was. This allowed precious time to study the cakes - now you have to wing it, estimate how long you’ve got and risk indigestion by wolfing your lunch.
A final word on the yellow slips they tuck into your boxed documents awaiting collection at TNA. These have the file (and your) details on them. What devilry is this? There is often a ribbon of them floor behind me in the reading room like a malign Hansel and Gretel trail of sloppy researchery. Surely a new adhesion method must be considered for the twenty-first century? I may be paranoid. But that doesn’t mean they might not be used deliberately to identify unprofessional organisation skills.
And whatever you do, don’t run for the bus outside. It will inevitably turn its engine off and refuse to let you on for at least another ten minutes.
Not so much a journey of discovery, more of a commute of compulsion
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