When I excitedly departed for London to search the National Archives on 11 June, I felt – thanks to the encouraging words of my colleagues (“the archives are amazing,” “a million times better than any in Canada,” etc.) – that I was headed for the historians’ Shangri-la. It would be a nerd’s paradise with organisation, efficiency, and a never ending supply of cappuccinos; a place where documents sought you out, rather than vice-versa. After all the hype, in a little place in the alleys of my mind I actually thought The National Archives (TNA) in London might just write my dissertation for me.
Sadly they didn’t. But I quickly understood some of the hype: the turnover time for document delivery is light-years faster than in Canada Archives (LAC)—aided perhaps by the location of the documents not just in the same city, but the very same building! Photography is permitted without having to fill out forms each time new documents arrive; and yes, the café does offer pretty good lattés.
Yet, TNA (which I steadfastly called the PRO out of respect for historians’ notorious resistance to change) still presents challenges to the fastidious researcher, notably its limited hours of operation. Recently the archives’ hours changed from six days/week to the current five days a week from 9am-7pm Tues/Thurs and 9-5 Wed/Fri/Sat. I never felt like I was maximizing my time in the UK, no matter how rapidly I snapped photographs (and my colleague once managed to snap 4000 in a single day). While the forced weekend tourism time was nice (I highly recommend the Lake District), I did not have the time to search all of the documents I had targeted. TNA also limits researchers to three files at a time and these, to be clear, are files – not file boxes like at LAC. These files can be small affairs; one file I ordered consisted of a single page. According to my colleagues, the turn-around time for documents has recently slowed from 20 minutes to around 40—and sometimes even an hour or more. I had to maintain precise timing with new orders or risk running out of documents before the next batch arrived. On the whole, however, TNA is pretty darn good and doing its best with a tight budget.
My frustration with inefficiency really grew after my experience in the Imperial War Museum archive. Admittedly I didn’t arrive in the best frame of mind. I was already frustrated by the fact that the IMW doesn’t allow photography and charges 40 pence/photocopied page — quite the racket! Then, in a small room with only 6 or 7 researchers, I had a terrible time even getting documents. On a number of occasions I asked for more of the boxes I had pre-ordered, only to sit and wait (once for over 40 minutes!) for the friendly lady working the desk to find an archivist who could then get my boxes.
It was then, as I sat and contemplated how it was that I had come all this way to sit in this room doing nothing, braced to pay 200 pounds in copy fees for something that I could photograph better and more quickly myself, while I seriously – if foolishly – contemplated whether I might just omit Oliver Leese from my dissertation on the Italian Campaign, just to give myself a small victory over this anachronistic archive, that it hit me: digitization is at the root of archives’ challenges. While I certainly wouldn’t want to turn back the clock, we seem now to be stuck in an awkward transition between paper and digital. After a hesitant start TNA, like LAC, has now completely embraced the digital revolution, and in so doing has lost a major source of income, particularly from the genealogists who make up a significant portion of the archives’ daily visitors. Indeed, tour buses arrive at TNA each day, delivering up scores of family researchers who queue patiently for assistance and, when the time is right, gingerly activate their digital cameras. Five years ago these folks doled out stupendous sums for photocopies of their grandfather’s court-martial conviction or their great great uncle’s hearth tax receipt. On this trip I overheard one Luddite agree to pay 46 pounds for a scan of a single off-sized page. Now the pressure is on for archives to digitize entire collections. While I have personally benefited from the efforts of LAC to digitize their holdings (sometimes I let the ramblings of Mackenzie King rock me to sleep), a side effect has been a reduction in reading room hours and service to compensate. I can only imagine that the slower turn-around time at TNA is partly a result of the same pressures, combined with budget cuts. On the other hand, access to digital documents (either of your own or the archives’ creation) has made me bitter towards those archives, like the IMW, that still charge a prohibitive amount for photocopies, even though this was (I hate to admit it), probably in their best interest monetarily.
What is the answer? Can the archives fit into the digital world and still make their budgets? Is there any system that can satisfy an impatient-picture-taking-frugal (grad school has its perks, but money isn’t one of them)-history student like myself? Maybe not. One answer could be for archives to start charging a small photography fee at a daily rate, thus allowing pictures while also justifying the added costs of offering longer hours. Yet this goes against my belief that archives should promote free access to information for anyone interested. A 10 pound/day photo fee, for example, would cost the student researcher about $500 over a month.
Until a system develops that can satisfy every aspect of our research needs, I recommend the following: (1) plan to spend more time in the archives than you think you’ll need, or accept that you will have to take a return trip because you will likely find much more than you expected; (2) coordinate your trip with your peers so that you can cost-share a flat and go on pub-tours of London together; (3) love the research, enjoy the lattés, and try to slip your supervisor your photocopy bill.
Christine Leppard is a PhD Candidate in History at the University of Calgary.