Manuscripts and Special Collections

Why do we keep ‘old stuff’?

July 30th, 2010 at 12:07

The department has been working recently with some schoolchildren from Dunkirk Primary School and Ruth Lewis-Jones from Lakeside Arts Centre on a project named ‘Trove’. This was part funded by the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council and was designed to enable the children to learn about the work that goes on in archives.

Our class of 7-8 year olds started by visiting the exhibition currently in its final fortnight in the Weston Gallery at the Lakeside Arts Centre ‘Saints, Sinners and Storytellers’ and followed this up with some very messy but enthusiastic paper making sessions where they explored the craftmanship behind medieval manuscripts and documents. A lucky handful of children were then picked to work with a professional cameraman to come behind the scenes at Manuscripts and Special Collections to discover where the documents are stored and the work we do on them.

I was lucky enough to be involved with the group that came to visit the department here on Kings Meadow Campus and it was great to have the usual silence of our store broken by eight children charging round trying to find the best shots for their shoot. As part of the video, the children interviewed me as an archivist about the work I do. We looked at some documents from the store and we discussed how they were different compared to documents today. One of the children then asked a question that flummoxed me temporarily: ‘Why do you keep all these things from the olden times, if you only look at things from the olden times then you’ll think it’s the olden times and you’ll forget what the date is?’.

Ok, so perhaps it’s unlikely that archivists will forget what today’s date is. I know that today it is the 30th July and that, amongst other things, it is the anniversary of both the Defenestration of Prague (one of my favourite historical events) and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s birthday. But for this child, none of this was important, he just wanted to know about the present.

And this raises issues about what we archivist do with the material we hold. Do we simply want to keep it in our store, preserve it well, catalogue it to the best of our ability, and make it available to researchers who want to come and see it, but that correspondingly means it is irrelevant to many? Or do we instead have something of a duty to make people aware of what we have and the implications this can have for their day to day life? Explaining how our documents record the history which has shaped their present.

Hopefully the Trove project has gone some way towards helping these primary age children understand something of the work of archivists and see that there is a relevance in the work we do. It meant that they realised that archives were not just objects shut away in cases in an exhibition but that we worked with them and used them to understand things about the past and about the present.

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