Searching for primary source materials can be like searching for the proverbial needle in a haystack.
Whilst published works are known entities, with declared titles and authors; archives are very often rather elusive to categorisation, commonly encompassing a whole range of diverse materials.
The word ‘archive’ has come to mean many different things in the modern world, but for me, as an archivist, it denotes a collection of materials that have been brought together in the course of someone’s life or work, or as part of a business or other activity.
Archives contain sources contemporary with the time they were written and first-hand accounts of events. They might include letters, diaries, minutes of meetings, research notes, account books, photographs, press cuttings, sketch books and oral histories. It is the fact that they are not polished or carefully presented which makes them so intriguing, but often rather difficult to locate.
Connecting the dots
For a researcher, little-known connections, obscure facts and alternative perspectives are valuable in helping to further their work and progressing our understanding of history, culture and identity. This type of understanding requires archives to be brought together, to provide the ability to search by subject, person, place, date, etc., and effectively unite sources that may be located hundreds of miles apart.
The aim of the Archives Hub is to bring these rich sources together, in an intellectual sense, for researchers to search, explore and discover sources relevant to their research. I believe that an aggregator, such as this, adds immense value to research by aiming to represent a wide variety of archives, held in many different repositories.
Little and large
Researchers tell me that what they most value is a comprehensive service. Therefore, we strive to represent repositories across the spectrum, from the very large to the very small. We represent over 160 UK universities, but as well as this, researchers need to find archives in those smaller and less well-known places.
In the last year we’ve brought in archives from a range of new contributors, including The Salvation Army, the National Jazz Archive, Barclays Bank, the Rambert Dance Archive, the Feminist Webs Archive, the Royal Horticultural Society and the National Railway Museum. We are soon to add the British Library to our 250 contributors, so we represent both the very small and the very large, and they are all equally important.
Discovering new stories
Just as an illustration of my point, I tried a topical search for ‘war’ and ‘home front’ on the Archives Hub. This brings together archives from 13 repositories, from the Universities of Manchester and Brighton, to the National Co-operative Archive and the Tate Gallery. The archives include scrapbooks relating to women’s wartime work, diaries and rationing papers, letters by militant suffragettes, papers and letters of industrialists, politicians, campaigners, doctors, artists and theatre companies.
Without this service, a researcher might go directly to institutions that are recognised for holding archives on military history, or politics, or women’s history; but the fascinating thing with archives is that sometimes evidence is to be found in unlikely places. There are likely to be stories yet to be discovered; each new search enables the researcher to bring unlikely archives together as bed-fellows in a serendipitous adventure into history.
Supporting archive discovery
In order to provide a service like this, we are reliant upon the archivists, archive assistant and volunteers up and down the country who collect, catalogue and maintain these sources. I strongly believe that part of our role is to support this work by helping with information, advice and tools to help catalogue and index content. Therefore we run workshops and provide feedback to many archives, helping them to ensure their collections can be discovered.
This work is just as important as our outreach work with researchers, and indeed, by making archives so much more discoverable, we are fulfilling the most important role for researchers: giving them access to more content. Many of our contributors are making content available online for the first time, so there are continual opportunities of discovery for historians and those seeking a historical understanding of a topic.
Our most recent foray has been into Europe, as we have become a partner of the Archives Portal Europe. This means that descriptions contributed to the Archives Hub are also available on a European-wide aggregator. I know that some of our smaller contributors would really struggle to get this kind of exposure by themselves.
Whilst the digital age provides us with a huge opportunity to expand our horizons and reach global audiences; it does still require an investment of time and an understanding of how the data can be brought together effectively. This is what we do on behalf of the archives that contribute to the Archives Hub, and as we celebrate welcoming our 250th contributor, I reckon that we aren’t doing a bad job!