One of the joys and challenges of researching archival sources is going beneath the skin of a physical item and transporting yourself back to the moment when it was created, whether fifty or five hundred years ago. Sometimes working out what a record is about, or whom, can be a slow and difficult process requiring in-depth historical knowledge, painstaking research and a deliberate approach.
But sometimes it isn’t.
A few months ago, Victoria (my boss, the civic archivist) gave an introductory talk about the archives at York Explore. She took along a slideshow presentation showing various images of records to indicate the types of things we have in our collection.
This was one of the photos, a black and white school photo taken at Mill Mount School in 1927.
For me, and maybe for you, the 1920s is simply one of the various conceptual historical chunks that lives in my head as a way of arbitrarily dividing up the past.
But for a lady in the audience that day, it wasn’t just a generic historical source representing 1920s education; it was her school photo, capturing her childhood in York and the people she shared it with.
After pointing out herself, seventh from the left in the front row, the lady said she knew the names of other people in the photo. After the talk, we sent her a copy and she recently sent us back a list of all the girls and teachers she could remember. This will be cross-referenced with the catalogue entry so in the future, a user researching a person associated with that school in that year may for the first time be able to put a face to a name.
Instead of a silent picture, we now have one more piece of the interconnected web of York life with its communities of friends and neighbours, colleagues, hobbies and gossip.
Archivists can’t catalogue everything in minute detail because a) we were not there and b) we can’t be experts on every period of history! Our expertise lies in protecting, preserving and making accessible the raw stuff of history so that YOU (or your mother or your great-great-great-great-great grandchild) can get in amongst it and make your own discoveries.
Archives are not just windows into the past, they are the authentic creations of individual people who lived before us and, as this shows, still live among us. They are archaeology that was never buried.
Every record was created for a purpose at a point in time, and whatever other purposes we use them for (such as evidence of our ancestors or primary sources on the wider themes of history) their integrity is based on their original identity, their true purpose. In this case, a photo taken as a visual memento of a group of girls at school is once more serving this true purpose 70 years later for one of the last, or perhaps only, surviving person it still can.