On Friday 27th November Simon Bralee attended History Day 2015. Wearing several hats, he sought to find out more about archives and how different institutions best promoted themselves to a credulous and weary student body. What he discovered thrilled and inspired him.
Archives and Collections in London
History Day is an annual fair organised by the School of Advanced Study, which this year brought together over thirty different HE libraries with history collections and/or archives. One-on-one clinics and workshops also take place during the day. It is aimed at postgraduate students and early career researchers “starting to think about their dissertations to learn more about libraries and archives”. Each institution had a stall set out with their wares on display, with staff available to talk users through their collections. You can read the full list of institutions on the History Collections website. It is the research equivalent of speed dating and was very interesting. I used the day as an opportunity to find out more about archives in general as well as collections which could support my own research interests.
You might be able to spot the author in this lovely photo taken by @TashTom.
— Thomas Ash (@tashtom) November 27, 2015
It was very interesting to talk to some of the more specialist collections, such as the London School of Tropical Medicine and the religious collections. The London School of Tropical Medicine Archives is an excellent example of a small institution with a great little archive. Much of the work to catalogue their collections and promote it to researchers had only been done in the last ten years, although they had collections dating back to the 19th century. As they owned a lot of their photos they were also able to use them on promotional collateral. Several religious archives were represented at the event. This included Dr Williams’ Library, the Society of Friends Library, the Huguenot collection at UCL and Lambeth Palace. Speaking to the librarians it was interesting to find out more about the collections and how they held items important to other disciplines than “just religion”. It made me mindful of the fact that archives often hold data that is important for studies completely outside of the reasons that the institutions might have collected them. For example, Dr Williams’ Library holds over 300,000 items including several unique pamphlets from the 17th century and an excellent classics collection. I was not aware of the breadth of its collection and different specialist collections within the one library. One lesson I learnt during the day was that there are several small archives which might be perfect for particular research but that even small archives have very wide collection ranges.
This year there was a special focus on collections of North American interest in London-based institutions. I was not able to attend the talk about this but most stalls had a section about their American related collections. Several libraries also tweeted photos of American items from their collections during the day. This focus may have been a nod to the day before the workshop (it being Black Friday), but it was nevertheless very interesting to see how different libraries approached the theme. It was also quite amazing just how many different institutions based in London held stuff related to North American history.
Reflecting on City’s own archive I realised that we had some excellent items in our collection which would be of valuable interest to researchers. Items such as the Athenaeum and Birley Papers could be of 5 star research importance, but at the same time are not directly related to our “teaching collections”. Walking around History Day made me aware of how much of an asset these collections are to their home institutions. They can really add to the soft power of world class institutions like City.
As a seasoned Library stall pro I was also interested in how each separate collection sought to best present themselves. Most libraries had a tin of sweets. Chewies, Heroes and Haribo seemed to predominate. This was a good enticement although I felt that sweets such as toffee, say, might better have suited the timbre of the day. As well as this several libraries had branded pencils on offer. I also picked up a lot of nice postcards and bookmarks. This was quite a good way of interesting people in the collections. I had a very interesting discussion about the copyright implications of this with several of the stall holders and it seemed that the libraries who had exploited this material were in a different situation than us vis-à-vis copyright. Alongside this several institutions had guides for specific collections. Kings College had some Best of Breed collateral including a hefty World War One guide produced to promote the WW1 collections in the Liddell Hart Centre for Military Archives.
Overall what become clear was that the best part of each library was the staff. Well informed, engaged and friendly each did their library proud.
Key Take Aways
I learnt a lot of valuable information on the day. I am already planning visits to SOAS and GHI following discussions with the librarians there to support my study. My main take aways from this event was a wider understanding of the field in which archives operate. It was good to speak, however briefly, to representatives from different collections and gauge how they can support researchers. Through this I got a better understanding of the opportunities and difficulties facing any HE archive. I was very impressed by all the libraries. As I said at the time:
#HistDay15 Yes. A great day showing just how dynamic history libraries and archives are. Well done everyone.
— Simon Bralee (@SimonBralee) November 27, 2015
Reflecting on what City could do, I think branded pencils and toffees would be a good start. And who knows, maybe as we celebrate joining the University of London, we too can think about joining our bold compeers at a History Day some point in the future.