The archive and the rabbit hole

When Alice famously fell down the rabbit hole she entered a world of continually altering perspectives. Her journey of discovery and wonder is in some ways like the best archival research.

There’s a little bit of magic in the archival research process...


Picture this: I’m on the train to Edinburgh with Sociology-beau. This is unusual because I normally drive to Glasgow for work, but today I’m headed to the National Archives of Scotland so we have the opportunity to talk about what we’re going to do that day. When I tell him I’m going to the archive he fakes a yawn –this makes me laugh, but reminds me that there’s a massive gap between my experience of archival work (joyous exploration) and others perceptions of it (dusty yawnsville).

As I sit down in the archive I’m struck that this is the first time I’ve been here since I did the research for my undergraduate dissertation (on Domestic Service in 18th Century Edinburgh) and the memories of that first research experience come flooding back. Then I was untying little packets of women’s correspondence, deciphering spidery handwriting and peeking into women’s diaries. The nature of the material was highly personal and opening up these parcels the lives of these women suddenly became immediate and tangible. All the background reading I’d done started to make sense.

From that first experience I’ve been hooked on archival work ever since and have worked with a huge range of materials, letters, film, newspapers, lace patterns to name but a few. For my post-doctoral research I’m working with the Social Enterprise Collection (Scotland). What’s especially exciting is that as it’s the first project to make use of the material, so there’s massive potential to open up the boxes and uncover a myriad of events, people and ideas that our present-centred society has too hastily forgotten.

But I digress, back the NAS I’m looking at material related to multi-purpose co-operatives in the Highlands and Islands in the 1970s and 1980s. In the newsletters there’s great optimism and enthusiasm and I’m struck by the diverse activities of the groups that were establishing themselves across the Region –some were more successful than others, but even in failure there’s energy generated from the learning experience. I think this is what is special and perhaps misunderstood about archival research, finding data in this way not only challenges you to think again about your subject (all good data collection methods should do that), but it transmits something of the energy of the past, and that energy becomes part of the historians interpretation of that time.

The archive isn’t just well-organised stacks of paper; it’s a portal to an abundance of human experiences. Follow the white rabbit this Easter people, embrace the archive!