I’ve always been interested in the power of archives. As a history undergraduate it became clear to me that women were excluded from the historical narrative because they did not feature in historical records in the same way as men. I read some Foucault, became convinced of the hegemonic potential of archives, and set out to study for an MA in archives administration at Liverpool University. But at the time, as I discovered, English archival practice conformed to very traditional, positivist ideas – an archivist should be a non-interventionist, invisible figure who left no mark on the unmediated ‘truth’ of the historical record – and I went on to do a PhD in early modern history at Cambridge instead.
Having a professional qualification in addition to a PhD has been very useful: as well as an unusually sound knowledge of English archives as a graduate student, I had a professional escape-hatch when academic history jobs looked scarce – the archival profession, invigorated by the internet, offered endless possibilities and appeared to be run by women, while history still looked male-dominated to me. I’ve had interesting times as an archivist, too, especially working with colleagues in developing countries, discussing record-keeping as an exercise in democratic accountability (as well as colonial control), and training archival students at UCL.
Recently, records, information, and even archives have become obviously political (think Hillsborough Inquiry, or the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, as well as recent cyber-hacking) – but historians have only just started thinking about the (considerable) implications of this for their own archival sources. To my great delight we were able to raise some of these issues at a conference held at the British Academy in April 2014, entitled ‘Transforming Information: record keeping in the early modern world’, which I co-organised with colleagues Alex Walsham and Liesbeth Corens. This was a public conference, attended by archivists and historians alike, and we spent two days discussing ways in which archivists, government officials, merchants and others had intervened in the historical records of early modernity. My own paper, Friction in the archives, investigated the fraught politics of custody and access to records during the English revolution, when all sides sought to control records which gave them land, title, and political legitimacy. At a time when TV and the heritage industry present history as a leisure activity, it’s really important to remind ourselves that history, records, and even archives, are political weapons too, and we need to use them with great care.
An audio-record of Transforming information is available here: http://pastandpresent.org.uk/conference-audio-from-transforming-information-and-history-after-hobsbawm/; and the proceedings will be published in 2016 as The social history of the archive: record keeping in early modern Europe.
Dr Kate Peters
Director of Studies in History