The sensuous charms of the archive

I’ve been making fairly slow progress for the fast month; the whole PhD process still hasn’t quite gelled in the way I’d hoped it would do by now, and I think I”m still suffering from a bit of culture shock moving up from last year. The travel up and down to Manchester seems more tiring than last year as well, but that may just be the onset of the winter blues. In better news, I passed my masters with a distinction, so I am – formally at least – no longer a provisional PhD student!

My literature review has rather stalled, partly because I need to rethink what I’ve done so far, and partly because I’ve been doing some empirical work. For the past few weeks I’ve been spending time looking at correspondence and papers in archives, both at the National Archives and at the Museum of Science and Industry. For the next couple of weeks I’m going to have to be spending more time at MOSI, as their archives are shutting after Christmas for three months as part of the museum’s refurbishment.

Archival work has its intellectual pleasures – the thrill of discovery, the hunt through the files – but I’ve been quite taken with the sensual pleasures of some of the material. I used to work with technical documentation and so I’ve handled more than my fair share of ring-binders stuffed with laser printer output. In the National Archives, I’ve been looking at ARC engine sub-committee minutes, and have greatly enjoyed the retro charms of the 1930s files as physical objects.  One way in which things were better in the old days would appear to be in the choice of paper. This is lovely cream heavy laid foolscap (did A4 even exist?)  with an SO – Stationery Office? – watermark. As the minutes go into the war years, signs of  rationing show up – the nice paper is replaced with nasty flimsy economy stuff, and later both sides are used;  The text becomes a blurry carbon copy, and the paper is covered with handwritten amendments – no retyping of a clean copy especially for the file.

Sadly, most of the the correspondence between Metrovicks and the RAE seems to have used the contemporary equivalent of bog-standard office copier paper, so for the next few weeks I’ll have to content myself with the occasional look at the company’s leather-bound minute books…

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