When I worked in Archives, I was fascinated by the glimpses I caught of past lives. Every single document represented a moment in someone’s life – be it a letter, diary, photograph, accounts or inventory. The repository where I worked held a few documents of national importance. However, most of the documents were of a more mundane, everyday nature – yet it was these that interested me the most as they offered real insight into the ways people had lived their lives in the past. A particular favourite of mine was a set of household accounts from the victorian period. They began when the author was a young girl – as training, I imagine, for future account keeping. In the earliest accounts the expenditures listed are items such as ribbons, new gloves and things of a frivolous nature. As the author grew older and inherited the estate, the nature of the accounts changed and, instead of ribbons and gloves, servants wages, firewood, renovations and donations to charity are listed. The books span almost an entire lifetime and offer a fascinating glimpse into a young girl’s journey into adulthood.
At times I found myself deeply moved by the documents I discovered. One such item was the diary of a Victorian girl. It’s time span was relatively short – the entries covering the period of just a few months when the girl was staying in the country with relatives. They describe balls and dances in dazzling detail, record outings in the countryside and hint at a blossoming romance – but then the diary ends abruptly. A few pages after the last entry, however, is a touching and enigmatic postscript, evidently written many years later. In it the author wonders at how carefree her life once was and laments how she is now ‘worn down by care’. She sees this as retribution for the hurt she once caused another but doesn’t elaborate on what she did or to whom. It is a tantalizing, moving entry, which the author probably never intended for anyone to read. Yet, across the centuries, I read her words and found myself moved to tears.
As you can probably tell, I’m pretty passionate about archives. Part of my job was to promote their use, so it’s hardly surprising really. However, it was never my intention to work in Archives. My degrees are in Archaeology and I had always thought I’d end up doing that – working with Archives was something I just fell into really. I think that’s why I was struck so forcibly by the power of archives. They offered an immediacy to the past that I’d not encountered before. They made the past seem more accessible and relevant and, most importantly for me, they presented a past that was about people, not just events, trends and cultural shifts.
If you’d like to find out more about archives, then the best place is your local Record Office. However, if you’d prefer to take a look online, then I’d recommend you take a look at the National Archives site as they have online exhibitions, learning resources and helpful research guides – oh, and my personal favourites, the ducking stool game.
In case anyone was wondering, the photographs are of a memorial in Brecon Cathedral, Wales. I played around with the images a little to get a grainy effect.