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Past Lives

February 5, 2009

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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.

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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.

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10 Comments leave one →
  1. thegardensmallholder permalink
    February 5, 2009 2:42 pm

    I have used the National Archives site to help me build my family tree. It threw up a few skeletons too which I was not prepared for but very interesting all the same.

  2. Mutti permalink
    February 5, 2009 3:14 pm

    It is interesting that your passion for written records has translated itself into the 21st Century equivalent of the diary or journal – the blog. One wonders how 23rd century archivists will access our records and whether Nelson’s letters to Lady Hamilton would have had the same permanency as an email. However, David Beckham’s texts have thankfully disappeared into the ether!

  3. February 5, 2009 3:58 pm

    GSH – I must confess, I’ve never got round to doing my family history – not properly anyhow. I guess it felt too much like work! One day though….

    Mutti – it’s an interesting thought – on one side, there is so much more data about these days – so even if only a very small percentage is preserved, it will still be a lot more than we have from some periods in the past. However, the transitory nature of electronic records does pose big problems – coupled with the fact that types of technology can fall out of use – will mean that a huge amount of information is lost…. Still, there are legal requirements for certain types of data to be kept for specific periods of time so the picture isn’t all bleak….

  4. February 6, 2009 12:52 am

    The archive sounds lovely. History is fascinating (my undergraduate degree was in history), isn’t it? It’s remarkable how the past can reach across the centuries and still move us.

  5. February 7, 2009 12:57 pm

    What a fascinating post! Thank you. I, too, love archives, indeed history of any kind. Especially social history; the lives of the ordinary as they go about their everyday lives is enthralling. 🙂

  6. Teewana permalink
    February 8, 2009 1:35 am

    As a young archaeo I think of how our everyday socio/domestic actions and those items they leave behind (material culture) are potentially to be the “fascinating or mundane” archives and history for future generations even as young as 100 years from now…. And all the artifacts are our emails, documnets, blogs, transactions – a individual cypbeprint- will have…Archaeology is going to be in an electro-digital matrix matrix. OMG! Sounds really crazy!

    But overall I loved this article and the posts…You narrate a true trip away into a past life and opens some good topics.

  7. February 8, 2009 2:04 am

    Oh – I love the archives!! I dream of coming across an old diary – a real peak into another life in another era.

    If you don’t already know about it – check out http://www.shorpy.com – but warning, you can lose hours there. =)

  8. February 8, 2009 8:47 am

    Wil, Mara, Teewana – thanks very much. I’m glad you found it interesting – I know it’s not the sort of thing I usually post about so I was a bit worried that nobody would be interested!

    LisaB – what an amazing site – thanks for the link. I love old photographs – they’re so evocative. When I was at the repository, part of my job involved cataloguing the film archive. Although there was a lot of pretty recent stuff (archives of the future!), there were some real old gems.

  9. February 9, 2009 2:43 am

    Rebecca, the way you tell this story is heart-touching!… lovely…
    These are the things life is made of.. yes indeed.. this must have been a intriguing job… When I was a child I had always wanted to be an Archeologist…

  10. February 21, 2009 10:18 pm

    This is a beautiful and inspirational post. Thank you. Just what I needed this evening.

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