In an archive that shall remain unnamed, I have recently encountered iniquities. Many, many of them — O it is an archive corpulent with iniquity — and I shall inflict four of these iniquities upon you, so that historians among you may know how good you probably have it in pretty much any other archive, and non-historians among you may know not to become historians, at least in certain regional specialisms. And that you may also know what soul-disfiguring things have been occupying me these past weeks.
Iniquity #1: Dress code
I registered at the archive with the usual administrative fussing. Before being allowed to enter, I was told that the smart grey office skirt I was wearing, which came down to the middle of my knees, was indecent. I was then presented with a woven wrap-skirt that tied high on my waist and came down to below my ankles, and asked, with impeccable politeness, to change into it.
Iniquity #2: Photography
You cannot take photographs in the archive. You may only order hundreds and hundreds of photocopies. In this day and age of digital progress, environmental consciousness and archive fires, this is really unacceptable.
Iniquity #3: Declassification
Pretty much anything interesting is “secret” or “classified” — even if it could already have been declassified because it is 30, 50 or even 70 years old. This arises mostly from lack of initiative, and an admittedly reasonable fear of Official Secrets Acts. Furthermore, if a box of, let us say, Lord Tennyson’s Papers (LTP) contains a single letter classified as “secret”, the whole box cannot be ordered.
Iniquity #4: Document (Dis)ordering
This is the most iniquitous of the iniquities — so iniquitous that it has sub-iniquities. You see, the archive has an online ordering system. This is a great improvement, I’m told, from five years ago, but it has proven thus far to be magnificently retarded — though, ingeniously perverse.
Iniquity #4 (a): Firstly, documents within any file are given an electronic ID according to when they were acquired by the archive (say, 2006-00003 – the third file acquired in 2006). This means that while the electronic ID corresponds in no way to the file or institution that produced the document, it is nonetheless the only way to identify an individual file on the ordering system. You cannot search for a file in the way, say, you would cite it: for example, you could not search for LTP 6/5/300.
Iniquity #4 (b): In fact, the search function allows you to search in three singularly unhelpful ways. You can perform the electronic ID search — if you could know it in advance. You could search for a keyword, but this search does not handle boolean queries, and treats all search terms as an exact string. For example, if you searched for “lord tennyson king arthur” you would not get any results, even if there may be a file called “Lord Tennyson: The Legend of King Arthur”. You can search for the source, or the institution from which any given set of documents were issued; so you could search for “Lord Tennyson Papers”. This is useful, perhaps most useful. But you cannot refine that search; you couldn’t then search for “king arthur” within the Lord Tennyson Papers. You can’t even search within a date range. Instead, you must go through pages and pages of Lord Tennyson Papers results to find the documents you want.
Iniquity #4 (c): The clincher is this: you can only order up to a maximum of ten documents at a time. This would be fine if “document” meant any sensibly organized box or folder into which similar documents were filed, e.g. LTP Box 1. It does not. For much of the archive, it means document in its most perversely precise sense: one item within such a folder or box. This means that in order to view Lord Tennyson’s papers, and not knowing its contents in advance, you must order ten random and unhelpfully titled documents, and wait an hour or more. You might then receive a deeply important letter he wrote to his mother detailing his thoughts on a first draft of the legend of King Arthur. Or you might receive a note he wrote to book a room at a hotel. There is no way to order a box from Lord Tennyson’s Papers helpfully categorized as “Letters, 1850-1860”, so that you can browse and quickly discard the obviously irrelevant. No. Under this perverse system, you must order, and wait for, each and every irrelevant item in order to discover that it is, in fact, so.
Iniquity #4 (d): Also, the system does not allow you to queue requests, in order that you might request 20 or 30 items, and have the request automatically go through once you return one of your allowed ten items. No. You can only have ten items on order at any time. At times I’ve collected my ten documents at the counter, and returned seven of them before even getting back to the table, because they were completely useless. The archive staff must then scan them back into the system to return them. Sometimes they fail to do so for over half an hour. This is truly awful. For only when they have scanned them back in can I order the next seven, and until they do so, I may have returned all my documents, but will still be unable to order any new ones. And finally, ordering the next batch takes more browsing and more searching on the retarded online order system, for apart from being unable to refine searches, it can also not save them.
O the iniquities! I weep, and grind and gnash my teeth, but the archive is so frustratingly full of interesting things, & so day after day, in these final days of my year abroad (a year that has vanished like dust in a thunderstorm) I continue to plod morosely, resentfully back. (I have also been packing, booking tickets, meeting people, and staging the long overdue resurrection of my beloved website).
What, I wonder, does it take to run a competent archive? one that facilitates, rather than obstructs, research? My best model so far is the beautifully run Public Records Office in Kew Gardens, London; but I have not used so very many archives in my short & fledgling career, and I wonder to what extent the PRO has spoiled me. I’m told Russian archives are notorious, but I do not suppose I shall ever know them.