As a historian working on displacement and humanitarianism, I visited many archives in various countries over the course of my PhD. Research trips (particularly abroad) were often pleasant, but at times stressful: I had to find my way around different archival catalogues (at times in different languages), familiarise myself with different data rules and fill countless forms either to have access to documents or to be able to take photos. More often than I expected, there were differences between the catalogues available online and what was actually in the archives. My first piece of advice is therefore to always look at the ‘old’ printed catalogues, and spend time examining them; or check with the archivists that the online catalogues are exhaustive. This can be time-consuming: the League of Nations’ archives in Geneva, for instance, still hold and use index correspondence cards. These are very helpful to identify correspondence between various individuals and the Secretariat of the League, but they require a fair deal of patience (particularly for the latter years of the League)!
Luckily, things were much easier at the John Rylands Library, where I took my students to examine the archives of the London Office of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance (IWSA), an international association created in 1902. The archivist Fran Baker sent me a very detailed catalogue of the IWSA archives, with a brief history of the collection (the period covered in this archives is 1903-1920). As part of our class on ‘The aftermath of war’, we looked at the activities of the IWSA and concerns of feminist internationalists in early 1919. Examining these documents closely generated a flurry of questions about the politics and meanings of internationalism and the processes of cultural ‘demobilisation’ and ‘re-mobilisation’ in the aftermath of war. However, the collection contains much more, including documents about the treatment of prisoners of war, the situation of women and children in occupied Belgium and France, the plight of refugees and the work of the peace movement during the First World War. Potentially, these are great sources for an undergraduate dissertation!
On the day, the archivist Peter Nockles generously gave his time to present the history of the Library, founded by Enriqueta Rylands in memory of her husband John Rylands in the late nineteenth century. The library holds a fine collection of rare books, manuscripts and archives, covering a wide range of topics. The Bulletin of the John Rylands Library publishes scholarly articles related to the collections. For modern historian, it contains, for instance, the Guardian archive. Students were able to admire the Library’s neo-Gothic architecture; the high ceiling and wooden panels of the study room was undoubtedly much grander than our usual seminar room on campus!
So what are the practical things you need to know before using the wonderful resources at the John Rylands? The reading room for individual researchers is situated on the fourth floor. It is modern, bright and user-friendly. Lockers are located in the ground floor and operate by a key, so you need to bring a pound. At the John Rylands, you need to book in and order material at least 24 hours in advance of your visit by emailing the Reader Services team on firstname.lastname@example.org. The archivists will need to know when you are planning to come in, along with the collection and individual item references for the material you are interested in consulting. If you haven’t used the Library before, you’ll be asked to fill in a registration form on arrival, and you’ll need to have your student card with you.
And finally, following the great History@Manchester blog post on the ‘Advancing into the Archive’ workshop held in the Liverpool Records Office, here are a couple of other tips and thoughts to bear in mind:
- Allow time to digest information and be inquisitive (some of the documents that we analysed were drafts that were undated and unsigned. They contain very useful information, but required further research in the collection to identify who wrote them.)
- If you are thinking about using material, which dates from after 1914, think about data protection. Archives are obliged to meet the requirements of the Freedom of Information Act 2000, Data Protection Act 1998 and other relevant legislation. In the case of uncatalogued collections, the curator of the archive will have to check through everything to see if data protection closures need to be applied (Personal data hold in the archives may be retained if they might cause ‘substantial damage and distress’ to someone). They appreciate being given as much notice as possible when researchers wish to access modern uncatalogued archive material – reading through hundreds of letters is a labour-intensive and a time-consuming task for the librarians, just as it may be for later students!
We are incredibly lucky to have the John Rylands as our University Library at Manchester — regularly voted one of Europe’s most beautiful libraries, it is also a real treasure trove of documents from all around the world from the medieval to the modern periods. So as a final piece of advice, don’t forget to just breathe in and pause to soak up the atmosphere while you’re in there, and make sure not to neglect the exhibition galleries as well — currently featuring the marvellous exhibition ‘Magic, Witches, and Demons in the Early Modern World,’ curated by our own Dr Jenny Spinks and Dr Sasha Handley (you can read more on this here).
Happy hunting! Dr Laure Humbert