In my working life, I’m a writer and researcher – and since 2011 – an archivist. As part of a project by the Rotary Clubs of 9910 District, Auckland, to preserve their history, I was employed to establish and run their archive. I got the gig as a final year Masters of Information Studies student and am enormously grateful to the forward-thinking, resourceful and energetic team of Rotarians who instigated and help drive this project. Although still in it’s infancy, this archive will enable future researchers – including family historians – to know more about the work of Rotary, and the men and women who have been members.
So I hope you’ll forgive what might look like a bit of self-congratulation here, because this post is a truly heart-felt thank you to the thousands of archivists – professional and volunteer – whose work in preserving records of the past is essentially what makes family history research possible.
In the last few weeks I’ve spent time in two government archives – the National Archives at Kew, London and the Fife Council Archive Centre in Markinch, Fife. In some ways, they could hardly be more different. The National Archives are housed in a stunning new building with a cafe, restaurant and shop, and receives many hundreds – if not thousands – of visitors per week. On top of that, thousands more searches are carried out of its online records through the catalogue Discovery.
By contrast, the Fife Archive is located in the basement of a 1960s office building on the edge of Markinch. There is no cafe, shop or enticing artwork on display. But that’s where the difference ends really. Both archives are staffed efficiently and effectively by professionals who seem utterly dedicated to the preservation and sharing of Britain’s documentary past.
At the National Archives I learned more about the fate of my great grand uncle Stewart Cruden who died in 1942 aboard the Shera, a converted whaling boat in the Arctic Convoys of World War II. The sinking of that ship was the subject of an official enquiry and I was able to read the files relating to that enquiry, including the testimony of the three men who survived. While my uncle wasn’t mentioned by name, I feel I know a little more about his death and can share this with my mother, who knew her uncle, remembers the telegram arriving with word of his death, and has lived for 70 years not really knowing the circumstances in which he was lost.
At the Fife Council Archives I read the patient notes of my great, great grandfather Rankine Gourlay when he was a patient in the Fife and Kinross Lunatic Asylum. I learned a great deal about his history, physical health and mental condition. Heartbreakingly, I read the final note, from October 14 1891 which says:
“It was thought advisable to send him to the poorhouse and so today he was discharged.”
Rankine Goulay spent his last 12 years in the Kirkcaldy Combination Poorhouse, dying in July 1903.
While at the Fife Archive, I also searched the Minute Books of the Dysart School Board, looking for information about my great grandmother, Anne Nicholson, who was a teacher. That search proved fruitless, as the books for the years I wanted are not in the collection.
And this is the researcher’s on-going problem; records that we know were made but that have not survived to be seen, read, searched now.
Even in the relatively short time I’ve been researching my family I have experienced this repeatedly. My great grandfather’s war records – probably destroyed along with so many others in the Blitz; the same great grandfather’s time in Edenhall Hospital. Records from that institution have been transferred to the Lothian Health Services Archive in Edinburgh, but not records for the “right” time period for me. And probably most frustratingly, the School Board records which would almost certainly have included the resignation and possible re-appointment of my great grandmother who had a child out of wedlock while teaching and would have had to resign, but was back teaching when she married four years later.
It’s easy to feel frustrated by these omissions, but instead I feel enormously grateful for the records that have been preserved. I am thankful for the foresight and often bloody-minded perseverance of those people who have recognised the value of historical records and fought to preserve them – often in the face of indifference and hostility. This is less the case for official government records than for those of companies, voluntary and community organisations and families, but it is precisely those records which give us a deeper understanding of our ancestors. The details of someone’s funeral from an undertaker’s account book or a newspaper clipping from a church scrapbook – these are snippets that help us understand who our ancestors really were – to flesh out and clothe the skeletons that BDM and census returns give us.
And it is for those small gems of human history that I thank archivists everywhere.