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The social value of our archives

5 February 2013

It’s amazing just how much is stored in our archives – not just the volume but the variety.

I have spent the last month immersing myself in the world of archives and have found myself extolling the (widely undervalued) significance of them to anyone who asks what I’ve been up to recently.

Most of us benefit indirectly from archives. They are treasure troves of inspiration for writers, directors and artists, and they are also crucial sources of information for architects, lawyers and campaigners. So whether we gain from them through a brilliant book or film or are able to seek justice documents stored in archives or revisit reports of a crime or incident, archives can often be the hidden key.

How do we know that the weather is the ‘wettest since 19__’, or that an Olympian has smashed a world record? Design archives are bound to influence today’s fashion industry and exhibitions and galleries would not have the content they do without archivists. In Christmas 2011, Marks and Spencer sold more than 2 million boxes of biscuits in a beautiful Victorian tin – the same design that was used by Mr Marks and Mr Spencer well over a hundred years before.

Why are we lucky enough to be aware of Shakespeare and his work? How was it possible for us to revisit the Hillsborough tragedy in such detail? Someone at the Archives and Records Association said that they heard Kathryn Bigelow recently talk about her ‘hunt for Osama Bin Laden’ film Zero Dark Thirty – the single biggest clue to his whereabouts was written on a piece of paper, in a file, from 2001.

Yet many people do not make this connection.

As it says in the Universal Declaration on Archives, which has been endorsed by UNESCO: “Archives are a unique and irreplaceable heritage passed from one generation to another … Open access to archives enriches our knowledge of human society, promotes democracy, protects citizens’ rights and enhances the quality of life.”

There is an important role for communications to play here. We need to engage people with their archives and the wealth of untold stories and vital information that they hold, and to see our archives as the valuable community and cultural asset that they are. Through communications, we must reignite an interest in what is currently seen as a ‘dusty room’ tucked away in some corner of a town by showing just how much we have got, and can get out of them. It’s no small task, but it’s one that we’re very much looking forward to being part of.

As a starting point, I want to say that you don’t need to be a lawyer, professor, architect or historian to benefit from or enjoy archives – you just need to be someone with a keen interest in something and a hunger to discover more. Because of the rich nature of archives, that interest could be anything from inventions to transport to UFOs and that’s scratching the surface.

Make no mistake, archives are not there to browse aimlessly; you can’t just amble round and peer at carefully picked out documents or objects like you do in a museum. You need to have an idea of what you want to look for. As I have learnt from speaking to people who have used archives for years, archives are there to be foraged and explored. You need to allow each document or item to take you in a new direction as you piece together quirky, ordinary and forgotten stories that don’t exist anywhere else in the world. More importantly, these aren’t on Google. This is the magic of it for many people, the laboured (and loved) journey of discovery.