Exploring the archive: report from ‘Paper Trails’

Departing UCL Teaching Fellow Andrew Smith reports from the Paper Trails conference hosted at UCL on 19 June 2017. This entry is cross-posted from Andrew’s blog, where you can also find an entry describing the schools workshops which followed on from the conference.

Paper is tied up with so much of what we do as historians that it’s sometimes easy to forget about it. Likewise, our research stories are some of the first things we reach for when talking with colleagues, but they seldom make it into our published work.

What happens, then, when we put these things at the heart of our history?

This conference, which I organised with Will Pooley, asked people to think about the way that they write their histories. It asked them to go back and retrace the paper trails that led them to their conclusions, and to remark on the encounters along the way.

Amidst a wonderful variety of papers, we travelled from 3,000 BC to the present day, and from Egypt to Iraq, via Paris, Los Angeles, and Bloomsbury itself. At the heart of this vast array of papers, however, was the sense that our encounters with our research material deserved a little more attention.

papertrails

For my part, I penned a paper alongside my colleague Chris Jeppesen. It reflected on our own experience as Teaching Fellows at UCL and our attempts to get a handle on the place we were working. Our engagement with this story was shaped by our encounter with it, following the trail from census data through court records, shipping manifests, and catalogues of ragtime music. Our research began with a moment of serendipity preparing material for a widening participation Summer School about layered histories and then an MA programme in Transnational Studies, as we teased out Bloomsbury’s global connections and pursued the details of the story further.

This process of discovery forged a collaboration between two colleagues investigating their place of work and their connections to it. This material, with its long tail of teaching and enquiry, touched upon music hall artists in New York, and criminals in the heart of London; it shone a light on global networks and transnational movements. Each of these tangled stories unfolded as we collaboratively laid out the documents for a series of classes, investigating new connections and integrating students’ work into the process of inquiry.

We heard much more about individual encounters with research material, and about the chance moments that sparked new lines of enquiry. Maryanne Dever spoke wonderfully about an archival trip motivated by her desire “to see what ‘nothing’ looked like” after an Australian newspaper dismissed a much-hyped set of private papers in Hollywood. Notably, she talked of how the reader reactivates the affective reserves stored up within paper just by touch and encounter.

Alice Stevenson also related how her encounter with the archives rewrote her preconceptions about the type of story she was telling, which moved from colonial exploitation to international solidarity. The people (and things) she found tucked between pages and written in the margins forced her to reconsider the agency and the intent of the people she was studying.

Material from the margins became a theme of several papers. Helen Brookman sketched out the contours of a gendered dispute between an Arthurian scholar and her cocksure male reviewer, whose disparaging commentary (offered in the privileged space of assumed anonymity) the scholar tackled line by line on the battlefield of the book’s margins. Ian Stewart discussed another book, and a series of letters he found taped inside it that awoke his passion as a researcher, yet eluded easy categorisation. Artists, critics, politicians, and suffragettes leapt from the letters in association, yet the words themselves remained fixed.

paper trails 2

Also defying easy labels or categories, Martyn Barber took us on a tour through the eccentric works of OGS Crawford, notably lingering on his satirical study of The Language of Cats, and the many half steps and unfinished projects that marked his engagement with the publishing world. Crawford’s acerbic wit stretched as far as embargoing his papers until a time after he assumed the world would have ended in nuclear war.

Thinking about war and archives, Rebecca Whiting recounted the disparate state of Iraq’s records, displaced during decades of conflict, and now subject to all manner of restrictions for access. Describing rich troves like the Iraqi Jewish archives, seized by Ba’athists then found mouldering in a flooded basement by coalition forces, there was a sense of the multiple constituencies that make up the archives we access and also the precarious nature of the material we encounter. Questions highlighted similarities to Britain’s own ‘migrated archives’ and the ways in which states can move to protect their darker moments from public scrutiny and historical analysis.

On the subject of guarded secrets, Itay Lotem discussed the scribbled notes glimpsed from leaders of the French far right which helped him to unpick the vitriolic civil wars within the toxic Front Nationale, so successful at the last election. His paper evoked the key figures of that party, and the attempts to sanitise their image and shed their racist past which ultimately enabled their recent gains at the ballot box.

Discussion was rich throughout the day, offering a sense of potential for the material and the approach that we outlined. This creative and productive atmosphere was exemplified by the plenary given by Margot Finn, who outline moments of serendipity encountered while teaching at UCL. With the original document in hand, she led an interactive workshop, inviting input on how to catalogue an intriguing notebook describing Captain Cook’s journeys in the Northern Atlantic that mysteriously features material relating to his later Pacific travels. It was a great way to inject some life into the last session, and brought people together in a shared activity that made excellent use of the range of talents gathered: academic historians, heritage professionals, archivists, librarians, and researchers of all stripes.

This spirit of engagement, inventiveness, and originality was a refreshing experience for a conference that felt as though it broke some new ground and sparked new ideas for collaboration thereafter. Stopping to think about the processes and the way that they crossed boundaries was hugely productive, and it feels as though the idea of Paper Trails has some way yet to run.

Andrew recently left UCL to take up a position as Senior Lecturer in Contemporary History and Politics at the University of Chichester. He tweets @smidbob.

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