An introduction to archival research

In the middle of July, the project’s ongoing archival research programme turned its attention to the holdings at the Museum of English Rural Life at the University of Reading, which include some relevant and interesting materials, particularly relating to the National Union of Agricultural Workers (NUAW). Mike and Laura, who have been conducting the archival work to date, booked in for a day at MERL, and this provided a chance for Paul and Carmen to head down the hill from Whiteknights to learn more about the process of archival research at first hand.

The single most striking observation that Carmen and I made, as novice archive-miners, was the degree of discernment/intuition/expertise needed to search through the catalogues to work out exactly what it is you want to look at. It sounds obvious, but when there are large holdings, and much that is available only via request from the archive (so the friendly local archivist must locate the boxes in storage and deliver them to you), a good deal of decision-making is required to ensure that efforts are focused on the right materials, or at least in the directions that are most likely to be productive. The value of this became apparent as we began sifting through the contents of the first boxes – the Minutes of the Health Safety and Welfare Committee of the NUAW. Each bundle of documents took some time to read for relevant material, and this made that initial search and sort task even more important.

merl

The MERL Reading Room.

The second observation was about the needs and conventions of the particular research context. Many of the materials we were dealing with were more than fifty years old and needed careful handling; the reading room at MERL was full of researchers working on their own projects, making it important for us to be quiet and considerate to others; and the rules of the archive (sign in and provide ID; no pens, only pencils!) must be respected. We also learned the methods involved in using a digital SLR camera to photograph copies of documents for future reference, and the need for careful recording of what you had looked at and in what order!

But the most important lesson learned was the value and insight that comes from engaging with historical materials at first hand. Like a sleuth from a detective novel, finding a snippet of info in a document, snapping a picture, and then following the lead as it develops felt like a real thrill. As an example, I was lucky enough to get the box containing the NUAW H+S Committee minutes from 1970-75 – so contemporary with the Robens Report of 1972 and the passing of the HSWA 1974. It was exciting to track the initial concerns raised by the NUAW about the exclusion of agricultural workers from the scope of the Robens Report, through to evidence of the to-and-fro with government over this issue, and then to the efforts to understand the implications of the general duties contained in HSWA 1974 ss.2-3 (which apply to all employees and others affected by business activities) for farm workers.

It was even more exciting to cross-reference these concerns to contemporaneous evidence from Hansard, to see when and how these issues were raised within the legislative process, including by a youthful Neil Kinnock during Commons debate on 21/05/1973. We also located evidence as to controversies during the post-1974 implementation of the new law, including the ongoing argument (1974-6) between the NUAW and the Country Landowners Association about whether agricultural workplaces should be excluded from the scope of the new unified inspectorate (the HSE) and, by 1978, the emergence of disquiet about the limitations of tripartite working within Industry Advisory Committees.

Overall, the real benefit of going back to the archives is that the sources force us not to take for granted any of our contemporary assumptions about the Robens era. Consensual and tripartite working was shaky in practice; unified inspection and legislation was never a foregone conclusion; and the implications and meanings of the broad duties within the HSWA 1974 took time to be recognised and understood. Reform was thus an ongoing process, not a single event, and that is a crucial realisation for the rest of this project.

Paul