Starting my history PhD in September 2020, I soon settled into a comfortable pattern of home working. I was lucky enough to be able to access some primary material online, which facilitated my initial research on Muslim communities in Britain, particularly North-West England, around the end of the nineteenth century. However, two years in, other than a small amount in John Rylands, Manchester, I had barely looked at original sources in a physical archive. I was perhaps yet to appreciate the importance of physical archival research for historians. Doing my PhD part time also meant I had a bit longer to settle into it. Thanks to support from the Research Support Award, and the PAHC fund, I have been able to conduct productive trips to the Liverpool Maritime Archive, and the British Library in 2023.
From a PhD perspective I think that these trips have been useful. I have come across material that I will hopefully use in my PhD on the “lascar” seamen’s homes, in British port towns. It was encouraging to find that research in the Liverpool archive, was consolidated by a trip to the British Library. Although perhaps not practical, having information in multiple locations can allow you to confirm theories and fill in gaps. I would still prefer it to all be in one place, but you cannot have everything!
What I had underestimated was the value in forming connections with knowledgeable archivists. Trawling through online catalogues at times felt frustrating. This frustration was confirmed at the physical archives, when it became apparent that not everything is catalogued online. I am sure that will not come as a surprise to many historians and archive users. Meanwhile the archivists, even if they were not very familiar with a particular collection, were certainly able to point you in the right direction. It was also refreshing to talk with archivists about what had been found in some files that perhaps had not been looked at for a few years. There were instances where you would come across material of great interest, which was not relevant to your own PhD research. I had to stop myself going too far down these rabbit holes, wary of limited time, but I have made a note of topics that I could go back to in the future.
My favourite document from this recent research was the handwritten CV and job application of a sailor who had applied to be the manager of a Seamen’s Home. He did not get the job, which I thought was harsh. His CV was great! Before these trips I am not sure that I was entirely convinced that I would get a thrill from handling objects or documents, with their own unique histories, maybe tens or hundreds of years old. Surely reading a scanned version online is sufficient? I am now convinced, and will happily advise future nervous, first time archive users, to get themselves in and familiar with archives in person.
With thanks to my fabulous supervisors Professor Heather Shore, and Dr Shirin Hirsch for their support, and encouraging me to get myself into the archives in the first place.