Family Archives and History’s Custodians

Sadiah Qureshi

Sadiah Qureshi

I read Izzy Mohammed’s recent ode to libraries on the day I was in Lancashire helping my mother-in-law and her sister sort through the papers of their late mother. Izzy’s post and the experience left me reflecting on how we might create new archives for future historians of Modern Britain.

As a new arrival, I could not have asked for a more intimate initiation into the family’s history. During the day, the sisters, grandchildren and I searched through piles of documents. They were mainly photographs, some loose whilst others were immaculately bound in albums. I recognized only a few of the younger faces; nonetheless, there was an extraordinary familiarity to the settings of these images that I am sure families across the country would recognize in their own collections but may not realize that are important historical records of modern Britain: a family freezing on a holiday to the British seaside, two young sisters dressing up for pageants though the local streets, two young boys standing outside Woolworths (holding a street performer’s pet monkeys!), an expectant couple on their wedding day wearing the latest fashions, a portrait of a soldier kept with the memorial plaque he was awarded after he did not return from the Great War, a letter informing the family that the soldier had been buried at the ‘British cemetery 1 mile S. S. W. of Passchendaele’ where he fell and a pilot posing in his own uniform just a few decades later in World War II. We also stumbled across letters, school reports, press cuttings, old periodicals and official papers such as birth certificates from the nineteenth century.

A Family Archive

Fragments of a family archive. Featured are a WWI memorial plaque, official letter informing the family of a soldier’s burial, postcard of a group of ‘machine gunners’, albums showing ‘Newer Jerusalem’ and ‘The Mighty Himalayas (Oct. 1946)’, street scenes and a boy smiling in expectation that he will be able to keep the costumed monkey. It wasn’t to be.

Heartened by how much value the family placed in the collection, I helped divide it into meaningful piles for each of the grandchildren to act as custodians. Google’s Vice President Vint Cerf recently warned that we risk creating an information black hole for our future selves and historians if we don’t develop ways to preserve our digital lives, from tweets to blog posts and unprinted photographs. Cerf favours the development of ‘digital vellum’ to preserve digital formats and make them permanently accessible even as they are superseded by new technologies.

As a historian, I hope discussions about digital preservation prove fruitful but I have a nagging sense that history teaching, writing and communicating could have a crucial role to play in encouraging families to build their own archives and make them available to both contemporary and future researchers. The National Archives already offers advice for anyone wanting to preserve family documents and some archives make it clear how material can be donated. Nonetheless, imagine the possibilities if students were given a beginner’s guide to conserving documents alongside the more familiar history curriculum or if we had a national database of personal papers to which families would willingly grant researchers access.

The campaign against the cuts to the Library of Birmingham’s budget has highlighted the Library’s role as an educational institution and archive of modern Britain’s history within and beyond Birmingham. I hope some of this awareness leads people to create archives of their own and forestalling the loss envisioned by so many in Silicon Valley.

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