Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Bank of England Archives

Most historians and researchers that I know always find their first visit to an archival repository an interesting experience. Contrary to the usual descriptions in the media (presumably there must be some statute that requires journalists always to use the words 'dusty' and 'archives' in the same sentence) the majority of archival collections are housed in clean and very carefully maintained conditions, but most repositories do seem to have their own quirks and idiosyncrasies. A recent research commission took me to the Bank of England archives for the first time, and I felt a keen sense of anticipation about the whole thing. The Old Lady of Threadneedle Street did not disappoint, although I was surprised by the discreet entrance; a small and unassuming door and lobby rather than the dramatic Grand Central Station-type glory that I had fixed in my mind.

I am unable to comment on the research I was undertaking because of commercial confidentiality, but suffice it to say that I found the material tantalising rather than revelatory: a series of clues, hints and casual allusions unwittingly left by long-dead correspondents who rather thoughtlessly did not have me personally in mind when writing. There are many differences between the working papers of a business or organisation and the personal papers of an individual, but a key distinction, it seems to me, is the fact that however comprehensive they might be, the former can only ever constitute recorded fragments of a greater commercial process, the nature of which the creators of the records did not need to explain because so much would have been implicitly understood by all those involved. Thus it is that rather than the revealing personal letter or intimate diary that reveals much of the inner mind at a certain point, we are left with documents that are full of cryptic comments, obscure commercial phraseology and baffling columns of figures: only the initiate can really extract the full meaning and infer the importance or otherwise of this stuff; to the rest of us it is hard going to say the least. I also got the sense of incomplete documentary survival (some incredibly rich and full files in places, inexplicably sparse in others), although I don't mean to suggest some sinister plot on behalf of the Bank to deprive the historian of the raw materials of his art. Historians are always apt to grouse about records that deliberately haven't been kept or have been lost, without stopping to think that some papers really are just too routine in nature to retain for ever. And who among the armies of clerks working for the Bank of England in the twentieth century were drudging away with the future writing of history in mind? I'd say that, as with their modern counterparts now, they were more concerned with surviving the essential futility of white-collar work.

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