Tuesday, 1 October 2013

The lure of a serendipitous find

A crucial requirement for anyone claiming to be a competent archival researcher is the ability to follow the client's brief and ignore the siren distractions of irrelevant documents, however interesting they may look. All very well in theory, but it can be difficult in practice, and most researchers will occasionally stumble across something so unusual and striking that at the very least it will merit a brief marginal note to self.

Coventionally enough I think, I tend to notice things in unlikely places; this stems from the undeniable fact that that there are great seams of historical riches lying where you might not expect to find them: who would think that the scholar of women's labour history, for example, might be interested in any of the Admiralty publications in ADM 275 at The National Archives? The series sounds pretty dry: publications that were issued for internal use only and were intended to provide practical guidance and instruction on the use of facilities, equipment and 'Service methods' generally. Nothing to get too excited about there, and yet in ADM 275/19 (the serial history of technical problems dealt with by various Admiralty departments) there is a report entitled 'Naval Anti-Gas Devices' which features a superb series of photographs of women working at the grim-looking sharp end in a chemical factory in Stamford Hill in north London during WW1. I fought the temptation to dwell on this document as there was the small matter of my client's commission to complete, but I took a note of it and with the centenary of the the outbreak of the Great War rapidly approaching surely someone could make use of these photographs. And if anyone can explain what 'worming' and 'slabbing' means in the arcane context of early twentieth-century industrial chemistry, perhaps they could let me know!        

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