What the History student should know about archive collection care

By Georgia Wood, History Masters student, Queen Mary University of London

As someone currently undertaking a History MA at Queen Mary University of London, I feel somewhat qualified to speak on how a history student thinks about archives. I perceive archives as treasure troves of knowledge awaiting discovery and analysis, but never considered how the pieces I request get into my hands.

Teaching about the archive mostly surrounds what considerations the history student and future historian need to make when considering the materials we can access. However, one problem that is brushed over during our course is the physical condition of documents that have often been carelessly discarded and then exhumed by archivists.

My workshop at Lambeth Palace Library was dominated by being taught how to clean and conserve manuscripts. An incredibly delicate process, cleaning manuscripts is necessary to ensure that not only the text is visible and legible, but also ensure the cleanliness and safety of the archive and its users. I had never considered the need to quarantine and observe a collection for possible infestations or active mould. Upon seeing Lambeth’s quarantine room where newly acquired items are held in wait before they can be examined by the archivists, I began to reconsider the role of the archive and how historians understand historical documents.

Rectangular piece of parchment with middle section a dark brown from ingrained dirt.
Court of Arches [Bbb/818] at start of surface cleaning

I was assigned to cleaning documents from the Court of Arches, Bbb series, created in the sixteenth and seventeenth century. I saw how a document can be given new life under the care of conservators. From being almost unintelligible due to the sheer amount of dust and grime on the items, the collection care team was able to get the documents to a condition they could be used by researchers in the reading room.

Three people sitting around a work bench cleaning archive items.
Georgia (middle), History MA student at Queen Mary University of London, cleaning Court of Arches collection items along with Lambeth Palace staff.

The tools a conservator uses is an area I felt I had some understanding of. As a history student a lot of my recommended online media is related to the subject and therefore I have watched quite a few painting restoration videos from large institutions. I assumed that any historical item being restored/conserved had specialist equipment developed to help ensure the best outcome. However, this is not the case. One of the primary tools I used to clean the documents, a smoke sponge, was initially developed to help remove fire soot from walls. The historian is acutely aware of the lack of investment in the humanities, but I had never considered how this would impact the archive. Material held in the archive is the centre piece of historical research and therefore the preservation of historical materials should be a topic in which the historian takes a keen interest.

Rectangular piece of parchment with middle section a dark brown from ingrained dirt.
Court of Arches [Bbb/818] after surface cleaning

Before my experience in the Collection Care studio at Lambeth Palace Library, I had never thought of documents of historical interest being outside the temperature controlled walls of accredited institutions. Perhaps this is because I am a modern political history student, or because I had rarely considered the life of the items I was analysing outside of their initial production, but whatever the case I had never thought documents could become so dirty. My day spent at Lambeth was incredibly enlightening. The next time I go to the archive I will definitely consider how the documents I have requested may have looked before they were left in the care of the archive and made accessible to researchers.