So there are conferences which you go to and think ‘meh’, conferences which take place on a Saturday and you’ve completely forgotten what they were all about by Monday, and the conferences that fire you up and leave the building thinking you’re Thor or Wonder Woman (delete as applicable) and that the bad guys had better take cover. The event held at the National Maritime Museum last week, under the innocuous title of a ‘Maritime Archives Initiative’, fell into the last of these categories.
Now, ‘maritime archives’ might not sound like a superhero-generating subject. In fact, they’re absolutely at the heart of what people like myself do, and one of the great strengths of the conference was that it brought out the diversity and importance of collections the length and breadth of Britain. John McAleer of Southampton University gave the keynote, talking about some of the archives he’d used for his research, primarily on eighteenth century slaving. His point that superb material could be found in such unlikely locations as Winchester and Carlisle really rang a bell with me; I’ve worked in Cumbria Record Office in Carlisle too, which contains a terrific amount of seventeenth century naval material, and also in equally unlikely places. Lincolnshire Record Office, for example, contains some of the best material on the actual conduct of naval warfare during the Anglo-Dutch wars to be found anywhere, together with some completely unique material on the operations of Charles II’s royal yachts, which I’ve mined extensively for my new book, Kings of the Sea (more of which next week). Over the years, I’ve found terrific material about Welsh history in Scottish archives, and vice-versa. The lesson is simple – don’t assume that everything of importance is in the obvious places, and be prepared literally to go the extra mile to explore your subject fully.
We then had six presentations about different archives that hold maritime material – the Trinity House archives at London Metropolitan Archives (an old haunt), Cornwall Record Office (ditto), Tyne and Wear Archives, the SS Great Britain, the Ballast Trust (which saves the archives of Scottish maritime companies, e.g. shipbuilders) and Staffordshire Record Office. The last of these might sound to be an unlikely contributor, but I can personally testify to the importance of the archives there, and it was nice to see on the screen a few familiar old friends from the papers of Lord Dartmouth, who commanded both the expedition to demolish Tangier in 1683-4 and the fleet assembled to defend against William of Orange’s invasion in 1688.
The afternoon was taken up with group brainstorming sessions. These were all essentially concerned with getting archivists and researchers collaborating more closely – and, indeed, encouraging collaboration with other institutions as well (the speaker from Tyne and Wear had regaled us with a wonderful story of how the previous director banned archives staff and museum service staff from even walking down the same corridor in their shared building, let alone collaborating with each other). Some old bugbears inevitably came up – “why can’t there be a single national reader’s ticket?” – and ways of raising public awareness were aired, one message being that in this day and age, Twitter and Facebook are absolutely essential for any institution. Perhaps the principal theme of all, though, was the need to try and improve the standardisation of online cataloguing, to make it easier to track down relevant material. Plenty of problems with this one, but rather fewer potential solutions, although enhancing the National Archives’ ‘Discovery’ catalogue and/or Exeter University’s ELMAP project were suggested as as ways ahead. Above all, though, there was great enthusiasm to make the conference the start of a regular process of engagement, not just a one-off. Let’s hope this proves to the case – or, to put it another way, Archivists, Assemble!
By the time I post next week’s blog, I should have sent off to the publisher my new non-fiction book, Kings of the Sea: Charles II, James II and the Royal Navy, so the post will provide the first detailed preview of it – plus a first look at the cover!