I feel privileged to stand in a space where so many journeys of discovery have commenced. Inside each carefully labelled box is something fascinating, to someone, somewhere. The most incredible thing about the space is that the vast quantity of information, pictured above, can only be made accessible through human intervention. Through determination, creativity and desire, a simple reference number is translated into something meaningful and engaging – perhaps a book, a film, or a discussion; crucial means of spreading knowledge, provoking thought and offering insight.
The act of discovery described above is dependent on a complex process. A process that involves browsing, making links and maybe, just maybe, stumbling across something long-forgotten. And this skill in finding gems of information is itself dependent on the work of a talented archivist, who, in just a few words, is able to summarise what is vital about each document. This relationship between information, archivist and curator/explorer is vastly important, because it is the basis of how a seemingly impenetrable quantity of resources is unwrapped and shared. I often think then, that the archivist’s role as a go-between ought to be viewed as such – as pivotal in a chain of information dispersal.
At East Sussex Record Office, this lynchpin-like role can definitely be felt, particularly as I hear the refrain “this will be important to someone, somewhere, sometime”, which, in my opinion, is at the heart of what these dedicated people do.
Without actually being in the space, it is hard to describe just how much ‘stuff’ there really is. The photographs portray the amount of physical space that is occupied, but what they do not communicate is how many documents are inside each box, and how carefully the contents are added to a vast database. At present, the staff themselves seem more than aware of the true volume of this information, as they prepare to move to a new site in Falmer. ‘The Keep’ will bring together records from across Sussex, including those currently held at Brighton History Centre and Sussex University’s Collection, thus making them more accessible to the general public.
To conclude this post, I believe it is useful to consider the value of a ‘physical’ archive in a digital age. With so much information available to us online, I often hear people question the need for these spaces. In a recent Four Thought talk, for BBC Radio Four, Maria Popova, Editor of Brainpickings, discussed this issue. She specifically referred to how difficult it can be to even begin to penetrate online content. Her thoughts prompted me to wonder if it is a lack of the three part relationship, described above, between information, archivist and explorer that makes it easy to become overwhelmed by online content.
How is it possible to really discover and curate without an accurate catalogue to explore first of all? If I was set free, for instance, in the strong-hold pictured above, without a database to browse, I would soon become lost, much like I do when I genuinely try to ‘surf’ the internet. I might come across something interesting, but my interest would be based on taste alone – it looks attractive, it looks important, etc. An archivist is able to add other crucial elements that cannot be accessed through viewing alone. They enable people to find what they do not know is there – and this is the essential spark needed for a genuinely insightful discovery.