The Act of Research – London Metropolitan Archives Edition

The National Archives, the DAR Library in Washington, the Maryland State Archives, the Pennsylvania Historical Society, the London Metropolitan Archives, Library of Congress, and so forth. I love the click of the microfilm drawer, the smell of old paper, the knowledge of whatever system in that particular archive that will get you the information you seek.

A swatch preserved in the billet books at the London Metropolitan Archives. Thomas Coram Foundation for Children. Foundling number 12250, admitted April 2, 1759.

 

In January of 2010, I arrived in London six hours late due to abnormal ice and snow conditions. One cancelled flight, one airport switch, and a six hour delay got me to the London Metropolitan Archives at 3pm. London was a mess – a shortage of snowmelt salt (which is a sickening pink) made all the sidewalks treacherous.   I was lucky that it was a Thursday and the LMA was open until 7pm.

My particular target on this trip was to work with fabric swatches preserved in the admission books from the London Foundling Hospital, a refuge for abandoned children which opened 1741. I had worked with the collection for about a year, and added extra time onto a business trip to mine the collection. Archives are good places to make new friends over old documents –  on a previous trip, John Styles, author of The Dress of the People and curator of Threads of Feeling, and I got shushed by fellow researchers for chattering excitedly about the swatches. We were debating fiber content, playing with his digital pocket microscope, and looking up relevant material in my American runaway servant clothing database.

For the hardcore researchers, there’s a chomp at the bit, lining up at the door to sign in and get to work as soon as the archive opens. Researchers work ahead as much as possible; on this trip, I had used online resources to get the numbers of volumes I wanted to see before I arrived, so all I had to do was fill out my call slips, last gasps of comforting carbon copy forms.

I was headed for the rare book room, separated from the microfilm readers by a glass wall and electronic door. There’s a great big window at one end; flash photography is not allowed, so these seats by the window always fill up first.  While I waited for my volumes to be retrieved, I set up my computer and camera and gathered book weights and foam wedges that reduce the stress on aging bindings. Researchers are there for different purposes. Lawyers, historians, genealogists. After the organization is done, you fidget until your books arrive.

Then the countdown begins. Hours so quickly go, and then you start bargaining with yourself. What else in this day can you let slide in order to work longer? How can you absorb the information any faster? Which files will yield your greatest return? Methodical documentation turns into rapid fire photography. The 30-minute, then 15-minute warnings to closure sound and the work becomes a frenzy. The view of the playground outside has gone dark with night and you must relent. I soothed myself with a visit to Fergus Henderson’s St. John restaurant in Clerkenwell, a short ten-minute walk from LMA.

And I apologize, as I left a warm pasty in my locker for lunch that day, so I have a feeling that everyone’s personal belongings smelled like steak by lunchtime. Not that lunch ever lasts more than five minutes when you are working against the clock.