I <3 Social Media I: Icky Archives

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I like social media, and find it brings a lot to my academic practice in many different ways. Rather than arguing with ‘think’ pieces that, well, don’t, I wanted to put some blogs out to celebrate some fun, and productive things I’ve seen on social media recently.

Part I is about an accidental discovery, and this is how it happened…

So my friend Andrew Smith (@smidbob) and I were planning a conference for next year, which is going to be on what Andrew has called the ‘lifecycles’ at the heart of research. What he means by this is the ways that documents historians find often include information about their own genesis, or reception. Perhaps the copy of a book you read has a dedication from the author, or a note written in the margin. Perhaps something falls out of it when you open it.

So I thought to myself, why not ask the #twitterstorians for examples, to see if there was wider interest in this idea.

But, being the idiot I am, I actually asked a much broader question:

And the floodgates opened.

When I have time (a lot of time), I’m going to write a post about some of the amazing replies I got to this tweet, but this post is just going to focus on one of the weirder things it revealed: archives keep some really pretty gross stuff.

Perhaps this shouldn’t surprise me. In my own research, I came across photos used in a criminal trial, that showed a man’s chest cut open, and then his heart in an evidence jar.

But they didn’t keep the heart itself in the archives.

Other #twitterstorians were not so fortunate. They found bandages, sticking plasters, mummified mice AND ratsnude sketchesgonads. OK, so the gonads weren’t real gonads, they just got a mention. But still, ew.

Hair seems to have been enduringly popular among archivists or whoever the people were who chucked this stuff into the boxes.

Alex von Tunzelmann even found the preserved tip of a wild boar’s tail. Let’s hope that was after her lunch break.

And can we pause for a moment and reflect on the fact that a real-life historian once opened a box to find a caul:

Pity Janet Weston above all, for this grim discovery:

Laura Kounine even found a knife in an eighteenth-century trial record, which appeared to still be stained with blood:

Bodily fluids, it turns out, make it into the archives surprisingly often.

OK, so I find it hard to say – as Caitlyn Gale did on twitter – that ‘bodily fluids in archives are great finds’. I don’t want to have to wash my hands after touching my sources!

…but there is something interesting going on here.

I don’t know how many of these researchers were working in archives that store both documents and material objects (or indeed how firmly we want to draw that line), but it strikes me as fascinating how much fleshy stuff finds its way into the archives. And this was without a single mention of the human skin books that seem to hold an enduring fascination on the internet.

So, a bit of fun, maybe. But there is also a ‘serious’ point to all this, to do with how our archives and other sources preserve strange aspects of past life. Perhaps this is a point more familiar to my medieval and early-modernist colleagues, accustomed to thinking about relics and keepsakes, but I suspect there might be an important field to be opened up here for modernists interested in #ickyarchives.

And we could start with the key question: why the hell were people archiving some of these things?

3 thoughts on “I <3 Social Media I: Icky Archives

  1. As an archivist it always amuses me when historians say they have “discovered” something in the archives! More than likely an archivist discovered it first. And those books with the dedications from the authors and other contextual information – well probably the archivist deliberately kept that copy because of that contextual information. So possibly the archivist left those things that you regard as icky in the archives for a reason? Or possibly the archives are so skint funding wise they can’t fully appraise, and arrange and describe what they have?
    Anyway me being an old curmudgeonly archivist probably isn’t very helpful to historians, so what does it mean to “discover” something in the archives? What can archivists do (in an ideal world of course) to help historians discover what is useful to them as we acquire, appraise, sort, list, package and catalogue the archives?
    And do you want to know what icky things archivists find in the archives? Well for me – false teeth, rat poo and wee, mouse poo and wee, dead cat, lots of bandages, many silverfish, lots of mould (health risk!), wetas (a giant kind of grasshopper like insect we have here in NZ and actually very interesting things), very nasty pornographic short story, rather funny picture of erect member (with contextual note), and the things I hate the most – degraded selloptape and rubber bands.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’m with you – degraded sellotape is the worst out of all of these things. Or stickers that are so old they have broken up into little pieces that you can’t get off your hands…

      Liked by 1 person

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