A Word from the Archive : What are you for?
People have funny ideas about other people`s jobs. Sergeant-Majors do nothing but stride around parade-grounds with pace-sticks and shout at every soldier in sight. Miners are all Welsh. Bankers spend their time counting out their bonuses. Navvies use up the day standing round holes in the road and smoking Woodbines.
By the same token, people sometimes say to the Archivist, ‘What do you up there in the Archive?’ Or, for a change, they say, ‘What do you do up in your little cubby-hole?’ Notice the eloquent preposition ‘up’. And the patronising noun ‘cubby-hole’. Oh – and it`s ‘little’.
Despite what the words actually say, they imply that whatever it is that you do (if indeed you do anything), it is quaint, remote, obscure, and irredeemably unimportant.
It is true that, in his daily round and common task, an archivist is not exactly shaking the world with his activities. Nobody`a life is chock full of drama and cliffhangers, like ‘Eastenders’ on a windy winter`s evening.
However, if you look hard enough, you will find plenty of interest. And not just form lists and photos of multi-muscled rugby teams. You would be surprised at the scope of an archivist`s contacts; I deal with a far wider range of people in my everyday work than I ever did as a teacher. And you never know what you are going to come across.
Well, such as the mother of a headmaster who regularly got herself into the staff group photograph. Or the headmaster (the same headmaster) who married the sister of one of his head boys. Or the school organist wbose feet skipped over the pedals in bright purple socks.
You rub shoulders with heroes and failures, celebrities and also-rans – in other words, the whole world. How could you possibly expect to receive a letter like this from the wife of an old boy who wrote to tell us of his death? She ended it by saying,
‘He was a gentleman who always treated me as a lady, and I am proud to be his widow.’
They are all like the figures in albums of family photographs. Funny maybe. But they are part of us, and we are part of them. We belong; we fit. And it`s very nice to belong. It helps us to understand ourselves.
You can`t escape it, and it is misguided to try. You can no more pretend that the past does not matter than you can claim that your parents did not exist.