To the paper and parchment documents which formed the archives at the beginning of this period have been added new formats including photographs, film, sound and electronic archives. These have opened up new possibilities, and outlets, for historical research.
To the largely medieval and early modern sources which were all that the reader could normally consult when the Public Record Office (PRO) in Chancery Lane opened in the 1850s have gradually been added materials ever closer in date to the researcher's own time.
Archive services, established progressively at national, local and university levels, have greatly expanded the range of non-governmental archives available for research; and in parallel the archives of many businesses, charities and private owners have been opened up. This trend still continues.
1. The quantity and diversity of archival sources
History is always being rewritten, not only because what interests one age does not necessarily appeal to its successor, but also because a wealth of new material is continually coming to light, or being made much more accessible in print.(1)
Pointers to the archival sources available for study at any given date are supplied in the further reading. Only with the Public Records Act of 1958 did government departments become effectively bound to transfer their records to the PRO within a specified time limit – 50 years after the closure of a file, reduced in 1967 to 30 years, a term again under review at the time of writing. Access to even more recent material (within certain criteria) became possible under the Freedom of Information Act 2000. Broadly speaking, similar closure dates have been applied voluntarily in many non-governmental archives.
Access to archival sources of recent date has enriched the study of modern history, both domestic and international, and has facilitated the study of contemporary history. Historians have been consulted about the kind of records that should be preserved, although their views have not been unanimous, and have not always coincided with those of archivists.
2. Increasing accessibility of the sources
When it first opened its doors, the PRO explicitly required that readers be familiar with the languages and scripts in which the records were written. Typical readers were lawyers, antiquaries (many of them clergymen) and record agents researching on behalf of clients (who included some academics). Generations were to pass before history dons or their students in appreciable numbers consulted original records, and the trend only became exponential with the introduction of the PhD from the 1920s and the expansion of higher education in more recent times.
Readers always included amateur researchers working on local history and genealogy, but with the arrival of ever more sources that did not require an understanding of ancient scripts and languages, and increasing attention to archives by the media, access became more democratised, especially from the 1970s, another trend that continues.
Pioneering work in describing and publicising the records was initially done by the PRO staff – including now unsung heroes like Walford D. Selby and A. C. Ewald or, in the next generation, C. G. Crump, Hubert Hall and Charles Johnson; and then, in the 1920s and beyond, Hilary Jenkinson and V. H. Galbraith.(2)
As academic history at Oxford and Cambridge achieved a footing and developed a voice through the English Historical Review (1886), a few scholars did frequent the PRO. The availability of modern history graduates and an increasing awareness of the archives facilitated grands projets such as the Dictionary of National Biography (DNB) and the Victoria County History (VCH), and fresh impetus came from the foundation of history schools in other universities. Scholars like Maitland (Cambridge), and Tout and Tait (Manchester) would devote long years to understanding, explaining and applying original archives.
Hubert Hall of the PRO (3) simultaneously held an academic post in London and was a long-serving Literary Director of the Royal Historical Society (RHS). He successfully engaged the interest of many academic and non-academic historians in archives, working with the Webbs and influencing research at the London School of Economics (LSE), where Eileen Power and R. H. Tawney would later use archival sources to develop economic and social history.
As the number of active research historians grew, the Institute of Historical Research (IHR) (1921) became, through its Bulletin (4) and seminars, a prime mover in promoting archives as the main basis for historical research.
Outside the PRO, there were in the 19th century few publicly accessible repositories for archives. Among them were the British Museum, Lambeth Palace Library and the Bodleian Library, and a few municipal and specialist libraries. Antiquarians (and, later, historians) might consult records in probate registries, cathedral libraries, parish chests and town clerks' or manorial stewards' offices, while those with the right kind of individual entrée might gain admittance to family muniment rooms. Some academics made use of these original sources in preference to the Public Records.
Foundations were laid only very slowly for a wider approach to the care of local archives, through pressure from local antiquarian societies, and from a new sense of identity exemplified by the creation of county councils in 1889. The continuing neglect of archives was highlighted by the Commission on Local Records, 1899–1901 and the Royal Commission on Public Records, 1910–19. The First World War prevented serious progress, heightened fears about archival losses, and awakened more interest in contemporary history.(5)
Pressure for action grew, in the IHR and through the creation of the British Records Association (1932) and Business Archives Council (1934). A handful of counties had established their own record offices by 1939 but after more archival losses in the Second World War local authorities began to make more systematic provision, and record offices gradually appeared in every county. This process was completed only in the 1980s.
The National Register of Archives (1945) under the auspices of the Historical Manuscripts Commission (HMC) (1869; since 2003 part of The National Archives) did much to raise awareness of the nature and whereabouts of archival sources and the extent of their accessibility. The addition of advisory duties to HMC's Warrant in 1959 paved the way for steadily improved access to private muniments.
3. The historian's awareness of archival sources
The muddle from which the history of Parliament in the Middle Ages is hardly yet delivered is largely due to the unhappy separation of academic history from that intensive and first-hand knowledge of the national archives on which it should be based.(6)
In assessing the credibility of historical output in earlier generations, including edited texts and their introductions, account must be taken of what the writer/editor knew from archival and other sources available at the time, but also of how archives have changed and scholarship moved on.
From the start the PRO published lists, indexes and calendars of its holdings. Bolder antiquarian readers such as Walter Rye (7) from the 1870s, joined the staff in spreading awareness through articles in daily newspapers and weekly, monthly and quarterly periodicals, as well as by editing transcripts for private publication or for national, local and subject-based archaeological and antiquarian societies.(8) From the end of the 19th century, academic historians, including several from the USA and other countries, joined in this advocacy in bibliographies, monographs and articles in academic history journals. By such means, many who never darkened the doors of the PRO nevertheless became familiar with its holdings.
The expansion and diversification of history as an academic discipline and the growing number of outlets for discussion among historians, including academic journals covering fields such as economic, ecclesiastical and social history, all served to raise awareness of the archival sources. In our own day there has been progressively more engagement between archive custodians of all kinds and the historians they serve.
4. The historian's ability, and willingness, to consult all the available sources.
A great deal of excellent historical work has been done, and is being done, without any need to read a single manuscript.(9)
It is more than doubtful if any authoritative historical work will ever again be published without copious notes referring to verifiable manuscript sources.(10)
One of the problems of working with Victorian culture is that so much of it survives: a jungle composed of records, documents, handbills, books, pamphlets, newspapers, diaries and wax cylinders awaits the researcher. And, to follow that analogy, those working in the field have tended to stick to the paths cut by those who have already passed the same way ... There is a mass of material in archives, libraries, private collections, waiting to be dragged back into public cognisance... (11)
At the beginning of this period it was widely felt, even in official circles, that there was no need to study original documents if a transcript or summary was available in print. Senior academics like E. A. Freeman at Oxford refused to engage in hack work among dirty archives, though fortunately some of their modern history graduates began to dip their toes in the water. There were no academic posts for most of these men to aspire to. Some, like the prolific and contentious J. H. Round, who tirelessly scoured the records as an independent scholar, were recruited to write for the VCH and DNB. Generations on, as the PhD became established, and especially through the work of the IHR, attitudes changed and engagement with archives became de rigueur. Full access, however, was often impaired by inadequate cataloguing.
Today's computer analysis of data sources, and electronic indexing and cataloguing of archives to a depth previously undreamt of, has opened up archives previously thought intractable on account of their bulk or inadequate description. The cross-fertilisation of archival data with that from other sources including archaeology, museums, journalism, literature and the fine arts, and many new web-based sources, has re-positioned archives as just one among many tools of the researcher's trade. So, with the progressive accumulation and opening up of the archives to research, an increasing challenge for today's historian is how to cope with, and select from, the prodigious quantity of material available for study. But happily this means that there is usually scope for several or many individuals to work in closely proximate fields.
No overall history of archives in Britain has yet been published, but many books and articles have covered aspects of the story, from medieval times to the present. A small selection is noted below. Periodicals such as Archives, the Journal of the Society of Archivists and Business Archives, as well as history periodicals, should be consulted.
In general, see the published Reports of the Deputy Keeper and (since 1958) the Keeper of Public Records.
John Cantwell, The Public Record Office, 1838–1958 (London, 1991).
John Cantwell, The Public Record Office, 1959–1968 (London, 2000).
V. H. Galbraith, An Introduction to the Use of the Public Records (Oxford, 1934).
V. H. Galbraith, Studies in the Public Records (London, 1948).
Aidan Lawes, Chancery Lane 1377–1977: the Strongbox of Empire (London, 1996) contains a useful selected bibliography.
The Records of the Nation, ed. G. H. Martin and Peter Spufford (Woodbridge, 1990).
In general, see HMC's Reports and Calendars, Secretary's Reports and Annual Reviews. There is as yet no official history of HMC.
R. H. Ellis, Manuscripts and Men (London, 1969).
Dick Sargent, 'The National Register of Archives: an international perspective', Historical Research: Special Supplement, 12 (1995).
L. C. Mullins, Texts and Calendars: an Analytical Guide to Serial Publications (London, 1958). And Texts and Calendars II (1983).
L. C. Mullins, A Guide to the Historical and Archaeological Publications of Societies in England and Wales 1901–1933 (London, 1968).
[Scotland] D. Stevenson, Scottish Texts and Calendars (London and Edinburgh, 1987).
Archives in Scotland have had a somewhat different development. A useful short history of the public records is included on the National Archives of Scotland website http://www.nas.gov.uk/about/history.asp
Patricia Bell and Freddy Stitt, 'George Herbert Fowler and county records', Journal of the Society of Archivists, 23, no. 2 (2002).
Roger H. Ellis and Peter Walne, Selected Writings of Sir Hilary Jenkinson (Gloucester, 1980).
Christopher Kitching, Archives: the Very Essence of our Heritage (Chichester, 1996).
Christopher Kitching, 'Public interest or private property? In celebration of private archives', Archives, 30 (2005), pp.1–12.
James R. Sewell, 'The position and evolution of the British municipal archive service within local administration', Janus, no. 2 (1989), pp. 5–13.
1873 A. C. Ewald, Our Public Records (London, 1873).
1888/1897 Walter Rye, Records and Record Searching (London, 1888; 2nd edn., 1897).
1900 C. Gross, The Sources and Literature of English History (1900).
1903 R. Gardiner and J. B. Mullinger, Introduction to the Study of English History (1st edn., London, 1881; 4th edn., 1903).
1920 A Repertory of British Archives, pt. 1: England, ed. Hubert Hall (London, 1920).
1925 Hubert Hall, British Archives and the Sources for the History of the World War (London, Oxford and New Haven, 1925).
1938 J. Weaver, The Material of English History (London, 1938).
1975B. Graves, A Bibliography of English History to 1485 (Oxford, 1975). Updates Gross (1900, see above).
1988–2002 British Archives: a Guide to Archive Resources in the United Kingdom, ed. J. Foster and J. Sheppard (1st edn., Basingstoke, 1988; 4th edn., 2002).
2003 Reader's Guide to British History, ed. David Loades (New York and London, 2003).
Today ARCHON directory, on The National Archives website http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk
The Blackwell Dictionary of Historians, ed. John Cannon and others (New York, 1988).
Doris S. Goldstein, 'The organizational development of the British historical profession 1884–1921', Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research, 55 (1982).
A. Humphreys, The Royal Historical Society,1868–1968 (London, 1969).
John Kenyon, The History Men (London, 1993).
Philippa Levine, The Amateur and the Professional: Antiquaries, Historians and Archaeologists in Victorian England, 1838–1886 (Cambridge, 1986).
T. Milne, 'History at the universities: then and now', History, 59 (1974), pp. 33–54.
Christopher Parker, The English Historical Tradition since 1850 (Edinburgh, 1990).