An amateur’s trip to the archives (Part 1)

A guest post by Lu Tolu. Lu is one of 11 community curators working with the People’s History Museum on our new exhibition on the fight for LGBT+ rights.

Call log books

Before starting this project, the first and only time I visited an archive was in Malta with my grandfather, more than 10 years ago. I remember the archive as very imposing with dusty paper catalogues, and large bound volumes carted around on trolleys in spacious halls. With only that memory to go off I felt like quite an impostor when I visited the archives at the Bishopsgate Institute. Could I belong in such a space?

So I apologised profusely as I introduced myself to the archive staff; I really didn’t want them to think that I knew what I was doing. Luckily they were all extremely helpful and ready to answer all my questions. Before starting I had to fill in a straightforward two page registration form and pop my things into a locker. Then they asked me whether I was looking for anything in particular. I was dreading that question. How could I know what I was looking for until I found it? I mumbled “I’m, ehm…, interested in the Stonewall archives”. Apparently that was a sensible answer. I was therefore shown to the digital catalogues where I could refine my search for specific files or boxes. With reference numbers in hand I then submitted requests to the staff so that they could bring out the boxes for me to explore.

I took a highly random approach, selecting three boxes that seemed interesting. Once I settled down with the documents I immediately lost all fears of not belonging as I became fully engrossed in what I was reading. One box led to another and rather unexpectedly, after three and a half hours, I had explored stories around a similar theme (actions against corporations) and also came across a potential object for the exhibition. Reliable sources have informed me that not all trips to an archive are as successful as that. So I am really glad I had such an enjoyable first experience, and hope it will be repeated!

Some tips based on my experience at Bishopsgate:

  • Look up the archive’s catalogues online before you visit so you have a starting point for the day. But know that some of the archive’s records may not yet be digitally catalogued. Also check out the archive’s policies, some archives (like Bishopsgate) don’t require booking or prior registration but other (larger ones) might!
  • Do speak with the archive staff. If they work there they love what they do, so they would be willing to talk about it! That’s how I found out about some of the more interesting material that the Bishopsgate Institute had in their collections.
  • Don’t worry if you’re not sure what you’ll find in a box or file. Requesting a box but returning it after 5 minutes carries no shame.
  • Be open to the paths that the boxes may take you down.
  • Do take a note pad, camera and a pencil with you. Though do ask about photograph policy before taking any photos.
  • Finally, if you are visiting Bishopsgate archives check out their Lesbian and Gay Switchboard boxes. They have some fascinating log books of the calls the Switchboard received over the years. The first three log books from 1975 are amazing.

Continue reading: Come back for Part 2 where Lu describes what they found out on their visit

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