Archives Etiquette, protocols and other respectful practices

A seen on TV …

I’ve just finished watching another highly intriguing and masterfully produced episode in the BBC series ‘Who do you think you are?’ In tonight’s Prime TV (NZ) screeing the UK celebrity Davina McCall traces the lives and works of illustrious men in both England and France, from whom she is descended.

Her first research stop was at National Archives, Kew, London. No surprises in that – except to say, once inside, she and the professional researcher who had undertaken to locate the appropriate records  for the programme were filmed not in a regular reading room, but in the stacks, no less! Fair go, BBC: this is hardly cricket! We mere mortals who aren’t celebs, who aren’t posing in front of a video camera to record what will enjoy global distribution – well, at least through various parts of the British origin, English-speaking diaspora – we mere mortals of research toil would never be admitted to the stack area of National Archives to view our eagerly-sought documentary treasure. That’s probably because people of our ilk aren’t ‘celebs’. At best, we’re more infamous than famous.

And as if giving the impression that researchers could view precious documents in an alleyway between  mobile shelving systems in the hallowed halls of the Kew stacks wasn’t enough, in the next repository there’s Davina twiddling a ballpoint pen in yet another reading room as she waits for the hard copy of a 19th century newspaper to be delivered to her reading table. Ballpoint pen – indeed! I can hear every archivist and manuscript reading room invigilator in the universe positively shrieking in an otherwise demurely muted upper register: NO pens, please. This is a PENCIL ONLY room.

Davina seems to have heard their muted shrieks, for the offending ballpoint is conspicuous by its absence from the next camera shot. But wait – there’s more: our celebrity heroine transgresses, yet again. In the next sequence, the hapless Davina sprawls excitedly and exuberently across the pages of the ancient newspaper as only one so accustomed to featuring so prominantly in the media could. Elbows, arms, hands and excitedly pointing fingers mount a collective assault on the delicate printed page. When these human appendages have done all in their power to identify, express and extol the worth of the newly elucidated discoveries, one final blow is delivered. It comes in the form of a small, framed image, withdrawn by Davina from a shoulderbag which lesser researching mortals would have obediently consigned to a locker in the repository’s entrance foyer. This framed image she then presses triumphantly on to the surface of the already significantly assaulted, aforesaid, delicate printed page.

What I’m attempting to deliver in this humourously intended, light-hearted, tongue-in-cheek review is a description of how not to breach the archives researcher’s code of conduct: at all times one must defer to etiquette, protocol and other respectful practices, irrespective of who you think you are. 

All that said, this was yet another damned fine episode in yet another equally damned fine BBC series. I even walked the dogs earlier than usual to be home in time to watch.

By Dr Jennie Coleman

29 March 2010

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