There are many skills a historian acquires: distilling information, debates and arguments; finding, reading and analyzing primary sources; writing and publishing research; dressing smart but casual; finding obscure conference venues; looking marginally interested in endless administrative meetings (with full knowledge that each second saps a small piece of our zest for life – See here for helpful advice: Rules for a Successful Meeting). Our skills are fine tuned primarily in the archives, that’s where the most fun is to be had. That’s nirvana, where all the good stuff is.
At Northampton we introduce history students to these gems as early as possible because we want them to research history rather than just study it. In that spirit we organize lots of visits to archives, museums and libraries.
We offer trips for our second and third year students to the National Archives, the British Library, the London Metropolitan Archives, the Wellcome Library, Bletchley Park and the Imperial War Museum.
Our first years begin more locally by visiting three archives in Northampton: the National Leather Collection, Northamptonshire Central Library and Searchlight (University of Northampton). This is part of our first year skills module, ‘Themes and Perspectives.’
The students made some interesting discoveries this year. One group found an innocuous looking leather-bound cane in the National Leather Collection, only to discover (to the tutor’s alarm) that there was a sharp blade concealed within: this was a sword cane, of the type often carried by British military officers in India.
Another group used the a microfiche reader in the Central Library to look at Northamptonshire General Hospital’s birth records, and one student found his own record in there. Microfiche readers are old technology – none of the students had used one before – but they are still useful for consulting large datasets like newspapers and the census.
We also explore digital archives. The US Holocaust Memorial Museum’s oral history deposits are a particular favourite: US Holocaust Memorial Oral History. We aim to show students the great quality and volume of sources available to them. We want to equip them with all the skills they will need to succeed in their studies.
The students blog on their visits and the module concludes with a public poster presentation on campus. In groups the students summarize their experiences and their findings in the poster and answer questions from the audience. It’s a nerve-racking experience but a tremendously valuable and rewarding one.
This year the students chose to focus on topics including W.J. Basset-Lowke (Northants businessman), Charles Bradlaugh (MP for Northampton), Poor Houses and Northamptonshire Hospital, Tunderbolt (a Far Right magazine), and Spencer Percival (MP for Northampton, PM 1809-1812, assassinated 1812). All of them local themes with national significance and context.
The students were struck by the diversity of primary sources in each archive (material objects as well as documents). They appreciated the value of handling original documents, as students often do in this digital age. They were interested in the range of different archives available and the numbers of people accessing and using them (note to Northamptonshire Council: Council Spending Cuts).
In their second year these students will hone their research talents on the ‘Research Skills’ module. Finally in the third year they are let loose on their own dissertation project. Topics this year have ranged from courtship ballads in the seventeenth century to Comintern control of Harry Pollitt (General Secretary of the Communist Party of Great Britain, 1929-56).
When they graduate students tell us that researching their dissertations was the best part of their experience as students. We’re with you on that! Researching is not an addition to academic life, it’s a crucial part of what we do. The closest-range social impact that research has is to enrich the experience of our students.
Mark Rothery – Senior Lecturer in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century History
Matthew McCormack – Professor of History