History of health, medicine and naval history
I admit that as a historian, writer, lecturer and archivist, I am biased.
Yet that bias gives me an insight into archives’ importance for understanding not only the past but also the present. Archives help us to understand what has happened in all its true complexities and avoid the mistakes of the past.
For one of my books I looked at the original archive material relating to the Tuskegee Experiment in which black American sharecroppers were denied treatment for syphilis in order to study the long-term effects of the disease. To my horror it wasn’t a simplistic case of racism but started out from the best of intentions from progressive doctors, but became perverted by institutional pressures.
If we understand how something like that can happen, we can be aware of the dangers in similar situations and try to avoid them. Without archives we wouldn’t have known what actually happened.
Archives are not élitist and not about élites. Recently, I have been doing some research on to the use of Ely House in Holborn as a naval hospital during the Commonwealth period. It may have been built as a townhouse for the Bishops of Ely, but it is perhaps most interesting when it was requisitioned for treating ordinary wounded sailors.
As an example of what a good small local authority archive can do, Camden Local Studies and Archives has done a lot of work on the story of Little Italy which has connected with local people of all classes whose origins lie in that immigrant community. There is great potential for using the archives with school children.
Archives a luxury? Surely, a necessity for the good society.