One of the most common misconceptions about archives is that they are dark and dusty places frequented only by scholars studying medieval texts. Nothing could be further from the truth. In my experience they are bright, clean, and welcoming places with helpful, knowledgeable staff and a massive range of archive material.
Record offices house many different types of archive: books, photographs, maps, newspapers, and so on. But it’s the parchment or vellum documents, those deeds that look as if they haven’t been touched for centuries that are my favourites. Some are rolled, and crackle ominously as you gingerly open them. Others are folded into neat rectangles and may only have been opened a couple of times since they were written. Occasionally you come across a huge bundle of papers that burst out of their wrapping and unfold themselves as you untie them, and you have to call for assistance to get them back into their box.
I suppose it is inevitable that people equate ‘old documents’ with ‘dusty’ on the grounds that papers left lying around in a seldom-visited attic or cellar are usually covered in cobwebs. And it’s true that some original documents are grubby. But I’ve yet to see a bundle of documents emit the clouds of dust so loved by film directors.
What’s important is that archives preserve documents and store them in the best possible conditions. Not a cobweb in sight. And what’s really great is that, after a few formalities, anyone can look at this material and touch history. Just remember to wash your hands afterwards.