We had a guided tour of the local archives this week. It’s one thing to use the search room, and tap into the expertise of the staff who patiently help us unravel our lines of research, quite another to be given a tour of the store-rooms that support that.
I usually go in with a list of prepared questions, and though I often find my ideas morphing into new areas, they’re always linked to my original enquiry. Monday, I got a glimpse of the archivists archives, which meant not just a better understanding of how much material is held, and the practical aspects of storage, we were shown some of the backroom favourites from the collections.
This meant stories, and lots of them. Some were about the origins of the artefacts, others about the finding or donating of them. What stood out for me? A document fragment that is kept between two pieces of Perspex. It looks like any other old piece of writing, until you hold the page up to the light – and see how, with age, the ink has become so acidic that it is dissolving the paper. The top rows of words are perforations, and if the page hadn’t been protected by the Perspex, the slightest touch would have caused it to disintegrate.
Back in the days before biro pens, or bottles of Quink or even Swan Ink, people wanting to write cut pens from goose quills or reeds, and made ink by mixed crushed oak galls and iron pyrite in wine or vinegar, which seems to have been fine on parchment, but then paper was developed.
It took time for the problem with the ink to be discovered, and not all documents suffer in the same way. The damage depends on how much the colour has been watered down.
This leads me to two strands of thought, first is the reminder about writing on the backs of photos in soft pencil rather than biro – aargh, if only I’d known that years ago.
The other is the permanence or otherwise of our wise words. I keep hearing how everything we put on the net is there to stay. Some say this as a warning, others with a sense of wonder.
Perhaps they’re right, but is it too early to tell yet?