20 May 2020
Viral: Locked out of the Archive
20 May 2020
One of the rewards of being Lincoln Archivist is that I have the privilege of handling some of the oldest objects in the College’s collections. But the strongroom doors have recently needed to stay locked. So what have I been doing while I have been locked out of the archive?
Luckily, we have been working on our emergency response plans in College, including the Archive. I doubt that any of us had considered the ‘global pandemic’ section very likely when written, but very useful it became. As with most aspects of College life, the Porters are the heroes of the piece and check the strongrooms regularly. I have also been able to make one visit to check that the collections were safe, cool, and dry whilst not being eaten by rats or silverfish. Reports of rodents marauding through New York City now that residents are not dining out had permeated my dreams, and I pictured horrific scenes of our twelfth century deeds munched clean through. Luckily, our insect traps revealed only a few plump spiders.
My colleagues and I have been able to work on some projects remotely. Oliver Snaith is cataloguing Lincoln's literary and scientific papers, and we wanted to keep momentum going until the project finishes at the end of September. He photographed as much material as he could before locking the door behind him. Our postgraduate assistant, Alice, had already returned home and can work remotely on developing place, subject, and names indexing in the archive catalogues. Want to see descriptions of all the entries relating to Front Quad, or the written legacy of all Rectors? Alice has made this happen. The archive team has stayed in touch during weekly virtual meetings, and it is unbelievably cheering to see their faces and discuss all things archival. While I have had to postpone research visits, a conservation survey of the College’s works of art, and a cataloguing placement for a current archive Master’s student, I have been able to answer some research enquiries. Others have had to make do with a holding reply and a promise of future help.
The Oxford Archivists Consortium meets termly to discuss professional issues, and even more regularly to have a chat in the pub. These informal meetings have gone virtual, and one coincided with my trip to the archive last month. The friendly array of reference books in my office and the strongroom door made some of my fellow archivists feel nostalgic: 'Actual rolling stacks!' one gasped.
Working with historic records is very reassuring in times like these. The long view - through Lincoln’s archives - reveals that sixteenth and seventeenth century periods of plague were dealt with in a strikingly similar fashion to the coronavirus. The Medium Registrum tells us that 'sickness is very dangerously spread abroad in Oxford' and the 'assembly of a multitude might hazard the spreading of the infection'. The Fellows closed College and retreated to the countryside – early modern social distancing and household isolation.
While it is great to know how well the catalogues work to enable virtual access, nothing will replace the feeling of welcoming researchers through the doors. Current work feels less curatorial than I would like, but that will only deepen the joy of throwing open the strongrooms again to hold College history in my hands when the new normal eventually begins.