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September 17, 2012
What was the objective you set yourself?
I hoped to be able to be effectively able to locate, read and contextualise archival sources which I accessed at the National Archives.
What actions did you take to achieve it?
I made sure to complete the full induction and training programmes at the National Archives. This enabled me to learn how best to use the cataloguing system there and how to handle fragile documents. When I was unable to read a particular word, I read through the document seeking to resolve the word through the sense of the paragraph. I also tried through process of elimination to establish what letter a symbol could represent, by scanning the document to see how that author wrote particular letters. In a few cases I consulted expert members of staff for help. In terms of contextualisation there was usually an excellent paragraph on the database system summing up the themes the document addressed.
How do you know you have achieved your goal?
Initially, and as anticipated, I had a few problems reading the eighteenth century handwriting, but with practice and some guidance from staff, I was able to decipher practically every word. The long-winded sentences of the period meant however that making sense of the paragraphs was also slightly problematic. I resolved this by typing up what I read as I progressed and then reading over what I had typed.
I feel that I located and read some very germane and fascinating documents, which enabled me to begin to answer some of the complex questions I had set myself. Considering the eminent historian Nicolas Rogers has written that the National Archives sources on impressment are a ‘virtual black hole’, I consider this no mean feat.
What new or existing skills have you developed as a result of achieving this objective?
I have gained much confidence finding and using relevant first hand sources from a huge mass of documents from the eighteenth century, which I had previously considered the domain of established and expert professors. I am also now much better able to read and make sense of scripts from the eighteenth century.
How will these support your research project, studies or career?
This ability to locate, read and contextualise original documents is certainly invaluable skill for future study. I also see it having application in research which is not necessarily purely academic, such as that for political organisations and journalism.
If you were to set yourself the same objective again, what would you do differently?
One of the major problems I had was that I assumed all of the sources I would need would be stored at the National Archives, as they were all listed on the National Archives catalogue. However, some of the most germane sources were located at the Caird Library in the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich. This was unfortunately closed from the beginning of July to the middle of September as a result of the Olympics and Paralympics. If I were to do it again, I would have tried to have accessed or ordered the documents from this library before starting my project. I would possibly also have extended my time at the National Archives, as there really was almost an infinite amount of fascinating information.