On an Ecstatic Return to the Archives

By Beth Potter

As I write this, by hand at first to keep things loose and free, I sit before a document on my laptop screen, a dense 39 pages of notes. Its title is ‘BBC Written Archives visit’, and I compiled it in early September during three intense – enriching, nourishing, project-broadening, but intense – days in Caversham a few weeks ago, during which my neck cracked a thousand times and no amount of shoulder rolls saved my back from the archive ache.

The visit was long-awaited, and came almost exactly a year after I first requested material from the BBC Written Archives Centre (WAC). It felt, to be sure, ecstatic, as my supervisor had hinted it might, to be back sifting through old letters and carbon-copied memo papers, my clean hands gaining a film of tacky archive dust as I leafed my way through stacks of cardboard files.

File held in the BBC Written Archives Centre (WAC). A cover note reads: “THIS FILE HAS BEEN VETTED AND DECLARED OPEN FOR RESEARCH” (photo and caption credit: Beth Potter)

But now I’m back, at a desk, frontloaded with all the photographs (3,186 in the folder, I just checked) and notes I could accumulate in those three short days, I don’t feel very ecstatic at all; I feel daunted. What was a (paradoxically?) stiff-bodied but lively few days soaking up the experience of the archive – noting who came and went, what conversations I had with the archivists or other researchers, what things smelt like (horribly, beautifully, almost-mouldy) – has become a list of pixels on a screen again. I’ll have to read it all back through again, remember it all again, make myself experience it all again, all 39 pages and 3,186 photographs of it, I think, but this time in pixel form. And I’ve had enough of pixels this year.

I’m grateful, though, to my archive self who, true to her name, archived the archive as she went…

This is an extract from a piece published at the Performance@King’s research network website, which can be found at https://blogs.kcl.ac.uk/performance/2021/10/22/on-an-ecstatic-return-to-the-archives/.

Beth Potter is a PhD student working between the English and History departments at King’s. Her research focuses on popular performance, especially circus, music hall, and early film. She also has keen interests in the theory of cultural institutions, the politics of the archive, and histories of British imperialism.

Blog posts on King’s English represent the views of the individual authors and neither those of the English Department, nor of King’s College London.

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