Yesterday was the training day for Early Career Researchers at The National Archives (TNA), which was aimed at those who are doing advanced archival research into the period 1200-1500. It was a greatly thought-provoking day for me, as someone who has been working on household records and who has dipped her toes into the world of medieval central government. I thought that some of the discussions that arose had relevance to all postgraduates or postdoctoral researchers whose work depends on specialised skills and knowledge. I thought I’d write a blog post to summarise some of the discussions and so extend them beyond the group of people in the room (as that was one of the aims of the day for those who were leading the workshop).
One of the key points that was re-iterated time and time again by Nick Barratt and James Ross of TNA was exactly how much uncharted territory there is within the mass of medieval material that is held at Kew. This should be music to the ears of every postgraduate or postdoc who is looking for an original research project, or any tutor who is seeking dissertation topics for their undergraduate or master’s students. For example, James Ross gave a very interesting talk about the medieval legal records at TNA, which are largely untranscribed and unedited (aside from selected materials published by the Selden Society). He showed us a single court record of books that were confiscated from a church in Essex in the fifteenth century. He highlighted how rich this single document was in information about the social, religious and political history of the fifteenth century. There is apparently a project underway to transcribe and translate these documents and publish them digitally, so that historians can mine them for the material that they contain. I really hope this resource gets funded and on-the-tracks, because I would most certainly use it.
This leads me to the other key point of the day. Legal or administrative records, often existing only in their original manuscript form at Kew, often in Anglo-Norman or Latin, represent insurmountable obstacles to researchers unless they are adequately equipped with specialist research skills.
Firstly, students and researchers need basic archival knowledge. We need to how the documents were written and compiled in the medieval period and so what kind of information they are likely to contain. What are the Pipe Rolls? How are they arranged? How do they relate to the Receipt Rolls? Secondly, we need to have the language and palaeography skills to be able to decipher and interpret these documents. This can be tricky, since Ph.D programmes are already demanding: research and write a thesis, plus teach, PLUS publish, PLUS apply for jobs. Where exactly do students fit in the archival training courses, Latin classes and palaeography practice?
I think the consensus was that training should begin early. There were some successful examples of Latin being taught at undergraduate level – though I am not sure I would have taken it myself, as a confused and somewhat directionless undergraduate! The Master’s year is also integral to the development of these specialist skills, in order to hit the ground running at the beginning of a Ph.D. But equally, we all decided that it is not crucial to develop all of the skills at the same time. It is okay to concentrate on your palaeography at the expense of your Latin, or your Anglo-Norman at the expense of your palaeography. Because, as one person pointed out “nobody can be good at everything” (though we all probably know some exceptions to the rule!) Skills can, and are, built up as a continuum – some at undergraduate level, some at master’s, some at Ph.D and beyond. The important thing is to make the training available to those who want and need it.
Which brings me on to my final point. I proposed to the group that maybe too much emphasis was being put upon what institutions can offer to ‘us’ as students or early-career researchers, and not enough on what we can offer to each other. I was not suggesting that universities should shirk their responsibility to train students, but that we researchers should be more proactive in training ourselves alongside the training we are offered. This was something that a good friend and I hit upon after attending the recent Digital Humanities Oxford Summer School: what if we could train each other? Not all early career researchers are affiliated to an institution – many are looking for jobs or in alternative employment. Not all postgraduates can afford, or get funding, to go to the expensive palaeography summer schools. Yet it is these people that need the training most. So, my friend and I decided that it would be great to organise a formalised meeting of postgraduates and Early Career Researchers, at which they would exchange their knowledge and skills and so train each other. The panelists at The National Archives workshop seemed enthusiastic about the idea, and even suggested potential funding opportunities. I’d be interested to hear the opinions of others, and expressions of interest – because I have renewed vigour to make the most of researcher-led proactivity and initiative.