A Treasure Chest of British Political Memory: The Churchill Archives Centre
I have always had a thing for small archives. Big national archives have many advantages, they host a vast range of collections, they have mostly long opening hours and very quick turnaround. They seem to offer good value for money for researchers calculating precious time and travel expenses. However, there’s lots to be discovered in the seemingly smaller archives. And amidst small archives, the Churchill Archives Centre is a giant, a treasure chest of the British Political memory.
The Churchill Archive Centre is part of Churchill College, Cambridge, named after the wartime prime minister. Despite – or, as the college will argue, because of – its namesake, the college’s focus is on science and technology. Winston Churchill’s own fields of expertise, history and politics, were honoured by introducing an archival centre, intended to once archive his own legacy and private papers of many more. Presumably the most famous political figures represented here by their private papers are Churchill himself – and Margaret Thatcher. But just as intriguing are the private papers of many of those working in the second and third row of politics and international affairs: Secretaries of State and Under-Secretaries, Advisors, Members of Parliaments, Secretaries, Diplomats – and, furthermore, academics, liaison officers, press officers and others. As usual with private papers, the collections range from a few boxes with random letters or papers to extensive correspondence, diaries, photographs.
While – as politics in the 20th Century – mostly featuring men, collections of female MPs were recently drawn into the spotlight with a featured exhibition. Beyond written sources, the Churchill Archives Centre also include objects, such as Thatcher’s handbag, as well as an extensive data bank: the British Diplomatic Oral History Programme, a collection of interviews with former diplomats, started in 1995. Some of their images are collected in their Flickr account. The Churchill papers, central to the archives, are even accessible online, though behind a paywall (you might have access via your university or academic library). Eager to engage with the public, the Churchill Archives Centre also uses the usual suspects of social media, among them Twitter and Instagram.
The most significant advantage of small archives however is, to my mind, instant access to archival staff. Any questions about sources that may come up when going through collections (who added handwritten annotations in a diary? who made these scrap books included in the collection?) can be answered within minutes by staff who has closely worked with the collections themselves. Since small archives also mean fewer readers in the comparatively small reading room, there is also more time to answer these queries. Finally, reading, documents (as in my case, Second World War Foreign Office staff diaries) next to the shelves of their enclosed library enables you to compare originals with edited versions and look up related biographies and secondary literature on their shelves – at least to take notes for home, if time flies by too quickly, as it surely will.