BY JOSHUA TAVENOR
Travelling to research is often a key component of completing a dissertation, particularly in history. While digitization has made a wealth of material available on the internet, much of the meat and potatoes of historical research, primary sources, are only available in archives and libraries, necessitating travel. In June 2014 I travelled to the United Kingdom to access five archives to do just this. Over the month I collected some 12,800 documents by photograph and took 100 pages of transcripts and notes, creating the source base for my dissertation. This was made possible by funding from the Lorimer Travel Scholarship, a Faculty of Graduate and Post-Doctoral Studies research scholarship and employment as a Research Assistant. In addition to collecting data, researching abroad was also a chance to think about my work and the importance of place for historical research and writing.
Preparing for the trip was an enormous task in and of itself. On top of practical concerns, understanding what and where sources were available, what I would need to access them, and how best to use my time was a major consideration. Sorting out these research issues made up the majority of my preparation with emailing archivists, comparing archival holdings and digital collections in Canada, and exploring the holdings of different archives across the United Kingdom becoming a daily task. I eventually narrowed down to the National Archives and British Library in London, the University of Nottingham’s archives, the Plymouth and West Devon Record Office and the Devon Record Office in Exeter. Each of these archives held different types of materials, such as government records at the National Archives and business correspondence at Nottingham, allowing me to collect both a significant quantity and breadth of sources.
My main method of collecting archival material was photographing documents using a Canon point-and-shoot with no flash. I found that black and white photography on a low ISO setting (80-200) produced the best results. This method not only allowed me to collect an enormous amount of material, it also gave me the opportunity to explore documents that I would not have had the time to look at without the use of a camera. The results of this flexibility were significant; I was able to follow up on a series of documents leading to interesting and unexpected finds that I would have not had the time to investigate otherwise.
While gathering primary sources was the main goal of the trip, it was certainly not the only benefit. Visiting archives, particularly town record offices, was an excellent opportunity to experience the places central to my research. By coincidence, my time researching in Plymouth coincided with Lord Mayor’s Day, a holiday marking the merger of Plymouth with Stonehouse and Devonport as well as celebrating Plymouth’s place as a hub for English and Atlantic history. This was a great opportunity to see the city and learn more about it beyond the scope of my own research. Seeing how important this history was to locals helped me to view my own research as part of a broader cultural narrative, rather than just a historical question I am attempting to answer.
Plymouth: a combination of industrial fishing port, vacation spot and military base tied together by a history of exploration and trade.