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Skip to 0 minutes and 13 secondsHELEN FISHER: Yeah, manuscripts or archives more broadly, well, they're primary source materials. They're usually unpublished and they're usually unique. And so archives are going to have been created by an individual or a group or an organisation in the course of their life or work, and then later on, they've been deemed to be worth keeping permanently for the purposes of research. But they're not created for the purposes of historical research, they're created by people in the course of what they're doing. And so as such, they can often provide a contemporary firsthand account of events, and they're really direct evidence of an event.

Skip to 0 minutes and 52 secondsEverything is a primary source material and they are direct evidence of something that's happened. And apart from anything else, you've got the physical evidence of the document itself, you can examine the actual document rather than looking at, say, a published source or a transcript that's been written down later on. You might look at something in the original document that's not been thought significant at the time or that might have been missed by a later editor or transcriber, for example. And sometimes you can look at something that's not already been studied before and find people.

Skip to 1 minute and 37 secondsResource material face to face means that you can touch the document, you can handle it, you can really examine the physical evidence of the document. And it's really a tangible survival of the past into the present, people's past experiences that you could then look at. And on the internet or as an edited edition or a transcript, things might be missed and people might interpret things slightly differently, but you can really go back to the source and put your own interpretation, do your own research.

Skip to 2 minutes and 13 secondsThis is a diary, a travel diary that was kept by Neville Chamberlain, who was a British politician and later prime minister just before the Second World War. And this is how we know about him, but this is part of a wider family archive that has been kept because members of that family were important politicians. But what it also includes is family material, like photographs, like diaries, like family letters that otherwise might not have been kept permanently. This is a diary that Neville kept as a young man of 20 on a quite extended tour of Egypt with his family in 1889 to 1890. And it's really interesting for what it includes about his own observations, his own experiences.

Skip to 2 minutes and 56 secondsHe's written detailed descriptions of going to various archaeological sites, sightseeing in Cairo, social events organised by British and Egyptian officials, and he's also done his own pen illustrations in here. So you can look at that for an account of the late 19th century British tourism in Egypt, attitudes towards tourism and the things that people are seeing there. Descriptions of archaeological sites, how that might have changed from the late 19th century and comparing that with now. And really, looking at family relationships as well, because one of his sisters was also on this tour.

Skip to 3 minutes and 35 secondsShe wrote her own diary, which although they did mostly the same things, they've got quite different views and opinions about what they saw, and they might have chosen to focus on different things as well. He might write in a lot of detail about one particular day. She doesn't write very much about that, but she is more interested in something else that happened, so you could fit all that together. You're looking at different people's contemporary experiences and what they chose to write down about his experiences. And you don't get the whole story, you get lots of different stories.

Skip to 4 minutes and 7 secondsI think this is a very interesting survival in that you wouldn't-- most people's view of Neville Chamberlain is of him in later life as an experienced politician. This view of him is of a young man of 20, quite shy, observes more than he speaks. But then he's having quite an interesting experience. He's being taken out of provincial Birmingham, he's going to Egypt, and he's having quite an extensive tour. They go through France and Italy on their way. And yeah, I think you can see more of the personal qualities of that individual rather than as a politician.

Skip to 4 minutes and 49 secondsWe've talked about manuscripts, but archives in general can be, as we said, diaries, letters, and minute books, reports, accounts. You can look at maps and plans, you can look at audio and video recordings, you can even look at artwork, so there's a massive variety of archive material to be studied. Depending on what you're looking at, you can use them for family history, you could use them for local history, you could use them across a range of subjects areas, really-- literature, history, social sciences, theology, art music-- to really examine any sort of aspect of those subjects.

The value of original research

When watching the film consider these points:

  • What kinds of research can be done with original manuscripts?
  • How do collections of archives and manuscripts add to our knowledge of history?
  • What can we learn from original manuscripts that can’t be found in books or on the web?
  • What do original manuscripts tell us about the actual writer and / or contemporary subject?
  • Are there any downsides to using original source material for research?

In the film, Dr Fisher uses the example of a travel diary written by Neville Chamberlain during his tour of Egypt in 1889-1890 to illustrate how primary source material can offer up a different view of an historical figure.

This diary includes his own sketches, and his detailed observations on what he saw, and descriptions of the archaeological sites and cities he visited, and so is evidence of his experiences as a young man of 20, travelling with his family, giving his personal views at this time in his life, as opposed to the views that most people might have of him as a politician in his later life.

The diary is part of a wider family archive that has survived and has been preserved because of the political careers and the public life of members of that family, but it also contains diaries, personal correspondence, and photographs that can be used for research in a number of different areas: 19th century tourism, for example, and family relationships. There are references to other members of the family who also went on this tour, and the archive includes a travel diary written by Neville’s sister, Ida, during the same trip, which focuses on different activities and contains her own observations.

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This video is from the free online course:

The Birmingham Qur'an: Its Journey from the Islamic Heartlands

University of Birmingham