The Borthwick Institute for Archives is the third section to York’s university library, and it’s arguably my favourite part! Although the shelves stacked full of literature and academic books in the Morell building are impressive, I can’t not have a preference for Borthwick, being a history student and all.
What makes Borthwick so special?
It’s in Borthwick that I first felt like I was really engaging with my subject in a wider sphere, looking at evidence from the everyday lives of people in history, that at the time did not think their letter or film ticket would become so valuable.
My first encounter with Borthwick was halfway through first year – although my lecturers had always spoken about it being a place to check out! I’d been loads of times to the building itself to study in the quiet zones (a good place to get my reading done!), but I hadn’t interacted with the archives.
Each week, we were usually encouraged to look at primary sources while doing the preparatory reading for seminars, but these were all digitalised. So you can understand my excitement when I was able to look at the evidence in person, touching the very pages that someone would have held years ago.
Exploring the archives with lecturers
I’ve been lucky enough to explore the archives with, Dr Victoria Hoyle, a lecturer in public history. She kindly showed me, and a small group of other students, some of the more precious archives that we couldn’t touch – with some under stronger protective coverings.
To begin with, we were shown a large book including maps of various English counties, showing how their land used to be divided and who owned what. I found this really interesting, as we were able to make links between the density of the counties and their geographical location within England. We inferred that those with more arable land appealed more to landowners within a society based on agriculture. It was also interesting to see how certain areas were incredibly divided, with small plots of land – hinting at the social hierarchies and economic practices of the time.
Although they bear some resemblance to some counties today, it was exciting to see the drastic changes and how far we have come today! Seeing these primary sources helped me in a module on English kingship, in which we explored the idea of a Feudal society. I was better able to visualise the hierarchies and importance of land ownership discussed in my seminars.
No one said I’d need to know Latin!
My experience also showed me some of the challenges of history and using written primary sources as evidence. For example, we looked at a book on the property and items listed for certain homeowners, but these were in Latin – a language I’ve unfortunately not studied! Nevertheless, it was interesting to look at the handwriting and drawings of the author, comparing how these sorts of records are becoming lost within our commodified and digitised age.
Seeing this source first-hand encouraged me to think more about the challenges for historians in terms of language barriers. Even the act of translating and transcribing sources can add further bias and challenge.
People have always been trying to sell you things…
I went on to look at a book of advertisements that had been carefully put together by the Archival Team. My favourite from these were the chocolate bar advertisements. I found it crazy how some linked their product to being a necessity, like the well-known slogan: ‘An apple a day keeps the doctor away’. I’m not sure they’d be able to say that now! It was also exciting to look at the chocolate bars first made in York by Rowntree’s (now Nestlé), like Yorkie’s and Aero bars!
What also struck me, was the use of women in advertising – notably young, well-dressed and beautiful women – who were becoming objectified by businesses in their aim to sell their products. This is something I then drew parallels with one of my option modules on Republican Shanghai. In this module, we looked at how women during the booming consumer culture almost became commodities themselves in a bid to advertise the commodity on sale.
Linking the resources in the archives to my studies has been a highlight of my degree so far. I’d also particularly recommend a module on American History, which I’ve just finished. I’ve loved exploring the speeches, campaign posters and media images of the time and hope to explore these further within the Borthwick Archive, and potentially use these for later studies! If you have the opportunity like me to see the Archives, seize it! Or, create the chance and ask one of your academics! They love to see students going beyond the reading lists and showing a real passion for history!
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