Frustration and Grief in the Archives

By Gordon D. Raeburn, Honorary Research Fellow, The University of Western Australia

In 2016, while teaching at The University of Melbourne with my colleague Dr Lisa Beaven, we arranged a guest lecture from Dr Tim Jones (from La Trobe University), who addressed the subject of confronting our own emotions when conducting research. In this talk Dr Jones dealt with subjects likely to provoke profound grief at the pain experienced by another human being. Yet, while this is a serious topic, ripe for further discussion, it is not the only way in which our emotions can be provoked when spending time in the archives, or even simply planning a research project. Many academics will remember emotions provoked by archives, such as being confronted with an illegible record, despite hours of practice in palaeography. Perhaps the sheer scale of a task, the volume of archives, proved daunting. Or, in my own case, the opposite problem.

Left to right: Dr Tim Jones, Dr Lisa Beaven and Dr Gordon Raeburn. 4 October 2016, The University of Melbourne

In the early stages of my PhD research at the University of Durham I frequently came up against a strange paucity of records. The reason for this being due, in part, to poor standards of preservation in years past. In 1762 a memorial was produced regarding this issue. In it the state of the records was made clear, as were the fears and anxieties that this provoked in those tasked with preserving the records. The memorial stated that the ‘Records of Scotland in their present situation are daily exposed to many accidents which tis impossible for the Keepers, with their utmost care, to prevent.’[1] The memorial goes on to note that the offices holding the records were short on space, and index-keeping was sloppy at best, while rats and mice were responsible for substantial damage.[2] Overflow storage space was damp, with the records simply kept in boxes on the floor, while in another office coal was stored among the records.[3] Elsewhere records were stored below the kitchen of a private family, which often leaked water down onto them.[4] All of which ultimately led to the destruction of a substantial number of records, despite warnings of this kind. This, then, was particularly frustrating as it had clearly been recognised that there was a problem, but that no solution had presented itself in time. To know that some of the information I sought had once existed but had been allowed to degrade beyond the point of usefulness, was almost rage inducing. Ultimately, however, these records could not be resurrected. In a way, it was satisfying to know that a record of the records continued to exist in the form of the aforesaid memorial, serving therefore as a monument to what had been lost, and the stories that could no longer be told.

Stefan Vukotic, Photo of League of Nations archives in the John D. Rockefeller Jr. League of Nations and UNOG Archives Reading Room in Geneva, Switzerland, 11 February 2020, Wikimedia Commons
Stefan Vukotic, Photo of League of Nations archives in the John D. Rockefeller Jr. League of Nations and UNOG Archives Reading Room in Geneva, Switzerland, 11 February 2020, Wikimedia Commons

Unfortunately, accidental destruction of records still occurs. In 2021 a fire substantially damaged the main library of the University of Cape Town, destroying many unique and irreplaceable items. The New York Times described the fire as ‘a devastating blow to the world’s archives of Southern African history.’[5] The emotional impact of the loss is clear in a quote from UCT vice chancellor Mamokgethi Phakeng, when she stated ‘We are of course devastated about the loss of our special collection in the library, it’s things that we cannot replace. It pains us, it pains us to see what it looks like now in ashes.’[6] The emotional damage was also reported in Nature:

“This archive is special for all sorts of reasons, and for me it’s because it includes collections which provide a record of the ordinary lives of ordinary people in the area – from working-class children to Black students attending night school,” says Sarah Emily Duff, a historian of South Africa based at Colby College in Waterville, Maine. “We lose that texture of everyday life and struggles with a catastrophe like this,” she adds.[7]

In this instance it was at least fortunate that certain protective measures recently installed by the university proved effective, and many significant records were saved, although the African Studies Published Print Collection was mostly destroyed, and the African Studies Film Collection DVDs were entirely destroyed.

Events such as these are not always accidental, unfortunately, and the loss of records can be particularly emotionally fraught when done intentionally. Perhaps the most famous example of this is the story of the destruction of the Library of Alexandria, in which Julius Caesar reportedly started a fire that would ultimately destroy over 40,000 scrolls. The truth of the matter is rather less spectacular, and it is possible that the library was barely damaged, let alone destroyed.[8] Yet the story, and the visceral emotional reaction to the idea of intentionally destroying a historical repository of such proportions, persist. The destruction was riffed upon in Terry Pratchett’s Small Gods (1992), and memes referencing the events are still regularly created.

MasterSarcasm, Alexandria Meme 1, created 6 February 2020, Imgur

From this it seems clear that the concept of burning scrolls or books, particularly those of a historical nature, still produces feelings of anger, grief, and even disgust in a modern audience.

And yet, this is a problem found even today, or at least a potential that is certainly feared. The Guardian recently reported upon the situation in the Philippines, where the son of infamous dictator Ferdinand Marcos Sr, Ferdinand ‘Bongbong’ Marcos Jr, is set to take power. The recent election was accompanied by a spate of revisionist history, portraying Marcos Sr’s rule as a time of glory and economic prosperity for the country. Marcos Jr has continually downplayed the realities of his father’s regime. All of which has led archivists to their current situation; scrabbling to save and preserve records before they can be covered up by the new president.[9] These records document the personal accounts of victims of the atrocities committed under Marcos Sr’s rule. They include details of rape, torture, and disappearances. It is vitally important that these records are preserved, and that the stories of the victims remain known. The fear among the survivors, and the archivists, is that the new regime will further revise history, altering or supressing as they see fit. Admittedly, this is a task made more difficult by the existence of international research networks, and international news reporting. It is known that these records exist. Indeed, the task is further complicated by the protection the records currently enjoy. Unfortunately, however, this is far from insurmountable. ‘The Human Rights Violations Victims’ Memorial Commission is a government agency. It is protected by law, says [executive director Carmelo] Crisanto, “but it can be starved.” Its budget is reviewed annually by Congress.’[10] Without the protection of a budget, without the maintenance of facilities designed to protect these records, many of which have yet to be digitised, it is not hard to imagine the damage that simply the hot, humid climate of the Philippines could inflict upon them. It is entirely possible that they need not be actively destroyed, as neglecting them will ultimately provide the same result in time. The wilful neglect, or active destruction, will harm the memories of those who suffered, and it will threaten the very identity of the country in years to come.

Which brings me to my current research, undertaken as an Honorary Research Fellow at The University of Western Australia. My current work focusses upon the wreck of the Tryall off the coast of Western Australia in 1622, which was the first English sighting of Australia, the first recorded wreck off Australia, and subsequently the first extended European stay in Australia, 400 years ago this year. Once again, however, I have come up against a frustrating lack of records, and once again, the reasons for this lack are known. The Tryall was an East India Company owned vessel, and a huge swathe of the records of the East India Company were intentionally destroyed in 1860 by the India Office, who retained only what they deemed to be of important historical relevance.[11] Ironically, considering the ephemeral nature of what is deemed historically relevant, the India Office destroyed what they considered ephemeral records, including those relating to the commercial operations of the East India Company. This is particularly galling in light of the fact that the East India Company had previously made provision for the care and preservation of their records. Of course, this does not mean that my project is unfeasible, but it does make it somewhat more difficult, and definitely more frustrating as I am aware that there are aspects to this story that I cannot now tell. The English, and later British East India Company was a decidedly problematic institution, with a painful legacy for large parts of the world, but it was also indisputably important in a historical context. The loss of these records is painful and denies us the ability to know more about the lives of those affected by its existence.

In many crucial ways, historical records serve as proof of existence and as proof of identity for those in the past, be that recent, such as in the case of the Philippines, or longer ago, such as in the case of my own research. An individual or group can be retroactively destroyed if all trace of identity is lost. Indeed, the intentional destruction of records is frequently performed with such a goal in mind. As can currently be seen in Xinjiang, China, it is not necessary to exterminate a population in order to commit genocide (which is not to suggest that Uyghurs are not suffering extreme violence and death at the hands of the state), it is merely necessary to destroy all traces of their identity. Through accidents, neglect, indifference, or outright hostility, the loss of archives is not only an emotional event for the researcher, it can be a fresh attack upon those communities represented in the archives, provoking anew emotions such as grief, anger, and fear. Protecting these records protects the memories and identities of individuals and communities throughout the world.


Gordon D. Raeburn obtained his PhD in Early Modern Scottish burial practices from the University of Durham in 2013, and also holds degrees from the University of Aberdeen and the University of Edinburgh. From 2014 to 2017 he was a postdoctoral research fellow in the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotion at The University of Melbourne. In 2018 he was the inaugural John Emmerson Research Fellow at the State Library of Victoria, Melbourne. In 2020 and 2021 he was a visiting tutor at Bishop Grosseteste University, Lincoln, UK. His research interests include early modern European religious history, death and emotion, emotions and the environment, developments of communal identity, and emotional manipulation as a weapon of war. He is currently an Honorary Research Fellow at The University of Western Australia.

[1] Edward Hughes, ‘Memorial Concerning the State of the Records of Scotland, 1762’, The Scottish Historical Review, 28: 106, (1949), 146-154, at 147.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 148.

[4] Ibid., 149.

[5] Christina Goldbaum and Kimon de Greef, ‘Wildfire Deals Hard Blow to South Africa’s Archives’, The New York Times, 20 April 2021 <accessed 15 June 2022>.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Linda Nordling, ‘Fire Rips Through Historic South African Library and Plant Unit’, Nature, 592 (2019), 672.

[8] William J. Cherf, ‘Earth, Wind and Fire: The Alexandrian Fire-Storm of 48BC’, in Mostafa El-Abbadi and Omnia Mounir Fathallah, eds., What Happened to the Ancient Library of Alexandria? (Leiden: Brill, 2008), 55-74, at 70.

[9] Rebecca Ratcliffe, ‘Archivists rush to preserve records of atrocities under Ferdinand Marcos Sr’, The Guardian, 07 June 2022 <accessed 15 June 2022>.

[10] Ibid.

[11] British Library, Collections Guides, The East India Company. <accessed 15 June 2022>.

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