“The Archives” by Jill Hills

Jill Hills is a professor of communications policy at the University of Westminster, Harrow, United Kingdom, and author of the new University of Illinois Press book Telecommunications and Empire.


Research for Telecommunications and Empire took me to archives in the USA and Europe that I had never previously visited. Three stand out in the memory. In the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., the archives were an oasis of calm within a ground floor swarming with visitors queuing every day. It always seemed amazing that whatever the document requested it would be delivered by staff interested in the research. The U.S. National Archives in Maryland were quite different. They reminded me of the old British Public Record Office before its holdings were digitized. Searches involved an escort from one building to another and the tracing of documents through several paper based catalogues only for them to arrive in dusty cardboard boxes. It was a noisy and difficult place to work with some researchers wearing dust masks and staff controlling queues for the photocopiers with shouts of “15 minutes up.”

Quite different again, the Cable and Wireless archives are housed in a museum next to the company’s old submarine cable landing station at Porthcurno in Cornwall. Porthcurno is a sandy cove with cliffs each side below which the museum and hotel shelter. With rain lashing down in mid-March, it was a sad place still not recovered from the closure of the company’s training school at the turn of the century. Talk in the local pub was of emigration to Australia. Not much new there. In the mid-nineteenth century my own ancestors uprooted themselves from a village not far away and headed towards the industrial revolution in the North West. The archives themselves are small and intimate and together with the museum provide a focus for local history and community groups in a part of the UK where employment is low and the poverty of the locals contrasts with the wealth of incomers. Long may these archives provide a social as well as historical purpose.

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