Sunday, March 1, 2015

In praise of small archives

Meherjirana Library in Navsari, India
I am delighted to be a contributor to the Legal History Blog this month. This is the first of three posts in praise of sources and institutions that I find particularly valuable and that are sometimes underestimated. In this post, I share my love of small and lesser known archives and libraries.

Those of us who work on colonial South Asia gravitate toward two main archives: the British Library in London and the National Archives of India in Delhi. We know that our limited time and travel funds will be well spent at both places. If you sit in the British Library’s Asian & African Studies reading room in July, in fact, you will see many of the world’s historians of South Asia  pass through for the summer research season.

We all know and love the British Library. But what about the smaller, lesser known archives and libraries? Is a three-day research excursion from London to the Scottish Highlands or from Delhi to a small town in the Himalayan foothills worth the time away from your main archives? My answer is often yes. Initially, I kept my expectations in check for these short,
experimental trips. I was usually pleasantly surprised. We “archive rodents”  love burrowing deep to unearth forgotten documents. The thrill is magnified when the entire archive or library itself is not commonly used by scholars in the field. Equally, archivists and librarians at these smaller sites are usually excited to see us! The personal attention I have received at small archives has differed not just in degree, but in kind, from standard treatment at the major archives in my field.

So how do you find these gems? Here are some ideas:

(1)  Think about private papers: who were the individuals you are following? Who were their friends, relatives, agents and colleagues? Often you will find a person’s correspondence not just in his or her own private paper collections, but also in the papers of the person’s contacts. Where did those people live, work, study and die? Local archives nearby may hold their papers. You should also think about trying to find descendants. They may be willing to share papers, memoirs, stories and photographs in their possession. (I will be writing a post soon on personal papers and another on memoirs.)

(2)  Think about corporations: were there any relevant companies involved in your story? Although access to corporate archives is usually restricted, you may be pleasantly surprised. A trip I made to the Tata Central Archives in Pune was worthwhile, for instance.

(3)  Think about trusts: were there any trusts involved in your research area? Do they still exist? The N. M. Wadia Charities in Mumbai continue to operate. Their managers shared with me papers, including a map, relating to a lawsuit I was studying.

(4)  Think about local libraries: are you looking for a rare publication, perhaps published for private circulation or with a limited print run? Local libraries sometimes have these. For years, I had been hunting for D. D. Davar’s Hints to Young Lawyers (1911). Usually I stop looking when a book is unavailable at any North American university library, the British Library, or a handful of major libraries in India. But I found this slim volume at a tiny public library in Udvada, a small Gujarati town that is home to the most important Zoroastrian fire temple in India

(5)  Think about law firms: are you following a case or lawyer connected to a firm that still exists? Most law firms do not retain historical materials. Some, though, may have photographs or memoirs of their founders or printed histories of the firm, as well as rare edited commemorative volumes produced by local law societies. The solicitors’ firm of Wadia Ghandy & Co. in Mumbai provided me with wonderful images and memoirs. I used these in my book and in this short article commemorating the Bombay High Court’s 150th anniversary.

(6)  Think about community organizations, libraries and publications: if you are working on the history of a particular community (religious, professional or otherwise), ask yourself whether there are any community-run organizations that may have historical materials. For my book on the legal history of the Parsi (Zoroastrian) community, I benefited from access to published and unpublished materials at the K. R. Cama Oriental Institute in Mumbai, the First Dastoor Meherjirana Library in Navsari (pictured), the Bombay Parsi Panchayat, and Parsiana magazine. These Parsi organizations, along with others in Pakistan, Canada, the UK and US, invited me to give talks and published magazine articles on my research. Letters to the editors of Parsi magazines led me to descendants, oral histories, family memoirs and photographs (including the one that became the cover image for my book).

(7)  Think about educational institutions: did your research subject study to become a barrister at the Inns of Court in London? Each Inn has an archive, as you can see for Inner Temple, Middle Temple, Lincoln's Inn and Gray's Inn. Did he or she study at an Oxbridge College? Every college at Oxford and Cambridge has an archive. University archives at institutions like the School of Oriental and Asian Studies and the University of Mumbai also hold rich collections, of course.

(8)  Think about graves: municipal governments have records on the cemetery plots they manage. These may be demographically rich. Equally, photos of graves can be useful for powerpoints, websites and publications. Obituaries published in newspapers sometimes included the location of the funeral and burial site. Elsewhere, I have written about cemeteries as their own kind of archive. When my research subjects had not been buried, I made visits to cremation grounds (in India) and to Zoroastrian Towers of Silence (from a distance). These trips were equally worthwhile, providing details that were useful when writing.

(9)  Think about scholars in your field: many scholars build up impressive personal collections of books, including some rare published primary sources. One senior scholar in my field, for instance, has a personal library that occupies an entire floor of his house and that includes rare publications I have seen nowhere else.


Are you a fan of small archives and libraries? Have you developed research strategies accordingly? Please tell us about it. 

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