In the British Library...


In the British Library...

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[words: Dr Chris O'Brien]


Photo AP

Historian John Keay begins his landmark study of the English East India Company[1] with an implicit warning. Surveying the work of those before him he notes scholar after scholar who died in a doomed effort to master these very archives. Paper can’t kill you, arcane filing systems can’t kill you and illegible handwriting can’t kill you; still, imagine my relief when the elderly gent, slumped over his desk opposite me, lets out a soft snore!

For historians the British Library is the equivalent of an uber-prestigious, super-funded lab. Working here offers the best kind of training for any early career historian. The numerous rules governing access to archives such as the India Office – East India Company Records - give it an even more luminous aura. No access without a reader’s card. No card without an interview establishing that material sought here cannot be found anywhere else.  Yet, even material on the shelves of the India Office reading room is unavailable anywhere in Australia. Copies of some items might stand on shelves in one or two top US libraries, but only some. The British Library’s electronic collection includes some 56 million items at last count; many items are not in the electronic catalogue. The India Office Archive comprises 14 kilometres of shelves of documents and manuscripts. Cameras cannot be brought in to the reading room – hence the lack of photos here. Only staff can copy documents. Everything brought into the reading room must be in a clear plastic bag supplied by the library.

Now that I’ve seen some of the treasures here, I understand the caution. Last week I looked at surviving fragments of Captain William Keeling’s Journal. These are fragments figuratively and literally: bits of paper torn, other parts dissolved. They have survived humidity, salt air, heat, some have been waterlogged and today, 400 years later, they are here for us to grapple with their almost indecipherable script, voluminous details and confounding meanings.

Speaking of which, more journals await: some answers, many more questions. More than enough to bring me back again and again.



[1] John Keay, The Honourable Company, (London: Harper Collins, 1991).