There now hangs a print of the rolls of Acts of Parliament – inspired by the Act Room – above the large research table in the reading room of the Parliamentary Archives. This was a new addition on my most recent visit to the Archives in June 2017. Because my goal in the archives is to conduct research, I quickly found out through a Google search that the print was done by Parliament’s artist-in-residence Mary Branson (https://marybranson.com). I recently met with Ms. Branson in November 2017 to look at her work – New Dawn - celebrating women’s suffrage after rather boldly reaching out to tell her I found the print and her work in Parliament particularly moving for someone who has spent time researching Acts of Parliament for my dissertation. Though we may be on paper of quite different professions and training (I am a Ph.D. candidate in Economics, she is a light installation artist), we both agreed that the Archives inspired creativity and allowed new ideas and work to be carried out.
I am a Ph.D. Candidate with the University of California, Irvine and for the past two years have ventured across the pond to collect information on a specific type of Act of Parliament: so-called estate Acts. My dissertation aims to understand how property rights and political institutions influenced economic development in England. This research interest brings me to Parliament because estate Acts changed property rights for families throughout the pre-industrial era.
From my office in southern California, I’ve been fortunate to be able to access and collect a wealth of information through British History Online (www.british-history.ac.uk) and the History of Parliament (http://www.historyofparliamentonline.org/) to construct new datasets on how Parliament passed estate Acts and who worked on this legislation. A current project, for example, is examining if there was an evolution of the skills and expertise of Members of Parliament working on this legislation. To test this hypothesis, I am currently merging information on committee members collected from the Journals of both Houses with biographical data collected from the History of Parliament. It was not until I was able to unroll the first estate Act in the Parliamentary Archives in June 2016 and read the text from the rolls, however, that I think my research really became alive and connected me to the past. As a good friend pointed out at a pub at the end of one day - “You really ‘got your hands dirty’.”
My work in the Archives has made my research more complete - it brought politics and the 17th century to life. I had come a long way from a city founded in the 1960s. My most recent trip to the Archives in June 2017 also raised my awareness on the importance of preserving while also enabling access to the documents that have been so important for my dissertation. The Archives were undertaking some preservation work on the Acts at the time I wanted to view many of them and are now also undertaking a digitisation project on unprinted Local and Private Acts of Parliament, including many of the estate Acts I wished to consult. While this limited what I was able to look at in terms of estate Acts over the summer, the project opens up new doors not only for my research but for others who aren’t able to access the Archives in person. The digitisation will enable the Archives to put the Acts online and allows for greater impact by supporting creative work (for a recent article highlighting this importance, see https://www.nypl.org/blog/2017/11/06/manufacturing-impact-digitize).
My story holds two tensions together – the importance of the preservation of original archival records and the joy of working slow and getting your hands dirty by physically seeing and handling them. Thanks to digitisation, I have been able to connect a variety of once separate sources and pieces of information because they are available online. This has allowed me to further our knowledge about the past, which I hope provides important lessons for the present. Going to the archives has also made concrete the importance of preservation to me and highlighted how fortunate we are to have these documents preserved for future research.
The dissertation phase of my research is coming to a close, but I look forward to more adventures that working with documents in the Archives are likely to bring. My research has brought me into contact with women, Members of Parliament, peers, monarchs, lawyers, and men of the 17th century, historians and researchers from around the world, a light installation artist, as well as a great staff of enthusiastic archivists. Cheers to getting your hands dirty amidst the Digital Revolution.