How to scare an archivist

16th June 2011 in Archives Centre, Our Collections

The papers of Neil Kinnock, former Leader of the Labour Party, now Baron Kinnock of Bedwellty, were the most daunting thing I've ever faced as an archivist. They lurked in our strongroom, frightening anyone who went near them: 937 boxes of mainly loose papers, in no particular order!

Enough to scare anyone, you'll agree. However, somehow or other (and I'm still not sure quite how this happened), I ended up facing this archival dragon, quaking in my shoes, with nothing but a pencil and paper to help me. Well, that's not quite true: there was a boxlist, provided by the brave souls who had gone before me, but as anyone who's ever tried boxlisting loose papers will tell you, it's a bit tricky to be definite about giving file titles when there aren't that many files.

I decided there was nothing for it but to pitch in (keeping my eyes shut half the time, so I couldn't see what was ahead of me), and start working through the boxes from scratch, just trying to find out what was really in there. Every now and then, to add to the fun, I might come across one half of a file thirty boxes away from the other half, while papers on half a dozen different subjects and dates were generally mixed up together. My unfortunate colleagues got only too used to hearing wailing noises and indistinct cursing coming from my end of the room: eventually even I got tired of hearing myself mutter "What is this doing here?", and settled for grinding my teeth every now and then.

Then there were the faxes. Anyone working on a collection from the 1980s is likely to hit this problem: the ink on faxes is not very long-lasting, and after a few years may hardly be visible at all. So I ended up photocopying them onto acid free paper on as dark a setting as possible, before the print vanished altogether - and there were a lot of faxes, many of them with all the pages still joined in one big roll of paper. The current record for this is a 37 page fax, all on one sheet (you learn to get quite nimble on your feet, to avoid treading on the end).

I did have the odd break: Kinnock's speeches, for instance, were more or less together (there were three different sets of duplicates, mind you, none quite the same, but any order was better than none). And gradually, as I grabbed at any order I could see, and imposed one where I couldn't, things began to come into shape.

The core of the archive is the section relating to Kinnock's internal reforms of the 1980s and early 1990s: how Labour came back from the electoral disaster of 1983 (when Labour's socialist manifesto was described by Gerald Kaufman as the longest suicide note in history). When Kinnock took on the leadership, just after the election, the party was being torn apart by the bitter wrangling between the hard left, centre left (led by Kinnock) and the right. By the time he resigned in 1992, to be succeeded first by John Smith, and then by Tony Blair, Labour was ready for power once more.

Then there is the mass of material about the General Elections of 1983, 1987 and 1992, where you can see the party gradually evolving into the smooth electoral machine of recent times, as presentation and spin became more and more important. Add to that a huge amount of correspondence, large sections on the Miners' Strike and Militant, and papers covering the development of every area of policy, particularly from the general Policy Review undertaken after the loss of the 1987 Election, and the Kinnock Papers become an essential source for anyone studying the recent history of the Labour Party. So, three years on, I have to admit that it was worth it: but the sight of a box full of loose papers still makes me shiver.

— Katharine Thomson

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