Hidden Voices in the Archives: Women Archivists in Early 20th-Century England

Jenkinson’s notion of impartiality and anonymity is a trope in archival discourse, but in their actions, archivists do leave impressions on the archive. Do archivists document themselves? In particular, drawing an analogy with the public voice of women, and the right of women to be heard in public discourse, I want to examine the presence of women in the archive. In the 19th century women’s exclusion from the public sphere was perpetuated by the practices adopted by historians engaged in creating the new discipline of history in universities. Leopold von Ranke’s documentary seminar teaching, based on his archival research in Austria, emphasised facts over concepts, the centrality of politics to the study of history, and tended to privilege national consciousness and state archives, ‘popes and kings’. Archival history has likewise tended to be the history of great men and institutional archives, such as the Public Record Office. What about the voices of pioneering women in the history of archives? Using some examples of early 20th century women in English archives, this paper will seek to bring pioneering women archivists out of the shadows; their stories and voices need to be heard. Understanding the background, social lives and critical professional interventions of such women helps to set them in their proper historical and archival place and gives a voice to their stories and thus to our emerging archival consciousness.

Elizabeth Shepherd is Professor of Archives and Records Management in the Department of Information Studies at University College London (UCL). She teaches Masters students (concepts and contexts and the recordkeeping professional) and research methods for doctoral students in DIS. Her research interests are in the development of the UK archive profession in the 20th century and in links between records management and information policy compliance.