Thursday 2 February 2012

London Archives: What happened when I went looking for City Dragons...

Last night took me to the vast London Metropolitan Archives in Clerkenwell. The only way it can be described is ‘a collection of collections’ with millions of photos and 100 kilometres of shelving. Collections include Architecture, Family, Schools, Government, Hospitals, and Businesses, and within each sit a number of different layers/structures. For instance under Hospitals you would find the related buildings, famous people/benefactors, medical practice (but not medical records). Under Architecture you would find everything to do with the built environment, such as slum clearance, planning, surveying and so on.

The reason for this structure is historic. As the LMA says, they are ‘the archive repository for many London-wide organisations. The archives of the City of London Corporation (COL) and the former Greater London Council (GLC), London County Council (LCC), Middlesex County Council (MCC) and their predecessors are held here. LMA also holds records for many religious, public, business, local authority and other organisations based in London’. So over time all this different information has come together from difference places. Just last year the manuscripts collection from the Guildhall Library moved there so the process is ongoing.

The most exciting project that they’ve been working on recently has been a large scale digitisation project, ‘Work digitising the London County Council (LCC) Photograph Library recently finished. This collection of approximately 250,000 images dates from the 1860s to the 1980s and provides an incredible record of London life. Once prepared, the images will be added to Collage in small batches.’ Collage is their searchable online database of images and includes many items from the Guildhall Art Gallery. This project was grant funded by Skills for the Future and New Deal of the Mind, enabling 10 paid interns to not only get valuable work experience for a year but also make a real difference to the archive.

Visitors range from family historians, school/college groups, community project co-ordinators, lawyers, debt collectors(!), artists, conference attendees, writers…basically anyone with an interest in London and its past. It is interesting to note that unlike many other archives that I’ve been to, they are not too concerned with what happens to the information that visitors take away with them. They said they are a free public service akin to a library and are not interested in the outcome of research. Where images are being reproduced for commercial research purposes, copyright is a difficult issue due to the images' multitude of previous owners, however when the LMA is the owner of the image, they are very reasonable in their terms of use.

Their role is that of an archive. However they have a rolling exhibition space in the building which is currently exploring both the London riots of last year and Bomb damage - not sure if related or not as sadly I didn’t have time to look at it closely but I intend to go back very soon, especially on their late night Wednesdays. They provide images to other exhibitions and work closely with sister organisations within the City of London. For instance, the London in Black and White exhibition at Tower Bridge last year.

So why not do a search in the archive’s Collage catalogue, pop along to the archive and browse through the card indexes and get a real feel for London of the past!

As an addendum I went looking for City Dragons in the catalogue but found Lame Ducks instead. How utterly fabulously randomly apt!  

© City of London

 Title: An historical, emblematical, patriotical and political print representing the English Balloon or National Debt in the year 1782 with a full view of the Stock Exchange and its supporters the Financiers, Bulls, Bears, Brokers, Lame Ducks and others and a proportionable ball of gold the specific size of all the money we have to pay it with supposing that to be twenty millions of pounds sterling, the gold and silver trees entwined with serpents and upheld by dragons for the pleasure of Pluto and all his Bosom Friends] / [Elizh. Henta. Phelps pinxt. Wm. Phelps invt. F. Jukes sculpt.; published ... by Wm. Phelps ... July, 1785.

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