Archives in the balance

Weighing scales, somewhat less sophisticated than the ones used in the Wolfson Centre. [MS 2628/4/4/2]

 Astute users of the Wolfson Centre may have noticed that we weigh items in the Wolfson Centre before serving them and when we receive them back at the desk.  I have been asked many times if that’s because we think people are inveterate thieves.  Of course we do – there will always be that one person who will nick anything.  But that’s not the only reason, there is also the fact that digital scales are cool.  What often surprises researchers though is that we don’t just weigh items to check that nothing has been taken out, but also to check that nothing has been put back in!  Why is this?  Well, I shall tell you, dear reader:

Theory lesson

Foremost early 20th century archival theorist, Sir Hilary Jenkinson wrote that the role of the archivist is the ‘physical and moral defence’ of archives.  So what have scales got to do with this?  Well firstly, we’re dealing with the physical defence by making sure that none of the material goes missing.  But perhaps more crucially, we’re charged with the moral defence of the material.  Now, we all know the archives are evidence of a transaction (you knew that, right?) but what makes them so important and useful to historians is their ‘impartiality’ and ‘authenticity’, i.e. the fact that we know the records haven’t been messed with and are the same today as they were when the transaction occurred.

But why would anybody want to add material to our records? One reason is that if you alter the records you can alter the history of an event.  There was a recent high-profile case of documents being inserted into second World War records held at the National Archives by a historian in order to support fictitious claims relating to certain aspects of the war, see here for an article about the case.

Further reading

If you want to discover more about forgeries in archives, there are a number of articles and a podcast available on the National Archives site (you can accuse me of lazy blog writing by sending you to read other blogs but why reinvent the wheel?):

So next time you see us weighing items to be served in the Wolfson Centre you don’t need to ask why, you will know that we are carrying out the moral defence of the archives!

N.B. We also hold records relating to the famous and historic weighing scale manufacturers Averys Ltd. (collection reference: MS 1588)

Peter Doré


3 responses to “Archives in the balance

  1. There is a Weights and Measures Museum in Lunar Society Man William Murdoch’s cottages (the first homes lit by gas in Birmingham in 1817) at the site of Boulton and Watt’s former Soho Foundry which is now home to Avery Weightronix (formerly Avery’s Weighing Machines Company of Smethwick) The Museum’s Curator is an Avery Weightronix employee Andrew Lound and visits to the Weights and Measures Museum can be arranged through him as this museum is not ordinarily open to the public. I have been to the Avery’s Museum and it is well worth a visit with many interesting and quirky items and artefacts. Andrew Lound is an informative and engaging host as the Curator of the only Weights and Measures Museum I have been to… reminds me of another of Birmingham’s ‘Hidden Gem” heritage attractions…the Jewellery Quarter’s Pen Museum #Birmingham #BrumIsBrill #MadeinBirmingham #BrumFaves #BrumHour #MadeinBirmingham #MadeintheMidlands #BirminghamMadeMe

  2. Niky Rathbone

    Interesting. I recently used the National Archive. They made me put all my things In a plastic bag, wouldn’t allow a pencil if it had a rubber on the end so I snapped it off but as far as I know didn’t weigh anything.

  3. mary woodroffe

    Peter Doré
    I like the way you say it how it is.
    As if anyone would pinch anything from a library !! oh yes they would.
    Like the way you have written it.

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