The Importance of Archives – Preserving the Past and Contextualising the Present

Finnish National Archives

│By Torsti Grönberg, Gale Ambassador at the University of Helsinki│

Historian Jo Tollebeek once wrote that increasing “scientification” of history at the end of the nineteenth century produced a new kind of archival-fantasy: a belief that all relevant documents from the past could be gathered. Nowadays it is vital to comprehend and take into account the diversity of an archive. Every archive is bound not only to its history and context but also the demands of the current era. At the end of the day, an archive is in of itself an intellectual problem and a cultural artefact to be studied. Historian Natalie Zemon Davis has also made the important point that, even though the world of archives has encountered many changes, the most important aspect is still the same: when you read documents in an archive you have a physical link to the past in front of you that connects you to people long dead and strengthens the researchers attempt to tell about the past as honestly as possible.1

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Declassified Documents Online: Twentieth Century British Intelligence, Monitoring the World

Declassified Documents Online: Twentieth Century British Intelligence, Monitoring the World

|By Clem Delany, Acquisitions Editor, Gale Primary Sources|

It is now common knowledge that the German Enigma codes were broken during the Second World War in huts at Bletchley Park, and that this feat helped sway the tide of war in the Allies favour. Most people are also aware that Alan Turing was there, that early computers were being developed, and that after the war these codebreakers and the hundreds of people employed at Bletchley Park vanished into obscurity until the 1970s. These details have become part of popular culture: the shabby huts in the middle of a quiet countryside where great and secret things were happening providing the setting for the book Enigma by Robert Harris, or The Imitation Game starring Benedict Cumberbatch in tweed, and even a BBC Radio sitcom, Hut 33.

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Declassified Documents Online: Twentieth-Century British Intelligence, An Intelligence Empire

Scan of a Telegraph. Security Liaison Officer, Trinidad: security reviews of Eastern Caribbean and British Guiana. (January 1, 1955-December 31, 1956). CO 1035/16. The National Archives (Kew, United Kingdom).

│By Clem Delany, Associate Acquisitions Editor, Gale Primary Sources

The twentieth century was an era of global conflict and careful diplomacy, of the rise and fall of political extremes, of great strides in technology and vast change in the everyday lives of people around the world. Britain began the century with an empire that straddled the globe, and ended it with just a handful of small overseas territories. Warfare moved from trenches and bayonets, to weapons of mass destruction and long-distance drones. The global population skyrocketed. The internet came to be.

The scope and geographical spread of the interests of the British government over this century was vast. It reached beyond the UK and the mandates, protectorates and colonies of the British Empire, to the affairs of the self-governing Dominions and the later Commonwealth, as well as those of allies and enemies. British interests and British intelligence reached every corner of the globe from Aden to Zanzibar.

Declassified Documents Online: Twentieth-Century British Intelligence, An Intelligence Empire makes available online over half a million pages of British government papers relating to security and intelligence work in the twentieth century. It brings together files from the Security Service (MI5), the wartime Special Operations Executive (SOE) and Ministry of Economic Warfare, the Intelligence and Security Departments of the Colonial Office in the twilight of Empire, communications and intelligence records of the Ministry of Defence, and material from the Cabinet Office, including Joint Intelligence Committee reports, documents from the Special Secret Information Centre of WWII, and papers of the Cabinet Secretary relating to intelligence and espionage matters.

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