Accessing memories

Explore Your Archive is a joint campaign delivered by The National Archives and the Archives and Records Association across the UK and Ireland. It aims to showcase the unique potential of archives to excite people, bring communities together, and tell amazing stories. We’re blogging all week to show off Mary Gillham’s archive…

One of the aspects of Mary’s archives which fascinates me is how much of it acts as an extention of her memory. Natalie has already talked about how accessible the language is that Mary uses but, more than that, it feels like a lot of the archive is written as if to herself – to remind her about the places she visited and even the conversation she had whilst there.

Mary was not short of words (her archive, 20+ books and innumerable talks and lectures proves that) and there is often a profusion of words describing in great detail what she and her colleagues had been up to. The sheer effort, time and motivation to do this so regularly speaks volumes about the character of Mary, recognising the importance of what she is doing and preserving it for when it may be required.

What’s more she appeared to have had the ability to recollect the position of certain documents within her filing system and reach straight for them – even amending and augmenting them months or even years later.  This at a time, don’t forget, where she had no database nor fine scale filing system and no computer to search for documents.


She makes notes to herself which are either corrected or answered at a later date showing none of the outward concern that many of us have of appearing to be wrong, or not knowing something.


Take this slide for instance; after taking the time to record what it shows (an ox-bow on the River Rhymney which has been pinched off to leave an island) at some point in the future (different pen, slight changes to the handwriting) she has realised that the picture is actually of something completely different. Rather than cover her erroneous text and write afresh she decided to leave it and correct the description. Why..? I’m not sure we’ll find out.


Finally, here is an example of many of these in one document. There is a note to self (describing a dithyrambic staff member), confirmation of the site being along the Llanishen Brook and an update 22(!) years after the letter was written about the value of acid heath.


That Mary was so conscientious about making notes and recording what she did is something that we can be very grateful for indeed. In time, these notes will serve as a great social-cultural record and the description of wildlife and landscapes will become increasingly important as generations advance and there is no-one left with a living memory of how they were…


The Mary Gillham Archive Project is funded by HLF and managed by SEWBReC
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