How essential is the archive to the historian? In this post, Mike Esbester looks at the very real threat to one UK archive that is nearly 180 years’ old – and the steps that are being taken to try to secure it, including a call to arms for all those concerned.
In this blog post, I’m going to practice what I preach. I tell my students to give me their conclusion in the very first paragraph of their written work. So – spoiler alert – here it is. The 178-year-old archive of Thomas Cook is under threat as a result of the firm’s collapse: it might be sold off, piece by piece. If you, like me, are concerned about the potential loss of this archive, please contact Mike Anson, who is leading the response and the attempt to secure the archive: michael.anson[at]bankofengland.co.uk
Just over a year ago, in September 2018, the National Museum of Brazil burned. In a little over an hour the huge expanse of the building was ablaze, and 200 years’ worth of collecting and archiving was lost – 20 million items were in the archive, though some of that was in another building and thought to have been saved. Underinvestment in the building and particularly in water supplies for the fire hydrants were thought to be to blame.
In April 2003, in the midst of war, the National Library and Archives of Iraq was systematically targeted for looting and burning. Questions have since been raised about how much the international forces did, or could have done, to stop the destruction, but again, whatever the ins and outs of that, the damage was done. Around 60% of the holdings were estimated to have been destroyed.
Extremes, perhaps – this was archive loss through war and fire, in places to the western gaze far away; other, distant and therefore not possible in the UK. Our repositories are safe. Perhaps from those disastrous events – though fire is an ever present threat, of course – but not all archives are simply secure. We might think of the archive as being something held by public bodies: but plenty of large organisations have them, particularly the older they are, and they are particularly vulnerable to other things that can be destructive to the archive. Thomas Cook was one such firm.
I say was one such firm, because of course they’ve gone bust. Terrible news for the staff and holiday-makers affected directly, and the suppliers and others reliant upon their business, and that shouldn’t be forgotten in what follows. But there’s a hidden victim: the archive.
On the plus side, we’re not talking about the physical destruction of material – but in one sense we might as well be, as it’s still in danger of being lost to researchers. Thomas Cook has not gone into administration. Instead, it has not passed ‘go’, has not collected £200, but has gone straight to jail: liquidation. That means that debts have to be settled as fully as possible, and anything that can be sold to raise money is simply that: an asset to be stripped, seen only in pure monetary terms. A receiver will have little truck with nuance or historical importance (and legally cannot do so). The archive might well fall into this category of an asset, in the worst case scenario being broken up into pieces and sold to individual collectors, disappearing into private hands never to be seen again. That the integrity of the archive might therefore be lost, with 170 years’ worth of material is – well, immaterial.
Should we be worried? Definitely. The Thomas Cook archive is huge and of international significance. It tells us so much about the development of the modern travel and tourism industry, the history of mobility, business history, the history of marketing, social and cultural tastes and trends, soft diplomacy, and much else besides. The firm’s connections and activities speak to the development of a modern globally-networked economy.
To date it has provided ripe material for academic research, though the surface has barely been scratched. As Deputy Editor of the Journal of Transport History, I know that over the years our contributors have made good use of the Thomas Cook archive, as it’s so revealing of the history of transport, mobility, marketing and tourism. And we are only one journal that has benefitted from the archive, such is the variety of material it captures.
However, the significance of the archive is not just confined to academic historians. There is huge public interest in the archive, something clearly demonstrated over the last 36 hours in the responses to the threat to the archive. That response has not just come from within the UK, but from across the globe. If we lose this archive, we are all impoverished – not just historians, but as a society; and not just British society, but world-wide.
For those on Twitter, this thread on Egyptian holdings really sums the archive up nicely. At the same time, it represents a tiny peak into the wonders the archive contains – magnify this up across all of the nations in which Thomas Cook had an interest, and you’re still just getting started.
What can be done? Historians and archivists might be a relatively placid bunch most of the time, but when they’re riled they’ll move into action. The Business Archives Council is spearheading the response, via Mike Anson, the Archives Rep for the Association of Business Historians and the Bank of England Archivist. He writes:
“To this end we need letters and statements of support from those who have used, or who have an interest, in the Thomas Cook Archive. Please contact me if you can help in making the case for the value and significance of these records and for the need for them to be properly maintained and made available to current and future users. Thank you.”
If you – like me – are concerned about the potential loss of this archive, please do contact Mike: michael.anson[at]bankofengland.co.uk
It’s hard to see, at this stage, how this will play out – but we have to try to do what we can. Even if it’s not your research area, your solidarity is appreciated. We all hope it won’t happen to ‘our’ archive – but one day it might. Let’s hope we can save this hugely important archive for all who are interested in it, now and in the future.