The archives box
Tonight I pulled out my archives box. It doesn’t look like anything so formal as the descriptor “archives box” implies. It’s a plastic box with no surviving lid that is full to overflowing with filing cards. It’s the size and type which people sometimes used to use to organise their recipes. The chaos is contained, just, by an ageing, plastic, tattered, pale green Pak’n’Save bag.
This box has been with me since 1995. Back then, it was my workhorse of an organising tool for the details of the lives of women involved in the liquor industry in Central Otago between 1861 and 1901. After I submitted my thesis in 1997, I moved on and became a secondary school English teacher, first in Auckland and then in London. It came with me. I became a parent and the box didn’t suffer for the vomit and mess which babies seem to bring with them, because the box was tucked away in a bookcase, or under a desk, out of my mind and the baby’s grasp.
I moved back to goldfields country and to another round of motherhood and more time in the secondary classroom. The ebb and flow of an economy heavily dependent on extractive industry shaped the life of my new community just as it had the lives of the women who stayed in goldfields towns of Central Otago 140 years earlier. Many left then, of course, just as so many have left my new home town of Greymouth in recent years as the price of coal mining has been counted in 29 deaths and hundreds of jobs.
I only noticed my box when I was cleaning the relevant room. Regular readers know that’s rather infrequently. Never, never, was I willing to throw my box out. Those cards, organised by a woman’s name in the top right hand corner, and filled out by hand, represented hundreds if not thousands of hours of puzzle work. Of reading newspapers on microfiche, of reading original books of licensing court records and police gazettes, of studying probates and magistrate’s court records.
Then earlier this week, out of the blue, I received a request to turn my work on women hotelkeepers on the Central Otago goldfields into a chapter for a book. This afternoon I found a formal invitation in my inbox, and although I quake in my boots at some aspects of this (16 years out of date on historiography is a s-e-r-i-o-u-s deficiency), there is another part of me which is no longer willing to say no because I have child care responsibilities, or just lots of responsibilities at work as well as at home. Here is the part of me that is excited to be ‘thinking history’ again.
A new journey begins.