A review of the History of Advertising Trust Archives, Raveningham, Norfolk, United Kingdom.
In March 2013, I spent a couple of days looking at books and marketing material relating to everyday chemical products used in the home. I was interested in the archives that History of Advertising Trust (HAT) holds relating to Thawpit, a carbon tetrachloride preparation used as a dry cleaning chemical, and for some household disinfectants and bleaches made by Reckitts. I wanted to write this review because whenever I have mentioned the HAT to other researchers working on British domestic life, brands, consumers or business histories, they have never heard of it. I think that more scholars should know about it, because the collections are a lot richer than just adverts.
When I planned my visit, I browsed the website to get an idea of the collections that might be of interest . (The website also contains various Teaching Resources and a link to the Arrows Archive, a collection of every entry to The British Television Advertising Awards since 1977). and The full online search facility is likely to be available in late 2013. The knowledge and expertise of the archivists are hugely valuable when it comes to navigating the collections, which are divided up according to whether they are placed by the manufacturing company or the advertising agency. This is made more complex by mergers and acquisitions over time, so definitely ask for guidance. I explained the areas I was interested in and the archivists suggested what might be useful to me. They are also in the best position to advise on whether the amount of material you think you can look at over the course of your visit is feasible, because the files are so diverse. In this way, we arranged everything two weeks in advance of my visit, though planning further ahead is welcomed — refer to the HAT’s Note for Students and Non-Commercial Researchers. Prearranging a visit is essential (using the Enquiries Form on the website or sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org) because the Research and Study Centre is small; I spread out across couple of tables and a volunteer was repacking material on the remaining tables. It also means that you can get straight to work when you arrive because everything is waiting for you. The HAT Research Room is open from Monday to Thursday, 9am to 4.45pm.
Visiting HAT is quite a different experience from visiting an archive operating in a city center, though the rural trip is a pleasant change for anyone usually based in busy urban places. HAT is located at the Raveningham Centre in Norwich, which is a cluster of craft and antiques businesses, so there are small brown tourist signs on the roads nearby. All the travel details (e.g. getting to the archive by car, traveling by train and bus) are well described on the HAT website. HAT occupies the furthest building on the complex and there is plenty of parking for cars and bikes. I am in the fortunate position that my family lives nearby, but there are B&Bs and holiday cottages in the surrounding villages and small towns.
Upon arriving, researchers sign a visitor book. A simple paper form is completed so that the archive can collect basic information about you, your academic or company affiliation and your area of research. The archive is a single storey building with ramped access and there is an accessible toilet. The general atmosphere is quietly industrious, informal and welcoming to researchers.
The archive has lockers for personal belongings and there are plenty of spare pencils provided in the search room should anyone discover that their usual stock of pencils is mysteriously absent from their bag. There are plugs and extension leads for plugging in laptops and there is Wi-Fi is available if you would like to use it (ask the staff for the password).
The Research and Study Centre is open-plan, with the archivists’ desks at one end of the room, and space for researchers at four tables in the library. Enquiries are received through the day, so if you are distracted by the low-level noise of a working office, take some headphones. When I was there an athlete wanted to find out who had directed an advert he had appeared in, and a journalist was sourcing a video clip for their online content, so it was interesting to eavesdrop occasionally.
There is a self-service photocopier (color or black and white) or a HAT camera if the item is not suitable for the photocopier. Personal cameras or scanners are not allowed. As this is a self-service arrangement, you need to keep track of archival codes for referencing or revisiting. My photocopies were counted at the end of the session, and I paid 20p per A4 sheet (B&W). If you are going to be using reproductions in publications, the process is more involved. I found the general system adequate for my research purposes. All their charges are explained on the website.
At staff break times, I was invited for a cup of coffee in the small break room. It was pleasant to sit and chat with the archivists and volunteers. Researchers can bring a packed lunch and this is a good place to eat it. One of the other businesses at the Raveningham Centre is a cafe where you can buy refreshments, light lunches and cakes.
As many of the deposits are made by advertising agencies, researchers have access to not just the proofs and final adverts, details of where and when they were published or broadcast, but also correspondence and research associated with the advertising account. This means that researchers can access market research data, information on the state of the market and retailing, and even track how certain decisions have been made about product positioning. It all depends on the agency’s filing system so this will not apply to all accounts, but it is worth approaching the collections with an open mind. If there has been any kind of controversy related to claims about a product’s efficiency, safety or the manner it was advertised, checking the holdings of the regulatory bodies to see if they dealt with it can open up an avenue of enquiry. There is also a library of trade books, including some company histories produced for anniversaries and self-published biographies that make interesting reading.
Fundamentally, an advertising agency has to understand their target market and be able to portray users of technologies or services in a way that people can identify with. This did not stop me from being almost overjoyed when the files yielded more detailed answers to questions than I had hoped for. I was able to see what chemicals people were using in preference to the product in question and their reasons why. I felt it was giving me the little window into the decisions about everyday life that I was wanted, and that I had worried maybe I could not get in quite the same detail or volume through reading Mass Observation diaries and exercises, or from oral histories collected in the present. I was amused by a quest for a limescale encrusted toilet for photographing before and after treatment with a new toilet cleaner. I could see legislation for safety warnings come into effect, the letters that discussed their necessity and how to incorporate them into the design. All this handily gathered in one place felt like a treasure trove for me. I hope it can be useful and enjoyable for other researchers.
Department of History, Religion and Philosophy
Oxford Brookes University
Image: History of Advertising Trust Library. History of Advertising Trust website.
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