Guest Post: Scott Johnston on Archival Research and the Boy Scouts

Scott Johnston is a PhD student at McMaster University. My research explores The transatlantic relationship between Canada and the United Kingdom in the 19th and 20th centuries. I am beginning a project which examines notions of time and the ordering of time across the Atlantic world and the British empire. He is also interested in public memory and commemoration. My previous projects have focused on the role of youth movements such as the Boy Scout and Girl Guide movements in imperial and international relations.

In the early spring of 2012, I, a graduate student in history from Canada, found myself huddled up in a cold, damp, little tent, pitched on the far side of the Atlantic, listening to campfire singsong while reading copies of century old letters, meeting minutes, and other miscellaneous ephemera with a flashlight. I was at Gilwell Park in Great Britain, the headquarters of the Scout Association, doing research on an imperial migration program which the Boy Scouts had organized in the 1920s and 1930s for my upcoming article in the Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth. It was a slightly surreal experience, combining the dirt and wet of outdoor camp life with the usually pristine, climate controlled, bare world of archival research. But Gilwell Park, uniquely, is both an active, busy campsite for the organization’s youth of today, while also being the location of the Scout Association’s archives. I daily jumped between the two worlds, sleeping in my tiny tent at night, and walking across the property to the well maintained archives by day.

Such a contrast profoundly emphasizes how distant academic life can sometimes be from the real, lived lives of the object of study. The past is found by historians in scraps of dry paper, locked away in sterile, colourless rooms. But there are bridges across the gap. Sometimes the sources that truly bring the past to life are those that never see the light of day in published print. These little archival gems can bring out lively personalities. Take, for example, the letter that Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the Boy Scouts, wrote to his house guest, asking if he had seen his brother’s missing evening shoes.[1] Such humdrum novelties make the figures of the past become real.

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