Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Working in Archives #1

When Mary and I were first discussing my guest blogging, I asked if I could write a bit about doing archival research.  There are so many tricks and methods one picks up along the way that make what is an inherently unsystematic and time-consuming task more efficient and effective. My plan is to do a series of posts that cover several topics: advance preparation, time allocation, actually working in archives, research tools, and general etiquette.  But I should confess that all my experience has been in pre-modern material in Europe, so much of what I have to say probably doesn't translate to people working in modern, American archives.  I am hoping that other people with thoughts and tips will join the conversation.  I certainly know that I still have a lot to learn.

My first comment is definitional.  Technically there is a difference between a library and an archive.  It is different to work with a manuscript book and documents.  But technical categories aside, the tasks and difficulties are much the same, so I'm going to lump them all together under the rubric of archives.

My second comment is that working in archives can be hard.  It takes a lot of concentration and patience and a high frustration level.  And when working with pre-early 18th century material, especially in foreign languages or foreign scripts, the first time looking at a new kind of writing is liable to be a pretty awful moment.  I don't think I've ever met anyone, male or female, who did not feel like crying (and many who did actually cry) the first time he or she went to an archive to work with this sort of pre-modern material and came face to face with a document and stared and stared and couldn't make heads or tails of it.  There are ways to make the process easier, and that's one of the things I want to discuss in a future post.

On the other hand, it is an exhilarating, addictive feeling to turn a page and find a gold mine, especially if it's a gold mine you didn't expect and no one else knows exists.    And, frankly, there is something thrilling about holding in your hand a piece of paper or parchment that someone else created hundreds of years ago and letting it speak to you.


Coel said...

Thanks for this, and future, posts. I waded into the archives for the first time a few months ago and can confirm that they do indeed reduce grown men to tears. Things have improved since then (the glare of a microfiche screen quickly dries tears).

As a new phd student and newer historian, I look forward to hearing about how to quickly work through probably irrelevant material that might still hold little nuggets of valuable language. (I'm looking at the idea of segregation in the British dominions of Canada and South Africa: thus every reference is crucial to re-imagine the Imperial discourse of the time.)

Bruce Boyden said...

I was intrigued to discover, as a new litigation associate embarking upon the dreaded process of "document review" for the first time, how similar it was to archival research as a historian. Now, I'm not sure what that says more about, document review or archival research, but there you have it.

Emily Kadens said...

When I was a summer associate, I kept getting document review assignments. The partners couldn't figure out why I was so good at it. I finally pointed out to them that I have a PhD in document review. I decided then that if I ever had to interview for a law firm job again, before they could ask me the standard question that implied that they had no interest in hiring me, "So, I see you have a PhD in medieval history, why did you go to law school," I would immediately state: I have a PhD in document review. I figured that would get me a job anywhere, anytime.