So, they bring the documents, and that's where you find out how hard your job is going to be. Your archival documents may be a bound set of newspapers from the 1920s, the account books of a hacienda in colonial Mexico, the manifest from a slave ship. If you work on medieval stuff, you may be looking at court cases, notarial records, account books, deliberations of municipal councils, or even bound legal or medical treatises. And here's where it gets tricky. Because everything western before 1450 (and quite a bit from several centuries afterwards) was handwritten.
This means that before you set foot in the archives, you will have had a course in what is known as paleography, or the study of old handwritings. That's right – nevermind the fact that the document may not be in your language; you've also got to take courses to learn to decipher someone's chicken scratch. What you will encounter in the archives falls into two broad groups: book hand (careful, deliberate writing meant for costly bound books) and document hand (for things like contracts, ledgers, and documents of many kinds; meant to be fast and accurate, with legibility a distant third). Your documents may be on parchment (that's prepared animal skin) or (more rarely for medievalists) paper. They may be bound in codices, loose in packets, or (god help all researchers in the rolls series) stitched together, end to end, and rolled up. They will likely contain all sorts of unfamiliar abbreviations. You will take courses and purchase paleographic handbooks to prepare yourself. You will go to the archives for the first time, thinking you are ready.
You will be wrong.
If you are very lucky, your document will look like one I was looking at on Monday:
If you are not, it will look like one I was looking at Wednesday:
But even if you get the good kind, chances are that the first time you go into the archives, you will not be able to read what's in front of you. Most archival researchers have a story to tell of their first encounter with real documents, outside the classroom. One professor of Latin American History described her documents as looking "as if they had been written in champagne on a cocktail napkin." She said she closed the book, went home and got drunk, and came back the next day. For me, I went home and cried, trying to figure out what I was going to do now that my career was over before it had begun. Then the next day, I came back. That's the key: COME BACK. Allow for the fact that you will make heinous errors with any documents you work with in the first 2-4 weeks, and resolve to redo those documents once you are more skilled. Gradually, you will get better. And if someone offers you help, take it.
Up Monday: Okay, so I have a honkin' huge stack of documents in front of me. Now what?