By popular request, a post on life in the archives.
First, a note to my non-historian readers: Archives are places kind of like libraries where primary documents are collected and stored. With the right credentials (and this varies a lot from one place to another) you can go into one of these places and get your hands on actual historical documents, ranging from last week's newspapers to crumbling parchments and papyri from centuries ago. You consult these in place, rather than checking them out. Some archives are slowly digitizing parts of their collections; others you have to get on a plane and go there. And here's another important thing: Not all historians work in archives. Many fine books have been written based in whole or in part on published sources.
I, however, am an archival researcher. And here's how it works for me.
To get to the archives, I first get on a plane and fly to Exotic Research City, or one of its smaller neighbors. This means that my trips are at least a month long, because you can pretty much write off the first 72 hours to jetlag and recovering your facility in Research City Language, and the cost of the plane fare means that a shorter trip just ain't worth it.
Before I go, I consult as many catalogs as possible to get an idea of which archives I want to visit. There are national archives, provincial archives, municipal archives, ecclesiastical archives – each with its own mass of collections and sub-collections. Some trips, I am more prepared than others. This trip is one of the Others.
I walk into the archive and divest myself of any bags, folders, or other things that a priceless document could be shoved into. I hold onto my laptop computer, writing implements, a small notebook, and sometimes a digital camera (more on that in part 2). Sometimes I also hold onto my scarf and jacket, for the temperature in the indoor spaces in most archives is regulated to preserve the documents, not the researchers. I present my Identifying Document, sign in, grab a couple of order slips, and sit down. The room is generally quiet, though there are occasional murmured conversations break the silence. If someone is being too loud for too long, it will be Made Clear.
Based on browsing through one of the catalogues (some of them only available as a single copy on the archive shelves, others that you know about from many years of work there, that not even the workers at the desk are aware of until you ask for them), I fill out my order slips and turn them in, mentally lighting a candle to the patron saint of archival researchers that none of them will be unconsultable due to poor conservation. While I wait, I glance around the room. There are a couple of people from universities here that I've known since we were all beginning our dissertation research. There are a couple of undergraduates – yes, undergraduates here do archival research. There are a few very elderly men and women who are likely to be retired persons doing genealogical research – one archivist explained to me that these were her "regulars," and that this kind of research gave a routine to these people's day. I try to guess who is a foreigner, who is local, who is American. If I run into Anglophone grad students, I make a point of introducing myself, asking about their research, and offering them whatever help I can, mindful of all the help I've received over the years.
And then the documents arrive.
(to be continued)