Tuesday, March 23, 2010

A Day in the Archives, Part I

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(and this varies a lot from one place to another) you can go into one of these places and get your hands on actual historical documents, ranging from last week's newspapers to crumbling parchments and papyri from centuries ago.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)

16 comments:

clio's disciple said...

Awesome! I'll look forward to reading this series.

I may have to add my own notes about working in smaller, less-regulated spaces at some point, though.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

CD: You're welcome to! Either here, or if it gets a little long, post at your place, and I'll add a link in my post.

Historiann said...

This is a really nice primer for grad students to read before they make their first foray into an archive. Thanks! (And happy reading.)

human said...

Ooh, I'm waiting eagerly for digital camera tips :D

Notorious Ph.D. said...

@ Human -- hadn't thought in terms of "tips," but it's a good idea. If I don't get to it in part two, I'll do a follow-up right after that, I promise.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

This is fucking great!

ms.archivist said...

I am an archivist and I enjoyed reading this post. We are always interested in how best to serve our researchers. I feel your pain, RE: materials in such poor condition access is denied. I completely understand the value in handling the originals when conducting research. On that note... I am interested in knowing your opinion about and experiences with digitized archival records. There are several drawbacks I can see in terms of prohibitive user experience, poor quality digital scans, and limited search and indexing functions. Looking forward to reading your next installment, and I'm happy to have stumbled upon your blog.

historiann said...

ms. archivist--excuse my blogwhoring, but last summer I wrote a post on why historians still absolutely need the archives, and why digitized records are great but should not be trusted as replacements for the real thing.

Here it is: http://www.historiann.com/2009/06/08/sister-agnes-explains-why-you-still-need-to-visit-the-archives/

And a follow-up post here: http://www.historiann.com/2009/06/14/librarians-archivists-and-access-to-archives/

Susan said...

Thanks, Notorious. I love seeing you taking off your coat and putting away anything in which you can carry off precious documents. And your pain about the "unfit for production". When I was doing my diss research, the archivists trusted me so that there were some documents they gave to me on tissue paper, and then labeled "unfit for production" :)

Just to add a few notes if any grad students are reading for information, it's useful to know things like whether you have to make an appointment... I can also sometimes call in advance and order documents to be ready. Of course, I've also heard tell of places you have to bribe the archivist; and private archives are notoriously quirky!

Belle said...

Oooh, I wanna go back into my archives! I was so astonished when Lovely Place went digital - not only on the documents (as noted, still problematic) but in the getting permissions area too! But the whole process of getting in, figuring out the catalog (when you're lucky) or the codices or whatever, the request process... it all made me feel very special and privileged. It also helped me get out of the modern mindset: my pace slowed, my intensity sharpened, I refocused. Great stuff.

Thanks for doing this Notorious!

feMOMhist said...

Fabulous. Must read for aspiring grad student. The thrill of touching musty old papers is what convinced me to bypass law school and sign on for life. What I found so odd is that as an undergrad I had the similar procedure (but ADD WHITE COTTON GLOVES!!!!!), pencil only etc. Fast forward to most recent trip, NADA, bring your stuff on in, etc. You could have walked out of a MAJOR American archive with chunks of the collection. WT*?

Anonymous said...

As an archivist, I love the idea of this series. What a wonderful way to get young scholars interested in the thrill of archival research.

Keep it up!

Deb Schiff said...

Very cool! Thanks for posting about your experiences. I'm just wrapping up my library science studies, and it's great to hear about the archives from a patron.

Moria said...

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.

God bless you.

I work in rare book rooms, not archives (mostly) – but the atmosphere is similar and I love your evocation of it here. Look forward to reading the rest.

Random University Student said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Random University Student said...

Now now, what's wrong with undergrads doing archival research? We have to start at some point!:) I just got through my first serious encounter with a major archives...I made a lot of researching mistakes I'm sure but it was an amazing experience!Definitely in love with the place. You tend to make good friends with the security guards who are also stuck there late into the night.