Tuesday, March 30, 2010

A Day in the Archives, Part 3: Okay, so I have a honkin' huge stack of documents. Now what?

Well, first off, contrary to what you've seen in the movies, you probably will not be asked to don a pair of white cotton gloves.** I wouldn't be surprised if people in conservation work with gloves (though they're more likely latex, to avoid leaving fibers), and I'm only speaking from my experience and that of my friends, but no gloves. In fact, in many archives, you (especially if you're North American) may be astonished at the casualness with which centuries-old documents are handled – my main archive sets a stack on your table with an audible thump. Another archivist (small parish archive) invited me to climb a twelve-foot high rolling ladder to grab the (late medieval) registers I wanted for myself. I've heard many tales of archivists in small archives, both in Europe and Latin America, making you a copy of the documents you want by taking the register, opening it to the page you want, and smashing it flat on the platen of the photocopier, just like you might with a book that wasn't centuries old and crumbling to dust. Eeep!

Anyway, you may have a list of references of particular pages or folios you want to look at, but more likely you'll be leafing through codices, rolls, or stacks of loose documents looking for something on your topic. When you find it, you have two choices: transcribe it then and there, or get a copy to take home. Let's talk about each one in turn.

First, there's transcribing. This has the advantage that you can see some things that don't turn up in the reproductions. For medievalists, the most important thing that this allows you to do is look at faded portions of document. Here's the bottom third of the one I showed you the other day:

fig. 1: argh!

Now, of course, you can't do anything about the missing chunks. But the faded bits are moisture damage (brought on by storage in too-humid areas for too long), and that you can do something about, provided you have the original in front of you. Go to the desk, and ask for an ultraviolet light (known as a "black light" back in the day when some of us were considerably more interesting). If you shine it on the faded bits, they can pop right up. In fact, if you have a document where parts are faded, it's worth shining it on bits that seem totally blank, because sometimes they're not.

Of course, the disadvantage of transcribing on-site is that it takes time, and you can't check your work later. And since a lot of North American researchers only have 1-3 months at a time in the archives, we generally go for option 2, which is to get a copy of the document. How this works varies widely from one archive to another. In many archives, you will be offered (and charged for) photocopies, microfilms, or (saints preserve us) photocopies of microfilm. In others, you will be offered a disk of digital images (also at a charge, usually a small flat fee for the disk, plus a modest per-document fee). The smaller archives are advantageous here, because since they don't have the resources to make (and charge for!) copies, they simply tell you to bring in your camera and take your own copies.

I love those archives.

Now, as you know, I'm a bit of a shutterbug. And there are better and worse digital photos. Archivists have whole setups where the camera is in a fixed frame directly above the document, the ambient light is set just so, etcetera, etcetera. But I'm here to tell you that you can get perfectly acceptable (if not perfect-perfect) digital photos of documents with a $150 point-and-shoot digital camera. Here's the steps:
  • Ask if digital photography is allowed. Important step here, folks.
  • TURN YOUR FLASH OFF, and check that it's still off each time you turn the camera off and on again. This preserves the documents, and your access to the documents. Wanna become persona non grata at an archive? Take a flash photo.
  • If your camera allows you to manually set the ISO (and even the slightly-more-than-basic ones do today), set it as low as possible – usually 100 or even 80. This lets less light in to the sensor, but higher ISO values result in graininess, especially with smaller cameras. Grain can be artsy in recreational photography, but awful if you want a clear image of already unclear letters.
  • With your ISO set as low as possible, put your camera in shutter speed mode (also sometimes called "time value" mode on Canons, I think), and set the speed. Slower speeds let in more light, but if your camera doesn't have a "vibration reduction" feature (and most point-and-shoot cameras don't), you don't want the shutter speed to be slower than about 1/60 of a second. With these two things set, your camera should determine a good aperture value on its own.
  • (If your camera doesn't have fancy functions, leave it in auto, WITHOUT FLASH, and hope for the best. You'll usually be okay, provided you have good illumination).
  • Hold the camera facing straight down over the top of the thing you're photographing. This means that you take your photos standing up, rather than seated in your chair. But shooting from an angle will give you a keystone effect, which at its worst can distort what you're trying to read. Once you're in place, make sure that your own body isn't casting a shadow on the thing you're photographing, and adjust your body and your light source accordingly.
  • Take a normal breath, focus the camera, exhale gently, then press the shutter button down, holding it down until your picture is taken. Both breathing and letting go of the shutter button ever so slightly jar the camera body, so this is a good and easy trick.
If you are fortunate enough to be shooting with a DSLR, see if there's a setting in which it shoots in RAW format, rather than JPG. When it's dragged to your desktop, it will usually convert back to JPG, but RAW stores more information per shot – almost twice as much. For analyzing documents, this is a very good thing. It takes more storage space, but isn't it worth it?

fig. 2: you don't need super high-tech, but you need *some* tech

Here's another handy tip: Make a little slip with the exact reference number you'd have in a footnote, and make sure it's legible in the photo (I've cropped mine out of the photo above, but you can bet it's there. That way, if your files get all topsy-turvy, you'll still know what you've got where.

Now, I'm going to sign off on this topic (for now), but if y'all have a part 4 you want, let me know. And don't forget to read the comments, because we've now got a lot of archivists following this thread, and I'm sure they'll have stuff to add.

Have fun -- and don't forget your backups!


**Unless you're in a photographic archive -- thanks to my archivist-commenters for pointing out the distinction.

Monday, March 29, 2010

We apologize for the delay, and offer this to pass the time

Dear friends,

Part 3 in the series is going to have to wait a day or so. Visiting friend number three woke up this morning, her day to travel (4:30 p.m. flight) with a horrendous stomach flu. After 2 hours, it was clear that she should not be traveling that day and we managed to get her flight switched. I'm sure all will be well soon.

In the meantime, however, I invite you to visit Clio's Disciple, who has posted a nice piece on working in smallish local archives, which present their own challenges and rewards. And if anyone has other posts that they'd like linked to this series, feel free to post them in the comments (though I'll practice a strict deletion policy on anything spammy).

Friday, March 26, 2010

Just so's y'all know

Hey, I don't want to step on my post of last night, which was number two in a (probably) three-part series of life in the archives. And I am really enjoying reading everyone's comments on both posts, telling about their own experiences. But I just wanted to break in for a moment to post that Fabulous (ex-)neighbor is arriving today for a weekend visit. She's popping in from *her* Exotic Research City to tour around with me. I really am feeling like I've gotten a bit lax about the archives, especially since I blew them off to spend yesterday at a semi-exclusive viewing at a archaeological lab where a team was meticulously analyzing the temporarily disinterred body of a high medieval monarch of my passing acquaintance. But some things - a dead monarch, a live friend -- are worth taking it easy for a few days.

Part 3 on Monday. Have a good weekend, y'all!

Thursday, March 25, 2010

A Day in the Archives, Part 2

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?

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)

Friday, March 12, 2010

In Which I Convince a Roomful of People that I Am an Idiot, and Truly Come to Understand Some Critical Differences in Methodology

Historiann has an interesting post up today about the epithet "revisionism" when applied to historians. And this got me thinking about an unsettling encounter I had the other day, here in exotic research city, one that really brought home to me that historians in different places work really, really differently.

So, a couple of days before it happened, I saw an announcement posted for a mini-seminar on the history of women -- led by a woman, now quite senior, who was at the vanguard of women's history in this country. No, strike that: she was the vanguard. Her book (mid-70s) on the history of women in Exotic Research City in the Middle Ages** was a cry out against the old white d00ds that populated history faculties at that time. It was very typical women's history for that time: dig through the archives, find a much of documents about women, and then present them and say, "Look! Women have a story to tell, too, so stop ignoring them!" From all reports, her own work hadn't changed much methodologically since that time, but man, I had to go, if nothing else than to pay some respect to one of the foremothers. And besides, she was organizing the thing (and doing the closing presentation), but the others were going to be given by an advanced grad student and a mid-career professor, so fine.

But alas, to my dismay, it seems that things here haven't changed much. Or at least, not the way it's done at this particular university. Foremother is very sweet, but hasn't made any methodological changes (that I can see) since the 70s. Worse yet, those around her haven't, either.

And then there was a question period. Now, I should explain that the audience was mostly undergraduates (though many were in their 30s). So we're not talking heavy discussion here. But this is where I made my mistake: In the crushing silence after the presentations, I felt for the presenters (who likes to have a roomful of students staring dully at you?), and so I put my hand up and asked a question.

I don't want to go into too much detail, because this post is too long already. But the question, and the (rather condescending but missing-the-point) response made it clear that we are speaking totally different languages, methodologically speaking. Worse, the response was delivered in a tone that implied they thought that I hadn't understood a word they said.

Now, I know I did understand. Yet somehow I still feel like I'm the idiot.

But what I do understand is that I do things very differently from the people around me. And it's kind of lonely. My friends here are boy historians, working on more traditional topics for here (economic & political history). They don't think much about what I do, and when they do, they're bound to associate it with the rather simplistic work described above. Which is really, really too bad. Because without new blood and new ideas (and there are at least two women's historians here I can think of who are indeed using new approaches), this is a field on life support here.


**Of course, they didn't call it "Exotic Research City" back then. They used Latin.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

My favorite method of "productive" procrastination

...is compiling bibliography. After all, it's a lot more fun thinking about all the great books and articles you will read than it is to actually read them.

You?

(In other news: yesterday it snowed in Exotic Research City. I don't think it should snow in march anywhere that isn't a polar zone. But that's just me.)

Friday, March 5, 2010

My new topic is tedious.

Or rather, researching it is tedious.

My previous research had me reading about sex, violence, and disputes between neighbors. Fun, right? This time, however, my job is to read through and digest five years' worth of 800 year-old account ledgers, official correspondence, municipal ordinances, personal contracts, and charitable donations. And then make them sing.

Sure. No problem.

So why am I working on this topic? For the best reason possible: I want to know more about it. This morning, while digging through an account book for one year for a major territory (this person owes x amount to that government body, which collects it, then redistributes it in such-and-such a manner… deargodpleasekillmenow), I realized that I really wanted to be able to talk convincingly and enthusiastically about the larger topic. I wanted to know about that topic.

[VALUABLE LESSON ALERT!!!] This was the same thing I discovered about a year from the end of my first book: I didn't want to write the book. But I did want to read it. And since no one else was stepping up to write it, then it was up to me.

((rolls neck, stretches hands and fingers)) Okay, here goes...

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

On Databases, Indices, and Their Ilk

Squadratomagico has a very interesting post up about the so-called magic of databases, which should allow us to produce scholarship at a breakneck pace.**

My first reaction was: "Some of my documents are online, but until they invent a search engine that can read medieval handwriting and that can do fuzzy searches to account for obscure abbreviations and endless orthographic variants, no joy here for me."

And also: "Most of my best material is stuff I stumbled on while looking for something else entirely. This guy's method would never have uncovered this stuff."

But I was struck by one of the commenters on her thread, who pointed out that databases are rarely organized consistently, and one researcher's critical info is another database compiler's irrelevant chaff, to be left out or left unindexed. And I was reminded of my first foray into the archives. I had a really interesting idea for a dissertation topic – it had to do with gender and religion. Fine. And when I got to the archives, I knew which collection I wanted to look at, but it was really, really huge. Then, someone pointed me to the index.

Big mistake.

This is a multivolume handwritten "index" in which the indexer gave a one-line summary of the documents in each of the thousands of registers, indicating the folio number for each. Not detailed, but handy for directing you to what you were looking for.

Except it wasn't. See, this index had been created by some archivist working in the late 19th century, and he only chose to index the "historically important" documents. To him, this meant documents dealing with politics, finance, and land transfers. If I had gone from that index (and I did, for a while), I would have thought that there were no women anywhere in those registers. Also, no sex, violence, or petty squabbles between neighbors.

So, the original post author can write his articles based on his method. And I'll keep using the bibliographic databases that are available to me (how did I find books before WorldCat?). But I'm going to keep doing the work of scholarship the way I was taught. The databases are essential tools, but they can't be the sum of your research. Yes, it's hard work. Yes, it takes a long time. But what you get any other way isn't worth the half hour you put into it.


**Be sure to scroll down in the comments far enough to read Historiann's defense of the original author -- I did, and seriously redacted this post. But the central point is important nonetheless.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Finances: Some thoughts

  • I received my tax refund Friday! Whoo hoo! And just in time, as I was down to my last 15 bucks or so, with days to go until payday.
  • On the same day, two of my (non-academic) friends posted to FB that they had lost their jobs. Both of these have children under three years of age. One recently (after much discussion) uprooted his young family, leaving his parents and lifelong friends, to take the job that he just lost through no fault of his own.
  • Turns out that Goldman-Sachs is in part to blame for the Greek financial collapse as well. Not very surprising.
  • Amidst all of this, I find myself (much to my surprise!) reading about medieval financial instruments. Did you know that, as early as the fourteenth century, cities were buying and selling shares of public debt?
Don't want to think about any of this, really.