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?


Anonymous said...


Do I see "compratur,' "is bought," in the first one? Something else looks like "medio tempo" which suggests the band is about to play a foxtrot, but that can't be right.

squadratomagico said...

I love these posts! So true -- heartbreakingly true!

I never had a class in palaeography, but I don't recommend skipping this step: I WISH I had. However, one good bit of advice I got before going into the archives was to find an edited, printed version of something that you know exists in your archive of choice. Order that first, and refer back-and-forth with the printed version as you try to decipher it. I found this immensely helpful. I work almost exclusively with document hand things, and I also found Capelli's dictionary of abbreviations to be helpful -- though of course, one always finds things that are not in it.

Janice said...

Oh, this looks rather familiar, even if I work in quite a different place and time.

I well remember my first encounter with the rolls in the Public Record Office. They were literally rolls, pieced together for yard upon yard of closely written text and, while still quite pliable, were the dirtiest materials with which I'd ever worked. My hands would be filthy, up to the wrist, at the end of a day and all I had to show for it was confirmation that yes, indeed, so-and-so had purchased x property on y date.

dance said...

Ooh, let's start a meme and all post pix of our documents. Here's mine, much friendlier.

A lovely series!

Anonymous said...

This brings back memories! Even though I work on the sixteenth century, everything I look at is handwritten, and my grad school didn't even offer a paleography course! I did have a photocopy of a printed edition of some of the material, though, which was a lifesaver - not only with the handwriting, but with the abbreviations. But I clearly remember staring at my first folio, for about three hours, without deciphering even the top line! The next day, I went back *with* the photocopy :)

Susan said...

Janice is so right about getting filthy from parchment. Like Squadrato, I work almost exclusively with document hands, which means that when I do work with the book hands -- which are often somewhat archaic, since they don't change fast -- I'm often lost, though I admire how neat and pretty they are.

The first day in the archives I ended up with the WORST headache I ever had, and almost decided that I'd never finish my Ph.D.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

Then the next day, I came back. That's the key: COME BACK.

Yep. We use some techniques in my lab that require extremely fine hand-eye coordination manipulating tiny pieces of tissue under a microscope with fine micro-tweezers. When trainees first start learning these techniques, they are nearly brought to tears: not only can't they grab the shit they want with the tweezers, they can't even see the shit! After a few weeks practice, they are experts.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

This is so interesting -- I'm enjoying reading about everyone else's reflections on their own experience in the archives. And I do promise to deal with the whole digital photography issue.

Anonymous said...

Wow, those documents. Lovely clean script (pity about the wash-out) of which I can make out maybe a quuarter, and yeah, I thought I was trained in this stuff. But they look like business! I did a similar post a while back for those sharing document pictures: it's here.

Despite the tales of dirt and frustration, really quite envious of you at the moment Dr N.

Clio Bluestocking said...

Ouchouchouch! You medievalists have all the fun.

I have another fear to add. Fortunately, my research doesn't require that much deciphering; but still, chickenscratch, tears, and stains know no limits. I always worry that I won't be able to decipher a document, then someone else will come along, have better luck, and the document will turn out to have contained some sort of key evidence that reshapes the debate and everyone will say "Prof. Bluestocking SHOULD have known X because person Y said X in that letter that looks like an inkpot disaster."

Historiann said...

I agree that your documents both look incredibly clear. Having documents written by someone with a trained hand--a professional scribe, a clerk, etc.--usually means much better legibility than those of us working at the dawn of the democratization of literacy find outside of official records. The water damage sustained by that one leaf looks pretty reasonable to work through.

Even better than having a copy of a transcription, as Squadratomagico suggests, is teaching yourself paleography by reading documents that all fall within a certain genre. So, if you work in an era in which people exchanged letters, skip the letters and start by reading court records, probate records, or the annalles of a convent, where the generic similiarities can help you puzzle out the difficult words. (At least, it worked for me in 17th C North American records. Now that my work is mostly in the 18th C the writing tends to be much better and more regular.)

Nat said...

Do please tell us about the butcher: William de Cabanellis?

Anonymous said...

Notorious, your point on the initial difficulty of reading old handwriting is true even with nineteenth century documents. Numerous researchers, usually advanced undergraduates or first year grad students, have expressed frustration with the handwriting in Civil War letters. As someone who deals with these documents every day, I sometimes forget how difficult they can be to read. Of course, now that my own research is beginning to require sources in non-English languages, I am acutely aware of their plight.

Deb Schiff said...

Thanks again for sharing your experience in the archives. If no one's told you, your blog has been making the rounds in the archivists' circles. :)

As someone interested in that field, I'd love to hear your thoughts about finding aids (what you don't like, what you like, suggestions about what would be more useful, etc.). Also, are students in history programs taught how to use them? Would you be willing to write a post on that, when you have the time?
Your newest fan.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

thanks for keeping this discussion going, all! I'll respond to this all as much as possible tomorrow evening. In the meantime, welcome, archivists!

Anonymous said...

Another archivist reading/loving the blog - really glad to hear you banging the drum for palaeography!

Over here in the UK the only palaeography chair is under threat - see
and the petition to save it

dlabq said...

Handwriting does seem to get clearer the more you stare at it, unless you get one of those writers whose cursive words are basically a beginning letter, an ending letter and a line in between.
One thing I encountered when trying to translate some letters from Spanish to English was that the writer couldn't spell, which made it really hard to look up the words in a dictionary. Usually I was able to piece together the meaning of a sentence from the rest of the words, but coming up with a direct quote that I felt was accurate proved very difficult.