Surviving the Archive

If you are a graduate student researching a historical subject, odds are that you will find yourself, at some point, waist-deep in the yellowing folios of an archive. Archival research has a certain appeal – the adrenaline rush cloaked in tweed, the thrill of the hunt with a reader’s card. You are, after all, hunting. Hunting for scraps. Hunting for evidence. You’re a deerstalker and a pipe away from being a much less sexy Sherlock Holmes. And when you do find what you’re looking for, hello cloud nine. It took everything I had not to let out a yelp in the middle of the London Metropolitan Archives when the elusive figure I’d been tracking showed up in the first document I unfolded.

But most of the time, the archive is a slog. It’s a lot of sitting. In fact, it’s rather more like a trip to the dentist than a ride-along with a super sleuth. It’s dull, it’s long, it’s uncomfortable – even a bit numbing – but in the end, it’s what you need, and you’re better for having done it.

Students of early modern subjects in particular will find an archive daunting, especially because research seminars or methods courses usually address general theoretical and historiographical concerns of the discipline rather than specific skills such as paleography. For me, the archive became a second round of coursework, which makes me wonder if it wouldn’t be a horrible idea to have a methods course in one semester and a field methods course in another (which some fields, like architectural history, often require anyway) that would be more tailored to the individual student’s project. It took me several weeks to understand English chancery hand, the structure of British archives, numerical systems of the seventeenth-century (assessing valuations in scores of pounds, shillings and pence, for instance), and early modern systems of measurement. And I am fortunate because I get to do all of this in English. I can’t imagine what my colleagues in Italian archives have to endure.

In the hopes that I can help assuage the anxieties of any newly minted researchers in full panic mode after that inaugural archival experience, here are a few tips on surviving the archive.

  1. Have patience. If you are reading chancery hand for the first time, your eyes will have to adjust. It’s a shock to the system. I admit that my jet-lagged brain short-circuited at the first sight of that odd, calligraphic hand, and I ran screaming from left the archive for the warm, reassuring “there, there” of a cup of coffee at the café across the street. (Fine, it was a pint at the pub.) A day later, though, I was back in fighting form, thanks to tip #2.
  2. Find a paleography tutorial. The Center for Renaissance Studies at the Newberry has compiled a series of links to paleographic primers in Latin, English, French, Italian and Spanish. I can personally attest to the efficacy of the National Archives’ Practical Online Tutorial, which offers a letter-by-letter transcription of chancery hand as well as a series of quizzes to test your progress. One afternoon with this primer was all I needed to dive back into the sea of seventeenth-century parchments with something resembling confidence. Ideally, you would consult these before your visit to the archive, but sometimes you have to see the letters in context for the lessons to stick.
  3. Make friends. Even the most seasoned scholar will stumble upon a word or letter that she cannot decipher. Archives can be the great equalizer. Fresh-faced graduate students and professors emeriti alike can be humbled by the chicken scratch of a cranky Renaissance steward. If you find that you are stuck on a tricky word – and you will be – by all means, ask a neighbor (if they look amenable) or the archivist. It takes a village to figure out what on earth was going on in early modern Europe.
  4. Have appropriate gear. Archives are very particular about what materials you can bring into the reading rooms. Ink is verboten, obviously. Some rooms permit laptop cases while others prohibit them. In general, pencils and notebooks without spiral bindings are a good idea. Check the website before going, or contact the archive if the information isn’t readily available.
  5. Have battery backup. Nothing is worse than a black screen midway through a transcription. Save yourself from having to handwrite the rest in a notebook or, worse, on scraps of paper using a golf pencil.
  6. Take breaks. Everyone is different, but on average I spent at least a day and a half transcribing a single document. Items in foreign languages might take longer. Archives and libraries – in England, at least – tend to have cafés and lounges for a reason. Use them. A few hours of staring at early modern script can play tricks on your brain. If you start to suspect that the archivists have secretly slipped you documents written in Elvish as some kind of elaborate practical joke, it may be time to walk away from the readers’ table. If there isn’t a lounge on-site, find a sanctuary nearby with a warm cup – or a cold glass – of something. The laptop battery isn’t the only one that will need recharging.
  7. The archivist is your friend. I wish I had realized this earlier, and if there is any one piece of advice I hope you take with you, dear reader, as you whizz through cyberspace after reading this post, it’s this one. I felt that it was incumbent upon me to leave no stone unturned in my search for documents relevant to my work. But I am an art historian, not an archivist. I can find a lot, but I can’t track down everything. No one is in a better position to help you pinpoint or direct your search than the archivist. They are there for a reason. You may have to ask more than one archivist, since each person will have his own research interests, and one may be more inclined to go out of his way to help you than another. They are by far your most valuable resource, so do not be afraid to ask for help if, after having done due diligence, your searches still come up empty.
  8. Be flexible. The Rolling Stones definitely weren’t talking about archival research when Mick crooned that you can’t always get what you want, but they may as well have written a theme song for early modern researchers. After all that effort, the harsh reality is that you may not find what you were looking for after all. History is, well, old, and more documents have perished than survived. Nonetheless, if you’ve combed through the archives, you will have found something. Figure out what you did find instead of shedding tears over what you didn’t. Because if you try sometimes, you might find you get what you need. And it may change the scope and direction of your research.


Author: Rebecca Shields

Art historian extraordinaire, would-be travel diarist and professional Anglophile.

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