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. Continue reading “Surviving the Archive”