Gateway to the Early Modern World
Archive Survival Guide
This is a "wish list" of items that might be helpful for those
planning research in the archives. Note that there are many different types of
archives, and my personal experience is limited to west European archives (and
rare book collections in the U.S.) dealing with 17th and 18th
century Europe. The usefulness of these suggestions may
vary depending on the particular archives and documents you need to consult.
The most important "item" would be to make sure you can
understand the language. Foreign
languages are obviously of most concern, and the further back in time you
research, the less your documents will read like the modern language, so figure
out as many of the "secrets" of the trade as you can.
The second most important "item"
would be to make sure you can read the handwriting - paleography.
Many periods and languages have published guides that you can practice with,
and you may be fortunate enough to have reproductions to practice on before
you head to the archives. You could also photocopy or scan in examples
to take with you as aids - they now have technology which allows you to scan
images from microfilm onto a computer. For some elementary
suggestions, see DoHistory.org.
Starting out, you might want to mimic the line breaks in the text rather than
let your word processor automatically wrap the text to the next line. It might
even be useful to keep samples of various individuals' signatures and handwriting.
Also, beware of special abbreviations and other shorthand notations - what
seems like a mere squiggle or flourish might actually be a person's abbreviation
for a prefix or suffix. For a medieval/early modern English site, see
http://paleo.anglo-norman.org/palindex.html. Many of these conventions
might be language-, period-, or even script-specific, so be sure to check
out the paleography guides for all the languages you will be reading.
The third most important item would
be to bring a laptop computer and take all your notes on it, making
sure to make backups. A laptop or Palm/Pocket PC also offers
several additional perks: checking email, visiting websites, even playing
your MP3 songs - something I find particularly useful to avoid the tedium
of copying verbatim pages upon pages of notes. All archives allow pencils
(and probably none of them allow pens), and I'd hope most also allow laptops
by now. Whether there are electrical outlets near your desk is a separate
issue, so you might want to bring along an extension cord - with the appropriate
plug converter - just in case. Starting in early 2003 full-featured Pocket
PCs have started to come down significantly in price (Dell Axim Pocket PCs
cost around $300) - you can get various software programs for these PDAs that
might not only help you with research (Personal Information Managers, dictionaries,
etc.) but even keep you sane (games, music...). If you plan on doing any note-taking
or data entry on PDAs, you'll definitely need to buy a portable keyboard to
go along with it.
A March 2001 discussion on the H-GRAD listserv provided some more general
suggestions, and I've taken the liberty of incorporating some of these recommendations
into the following list:
- Before going, if at all
possible take notes or transcribe all the sources and documents
available to you before you go. If you cannot do this, at least note
the bibliographic information on each document that you know you will have
access to later on (i.e. Archive info, Author, Recipient, Date, Place). Be
warned that many 19th century and early 20th century printed collections may
have omitted significant parts of some letters from their published versions
(or even provided incorrect information identifying the document information
on occasion - especially Old Style-New Style dating, for example, with
Englishmen on the Continent). So if you can transcribe what is available
before you go, you can then save time by just filling in the blanks (mark the
excised locations well so you don't have to search around in the text).
- Contact the archivist before you go - they may have important suggestions and warnings,
as documents and collections do get moved to different archives and
are even destroyed at
times. Be sure documents listed in catalogs from the late 19th and early 20th centuries
still exist - can you say World Wars I and II? And ask the archivist if there are any
other scholars researching similar topics.
- Many archives have extremely useful websites with
policies and hours - this is the first place to start. For archive links I've
found useful, click here. What are the
archives' hours, and as a warning to Americans,
are they closed for lunch? Many of the European archives I've gone to closed
for 1-2 hours each day during lunchtime. Nice for the European lifestyle,
but an immense annoyance for American scholars on a tight schedule
and even tighter budget.
Also find out any access restrictions for specific collections (not an issue
for most early modern documents, excepting of course the
papers of the greatest military engineer in history), how many requests per day you are allowed,
whether you can place orders before you even arrive (via the web, mail or
phone), whether you can order them all at the same time, how many documents/cartons/folders
you are allowed to order or have at your desk at one time, whether you can
have items "held" at circulation for the next day, etc. Also expect
to wait at least 15 minutes to receive your request - if you're lucky
your documents will be in the same building as the reading room and there
won't be 50 other people waiting for their own bundles. Use this time to browse
the reading room - they'll probably have lots of reference works that you
might find useful (dictionaries, catalogs, secondary histories, etc.). Planning
ahead of time will also allow you to fill out call slips and other forms in
the evening or during lunch breaks, so you don't waste time when the archives
are actually open.
- Pay particular attention to reproduction policies:
whether you can photocopy items or get them microfilmed, how much it costs,
how their copying process works, etc. Sometimes
you may have to photocopy the items yourself (unlikely if they're early modern
documents however), or you might even have to make microfilm copies yourself.
This can be a real pain, especially if you have to use a different microfilm
machine from the one you viewed it on (as was the case at the Archives de
Guerre in Paris). You may want to pay the extra few cents to have the staff
do the copies, particularly if you're running short on time - of course you
may have no say in the matter depending on their policies. When deciding whether
to make copies or take notes, ALWAYS make copies if you can at all afford
it. Reproduction prices will invariably go up in the future (I've been severely
burned on this in a matter of just a couple years);
your reproduction costs aren't outrageous when you weigh them against the
costs of room and board you'd otherwise spend doing additional archive research.
Use a similar opportunity-cost calculation to decide if you should
copy rather than take notes on data-dense documents (e.g. lists of numbers
- where a numeric keypad would be quite useful, by the
way); and always remember that full, verbatim transcriptions of documents
are always preferable to de-contextualized paraphrased notes - not only will
you be able to recognize authors by their handwriting, but more importantly,
later in the write-up stage you may discover that
you want something different from what your notes give you, something that
you weren't looking for originally and therefore didn't bother writing down
in your notes. And your colleagues will be more impressed
when you give them a useful quote in full rather than just as a paraphrase.
Depending on the type of history you do, e.g. literary/cultural history
or qualitative analysis, your methodology may mandate the full texts for analysis
anyway. At the very least, always transcribe verbatim the first line or so
of every letter you find useful, so if you later come across documents of
the same date in another location, it will be relatively
easy to see if they are copies or not. It may also
be useful to transcribe the salutation (Sire, Sir, Milord, Monsieur, Monseigneur...),
since it may give an indication of who the recipient was when
there is no addressee. You might even get a sense
of hierarchy by looking at the closings of letters; see, for example, Jon
Rudd, "A Perception of Hierarchy in Eighteenth-Century France: An Epistolary
Etiquette Manual for the Controller General of Finances," French Historical
Studies17 (1992), 791-801.
- When you first arrive at the archives, accept the fact that you'll probably
have to "waste" the first day registering (this may take several
hours), looking through catalogs, and orienting yourself
to the collections and procedures. Of course, the more of this preparatory
work you can get out of the way before you arrive, the better. If you're lucky,
you may even be able to order documents in advance (e.g. over the web), which
would cut down on the waiting time.
- Prioritized list of what items to look for (you'll
probably have less time than you need). This could include a list of published
primary sources which you can give a low priority to (see
above). Plunder the footnotes of secondary
sources mercilessly - this might also tell you what kind of material
is available in the archives (is there a reason they never talk about topic
X? maybe it's because the archives don't have anything on X). But if
you have time, be sure to skim through all the collections in search of the
stray diamond in the rough - serendipity is your friend. This may
also help prevent the tragic occurrence of discovering at the end of
your research trip that you don't have enough material on your topic. You
also might want to first skim through all the documents in each bundle before
you start taking detailed notes. Make sure to make a note of interesting documents
that you might not have time to look at right now but can come back to in
- List of keywords to search in Subject catalogs and indexes: important people (their full
names and DOB/DOD, as there might be several relatives with the same names), subject
headings as used in classification schemes, place names, etc. Don't forget to use the
place and person names in the language used by the archive: from personal experience,
don't ask for a folder on "Ghent" in France, ask for "Gand"; and know
if the person is listed under "Auverquerque" or "Ouwerkerk"
- Bibliography of all the sources you've consulted and
would like to consult (preferably in a bibliographic database program like
EndNote or ProCite). The more things you put on the computer, however, the
more you may have to switch between programs, so having some of the information
printed out (or on a separate Palm/Pocket PC) may not be a bad idea. For example,
I have a simple database app on my Axim into which I imported all my bibliography
titles, personalities, and so on.
- User's guides
to the archives you will be visiting.
If you're lucky, you'll have access to the archive's index/catalog before
you go, in which case you should obviously go through it all, noting personalities,
year ranges, etc. for each volume or carton, if you don't just photocopy the
whole thing (probably a good idea). When you're in the reading room, spend
as little time writing/entering bibliographic data as possible - make blank
records with the basic info (from the catalogs) before hand. See my comments
on using placeholding records
in a note-taking database.
- Have your note-taking system
worked out before you go - refine it on published primary sources you can
consult at home. For my own relational database note-taking system using MS
Access, which has the most important features to include IMHO, click here.
For archival research, it's particularly important to have a system that fulfills
a number of scholarly apparatus and administrative needs: 1) forces you to
record all the bibliographic info you'll need for citation, 2) lets you keep
track of what you've looked at already, 3) keeps track of what's worth coming
back to in the not-so-near future, 4) quickly tells you what still needs to
be looked at in the near-future, 5) provides a way to prioritize the items
still to be looked at, and 6) minimizes the time spent entering all this info
as well as the notes themselves. Don't forget to develop a consistent system
of abbreviations (or use something like MS Office's AutoCorrect) but avoid
potentially confusing abbreviations - is "Alb" for "Albergotti"
or "Albemarle" or "Alberdingh"? Note,
however, that while abbreviations to speed up note-taking may let you take
notes on more sources, the resulting notes may also mask subtle differences
in vocabulary. For example, you might note the synonymous terms "counterscarp"
and "covered way" with the abbreviation "ctsp," which
means at a later point you would not be able to recreate this distinction.
To continue this hypothetical example that has absolutely no connection at
all to my own personal research experience, if you wanted to see whether there
is a pattern to their use, as a measure of tactical dissemination and determining
who provided the paradigm other countries looked to you could see if English
and Dutch authors use the French term "contrescarpe" or "chemin
couvert" rather than their own "covered way" or "bedeckte
weg." But of course if you abbreviated them all the same, too late. *This
warning also applies for MS Office's AutoCorrect - proper names and mis-spellings
in the text (good-ol' sic) will be eliminated in some cases.
So be careful to check your AutoCorrect list before you go to the archives
- you need to decide how faithful to the original sources you want your notes
to be. Obviously this should be determined by the likely types of analysis
you'll perform in the future - the more fidelity to the original, the slower
the note-taking (intentionally typing mis-spellings and proper nouns five
different ways can be difficult - the database developer in me cringes at
the thought!) and the more effort needed to later recall that information
in all its variety (by standardizing spelling for recall), but the greater
your ability to later analyze the document and the more flexible your notes
Other "gadgets" I've found useful include:
- Foreign language dictionaries, preferably on your
laptop or Palm/Pocket PC. Good computer dictionaries
allow you to quickly search for words regardless of their
grammatical forms (i.e. words in all their conjugations, declensions, genders,
and numbers, instead of only the infinitive or masculine singular form),
use wildcards (useful when you
can't read a letter or two and want to narrow down the word possibilities),
and the best dictionaries also allow you to enter in annotations
or add additional definitions or quotes to
existing entries. I use the French Le Petit Robert
on CD, which provides all of these features plus many more. Another nice feature
would be an ability to add completely new entries (some Palm/Pocket PC dictionaries
have this feature). These computer dictionaries also have the advantage
of eliminating the need to carry such bulky print items around with you.
They should be available for purchase online at foreign websites. Many
reading rooms will also have print dictionaries
on the reference shelves.
- Relevant maps of the subject under study (can be scanned
into the computer to refer to in the archives).
You might want paper copies you can mark up in the archives - or follow along
with while you take notes on the laptop. Or bring acetate sheets (i.e.
transparencies) which you can trace documents on - though you should check
with the archive staff before you attempt this. If you have a Palm/Pocket
PC, they sell maps of cities (including mass transit line maps) that might
come in handy when you're on the go doing more touristy things.
- Calculator (preferably on
a laptop or Palm/Pocket PC). There are many to choose from, but I use the
free www.cdml.com on my laptop and Calc98
on the Pocket PC. The latest versions include useful conversion
functions: English distance/area/volume to and from metric, temperature conversions,
and various time/date conversions (hours to days/weeks, etc.).
The most recent version of CDML even includes a calendar that goes back to
the year 1500 (see next item). Quite
handy, and you might be able to program in currency conversions
- A perpetual calendar
(either software or a paper copy) which allows you to figure out dates when
given a specific date and a day of the week. For example, with a letter dated
April 5, 1704 mentioning only that something happened "last Wednesday,"
you can quickly find out what date that Wednesday was.
- A camera or digital camera might be helpful, assuming
the archives allow you to take photographs. All of the archives that I've
been to do not allow readers to photograph their holdings (I think it has
to do not only with conservation but also with copyright issues). You might
also find a scanner (perhaps a small pen scanner) helpful. Even if the archives
don't allow photographing, you can still use the camera to photograph things
like architecture and paintings. Note that you can easily manipulate digital
photos, adjusting the lighting of pictures taken in dark museums that don't
allow flashes, for example. Very useful!
For a great introduction (and specific advice) on digitizing archival/library
research, see http://archiva.net/electronicresearcher/index.htm.
- Some sort of task organizer, e.g. Microsoft's Outlook
(or one of the many PIMs available for Palm/Pocket PCs such as Pocket Informant),
so you can keep track of your daily progress, as well as plan your research
- A contact list, e.g. Outlook or PIM, so you can keep
in touch with people while you're away from home, and keep track of people
you'll meet during your trips.
Further recommendations or suggestions are welcomed. I suggest Microsoft products only
because that's what I use and they're ubiquitous.
February 9, 2005