Archive | May 2012

We know where we’re going, but we don’t know where we’ve been

The War of Devolution is well under way. It looks like the Canadian government has been significantly reducing its efforts to acquire, catalog and preserve its documentary past, and the 2012 budget forces the knife even deeper. Recent measures taken/proposed by the Library and Archives Canada include: significant staff cuts (including cataloguers, archivists and digitization staff), reading room/library closures, abandonment of its policy of acquiring copies of all newly published Canadian works, and cutting back on its acquisition of documents, which is leading to the dispersion of its documentary heritage to public and private buyers, Canadian and non-Canadian. One other rarely-appreciated but critical archival task is also being severely curtailed: the number of fields in catalog records are to be halved, with the provenance field (i.e. details on where each document comes from, i.e. the “history” of the historical document) being eliminated altogether! Future budgets project that by 2014 funding levels will be 58% of where they were in 1990 (adjusted for inflation).

Details at A recent summary here.

Technically not “European” (in my preferred narrow definition), but certainly of importance for anyone doing early colonial history in North America, and anyone who cares about researching history in general.

Recent book on EMEnglishMH

Missed this when it first came out a few months back:

Carlton, Charles. This Seat of Mars: War and the British Isles, 1485-1746. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011.

You probably know of Carlton’s previous works, particularly his Going to the Wars, a social history of war during the British Civil Wars (or whatever they’re calling them these days). He also authored Royal Warriors: A Military History of the British Monarchy in 2003.

There’s a good review of his latest work by Ian Atherton at

New article on recruitment in Elizabethan England

Younger, Neil. “The Practice and Politics of Troop-Raising: Robert Devereux, Second Earl of Essex, and the Elizabethan Regime.” English Historical Review 127 (2012): 566-591.

The Oxford website doesn’t have an abstract, but here’s the first page to give you a flavor:

“BY the mid-1590s, Robert Devereux, second earl of Essex, had emerged as the leading military figure in England’s war with Spain—a war entering its second decade with no end in sight. After beginning his military career under his stepfather Robert, earl of Leicester, in the Netherlands in 1585–6 and participating in the ‘Portugal voyage’ of 1589, he rapidly advanced to more senior positions. First given command of an army in Normandy in 1591–2, he led major amphibious naval attacks on Spanish territory in 1596 and 1597, and was ultimately given command of the unprecedentedly large English army sent to repress rebellion in Ireland in 1599.1

Unlike most of Elizabeth’s ministers, especially during the latter part of her reign, Essex was a genuine military enthusiast. He was interested in the science and practice of warfare, enjoyed both campaigning and the company of soldiers, and was increasingly recognised as the nation’s leading patron of soldiers.2 He also believed that aggressive prosecution of the war was in England’s interests, and that it might lead not merely to a settlement which would safeguard England’s security, but even to the ‘utter ruine’ of the tyrannical Spanish enemy.3 Thus, although Essex’s military exploits were expressions of service to the Queen and the country, Essex also had deep personal interests in them: they advanced his vision of the war, furthered his career and supplied the means to develop and sustain his personal clientele.

Essex’s ambitions, then, rested to no small degree on his military successes. Yet, in order to pursue them, he needed resources, and here he was dependent on the military supply systems put in place long before his emergence as a leading political figure. Despite the almost twenty years’ duration of the wars with Spain (1585–1604), England never established a standing…”


So what did you do in May?

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A coded letter awaiting deciphering? No, the volumes I managed to look at while at the British Library. I spent a few days at both the Bodleian (Oxford) and several Cambridge libraries, but most of my month was spent at the British Library. For those who’ve never been and might go, or who, like me, were only familiar with the old Manuscripts reading room when it was in the British Museum, I’ll let you check out their website for the basics. But here are a few tidbits on BL research mechanics that were reinforced for me over my 2.5 weeks there in the Manuscripts room. I always like to know as much in advance as possible, and so here’s what I wish I’d known on day 1, hour 1: Read More…


Early Modern Online Bibliography has had a few recent posts discussing new avenues in Digital Humanities. Things like annotating old maps and textual analysis. Check it out.

Keep digitizing those sources! Therein lies the bottleneck.

How do you take notes in the archives?

Report from the front line.

Over the past 1.5 weeks here at the BL I’ve surreptitiously spied on my fellow archive rats to see how they take notes. No surprise that most use a laptop, though of course there are still several old-schoolers using pencil and paper (haven’t seen any 3×5 notecards, oddly enough). And one guy that keeps shining a bright light through the paper, looking for who knows what. [The BL doesn’t allow any photography – the bastards.]

The vast majority of those using laptops are using some type of word processor software. Only a few, including myself, use some kind of database program – the only one I could identify was Evernote.

I did just notice an interesting variation, however: someone using an iPad for notetaking. I brought one for the trip, but haven’t been bringing it to the archives because of my tiny portfolio case [note to self: bring a bigger bookbag]. I was particularly intrigued, however, by *how* he used his detachable wireless keyboard. I have one for the iPad but chose not to take it on the trip, for space reasons and because my laptop has an even better keyboard. But this means that I have two objects with large footprints that I have to fit within 1-2 feet of the edge of the desk (to reach the keyboard and to easily read the ms). Thus both the book stand and keyboard are angled at a 120 degree (or so) angle to each other. This means having your body facing the laptop and craning your neck off to the side to read the book. As it is, after transcribing for several hours my back/neck/shoulders get sore and I need to switch the laptop from one side to another (and the angle of the chair as well). Ironically, I had thought I’d have more soreness in the first part of the trip from bending over mss to photograph them. Ah, the occupational hazards of the life of the mind.

What I didn’t appreciate (and he has) is that with a small, portable, detachable keyboard you decrease the footprint by separating the keyboard from the screen (i.e. iPad), which means you can put the small, ‘short’ keyboard right in front of the book stand, have the screen off to one side, sit straight, and have the book lined up with the keyboard and close enough to see easily, just a foot or so away [Did I mention the BL Mss room has horrible lighting, and most of the mss handwriting is tiny? And I probably need bifocals?] This would seem to provide a much better sitting posture since your shoulders and head/neck are in proper alignment. Plus, it encourages you to stop looking at the screen, which makes for faster touch typing (even if there may be a few more typos).

Of course one other way to mitigate this would be to not transcribe so many sources, but personally I find it more time consuming (or at least mentally taxing) to read through a source and then paraphrase/summarize it than just transcribe it. And transcription provides you with the ability to refer back to their exact language in a way that summarizing doesn’t. Of course it also helps to use various abbreviations (qq for quelque is one of my faves since my fingers always trip up on that word for some reason, and don’t even get me started on aujourd’hui), maybe even use AutoCorrect for common ones.


Nerds can be so cruel

Graffiti found in the men’s room, 2nd floor of the British Library:

“Malcolm Quinn is a saucy ruffian with a screw loose and no prospects.”

Malcolm, you’ve been served.

Cannon I have known

Or, Phallic Symbols on Parade!

I’ll start off this random collection of cannon I’ve photographed over the years by combining it with the quality control issue raised in a previous post.

First up, an Austrian mortar burst while besieging Lille (France) in 1792. It’s located in Lille’s Musée des Cannoniers, which also has, they say, one of the only Gribeauval guns (with carriage and limber) still in existence.

Austrian burst mortar, c. 1792

I suppose they should have pissed on it.

All photographs under Creative Commons license.

Why quality control is a good idea

From Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts, Calendar of the Manuscripts of the Marquess of Ormonde, preserved at Kilkenny Castle, New Series, Vol. VIII (London, 1920), 162.

Abstract of a letter from John Cutts to the Duke of Ormonde:

Concerning the test of the firearms of the troops at the camp. The Major of the Artillery began with the writer’s regiment of dragoons, supposed to be the best armed. Out of the first 130 that were proved 53 burst, upon which they stopped. Then they proceeded with Lord Orrery’s regiment, in which 195 burst. Major-General Langston then put a stop and sent the writer an express to know if he would have them go any farther; he replied that to do so would be to expose the weakness of the army and make half the troops go to quarters without arms in their hands. Tells his Grace in plain English that here Majesty’s forces there are in effect unarmed, since arms that will not bear firing are worse than none. Proposes steps to be taken in order that the soldiers may have good arms.

John Stapleton (soon to be a book!) notes that the weapons sent with English forces to Flanders in 1689 were sub-par and required replacement with more reliable Dutch models. Shoddy English manufacturing?

Archival research is like a box of chocolates…

… You never know what you’re gonna get.

I just finished up the non-London portion of my trip, digitally pillaging the archives and libraries of Oxford (Bodleian) and Cambridge (University Library, Wren Library-Trinity College, Churchill Archives Centre-Churchill College). Fortunately all those online digital copies of published sources (and increasingly manuscripts) have made this a trip of surgical strikes – spend 5 hours at the Bod looking at 5 ms collections, 3 hours at the Cambridge University Library photographing four books, 5 minutes snapping one shot of a one-page pamphlet at Trinity (an hour once you add in transportation, finding the library, registration…)… So, much like diving in to a box of chocolates, here are my semi-random thoughts on the process that is short-term archival research.

Coordinating with my wife to schedule tourist-y events in between such archive visits is, as the title of the post implies, impossible. We probably scheduled one day too many in Oxford, which means one less day in London, but compared to the travails of pre-digital archival research, I really shouldn’t complain. Perhaps it’s the efficiency expert in me, but I like to plan things out in advance, and you can’t do that with archival research, beyond plus/minus a day. How long will it take to finish up at CAC? I have no idea – maybe 2 hours, maybe all day… Having two cellphones that work in a different country would be useful, but that’s for expert travelers.

Almost all archives have catalogs of some kind, but even for inventoried collections you rarely know exactly what content will be included in any given volume – like a box of chocolates (without the lid). You can often guess about the likely content based off the offices held by the author and recipient, as well as their relationship – much like the shape and texture of the candy. [Hey, this archive-as-box-of-chocolates metaphor actually works!] Part of effective archival research is mastering the emotional flights of fancy that make you imagine all sorts of tasty tidbits within a vaguely-cataloged volume – ooh, maybe this volume is scrumptious milk chocolate with a creamy caramel center! More often than not, however, you will be disappointed by the mundane trivia you find within the yellowed papers once you stare at them in the reading room – bleech, it’s just plain chocolate. This seems to be particularly true for ‘secondary’ characters, that’s probably why they’re only secondary characters in the first place. The catalog may say that this guy’s correspondence ranges from 1705 to 1710, but in reality 85% of the letters cover that single 1708 event in which he commanded. Which is good if you’re interested in that 1708 event, but if you don’t like Crunchy Frog… Like a box of chocolates, most papers in most archives are just plain chocolate.

90% of the time, the simple question “Did you find anything good in the archives today?” is a surprisingly difficult one to answer. You can usually identify a quote-worthy line, but other details only gain significance when combined with other documents, often drawn from completely different archives. In short, I’ll get back to you with an answer in two years, once I’ve combined all my sources together and figured out what I have too much of, and what I have in only a single source.

Much less can you guess how many documents might be found in that volume with the helpful description of “1 box” – heck, even a box of chocolates will tell you the number of pieces. And without that information, you have no idea how long it’ll take you to finish off the whole box, or whether you even want to. There might be 200 documents or 3 documents in a volume, but each one requires the same amount of time to fill out the order slip, await delivery, untie the bundle and then be either elated or disappointed with what you find within. And then you usually need to keep an eye out for how many requests you submit each day, since many archives limit the number of daily requests. Unlike chocolatiers, archives actually care how many pieces you eat at one sitting.

So I’ve adopted the following commonsensical strategies, in both chocolate and the archives. If you’re limited to a set number of items per day (and you want to look at or eat far more than what you’ll have time for), order one or two large-seeming items along with several short items each day, so that if your short items are really short (e.g. only a couple documents each), then you can spend more time on the bigger volumes rather than go home early – if the bigger volumes are too big, you can always hold it over until the next day.

When pressed for time, it usually makes sense to shoot first and then later on you can check to see if you already have those documents. (If you’d been willing to lug around your larger laptop, you could have searched your database to verify before the first shutter click, but sometimes you’ve only got 1 hour until you get kicked out of the archive, so you use the ‘better safe than sorry’ rule of thumb and madly let that shutter fly. Kind of like how you stuff your face with chocolates because you don’t know if they’ll run out.) Life is short, eat dessert first.

Things get even more complicated if you’re short on time but have some money. Then you need to prioritize, usually on the spot, whether something is so good that you don’t want to waste any more archive time but instead just get it copied, or eaten. Which then requires you to know exactly what the archive’s copying rules and price structure are, so you can ballpark how much it will cost to copy (not an easy thing I assure you), assuming you need to stick within a budget. One of my biggest regrets from my archive stint in the Netherlands is that I waited till the last day to order documents microfilmed. That morning I went to the ATM machine and was rudely informed that I could only withdraw X guilders per day (perhaps a fourth of what I had intended). Several years later, when I tried to order the rest of the documents, I was told that some were now too fragile to reproduce and others had quadrupled in price. Carpe diem. And, word to the wise, check to see if the archive will reproduce individual items within a volume before you meticulously read through and bookmark 59 documents spread throughout a 250-document volume. Don’t ask the chocolatier to sell you only the chocolate-coconut candies.

Another thing I didn’t experiment with till recently is to streamline photographing: using two copyright notices (one at the bottom of the recto side and another for the verso side as you flip pages over) so you don’t have to reposition your copyright notice slip for each shot; rotating your documents (rather than your camera) 90 degrees so you won’t need to crop the images later on; photographing two pages at a time if possible… The Internet is full of such advice (blogs particularly), but these are a few I’ve found most useful on this, my first significant research trip with a digital camera.

So spend a few minutes thinking about very short research trips, which are a very different type of chocolate from the giant Snickers bar of long-term research.

Any other useful suggestions for archive research?