Ordering from archives

Midgardarts’ comment prompted me to write a post about the arcane process of ordering copies from archives. Sure, you may have mastered the arcane knowledge required to locate and read documents within a given archive, but do you know how to order copies of those documents?

In my latest adventure, I had a small research grant, and, for reasons explained earlier, only ended up spending about $3200 of the $5000 due to the clock running out. That amount bought me 15 volumes from the Add mss, but why couldn’t I just order all $5000 at once? How hard can it be to order online with a credit card? Welcome to the wild world of archival copying.

My first learning experience took place at the Algemeen Rijksarchief (now Nationaal Archief) back in 1998. I went through a volume or two in the reading room, marking individual documents to be copied (probably 100+). When I brought the volume up to the desk I was quickly informed that they would only copy an entire volume. Good to know. Another lesson I learned: start early (one of these years I’ll learn). At the end of two frantic weeks, I went to withdraw lots of cash from the ATM to pay for copies. I had, unfortunately, forgotten about the maximum daily withdrawal limit, so I was able to only order a fraction of what I had planned.

Each archive calculates its prices differently, no matter their specific policies about what can and can’t be copied, and what such copies cost. The Archives de Guerre makes it particularly challenging to estimate how much copies will cost. Archives generally will only make copies from microfilm, rather than risk further damage to the originals. Unfortunately they rarely inform you of which volumes have already been microfilmed, versus those which would require the (more expensive) copying of originals. The price sheet lists the price per meter of microfilm to be duplicated. Their catalogs, unfortunately, fail to list this bit of information, and instead mention only the number of documents (pièces) in each volume. I’m guessing they would probably frown if someone in the reading room pulled out all the film from a reel and measured it with a tape measure, so presumably they need to somehow go and check the length of film when a specific order is placed, or maybe they just duplicate it and then check the microfilm reader’s counter. Which requires you to first order it. That’s fine if you must have a specific volume (or volumes), but if you have a fixed amount of money to spend and would like to order far more than what you can afford, it’d be nice if you could estimate the costs of various volumes, and then order those that maximize your grant dollars. It don’t work that way.

Worse still, there are many possible measures when trying to calculate prices. The number of documents isn’t that helpful if you want to calculate the number of pages – one document (pièce) might be two pages, but another might be a mémoire of twelve pages. Nor is the total number of manuscript pages necessarily equal to the number of folios. The British Library tends to list the total number of folios for a volume in their catalogs, but these folio numbers are only written on the front of each page, from whence we get the f134b, which is essentially the same as the recto-verso (r-v) distinction between the front of a page and the back of the page. Archives might have inserted additional sheets before/after some documents – I tend to see this with official documents that have wax seals. In short, volume lengths are usually listed in folios or documents, neither of which corresponds readily to number of pages, much less number of copies.

But even if we did know the number of pages, we couldn’t just multiply that by the price per copy. At the BL for example, they charge a flat rate for copying anywhere from 1-100 pages, so ordering 2 pages will cost the same as copying 99 pages. And they copy every single page, regardless of whether it is blank or not. (From an archival perspective, it’s conceivable that there might be some use to knowing which pages were blank; sometimes blank pages may also have the folio number written at the top.) So if you’ve got a person who writes short letters, e.g. has tiny handwriting or has little to say, you’ll probably end up paying for a lot of blank pages. I’d guess that some of my Add mss volumes had 50 blank pages. (I now have a tall stack of exotic A4 scrap paper.) C’est la vie.

The result: some BL volumes might only have 150 folios and cost 90 pounds to copy, whereas tightly-bound newsletter books might number 500 pages front-and-back, requiring 1000 copies and cost 300 pounds. In other words, you never really know how much your order will cost until you get an estimate for a specific volume. And that will take weeks. I haven’t yet garnered the courage to annoy the archivists by requesting a billion volumes and then order a subset once I see the price.

Cost is also influenced by the choice of media on which to copy your documents. Paper, microfilm, scans (jpegs) and photographs are the most common options, with varying prices. You get to guess which would be cheapest for any specific order – microfilm used to be the cheapest (but often only if it was duplicating pre-existing microfilm), but scans probably are today. Is it cheaper to get paper copies or duplicate microfilm? Who knows. But perhaps you don’t even have that option, as some archives seem to have lost the ability to copy from microfilm, much less scan them. And did I mention that volumes could be removed from circulation, and copying as well? Just a few years after you could have copied them, had you the cash?

All in all, ordering copies from archives is still the most cost-effective option, in spite of all the guesswork. First, you get to keep copies of the originals, so you can refer back to them as needed. Second, it’s far more cost-effective for those at a distance. Figure out how much time it would take to read through those documents in the archive (assuming you even had the time), and then calculate what living costs abroad would amount to. If you are teaching, add in the premium for travel and lodging during the summer vacation season.

The increasingly-lenient policies allowing digital photography add yet more uncertainty. If you’ll be in the area anyway, if you have no idea what’s in the volumes, if there aren’t outrageous photographing fees, taking digital photos might be the best bet. But for large numbers of documents – especially if you need to skim through dozens of volumes in a week or two and don’t want to waste most of that precious time photographing only a subset, or if you’re on a tight schedule, copies are still the best, if expensive, option. Once you abandon any hope of maximizing your research dollar, that is.

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