Tag Archive | archives

As Efficient As They Wanna Be

Turns out the Service historique de la Défense can be pretty darn efficient, if you know the right people (Thanks Bertrand!). The long-running saga of ordering microfilm from the French military archives has come to a successful conclusion. As proof, I offer Exhibit A:

All good things...

All good things…

For those who must pry: nine volumes on eleven reels. Four volumes on Flemish administrative matters during 1706, as well as several volumes of Chamlay’s mémoires. And as a bonus, most of them are positive exposures!

The timeline:

  • Order placed via email: 2 June.
  • Order charged to credit card: 22 June.
  • Order processed and snail mail notification sent: 6 July.
  • Order delivered: 13 July.

Now I just have to scan them in and read them, which will require learning Chamlay’s handwriting. Good thing I’ve got office hours in the fall.

Archive Lessons Learned

Back from my month in Paris, almost twenty years after my last trip to the SHD war archives at Vincennes. Over the past month I spent 17 days in the archives – four potential research days were wasted because I overestimated how long it would take me to go through the volumes – damn me and my efficiency! Those interested in what I learned (and relearned) can read the Little and Big Pictures below. Read More…

Pistols into Chandeliers

I’ve heard of swords into plowshares (Isaiah 2:3-4), but this is ridiculous:


(In one of the Administration buildings at the château de Vincennes, home of France’s Service historique de la Défense.)

Talk about your sword of Damocles…


Guess what I’m doing this May

Short update as I’m in France on a one-month research trip.

Last time I was researching at Vincennes (SHD, or the Archives de Guerre) was back in January 1998, a mere 17 years ago. They’ve switched buildings within the Vincennes complex since then, and now have online ordering of documents. The current reading room is appropriately named the salle de Louis XIV (in the Pavillon du Roi), and the room’s large paintings of the Sun King’s martial endeavors set the appropriate tone of Baroque seriousness. (If you want gaiety, you can check out the Château de Vincenne’s donjon right next door, where the Marquis de Sade, the Grand Condé, the Duc d’Enghein and many other political prisoners spent time.) In Louis’ salle you can see a large version of this painting that you’ve probably already seen, one of the few which bothers to show the view of a siege from the trenches:

No animals were harmed in the filming of this propaganda piece?

No animals were harmed in the filming of this propaganda piece? Alert PETA!

The registration and consultation process at Vincennes is pretty similar to the other archives I’ve been to: go fill out a form with appropriate ID, get your photo taken for the ID card and receive said card, put your things in a locker (including the obligatory 1 euro coin for the locker key), go up to the 2nd floor (3rd for Americans), get assigned a seat, go to the window to pick up your documents (or see the président de salle if for some reason some of your volumes are ‘special’), then read them. Send back those you finish, and place the rest en réserve to consult the next day. Repeat as necessary.

Since the archive is open through the lunch hour, I try to eat some breakfast and just steal a quick snack so I don’t waste an hour going for lunch. Ideally this could give you 3-4 more hours per week consulting documents (a full extra day over the course of a month), though I recognize this hyper-efficiency is an insult to the French way of life. But since you’re limited to 5 volumes per day (ordered 2 weeks ahead of time), it’s hard to be efficient, particularly in the first weeks when you don’t really know how quickly you’ll be able to get through volumes. What this really means is that your rate of consultation is locked in for the first three weeks, since any increase in document orders will take two weeks to get to your desk, after you realize how it’s going at the end of your first week. Ah, lag time. So as it turns out I didn’t have anything to look at on Thursday and also today (Saturday), because I overestimated how long it would take to get through the volumes I’d ordered for that week. But that did allow more time to meet with some French military historians of Louis XIV’s reign. Yes, they actually exist!

Most of the volumes I’ve consulted have been microfilm, and since the SHD has old microfilm readers (4 of the giant hooded kind, and 4-5 of the not-quite-newish microfilm printers, but NOT scanners), and since you’re not allowed tripods of any kind, you need to figure out a way to take mediocre-quality photos of the mediocre-quality microfilm images, so you can read the authors’ mediocre-quality handwriting.

Like this, but the reels on the top and they at least have mechanized forward/reverse buttons

Like this, but the reels on the top and with mechanized forward/reverse buttons

First, make sure you use a reader that actually works fully, e.g. you can move the image on the screen both left/right and up/down, that you can rotate the image, zoom and focus appropriately (e.g. the machine has the appropriate zoom magnification lens), etc. Check each machine till you find one with all these necessary qualities. Ideally that same machine will also be away from bright lights, whether windows or overhead – “glare’s a bitch,” as they say. And then after you figure out whether the machine is loaded overhand or underhand, you’ll figure out a way to zoom in on the image and focus, then decenter the page image to one side of the screen so you can steady your hand on the frame without blocking the light or the image and still have your camera pointing straight down (or at a very slight angle). Even with all that – I’m not knowledgeable or patient enough to play around with many of my digital camera settings – I’m lucky if I get a photo this good:

Now if only I could read Chamlay's handwriting...

Now if only I could read Chamlay’s handwriting. Or is it the poor photo quality? Hard to tell…

Pretty standard archival fare, in other words.

So like any self-respecting Taylorite, I went back over my old musings on my British Library experience from three years ago and compared it with Vincennes. The accommodations and food are, of course, much better in France than England (but we already knew they would be). Rereading my old BL post, I’m surprised at how much I complained about the time lost waiting for 70 minutes for five volumes to be delivered. And yet I feel slightly less anxious here at Vincennes, where I’m limited to five volumes at a time ordered two weeks in advance. Admittedly I have a whole month here in Paris instead of the 2.5 weeks in London, but there are far more volumes to consult here in France than there were in London, and ordering copies of documents is far easier with the BL than SHD. So what gives?

I think the difference is how the archives organize the volumes. In the BL, almost all the volumes are organized according to the author or the recipient: Marlborough’s papers from Opdam in a single volume, Robert Harley’s papers, etc. But unless you are working on a biography of that individual, or that individual is only a military actor, many of the documents in each volume won’t be relevant to your particular project. Hence the need to consult a LOT of volumes (in order to find only a few relevant documents) just to piece together several different accounts of the same event. On the other hand, Vincennes has two advantages, three really, that all come down to distillation and focus. First, as befits the origins of the archive, the documents are overwhelmingly on military subjects, which is exactly the subject I’m researching. So every document is relevant for me in some sense (or could easily be), whereas in the BL some of the personal papers dealt with personal financial matters, family affairs, and the like. Second, the SHD has further organized the vast majority of its papers not just by individual provenance per se – generally they are all letters received by the Secretary of State for War, though some others sneak in occasionally. They are further concentrated by the most logical scheme for war historians, by time and theater (when written and where written from/where written about). So A1 1968 consists of 600+ pieces of  correspondence (from a few dozen authors) just on administrative military matters, pertaining to Italy, for the year 1705. And there are altogether separate volumes that focus on the operational correspondence about 1705 in Italy: one volume includes all the letters written during January-March, another volume April-July, and so on. That is an incredible amount of  information, pre-selected into concentrated gold. And yet all this concentration doesn’t come at the cost of volume, at least as far as the War of the Spanish Succession is concerned. As I estimated before, there are probably 2 million pages of documents just in the AG A1 series dealing with this war. So when contrasted with the average British Library volume, each Vincennes volume is so much larger; each volume probably has 1000+ pages, with literally hundreds of individual documents, all focused on a specific geographical region ranging (usually) across mere months. Contrast that with the Blenheim Papers, where you would need to consult 75 different volumes (just a guess) in order to see all the letters Marlborough received in a similar time frame, talking about the same subject(s). Since the volumes are organized by place/period instead of by author/recipient, and each volume is concentrated and therefore almost completely relevant, 5 volumes per day at Vincennes is more than enough. And that’s with the ability to take photos.

At the same time, these voluminous Vincennes volumes are also far more manageable than most of the volumes in, say, the Blenheim Papers, even with the published Blenheim Papers catalogue and index. The pièce de la résistance is that each AG volume also has an incredibly helpful table of contents which lists each letter (hundreds per volume), its date, the author and recipient, and a brief summary of its contents. They usually also include the standard separate index of all the authors in the volume. I don’t want to even imagine how many 19C-20C French archivists gave their lives (or at least their eyesight) describing every single letter at the individual document-level. A moment of silence for those brave archivistes


Now if only we could get all those tables of contents online, French military history would rule the world!

Other random travel research reminders to myself: renting a small apartment (with wifi, toilet, shower, clothes washing machine and full kitchenette including fridge/freezer and microwave), that’s a nice 5-10 minute walk from the archives (with the Bois de Vincennes visible from the apartment window) is so much better than my grad student experience was: a 30 minute commute on the Métro every day, while staying at a cheap cheap hotel with a toilette à la turque shared by the whole floor, and paying extra for each douche. Admittedly twenty years ago the Internet barely existed, and ten years ago France was barely on le World Wide Web (ah, but Minitel!), and I could never get the hotel’s wifi to work anyway. Oh yeah, and I had no money either. Nor was I getting reimbursed. So, yeah, things have improved. Even compared to when I was in London a few years back.

Proximity to the archives also has its advantages if, say, hypothetically of course, there’s a transportation strike, or maintenance that would force you to double your commute time, or, least pleasant of all, your train is delayed half-and-hour due to a malade voyageur.

Screenshot 2015-05-23 12.27.50

And since I’m not a morning person, a very short commute means I’m more likely to actually get there soon after the archives open, rather than straggle in an hour or more late.

Plus, it doesn’t hurt that Vincennes is a very nice neighborhood with plenty of chocolatiers, boulangeries/patisseries, brasseries, not to mention several supermarchés (though the not-too-distant Hyper Cacher that was besieged during the Charlie Hebdo attacks is still closed).

My biggest regret so far? That I don’t have the full Adobe Acrobat on my MacBook Air, which means I can’t really combine the archive photos into documents until I get home. (I know you can do it with an Automator script, but that increases the size of the resulting file at least 2x-3x larger than if you did it within Adobe.)

One week down, three to go!

So much in so little

I just finished my final grades for the semester, leaving me a few precious days to prepare for my month-long research jaunt at the SHD (Archives de Guerre at Vincennes for old-timers like myself) – after I finish up several other outstanding tasks, of course. I’ve got three research projects going on – the battle book, a book chapter on French siege capitulations, and an upcoming paper (presumably an article/book chapter at some point) on the French view of battle. So my archive research will resemble a scattergun approach. To the extent that I have a focus, I’ll particularly be getting photos of French discussions of the Spanish theater’s battles, since the helpful Mémoires militaires series covers Flanders, Italy and Germany, but not, for some reason, Iberia.

I’m looking forward to having all my sources and “books” at my fingertips in the reading room: all the Mémoires militaires volumes and contemporary memoirs/correspondence, all of “my” scanned primary sources and many scanned sections of “my” secondary sources, not to mention all the archival guides and inventories. But to be honest, I’m hoping I won’t have time to consult them in the reading room proper, as I plan on being a photographing machine. But at least I’ll be able to almost immediately introduce my new archival photos to their brethren via the SD card slot (always have extra memory cards, and batteries). All courtesy of DTPO and the tiny MacBook Air of course:

In addition to having all my sources searchable (either full-text or by metadata or by hierarchical folder), I set up Favorites and Smart Groups on the far right to make it easy to jump to oft-used folders.

In addition to having all my sources searchable (either full-text or by metadata or, at least, by hierarchical folder), I set up Favorites and Smart Groups on the far right to make it easy to jump to oft-used folders. And a single document to track all my orders.

But back to grading. One of my student seminar papers (seminar: England in Glorious Revolution) reminded me of an English periodical I didn’t yet have in my Devonthink database. The periodical in question is interesting because it is one of the few types of documents that is guaranteed to give you nothing but opinion. Its title is The British Apollo, or, Curious Amusements for the ingenious, first published in 1708 (available on Google Books). It copied the format of John Dunton’s earlier Athenian Mercury from the 1690s: lots of anonymous readers’ questions answered by the “experts” on staff. The questions range the gamut, from religion to science to sex to you-name-it. The very first page, for example, has the editors answering three questions: why Negroes have black skin (they disavow the old “punishment from God” idea), why the sound of files and saws annoy us (I’m assuming like fingernails on a chalkboard), and why we feel like falling when we look down from tall heights. And there are over 500 pages of similar questions, pithily answered with just a bit of attitude.

So I was looking through it for discussion of warfare – that this is a general-interest periodical and isn’t focused on war makes it useful as a gauge to broader public perceptions – and I came across this:

Q. Worthy Sirs, I beg the favour of you to resolve the following query. Who has been most serviceable to the World, the Priest who found out the use of Gunpowder? Or the Soldier who invented the art of Printing? And you’l oblige your Humble Servant, T.L.

First take a moment to admire the nicely parallel contrast of the respective inventors’ professions with their inventions. I assume the interrogator is referring to Roger Bacon as the “inventor” of gunpowder, though I don’t know who the soldier would be, since Gutenberg was a goldsmith AFAIK. Unless they were already giving the Chinese proper credit for both, which I doubt.

Now, stop and imagine what the response might be – what’s our instinctual reaction, what would we answer today? And then read on:

British Apollo Q&A

British Apollo Q&A. This detail takes up about 1/6 of a page.

A. We shall demonstrate as briefly as we can, the good and bad/ill Effects of these Inventions; the more satisfactorily to answer your Question. And First, The expeditious manner of publishing large Volumes by the Art of Printing, has undoubtedly given vast Encouragement to the Study of all Sorts [of] Learning; since the extravagant Charges of paying Scribes for copying Manuscripts, is hereby taken off, and much greater numbers may be had, for much less Money; by which means, the Books, publish’d in one Country, are spread over another; and Knowledge, formerly confin’d to one part of the World, become Universal. But on the other hand, the same Opportunity has encourag’d the Propagators of Hersey and Schism, Rebellion, and all other Vices, to scatter their malignant Doctrines about the Universe; to sow the dangerous Seeds of Animosity and Sedition, to raise new Sects, and open new Divisions, even to the shaking the very Columns of Religion and Humanity: An Evil, that in our Opinions has very much over/counterbalanced the Good of the invention. Now, let us consider the Consequences which have attended the use of Gun-powder; and we shall find that instead of encreasing, it has lessen’d the Effusion of Blood, and mighty heaps of former slaughter. We hear nothing, in our times, of the Hundred Thousands that so often fell in ancient Battles; we have now a cleaner Art of War, and move with more dispatch, and far less havock; by which it plainly appears, that this Invention has prevented the spilling great Quantities of Human Blood; and consequently [is] preferable to the former; whose dangerous effects have often prov’d it fatal to both to our Religion and Government.

So many interesting things in this, and so little time. So I’ll simply provide a list:

  • Their ultimate answer of book vs. gunpowder isn’t, I’d suggest, quite what your average 21st century reader might expect the answer to be. One of my favorite parts of history is how often one is struck by the gulf between what we expect vs. what we find – most of the time it’s as much about our assumptions differing from theirs as about any greater knowledge we might have – and what we learn about contemporary views based off this gulf.
  • Apparently all periods and places didn’t consider the spread of knowledge as an essential good, even in the age of the Scientific Revolution. Gotta watch out for those dangerous ideas.
  • Interesting how most of the impact of printing comes from spreading from one country to another, vs. spreading knowledge (foreign or otherwise) downward within a country. (It might be worth mentioning that the British Apollo, like most other periodicals/papers of the period, explicitly refused to discuss domestic politics – certain information doesn’t belong in the public sphere.)
  • One can easily play the “Contextualize this!” game that historians like to play. Which types of people were seen as most benefitting from print? What recent events were the authors thinking of when they worried about the impact of print? What does their discussion of the Art of War tell us about how they viewed military history? Sounds like one of my homework assignments.
  • How were such documents to be read? Were they intended as sincere responses, or is there a certain contrariness to them? Given the popularity of English satire in the period, one can never be quite certain…
  • And for the military historians in the audience: did contemporaries consider gunpowder as constituting a military revolution?
  • What do we think of their argument about the relationship between more gunpowder and fewer casualties: causation, or just correlation?

Now they tell me…

For those planning on going to the British Library, it looks like they’ll be allowing photography in the Manuscripts room soon. If I can quote from the personalized email that I received:

Following the initial roll-out of self-service photography in several of our Reading Rooms in January, we are pleased to tell you that this facility will be extended to the following Reading Rooms in March 2015: Asian & African Studies
 Business & IP Centre
 Rare Books & Music

Our curators have been working hard behind the scenes to identify material that can be photographed. With over 150 million items in our collections this is a huge task that will take some time to complete. From 16 March 2015 a significant amount of additional material will be available for photography for personal reference purposes and curators will continue to identify more material appropriate for inclusion.

Items which cannot be photographed include (but are not limited to): those that have not yet been assessed as appropriate for photography; restricted or special access material; items at risk of damage; and items where there may be data protection, privacy or third party rights issues. This will be a small proportion of our overall collections. Of the material ordered across all of our Reading Rooms in 2014, more than 95% of those items would now be available to photograph.

You may use compact cameras, tablets and mobile phones to photograph material and any copies made must not be used for commercial purposes. As with our current copying services, copyright, data protection and privacy laws must always be adhered to.

Before using your device to take photographs, we kindly ask that you view our Self-service Photography Video. This video outlines the new policy, along with information on copyright, data protection and collection handling.

A handout, available in the Reading Rooms, explains this facility and if you need further advice or assistance, please speak to our Reading Room staff.

Best wishes,
Reader Services

Boy I could’ve used that three years ago.

But how will the children read Script Ohio?

Yet Another Chronicle article on cursive script dying with a flourish – this time from a university rare-book librarian responding to an undergrad researcher who doesn’t “do” cursive. Money quote:

An informal survey of rare-book librarians and archivists indicates that our experience at Illinois is not uncommon. Research on manuscripts from the 17th to the 20th century is no longer possible for most undergraduates at American colleges.

So sign your 8-11 year old up for their summer “Camp Cursive” – and make sure they know what a long-s is, while you’re at it.

This story also gives me an excuse to post the following advertisement that I just came across. From the 1712.12.27 issue of the British Mercury, a newspaper intended for those busy business executives and bureaucrats on-the-go:


Three hundred years ago somebody apparently thought cursive printed documents came with their own tamper-evident seal.

Print Ohio?


Summaries, Paraphrases and Quotes

Researchers can only be grateful when archives publicize their collections. The standard starting point is for archives to post their various catalogs online. Normally these describe the general content of entire volumes (often hundreds of documents per volume), and occasionally highlight a particularly interesting document within each volume. Some well-heeled archives go further, cataloging their holdings on a document, rather than volume, level. This is really useful.

But we need to avoid the temptation to rely on these in place of consulting the documents themselves. We always need to be a bit suspicious of summaries mediated by others.

An example? A year or two ago I noticed that the National Archives (PRO) had catalog info on the document level, particularly the State Papers collection. I downloaded each individual record because they also included brief summaries of the content of each letter. You don’t see that level of detail very often. So as I was skimming through these records in DTPO, I came across a document that piqued my curiosity. Here’s the summary from TNA website:

1702.7.9 Marlborough to Nottingham   (PRO SP 87/2.11)

Marlborough [to Nottingham]: he has written to the [grand] pensionary concerning the expedition to the West Indies but has received no answer. Lord Cutts is wrong in the matter of Mr. Morgan. He agrees that the elector of Bavaria and duke of Savoy will agree to the proposals. He has again pressed the [grand] pensionary to prohibit letters [to France and Spain]. It is in England’s interest to support Prince Eugene. Dated at camp at Over Assel [?Overijse]. PS. that he seeks a person to replace Sir Martin Beckman. ff. 11, 12

Pretty straightforward. Until I looked at a scan I had of the original:

Actual text

Actual text

For those who need the paleography practice:
“I agree intierly in your Lordps opinion, that the Elector of Bavaria and the duke of Savoy will harken to noe proposals, till thay see the success of this Campagne”

Unfortunately my interpretation of the original deviates from the summary in three ways.

  1. I’d suggest that the positive spin in the summary isn’t as evident in the original. Instead, Bavaria’s and Savoy’s responses depend an awful lot on how the rest of the campaign turns out – when exactly did they expect to see the success of this campaign (it only being early July after all)? And what exactly did Marlborough think their response would be? Marlborough probably was optimistic, but I’d argue his words are not as positive as the summary suggests.
  2. The summary’s interpretation of Marlborough’s use of the term “harken” is also a bit problematic. I’d argue “harken” doesn’t necessarily mean “agree to”, though a broader analysis of Marlborough’s usage might clarify the matter. This matters if we care about how Marlborough envisioned such diplomatic negotiations: did he expect the Bavarians and Savoyards to simply acquiesce to Allied demands due to the overwhelming victories of the campaign, or did he expect them to be more hard-nosed in their negotiations?
  3. Finally, it’s not exactly clear that Marlborough was referring to any specific proposals (as suggested by “the proposals” in the summary), since the original gives the more vague “noe proposals”. I think this further reinforces the uncertainty of how the Bavarians and Savoyards would react, particularly if there isn’t even a specific proposal that Marlborough is thinking about. Presumably a previous letter from Nottingham which discussed the issue would shed some light: was this prior discussion about a specific proposal or just general wishing that the two powers would abandon their French ally? We can’t tell without the Nottingham letter, which is not in SP 87/2; I’d have to check if it’s even in TNA – I know Nottingham’s papers are spread across several archives. Did the summarizer have some additional knowledge of this broader context, or was it simply a (hasty) generalization? I don’t know, which is a problem.

In short, I don’t really know whether the summary of this portion of the letter is good or not. Which in itself is discouraging, because that makes me wonder whether I need to be leery about summaries of the other letters. Perhaps we can trust summaries that seem to be using contemporary language rather than modern parlance? “Concerning the expedition”; “pressed to prohibit” – which of course assumes you can tell the difference.

If the quote is to be used to judge Marlborough’s optimism after only a few months of campaigning, what can we conclude? Is this quote evidence that Marlborough expected the Bavarians and Savoyards to abandon their French ally after a few months of campaigning? (Savoy did so in 1703; Bavaria not so much. But did Savoy do it because of this specific campaign?) And if Marlborough did expect Savoy to switch sides after one or two military campaigns, is this evidence that Marlborough was naive, or prescient, about how diplomacy worked? How much supposition can we pile on top of this quote? A lot less once we look at the original.

Ultimately these aren’t earth-shaking disagreements, but such nitpicking is important, depending on how tall of an edifice you want to build on top of this quote. Alas, historians can build some rickety structures, and often their foundation is hidden in a brief citation in a footnote. Which is why I not only prefer sets of evidence rather than single anecdotes and “examples”, but direct quotes whenever possible. The original language is also useful in identifying contemporary vocabulary for further digging – vigor anyone?

This tiny example has further relevance. To return to one of my obsessions, we are rarely careful enough in our summaries and note-taking: the uncertainties in the original get flattened in the retelling. This happens all the time in history (and everywhere else), and forms one of the pillars of Herbert Butterfield’s Whig Interpretation of History. Hence the need to keep original copies of the documents whenever possible. And, as we’ve discussed before, the need to look at a bunch of letters where the same author might have expressed himself differently on the same subject, and more clearly. Research is hard.

So kudos to TNA for their document-level descriptions. Further kudos for including a feedback link where you can suggest corrections. Whether this feedback feature gets used with any regularity, and how transparent the process is, is another matter.

Unfortunately, such summaries won’t serve as a substitute for the real thing.

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.