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.
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:
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.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
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.
My first order: five full volumes from the Additional Manuscripts, requiring 1,782 jpgs – 2.66 GB.
Order placed online: 9 May
Order charged to credit card: 21 May
Estimated order completion date: 15 June
Dates volumes scanned (according to Date Modified properties of jpg metadata): 19-21 June
Credit card payment reimbursed by my institution: 20 June
Order completed and sent: 24 June
Order waiting in my mailbox: 28 June
Over the past year, as I read through Promotion and Tenure files, taught Historical Research and Writing to undergraduates, converted to a new note-taking system (twice), applied for reassigned research time, spoke of humanities research to a broad audience, and generally tried to plan my own research trajectory over the next several years, my brain bombarded me with a wide range of questions: Why haven’t I published more? Why do I have so many primary sources but so little to show for it? Why are there so few EMEMHians? Why don’t they publish more? How can some disciplines present papers (and posters) at multiple conferences every year as well as publish a journal article a year, while us historians chug along at a snail’s pace?…
I can’t claim to answer the above scattershot queries, but I decided I would, for once and for all, sit down and figure out what exactly it is that I do (or don’t do enough of), so I can:
- Get a better sense of what an EMEMHian like me does.
- Figure out where the bottlenecks are in my research/writing process.
- Possibly educate a few other people about the requisite skills and persistent challenges awaiting pre-modern (military) European historians, or history generally.
- Did I mention it gives me the opportunity to make a diagram?
I’ll dispose of the obvious culprit with a wave of the hand regarding my productivity or lack thereof: teaching 3-4 undergrad courses a semester without TAs, most of which have writing intensive components (Note to self: it’s a lot easier to grade 35 papers on the same topic with a pre-defined research question than 15 papers on 15 different topics, each requiring a thesis on a different primary source.) That’s not the point of this post, and is rather self-evident in any case. And, no, “you aren’t more productive because you keep posting to your blog” is not an acceptable answer either. My blog, my rules.
So what do EMEMHians actually do when they research? Here’s my take, in convenient graphical form:
I don’t know what I was thinking, really. I had $5000 burning in my pocket, waiting to be spent on French war archive documents. For some reason I was assuming that French archives wanted to take my money. Yeah, right.
If you’ve ever ordered archival copies before (my experience is limited to English, French, Dutch and American institutions), you know that it usually takes at least a few weeks for a response, and probably one to three months for the whole process, depending on the size of your order, holidays, etc. The catch for me this year was that in order to receive reimbursement, the funds had to be spent before the end of June – fiscal year budget and all that. If you order too late, you end up footing the bill yourself – a dangerous game to be sure. The French archive’s website was down (hacked) for a month or more and I was busy with conferences and due dates, so I didn’t make the online order until mid-April. Needless to say, I’m not ordering the dozen-plus microfilm reels that I’d hoped.
Two lessons for me, and anyone else who needs a reminder:
- If you have a time-sensitive grant, start the process really, really, really early. Even if you’re really, really busy with other things.
- Realize that some “modern” archives aren’t quite that modern. This could mean: a) they may not have modern facilities that allow them to process large orders, even if they’ve done so in the past; or b) they may not have the staff to fulfill such orders in a short period of time, and if it can’t be done quickly it isn’t worth doing at all. (Side question: Don’t they have those machines that will automatically scan microfilm as image files?) Other possibilities are more ‘meta’, but not beyond belief: c) they may not want to diminish their patrimoine by allowing lots of documents (even copies) out of their possession; d) they may not have a capitalist desire to make money, especially if it requires more work for the staff; e) such requests might require personal contacts; f) they may not have the consumerist mindset of customer service being job one; or g) they may have other reasons for discouraging long-distance ordering.
Which reason best explains why I can’t order the microfilm? That’s another lesson: don’t assume you can find out. The letter I received (a snail mail communication written two weeks after my request and which took another week+ to deliver, responding to my online order that included my email address) simply informed me that because of the “large number” of documents requested, the archives “could not respond favorably to my request.” No hint of how many would be acceptable, whether another format would be acceptable, or really any attempt to continue the discussion at all. With the clock ticking, I decided that at this rate, negotiating through the bureaucracy wasn’t worth it – c’est pas la peine.
Fortunately all is not lost. Turns out the British Library is more than happy to take this American’s cash on short notice. They don’t have a problem processing large orders. Hell, they’ll even let you know via email within a week or two how much it will cost, and ask you to verify the amount before they continue. My past orders have confirmed that an order of this size is also large for the BL, but they seem able to manage it as a part of their normal workflow. Then they deliver the documents within a month or so.
Serendipitously, the organizational change this kink in my plans requires may actually work out better for my book in the long run. First, it will allow me to order English archival documents on the Iberian theater during the Spanish Succession – unpublished accounts of lost British battles such as Almansa and Brihuega will strengthen my contrast to Marlborough’s battlefield successes in the other theaters. Further, instead of focusing solely on the French case in the last chapter as I had planned, I’ll instead discuss the French and Dutch as two, complimentary, examples of those ‘battle-avoiding’ Continentals. That also solves one of my remaining uncertainties about how to incorporate the Dutch into my book. Lemons and lemonade.
So for the umpteenth time, I learn the valuable historian’s lesson that archival holdings and access will dictate the shape of a work. But I’d like to think there’s a lesson here for the French to learn as well, one framed by their recent debate over whether more French universities should teach in English in order to buttress global interest in France and its culture (BBC story here). The Bibliothèque nationale’s Gallica was spurred by this same concern over declining French linguistic and cultural relevance, although it has still been overshadowed by the more recent American capitalist approach taken by Google Books. Perhaps French archives will eventually learn that facilitating easier access to their archival holdings in the digital age will encourage more foreigners to write on French history. Maybe said foreign historians will even write on French history in English, the global language of scholarship. Worse things could happen.
I like Gallica. I really do. I’ve found lots of good things on the BN’s digital repository – many books, including some that aren’t even in Google Books.
But they still haven’t figured out exactly how the digital age works, and that confuses me. The particular problem that vexes me stems from their recent (within the past few years) inclusion of archival documents on their website. Downloadable. For free. That’s great. But then you find this:
What? A little too small you say? OK, let me just zoom it in, say 300% so it’s nice and big.
You can click the image to see a larger version. Yes. That’s what it actually looks like at full resolution. They’ve scanned thousands of volumes of archival documents (presumably from microfilm), and you can barely read them.