Archive Work (Part One of Three)

‘”You mean, Dick,” a plumber said to Richard Sennett, “you mean you make a good living by sitting around and thinking? By what right? Now don’t take that personally- I mean, I’m sure you’re a smart fellow and all that- but that’s really the life, not having to break your balls for someone else.”’

I’ve always liked this little anecdote which the sociologists Richard Sennett and Jonathan Cobb included in their classic book The Hidden Injuries of Class. It’s good for a self-conscious chuckle to myself in the library at the idea of being paid simply to sit around and think.

But it isn’t actually a very accurate description of what historians do (and I suspect it isn’t a good representation of what sociologists do either). This attitude to academics, the idea that we just think overlooks the many different types of labour that teachers and researchers do, such as marking student work, running academic journals, or organising outreach events. Many other people have written about this ‘real’ work that academics do along with ‘sitting around and thinking’.

But this mini-series of three blog posts is about something a bit different. I want to talk about the fact that academic work is not just kicking back and reflecting.

Historical research is work, work that takes place largely in archives.

While of course there are many other types of historical research, such as archaeology, oral interviews, or visiting locations, the archive is the cornerstone of what it means to be a historian.

And when I talk to non-historians, I find they often have only the vaguest idea of what it is a historian might actually do there. My friends will ask if I found any good books, for instance. A fair question? Sure. But, while I might sometimes use an archive trip to read very rare books, most printed works that interest me can be found in the British Library, where I spend most of my days. Even better, many out of the rarest books can now be found online, meaning that even books that the British Library never acquired are easily within my research.

Archival research is not about reading books, and it is not even like reading a book. It is a very different kind of experience, a different kind of work. Like most work, it can be fun and exciting, and like most, it can be soul-destroyingly boring. It takes patience and involves specific skills, and it produces something which is hopefully original and useful: new knowledge about the past (or perhaps more accurately knowledge that has been forgotten).

Consider how different it is to reading. Most books have titles, tables of contents, indexes, and page numbers, which guide you from absolute ignorance to the information you want. If the historian is lucky, the archive she is interested in will have a catalogue, and if she is even luckier still, it will actually correspond to what can be found there.

This is a considerable hurdle.

For example, I recently went to France to look at a criminal trial in a regional archive. The trial particularly interests me because it featured a young man who was murdered in the 1920s by another man who suspected him of witchcraft. What little I could find out from newspaper accounts painted a lurid picture of hauntings, strange animals, jilted lovers, and drunken brawls, but all the archivist could tell me was that two boxes of documents exist in the archives. What is in them? Perhaps reams of useful papers, untouched since the period, or perhaps just a few random sheets, with no clue how to find the remaining documents, or whether they even really exist. The real ‘work’, in a sense, could only begin once I got there.

My next post will discuss mouldy microfilms and delicate documents, the stuff involved in doing this work. It will also touch on morbid photos and missing soldiers, the discoveries I made once I got there, and the inevitable disappointments I faced.

(See part two: and part three:

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