Into the Archive (Part Two of Three)

On the face of things, historical research involves travelling away from the here and now. The archive is to historians what Pacific Islands and sub-Saharan tribes were to a previous generation of anthropologists. But anthropologists have been much more alive to the fact that going away is also a journey inwards: their books have also been (more or less explicitly) the stories of the men and women who visited them.

Historians are less keen on this kind of introspection, and perhaps with good reason. It can seem indulgent, extraneous. If the “I” speaks in history books, it is normally confined to prefaces and acknowledgements. There is (I suspect) a reluctance to admit that history is made by historians, which is not to say it is not made by other actors in the past, and the present.

Constructed? Yes. But this is not the same thing as “invented”. Historians can only build their accounts from what they actually find: they are scrapbookers, not poets ( But might it add to our understanding to know who these collagistes are, how and why they did what they did?

I sometimes feel like the process of becoming a professional historian (or at least trying) is partly a process of gaining all this behind the scenes knowledge: what led Professor A to that particular archive? How did Dr. B compile his notes? Why does Dr. C only use newspaper or criminal sources? These stories of personal as well as historical discovery peek through academic writing, but this mini-series of posts (see part one: is intended to think about this problem head on (in a similar way to Matt Houlbrook’s excellent blog about writing a book:

So it begins with a physical departure. This is what I knew: two boxes existed, and I needed to find out what was in them.

Flight booked, landed late, arrived at a budget hostel at 8pm on a Sunday evening, just in time to eat a plate of canteen food and roll into a bunk in a room full of backpackers looking for ‘la vraie France’ and students looking for a cheap flat.

Day one: I get up before 7 for breakfast, train station, photo booth for a portrait for the reader’s card, take the tram, and walk to the archive building. I sign a lot of papers – the photo, I am told, is not required – and put my belongings in a locker. Thirty minutes later the first box is sitting in front of me.

It is worryingly light.

Opening it confirms my impression: there is hardly anything of any use for me here. At this point, I face four days looking at old churches with the backpackers or looking at old flats with the students.

But when I open the second box, it is the jackpot. There are over 500 pages of handwritten documents filled with details about the case I am researching. Witnesses describe the state of mind of the murderer in the run up to his crime. Family members lie about his actions. Neighbours use the occasion to get revenge for a hundred years of petty squabbles. A photographer is sent to take pictures of the victim and to reconstruct the scene of the crime with all of the surviving participants.

This is the best part, that moment when I realise I have a really good story, rich materials that already suggest different analytical directions. These moments are why I like doing archival research…

…but they don’t come often. Most of the next four days is something like hand to hand combat. Me versus decrepit technologies, infuriating regulations, material decay: history?

(And see part three here:

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