Are microfilms the worst technology ever invented? The idea was to scan documents onto negatives, which could then be read with a machine that looks like a cross between something you’d find in a hair salon and something from the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. During my doctorate I spent 11 months using one of these machines for eight hours a day. I got pretty good at zooming through the reels to exactly the spot I wanted, guessing what order the poor soul who had created the microfilm had chosen to put the documents on.
But on this trip I was faced with one of the perversities of archival preservation. Rather than a vintage machine, I read the newspaper reports I ordered on a computer, hooked up to a negative scanner. It does not whizz through the roll of film as quickly as the old Captain Kirk. If I knock the table, it jolts out of focus. As I am nearing the section I want to read, suddenly the machine slows even more. The tape seems to be kind of sticking together, and when I look closer, I can see mould growing on it. A little cross, I tell the archivist. She is glad I bothered: the mould could easily spread to other films.
It is not the first time I have perversely hoped that the materials I am looking at would crumble and disappear, although this time my motives are somewhat honourable. If the microfilms were doomed, maybe they would scan the negatives into a computer and I could search digital images instead.
Remember, this is 2014.
The archivist takes the film away, and I am even crosser. Thankfully, it is 7pm now, so I go to brasserie and drink delicious beer, and am less cross.
But is paper any better? At least the microfilms were scans of news in print. The trial documents are hand written, sometimes in an illegible scrawl. They are filled with spelling mistakes, and it takes me a few minutes to realize that the clerks wrote “y” as if it was “z”. Many of the pages are crumpled or torn. Others are held together with clothes pins, or even glued together, making it impossible to read some passages. Staples and paper clips are clearly more modern, or perhaps more expensive, than I had realised.
The corner of a page comes away in my hand. I feel a pang of guilt as I catch myself perversely enjoying the materiality and temporality of the documents. Is mortality too strong a word? Later, I brush the crumbs of these documents off my lap along with the detritus of my lunch.
Unfortunately, documents are not all you can eat. Different archives, different rules, but none in France will let you order as many documents as you want. Is this to frustrate greedy historians, or stop over-zealous genealogists in their tracks? Many archives will bend the rules to help, but this leaves me at the mercy of the archivists.
I am very nice to them.
Laws are less flexible. Documents relating to the medical history of people who might still be alive are carefully guarded. Military conscription records, for instance, which are particularly useful for me when I want to identify men, also contain information about physical disabilities and illnesses. The archivist has to check some of the documents before I can see them, to make sure there is no sensitive information on the page I am looking for. When she passes me the document, she has covered the facing page so that I do not accidentally see what is written about another man. I fantasise about the extravagant maladies this anonymous individual suffered from. Elephantiasis. ALS. Stockholm Syndrome.
It is easy to become seduced by the thrill of the hunt in this origami labyrinth. Entire days can be lost following unimportant threads, that lead deeper into the maze, rather than towards the exit. I want to know as much as possible about the victim in this murder case. Since I had already photographed the trial documents, so I could read them more carefully when I got back to the UK, I didn’t look there for this information. Instead, I tried to find him in my old favourite, the military conscription records.
His name appears in the index list I have to order first, but has been crossed out. This is puzzling. I send this document back, and use the number next to his name to work out which document he should be found in. When it arrives, he is not there. Someone else has been given his number. I tell the archivist. We decide that he may have enlisted before he was conscripted, so I order a different set of documents that lists volunteers. Nothing.
I re-order the document where he should have been, and it is at this point that I realise that I had, in fact, ordered the wrong document the first time.
Now I am confident that I will find him. I order the right document… but he is not here either.
Desperate, I search the entire document, looking at all 500 records to check he is not out of place, and it is only now that I stumble across his record, listed under the wrong number. I learn that he could ride a bike, and was good with horses.
That’s what I have to show for a whole day’s work.
Aside from other historians, I suspect that few readers who picked up the article or book I want to write about this case would have much idea what was involved in tracking down those little snippets of information. Should it matter to them? I think it should, because the narrative I produce about the case will be haunted by my emotions. Once, I spent the best part of two months concentrating my efforts on tracking down over 750 death certificates. Imagine the satisfaction at finding each one, checking a person off a list. Imagine waking up at night with the sudden, banal, and yet shocking realisation that just like them, I too will one day have a death certificate. Isn’t that realisation an important part of understanding what I write about them?
This kind of introspection is not the opposite of making new discoveries about the past. For me, it is part of researching this very strange case, a case that no-one still living probably remembers.
The question becomes: is it worth remembering? Historians might learn something about the beliefs of our recent ancestors, but is this excavation disrespectful, or even inappropriate? What do I owe the dead, and what do I owe the living?