Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Things they never taught me

New Kid posted a while ago about the thrills and challenges of paleography, which is one of the things history majors often neglect to consider when they imagine themselves roaming through the pages of yesteryear gathering up stories. (I recently gave in to the temptation of photocopying a few pages out of the records I’ve been consulting, partly for their utility but mostly to show off to my students – “you think that primary sources are challenging, when you get to read them all transcribed typed and translated into English?! Ha! Take a look at this, sissies!”) There are lots of things they don’t tell you when you start graduate work in history, and one of them is that if you’re lucky enough to figure out a good research idea, and scrounge up funding to go wherever it is your sources are, and figure out all the archival labyrinths to actually get hold of the files you want, there’s a fairly good possibility that they will be torn and stained and scrawled in a hand that is less legible than chicken scratches.

If I were to write a field guide for fledgling historians, I’d include all the practical stuff most of us learn the hard way (and that some of us keep learning, because for some reason I’d forgotten all of this from the last time I did hard archive time.)

· Get in shape. Strengthen those wrist muscles, because there’ll be at least one archive that won’t let you bring your laptop, and you’ll have to copy things out by hand. This may not sound like a big deal, but for me it’s been about ten years since I’ve handwritten anything longer than a grocery list, and leaping into four or five hours of handwriting makes me a little more sympathetic towards my students who write blue-book exams.

· Toughen up those spindly arms, too, because those innocent-sounding council reports you asked for come in a box the size of a Volkswagen, and you’re the one that gets to lug them across the room.

· Dress appropriately. My key mistake today was dressing in black. Sure, if you’re working in Europe you’ll want to look all classy and sophisticated, but some of those files are going to come in teetery two-foot stacks of ratty old paper, and there’s no way to get them safely across the room without leaning backwards, hugging them tightly to your chest, and walking in a slow penguin-shuffle to your desk. If you’re wearing any dark color, you might look good coming in, but you’ll leave papered in dandruffy flecks of archive residue. Solution: invest in a wardrobe whose theme color is four-hundred-year-old-paper beige.

· Last but not least, if I’d known better when I was a kid, I’d have taken some sort of Scout training to learn how to tie knots. In one archive, the only thing holding those teetery two-foot stacks of paper together is a thin cloth ribbon, wound in an impossibly intricate cat’s-cradle around the bundle. Sure, it’s easy enough to undo, but when it’s time to tie them up again, it’s like some sort of sadistic puzzle where you always come up an inch short. I used to think that the practice of history was about finding Clever Answers to Meaningful Questions; now I know that it really all depends on getting the damn knots right.

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