Friday, March 26, 2010

Days in the Little Archives

Notorious, Ph.D., is in the process of a lovely series on working in the archives: part 1 and part 2. Go read those first, if you haven't already.

Now, I believe Notorious works primarily at Big Archives in Exotic Research City. I, on the other hand, have done most of my work at various small archives in Quaint Research Town. Here I want to talk about a few of the differences about working in smaller archives. Small archives are well worth exploring, because they often have a lot of stuff that has not been examined before. They're also important if you're interested in rural areas, smaller towns, and local institutions (like monasteries!). So, some points of difference:

  1. Catalogs may or may not be available. Sometimes brief archival guides exist that give you a sense of what to expect in a small archive, sometimes not. I know of one or two that do have an online presence, which is extremely helpful, but it can't be counted upon. Even more than working at Big Archives, I think, working at a small archive can be a fishing expedition.
  2. Local archives can be pretty casual about who works there. They're likely to be less fussy about coats, bags, pens, etc. It's nonetheless incumbent on you, of course, to take good care of the documents they trust you with. Local archives will not have their own researcher cards, most likely, but they may require ID. A letter of introduction from an established scholar may also be helpful. When I did my diss research, I carried about a dozen copies of a letter from my advisor just in case.
  3. Offsite storage. A small archive may not have all its documents on the premises, due to limited space and/or the need to regulate temperature and moisture. So you may need to put in your request one day and come back a day or two later. It may be useful to contact the staff ahead of time, if possible, to let them know that you're coming and put your first request in before your first day there. This, of course, requires some idea of what you want to consult, which may be tricky (see point 1).
  4. Limited staff. Right, and about that staff: there may not be very many of them; they may be part-time only; they may not speak your language well; and they may not have any particular expertise in your area. I have mostly encountered lovely and helpful staffers at small archives, but they weren't necessarily able to provide the level of assistance you might get at a larger archive. In addition, the small archive may only be open 2-3 hours a day, so you'll need to plan your time carefully.
  5. Lack of community. There may not be anyone else working in the small archive while you are there. There may be only a few people doing genealogical research. I know a lot of people who met good friends while working at Big Archives, socializing with them after the archives closed. At a small archive in a small town, there's unlikely to be that same sense of community. There were no other grad student researchers at the places I did most of my work, and I was correspondingly somewhat isolated.

The documents themselves, however, will likely have the same range and difficulties as Notorious describes in her Day 2 post.

Now, I can at least say that I have had generally professional experiences in the small archives, and the documents have generally been in good shape. Scholars of an earlier generation who worked in Exotic Research Country invariably have archival horror stories to tell: the archive that was only open two days a week, whenever the archivist felt like showing up; the archivist who chain-smoked who filing documents; the documents stored in the local pigeon roost; and so forth and so on. These days I think you're more likely to find generally professional operations, even in small places.


Phul Devi said...

Wait: documents stored in a pigeon roost?

clio's disciple said...

It's possible I exaggerate a tad. More like, documents stored in entirely unsuitable conditions where pigeons appeared to have been roosting.

Anonymous said...

It's possible I exaggerate a tad" = LMAO! You rock, Clio.

feMOMhist said...

my most memorable document storage site was a cold war era bomb shelter, which when you think about it, probably is not all that bad a place to preserve things :)

I think I shall write a post about the eccentricities of s archivists.

Anonymous said...

Many smaller repositories, mostly county clerk's offices and the like in rural areas, still suffer from those storage issues. They don't employ trained archivists (often due to budget issues), and as a result, the documents are neglected, if not abused. Those archives don't have the same contaminants as "pigeon roosts," but they are often damp, leading to all sorts of preservation issues. Researchers are often left alone, which can allow for theft and mutilation by unscrupulous signature collectors. The centralization of state archives has curbed a lot of these issues, but virtually every county level archives I have dealt with has had inadequate facilities and staffing.

clio's disciple said...

Hi, Jacob, thanks for stopping by!

I am sure lots of small European archives have the same problems you describe. I've probably been lucky in working at relatively good local spaces.

At the places where I've worked, damage often occurred in the 19th or 20th centuries. Due to various political events, documents were moved around, stored in weird places, lost, torn, exposed to moisture, etc. Theft was also an issue. One cache of documents from a monastery I worked on ended up in Denmark in the early 20th century somehow.