Hello, friends. I apologize for my extended hiatus from the blog and our chat on the many adventures of primary source research in a foreign archive. While sitting down to write this blog I was reminded of one of my first days in Dr. Martinko’s Graudate Introduction to Public History course. We were assigned an article by Terry Cook, “The Archive(s) Is a Foreign Country: Historians, Archivists and the Changing Archival Landscape.” which appeared in The Canadian Historical Review in 2009, but can also be found here (apologies that it is behind a paywall through Project Muse for those who do not have easy access to JSTOR). At face value, this article speaks to me since my archive, the National Library of Ireland, was quite literally in a foreign country. On a deeper level, however, Cook’s motivation for writing this somewhat lengthy article was to define the two (previously) distinct and perhaps disparate professions of historian and archivist while concluding that both could benefit from a strengthened partnership, one centered upon the history of the record or record keeping itself and how this can produce better history. Cook defines this relationship as “critically important to enabling (and sometimes compromising) many aspects of historical research.”
This idea of either supporting or compromising is where I would like to introduce my last few days in the National Library. In total, I spent 4.5 days in the manuscripts reading room located on Kildare Street. From my chair and desk space, totaling perhaps no more than 2.5 square feet, I ordered nearly 40 folios full of letters, telegrams, envelopes, scrap paper, photographs, newspaper clippings and other documents. In total, these primary sources numbered over 3,000 individual sources and ranged in dates from 1910 to 1940. I list these figures not to prove that I worked hard and didn’t just spend hours in pubs, but rather to demonstrate Cook’s point about shared authority between historians (me) and archivists (like the angry one mentioned in previous blog posts).
I arrived in Ireland with a list of documents and folios planned to order. This set of 15 folios came from the Manuscripts subsection of the collections database located on the National Library’s website. In this section of the website I was able to type my subject into the search field. A small but specific return of manuscript and book collections were listed by any number of search fields including date, subject, etc. I then simply copied the manuscript number: for example, MS 17, 495; as well as a description of the documents, my name and reader’s number. At the next scheduled delivery time I could expect three folios (the maximum allowed to be ordered at any given time) to arrive. I could then begin to photograph and catalogue the documents I wished to take with me. My plan after the first 15 folios were completed was to use these manuscript collections as the initial mile markers on my growing roadmap of time periods, topics and individuals to explore in the coming days. In truth, however, I was discouraged by the online return, which listed so few documents when I knew the library possessed hundreds and hundreds more.
The first 15 folios, however, represented two days of solid research, so I wasn’t deterred until the afternoon of my second day when I finally confronted that mysterious keeper of time and folios: the reading room archivist. Readers of my first two blog entries know my relationship with at least one of the archivists was strained at best; and at this point I was beginning to think I might have problems getting the documents I wanted. However, when I arrived first thing in the morning, much to my surprise, a new archivist was on staff. This nice man helped me translate some of the documents written in old and new Irish and even ventured into the vaults to grab folios between delivery hours as he knew my time at the library was short. I was grateful for his extra effort.
It was obvious that several of the folios I had requested had not been used since modern preservation methods had become prolific. That is, some papers were bound together with pins or rusty paperclips. Other, more fragile pieces like telegrams that were never meant to stand test of time were left unsupported in the folders — left to crumble. As the reading room had become much busier since the morning hours, I offered to secure these documents with stronger paper, plastic clips, and reinforced folios. Channeling the shared mentalité of our changing yet shared landscapes as described by Cook, I became as much an archivist as the archivist was a historian when he advised me on folios or other manuscript topics to explore.
By the afternoon session, however, my old friend with the glasses and (rightly) stern disposition had returned. Soon after she arrived I finished with my last folio and walked the long, six paces to the archivist’s desk. The library closed at 4:45 that day, so I began my stumble to her station around 2pm and think I arrived there somewhere around 4pm—cowering behind other readers and diving behind chairs whenever possible. Inevitably, I arrived at her station, gulped, and began to explain that I had completed looking though the folios I had planned on exploring, yet I knew the library possessed at least a dozen more folios directly related to my topic that I couldn’t find after searching the manuscript collection.
Her reaction surprised me to a level that I still have trouble communicating fully now, even a few weeks later. After several apologies she began to explain to me that the library is currently in the process of digitizing and streamlining their collections databases. For some reason the Manuscript Collection has always been divided into at least two separate sections on the website. By misfortune I chose the section that had the smallest number of catalogued items. The archivist then directed me to the main catalogue, which includes links to all manuscript and alternative documents. She explained that indeed this is somewhat unintuitive based on the layout of the website, but that she was happy to be of assistance moving on. I asked if she could help me request several documents (exceeding the maximum of 3 by using both the online request and written forms) so that I could begin to make up for lost time in my remaining two and a half days. Surprisingly, she obliged my request and I began to receive more folios than I could process. From this point on the relationship between archivist and historian was highly productive. In the remaining days I cataloged twice as many documents as I had in the previous few and the content became ever more relevant and fascinating.
Several of the folios I requested were returned in receipt form and it was explained to me that these files were “currently not available for staff use.” Since one of these folios was a British Secret Service file, I immediately became suspicious and began to think that I might have been getting stonewalled by some archivists with a political agenda. That is, by this point a quick review of all the folios I requested would give some insight into my project and perhaps even my hypothesis. This particular source was extremely important to my research needs and by withholding the documents one could conceivably change the outcome of my research. I was told that the manuscript collection is currently undergoing a digitization project, which is expected to be completed by February of 2015. The archivist suggested I email the library in a month with these manuscript numbers so the documents could be scanned and emailed to me within a week or two. This calmed my concern, although I still did not gain access to two very important British Secret Service folios. I, of course, will be following up with the archivist over the next week or two.
The fact that large sections of the manuscript collection and other sections of the NLI are being digitized is very exciting for researchers. I asked the archivist what the intention of the digitization project was: that is, was it a complete scanning of all documents held by the institution or just those documents deemed ‘important’ by archivists. This is a very serious issue Cook raises in his article: how archivists can evaluate what is important and by what standards. The archivist explained to me that the goal is to fully digitize the manuscript collection over several years, with older, more fragile, and more nationally significant documents or those related to more significant individuals taking precedent. When I asked if there was concern over whether this would decrease the amount of visitors or researchers to the reading room, the archivist explained that since the library offers entry and reading free of charge, their biggest concern at the moment is document preservation followed by increased access to materials via the internet.
Looking at my documents folder and the hundreds of documents left to organize and catalog, I have begun to think about the next step in my project: the independent study and the paper that will result from my research. In the coming weeks I am going to look not only at subject matter, but also date range and the number of documents contained within these sub-fields. This should narrow the research down to a few essential documents. I will look to continue this blog series, which will occasionally track my progress with the development of the research, my paper, and my findings.
I want to thank everyone who took time to read these blogs and edit them (Alexandra Webster). I also want to thank the archival staff at NLI who may or may not know this blog exists. Anything I have said negative was truly in jest. Without these individuals, I would not have been able to complete my research as I planned. Also a big thank you to Dr. Bailey for sponsoring my research and perhaps absurd chases down rabbit holes. Finally, thank you to the Villanova University’s Summer Research Grant program, without whose support my research would not be possible.