Sister Agnes explains why you still need to visit the archives


Sister Agnes schools us on the archives

Like many historians, I have more than once discovered that the published version of a primary source is incomplete or even misleading when checked against the archival source.  One of my first missions as a graduate student was locating the archival court records for a New England colony whose records were published except for some cases of adolescent boys and young adult men who were convicted of sodomy.  (The sensibilities of the Victorian-era editor of the town court records were too delicate to include the details of those cases, and those cases only.) 

Indeed, the intimate details of historical documents–the marginalia, the burn holes, the water stains, the ink splotches, few of which are reproducible in published form or legible on microfilm or even in digitized versions–are some of the greatest pleasures of being a historian, archivist or librarian.  I have long felt that intimacy with the documents is not just desirable, but necessary–not just to be sure that published records haven’t introduced errors in my research, but because I like to touch things that the people I write about have touched.  I like seeing whose handwriting is clear and the product of an educated hand, and whose handwriting is crude and full of non-standard or phonetic spellings.  The rare letter from a desperate Anglo-American woman on the Maine frontier looks a lot different than an official dispatch from Governor Dudley, and those differences are flattened when the documents are published in books or transcribed digitally.  That stuff matters to me.

The immediacy and sheer volume of historical materials available on the world wide (and as it turns out, not peer-reviewed) internets demands our continued scrutiny and vigilance.  Here’s a recent lesson by Sister Agnes, who spent some time in a European archive recently and discovered that the compiler of an on-line series of summaries of medieval monastic charters provided false or incomplete data:

My recent trip to the archives reaffirmed my belief that you have to look at the documents in their original form, if possible. The regional archive that I have been working at off and on for the last ten years finally went on-line in 2006. Since getting to the archives has been difficult lately, I welcomed the change. The monastic charters I’ve been working with number in the hundreds for some abbeys, and going through them individually and transcribing them can be very time consuming. Fortunately (or so I thought) I could still proceed with my work from the U.S. because someone had posted on the archival website summaries of each of the charters, including the date and place they were issued and a brief synopsis of their contents.

It turns out that these summaries are very misleading. I had been trying to determine the sex ratio among donors to various monasteries, using the summaries. However, once I looked at several of the original charters, I realized that often a donation attributed in a summary to a man was often made by a couple-a man and his wife. In addition, reading further into the document revealed that her presence was necessary because the land in question was her dowry–and this is a much different picture than what the summaries revealed. So unfortunately, I have to scrap a lot of quantitative work I did based on the on-line summaries, but fortunately, I think my results will now be much more interesting. So I guess it ended up being worth the time and money spent on a trip to Europe!

Archival material and published sources that are available digitally and on-line are wonderful–and as a historian who lives in Colorado now whose primary sources are about Eastern North America, they are truly invaluable.  (I regularly praise the powers that be that bring me the Digital Evans series, and!)  But Sister Agnes’s story should stand as a warning lest we become completely reliant on published or on-line primary sources.  I think it’s highly revealing that both anecdotes here–my sodomy cases and Sister Agnes’s charters–involve omissions or distortions of the historical record of gender and sexuality introduced by the sensibilities and assumptions of nineteenth- and twenty-first century antiquarians and archivists.  Sister Agnes’s experience is another verse in a song many of us were singing last June at the 2008 Berkshire Conference in Minneapolis, in (to name just one example) Terri Snyder’s panel on “Researching and Writing the Lives of Unfree Women,” where one of the takeaway messages was to get into provincial and local archives because many more discoveries await us there. 

I have a feeling that most women’s and gender historians, historians of sexuality, and historians of people of color have tales from the archives that are very similar to Sister Agnes’s story.  It’s summer now and many of you lucky duckies may have the opportunity to burrow into an archive or two just to read, think, and dream.  Do you have any stories of discrepancies discovered in the archives, nos amies?

0 thoughts on “Sister Agnes explains why you still need to visit the archives

  1. I certainly agree with you about the actual physical condition of the mss. being important to see. I’d give some examples from my own research, except they are too identifying — suffice it to say that the mss. incorporate certain kinds of evidence that could not be replicated in a published edition.

    But on those Victorian editors: I always find that sort of omission interesting. It’s the same with medieval texts: I can think of an edited penitential that freely translates discussions of rape, murder, and mutilation, but when it comes to oral sex, suddenly the canon is kept in Latin!

    OTOH, I use a lot of texts in my research and cannot go back to original for all of them. So, edited and printed versions really are invaluable — I take a lot of them on trust, or I’d never get anything out.


  2. Translations are another area of trickiness. In some instances, I have seen some original documents translated based on more recent assumptions (changing the names of racial categories, for example).

    Like squadratomagico, though, I still rely on some published texts. Unless I had an unlimited travel budget, it would be impossible to gather all the documents you might need.


  3. Many Tudor historians begin with the calendars of important documents. They’re good as guides to what might be out there in a wide range of archives, but hardly conclusive, even in the best of situations. As a graduate student, I was flabbergasted when I compared a calendar entry with what I actually read when I got my hands on the document in question at the British Museum.

    Furthermore, because scholars creating the calendars were mostly interested in constitutional and administrative history, there’s a wealth of other information that’s not even abstracted in the summaries. If you’re looking at personal devotional history or questions of patronage or gender, you’re going to miss a lot just going by the printed calendars. Even if you’re working in a “traditional” field, you can’t be assured that past scholars got everything right in their work. If the sources are there, they should be consulted!


  4. Thanks all–and thanks for bringing in specific issues related to your areas of interest. Translation is a HUGE issue, GayProf–I deal with it daily, since the French word for Native peoples in the 17th and 18th C is “Sauvage,” and I’m unconvinced that “savage” is the right English translation. (Then again, replacing it with “Indian” is a kind of erasure that I’m uncomfortable with, too.)

    Janice–great advice about the calendars. (I’ve worked with the Calendar of State Papers for the 18th C–I assume it’s a related thing? In that case then, early Americanists will want to heed your advice, if their work intersects with English imperial history, etc.)

    Don’t all of these stories and experiences make you wonder what it is we’re missing now? What finding aids are people of our era generating that will look incredibly blind or misguided in 30 or 40 years?


  5. On “sauvage”: wild people?

    I’m a medievalist interested in late-medieval/ early modern reading and reception, which means I study the kind of marginalia that editors often (not invariably) ignore or give short shrift. Attractive pictures that are part of a manuscript’s design get attention, as do serious learned comments on a text; but doodles and remarks equivalent to “cool!” are only recently drawing scholarly interest.

    I find that the tension between existence and quality of older catalogs, calendared documents, and archival summaries is actually a great help in getting money to go to archives and libraries: I can show that suggestive things exist but that they require expert investigation. Nobody wants to fund a pure fishing expedition, but if you can show the shortcomings of the published material—and that you’ve already done all you can with it—money may be forthcoming. That is, if there’s any money left in the world, which is looking doubtful these days.


  6. I’ve only done work in personal genealogical research, not professional history. There are so many obvious errors in material. I’ve got a great-great-great-(great? I always lose count)-grandfather who was a Civil War soldier — his name (Sylvanus W. Millard) is spelled about four different ways in various “authoritative” online records, the most garbled of which (Sylvester U. Millerd) was an official US government database. And I’d never know the difference if I didn’t have multiple other sources of information, including his widow’s pension application, which managed to get things right. (On the other side of the family, I’ve got a great-grandfather with about four different birth years, depending on whether you look at the Ontario birth records, his 1917 draft card, his census answers, or his Social Security application.) And I can’t count how many errors there are in the census records, presumably from neighbors making guesses about how to spell my ancestors’ names or just how many people were living in the house…

    It makes me extremely wary of information for which I find only one online resource, and desperate to get my hands on the original papers which were so poorly transcribed. And I’m only looking at relatively RECENT history — lucky for me!


  7. Erica–good points about the apparently simple matter of a name and basic demographic data. Historians run into this all of the time–especially those of us doing microhistory and biography. Census records are another huge trove of information, but it’s information that should be considered highly qualified unless cross-checked against other sources.

    I don’t work with U.S. census data myself, since the first census was only in 1790, but my bet is that many people who read this blog work with it all of the time.

    And Dame Eleanor–yes, the finding aids and calendars are highly useful (if also highly flawed) tools–I like your notion of using their incomplete or erroneous nature as a ploy to get the funding to do the archival research!


  8. Would that be Gov. Thomas Dudley, [Massachusetts] of the mid seventeenth century, or his descendant and successor, Gov. Joe Dudley? Of the former, a great document is said to be his tombstone, which the later Gov. Jonathan Belcher quoted as saying: Here Lies Thomas Dudley, That Trusty Old Stud, A Bargain/s a Bargain, and Must be Made Good.

    On burn holes, smears, stains, etc.: you can still call up boxes of documents in Albany that are fringed around with char, and that reek of the smell of the New York State Library fire of Nineteen Eleven, which incredibly, came only four days after the much more horrific Triangle Fire in New York City. I/m working with a series of edited and published eighteenth century documents now put out in the nineteen thirties, which have those dreaded elipses that indicate editorial judgements of non significance. But they also have bracketed [ ] to indicate probable [ ] which [ ] are also pretty [ ] maddening, but suggest efforts by the transcriptors to convey manuscript flaws of the sorts that Historiann references above.


  9. Like Dame Eleanor Hull, I’m interested in what the doodles, textual interpolations, comments etc. that have been added to an original manuscript can tell us about how the original text was read and received/interpreted by different audiences. I just blogged on this recently with regards to the original manuscript of The Book of Margery Kempe (1430s) that was in the possession of a Carthusian priory in the 15th and 16th centuries. The manuscript resurfaced in the 1930s, and the monks’ marginal commentary helped cast a new light on how Margery may have been perceived by her contemporaries – e.g. that they saw her as a genuine mystic rather than a crazy woman.


  10. Indyanna–I was thinking Joseph of the governorship during Queen Anne’s War, but my generalization about correspondence would probably apply to both Dudleys!

    Nice story about the 1911 fire and its lingering evidence on 18th and 19th C records. It’s interesting to contemplate the layers of history overlaid on the documents themselves–materially as well as intellectually.


  11. Another bizarre fire coincidence with archival implications. As the Great Chicago Fire raged, on the very same day one of the worst forest fires in American [well, United States] history burned several hundred miles north at Peshtigo, Wisconsin. The Peshtigo fire had far worse human casualties, I think. The Chicago one burned the house of Walter S. Newberry, later of Library fame, taking away what is said to have been a vast corpus of documentary records.

    There is an academic scholar of the cultural history of fire in America, based in Arizona, I think, Steven Pyne. His narrative goes millenia before there was a United States. Imagine his documentary nightmares? Although, fossilized charcoal is said to be a pretty good source.


  12. I think going back to the original, be it an original document (yay for good handwriting!) or an original article is something that more and more folks are moving away from. It’s easier to paraphrase someone else’s summary of the literature, or to rely on online transcriptions. Trouble is, as you point out, Historiann, is that we all pick out different things to emphasize. Even deciding to “correct” or “standardize” spelling and punctuation in transcription can change a document.

    I recently ran into this helping a friend with some research. Over and over, a particular oil was described as increasing collagen in the skin when used externally. Checked the article, and guess what? It only increases collagen, in rats, when ingested. Those are REALLY different things.

    Historiann, could you just use the french Sauvage? I agree that there is a subtlety there that doesn’t translate well to “Savage” or to “Indian”. Dame Eleanor’s “Wild People” is probably closer, but still doesn’t sit quite right. At least by not translating it, you’d identify it as having “other” meaning.


  13. Huh… Sauvage was apparently considered a Middle English word. According to Merriam-Webster, “”sav•age . . . adjective / Etymology: Middle English sauvage, from Middle French, from Late Latin salvaticus, alteration of Latin silvaticus of the woods, wild, from silva wood, forest.” The connection with forests is interesting.


  14. GayProf, you make a good point about translations superimposing contemporary assumptions and terms onto archival sources. In that situation, one can end up with several layers of filtering that potentially alter the original meanings quite a bit. I guess that loops back to the discussion here recently about the value of graduate students learning foreign languages.

    Thanks for the link Historiann.


  15. Completely agree with the need for archives, and the fabulousness of the accessibility of things like Evans Digital (despite it being quirky, buggy and otherwise problematic) or historical newspaper collections. Ideally, we want documents digitized in their original form — so we can read marginalia, see handwriting, etc.

    While a huge supporter of digitization, I worry greatly that it reifies power relations yet again by increasing accessibility to only certain kinds of records: Founding Fathers’ writings (already accessible in book form) are getting digitized far faster than local manuscript court records, where white women’s and people of color’s voices likely appear. Digitizing handwriting isn’t as fruitful as printed text (witness Evans Digital) because OCR software doesn’t work on it.

    So we get increased access to certain kinds of historial documents and local archives are going bankrupt. I worry.


  16. The first time I went to the archives, I started by consulting the c. 19 index, located in the archive´s reference room, handwritten by the archivist at that time. I was planning on working on a project on sexuality, but I ended up giving it up because, after going through 50 years´worth of index, I couldn´t find a single reference. Only later, after getting going on a new topic, did I realize that there were plenty such documents. It´s just that the archivist hadn´t considered things like sexual behavior (even when it resulted in criminal charges) worth mentioning, because it wasn´t “real” history.

    Another sad note: in the past 3 years, my main archive has made considerable progress in microfilming or digitizing nearly everthing from my period, which means that they no longer let you consult the original. Which is ridiculous.


  17. Shaz–you express my worries exactly. And as Notorious’s comment suggests, technology may be good but it’s never as good as the next technology. (Ahhh, microfilm! The cutting-edge technology of 1938…) There are some eastern U.S. archives that try to fob microfilm off on me, but they’ve been very helpful once I explain that I’m not an amateur, and they bring me the originals. (Some state and local archives have a LOT of genealogists and family history people in them all of the time, and in those cases, it’s probably sensible not to haul out the 17th and 18th C originals for every looky-loo.)

    Digger, I’ve been thinking about using “sauvage” untranslated where I can’t avoid it, and avoiding it for the most part. Great minds think alike!

    And, Indyanna–Pyne was our featured guest lecturer this year at Baa Ram U., but unfortunately, his visit was scheduled to coincide exactly with the OAH, so I missed seeing him. Bad timing! (His environmental history perspective and expertise on forestry fits right into Baa Ram U., as you might imagine.) I heard he gave some interesting talks.


  18. There are great lines in the English Historical Manuscrips Commission reports from the late 19th C (where they went around to great houses and wrote reports on the manuscripts) saying “Miscellaneous family letters of no historical interest”. Now sometimes we can go read htem, but not always. And I wish they had calendared them as carefully as they did the political correspondence!


  19. Microfilms can be great. If they’re done correctly. In a worst case scenario, you could at least read them with a magnifier and a light source. The preference of digitization, even over keeping originals, scares me *much* more, as formats change so quickly (never mind archivability of media).

    Shaz: “So we get increased access to certain kinds of historical documents and local archives are going bankrupt. I worry.” Exactly.


  20. Digger — re: microfilm: a colleague I know completely screwed up a published transcript of an extensive early c19 legal case as a result of only being allowed to use the microfilm, which was really difficult to read due to writing on both side of the page. A more senior scholar was allowed to see the originals and realized the errors, with disastrous results for my colleague, who got skewered. Ouch!


  21. Pingback: Librarians, archivists, and access to archives : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

  22. Notorious’s comments reveal a problem that many archivists deal with on a day-to-day basis. At the archives where I work, we recently undertook a project to recatalog a number of collections processed in the mid-twentieth century. Women’s and gender history had largely been ignored. That was the primary offense, but not the only one, by far.
    The same problems occur with translations and transcriptions done by archivists. Even when done with good intentions, older transcriptions are often incomplete, if not inaccurate. But, in some cases, minor editing was done to obscure material deemed scandalous. Although most archivists now prefer to improve rather than restrict access, some still have it in their mind that they should serve as a censor. At a recent SAA workshop, a colleague from a nearby archive revealed that she had tossed a Playboy found in a collection because she thought it was “inappropriate.”


  23. Pingback: How doth the little crocodile improve his shining tail? : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

  24. Historiann:

    It’s funny that you’re writing about archives as I just spent two days in one (and had way too much fun in the process). While I love archives, I think you should cut less archivally inclined people a little slack depending upon their subdiscipline.

    My three favorites (in no particular order) are labor history, business history and the history of technology. All the significant archival collections in these areas that I’ve ever used have huge holes in them, probably thanks to the tendency of businesses to destroy records first and ask questions later so that lawyers won’t go after them somewhere down the line.

    Even at the Hagley Museum and Library (a particularly lovely archive that will actually give you money to visit there), my tendency is to hang out in the old trade journals. Most turn-of-the-twentieth century trade journals are massive, honking volumes that are extremely rare (even on Google Books) and you can’t get them many other places in the country. The last time I checked, where I went to graduate school had the fourth largest library in the country and its collection of trade journals is paltry compared to Hagley’s.

    Where am I going with this? I don’t know – maybe that it’s not the kind of sources that really matter, so long as you make the effort to find the stuff that most people wouldn’t look for otherwise. After all, we’re historians, not journalists. Total immersion in your subject is practically a job requirement.


  25. Pingback: Tales from the archives : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

Let me have it!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.