Secret Agent Historians


Yeah, Squadrato baby, yeah!

Squadratomagico has an interesting post about her current research in London at the “Secret Agent Archive“–no specifics, because she doesn’t want to give away her identity in her day job, but she finds the location of the current object of her research exciting.  (And it sounds like an opening scene to an Austin Powers movie.):

I enter Secret Agent Archive through modern steel-and-glass doors that whisk open automatically, then submit to a bag search. I proceed to a room in the back, where I stash my personal belongings in the modern lockers with frosted glass fronts. Here’s where it really starts to get interesting: up two flights of gleaming marble stairs, through another set of modern steel-and-glass doors; then I swipe my magnetized I.D. card through a reader, which buzzes and flashes a green light. That is my go-ahead to pass through the turnstile surrounded by a metal detector.

Now I’m in the restricted sanctum.

Then it’s a turn down a corridor, through a pair of massive wooden doors into a reading room populated by a scattering of folk absorbed in their researches. Now, I ascend more marble steps, then walk back along a brightly-lit catwalk lined with books, heading way, way to the back and through a fire door into a very small, short passageway. Then, penetrating ever deeper into the bowels of this place, I immediately push through yet another completely unmarked, solid wooden door that looks like part of the paneling in this narrow space. 

That door opens onto more corridors, more cases of books, and in the end leads to a brightly-lit seating arrangement of 60’s-modern style furniture on shiny white plastic bases. They look Aalto- or Saarinen-esque. Next to this seating arrangement is my final goal: another pair of gleaming glass-and-steel doors etched with sans-serif letters: Rare Books and Manuscript Room. Behind these doors lie modern desks and ancient books.

On the wall to the left is another magnetic card reader. I swipe my card a second time, watch for the green light, and push open the entrance to the true sanctum sanctorum. I will not be able to leave, reversing my steps, without two more card-swipes on the way out.

I don’t think I’ve ever gone through this elaborate series of stairways, turns, hallways, doors and card-swipes without Johnny Rivers playing in my head…

Click the link to refresh your memory of Johnny Rivers’s “Secret Agent Man. . . they’ve given you a number, and taken away your name.” 

Then on a related note, I’m enjoying my coffee in the fresh Rocky Mountain air this morning, when I read that Anthony Blunt wrote a 30,000 word memior/confession/apologia before his death in 1983, which has just been released by the British Library today

Anthony Blunt — English gentleman, art adviser to Queen Elizabeth II and Soviet spy — felt the decision to give British secrets to the Kremlin was “the biggest mistake of my life.”

Blunt wrote of his remorse in a 30,000-word memoir completed shortly before his death in 1983 and released Thursday by the British Library. It was given to the library in 1984 on condition it not be made public for 25 years.
.       .       .       .       .       .       .       .       .       .       .      

During World War II, Blunt worked for the MI5 intelligence agency — and handed over secret documents to the Soviets. The memoir gives few details about Blunt’s espionage, and does not reveal the names of his Russian contacts.

Blunt wrote that after the war he tried to put spying behind him, resuming his career as an art historian and becoming Surveyor of the King’s Pictures, a job he held under King George VI and his daughter, Queen Elizabeth II.

“In fact I was disillusioned about Marxism as well as about Russia. What I personally hoped to do was to hear no more of my Russian friends, to return to my normal academic life,” he wrote.

mercy-otiswarrenSo much intrigue!  I suppose it makes the “normal academic life” look pretty good.  (As I always say, “thank goodness for my perfectly boring life!  Boring is good.”)  Well, I’ve never had the pleasure of working in such an exciting environment as either Squadratomagico or Blunt. In fact, I had to laugh when I read this description of a fine archive in which I’ve logged an impressive number of hours. Sarah Vowell writes in The Wordy Shipmates (2008) that the Massachusetts Historical Society is “like a cartoon of East Coast finery: dark wood paneling, oil paintings on the wall of illustrious, staring Bostonians whose eyes accuse visitors who went to state schools west of the Mississippi, ‘You’re not from around here, are you?'”

(Hey Sarah–forget west of the Mississippi–try west of the Hudson River!)  I now teach at a state school west of the Mississippi, but I’ve always really liked that gorgeous painting of Mercy Otis Warren by John Singleton Copley that used to hang in the main reading room. (It may still–I haven’t been there for years.) Such a prim and stiff visage for such a radical revolutionary!  Secret agent, indeed.

What’s the most exciting or interesting or most exotic place you’ve ever been in the course of doing your job?

0 thoughts on “Secret Agent Historians

  1. Hey, if they have the records of the legendary Sun Fire Insurance Company there, or the even more amusing Hollow Sword Blade Company, I think I might have been there. But I could only confirm that on a need-to-know basis.

    The Queen fell over laughing when I asked if I could get into the archive room in the central tower at Windsor Castle. This the same day that an early iteration of the Beefeater, who looked like ze had never had any beef, nearly ran me through out at Hampton Court. I’m blanking on what was the most exotic place I actually DID get into. Maybe it was that glass of funny liquid they made us drink on the way out.


  2. Actually, while secret agent archive is now my favorite archive, I wouldn’t say it was the most exciting research experience or trip I ever have had. That distinction goes to a visit to… (trying to figure out how to discuss it without giving away too much…) to see a material artefact, rather than a manuscript. I had come to see a this artefact among others, for it was one of a type or series I was investigating for my first book. But while examining it in a museum, out of the corner of my eye I noticed another object nearby that was (a) extremely rare; (b) completely unreferenced in any publication in my field, even though it is fascinating evidence for something that HAS received some attention; and (c) useful to me in my project, though in a different way than the thing I had come to see. I cannot tell you how exciting it was to notice this artefact out of the corner of my eye, to slowly focus attention on it, and then realize exactly what I was looking at. In many ways, it was a small discovery, of interest to relatively few people, but it still felt amazing to be the first pair of eyes in centuries to see this thing for what it was, historically. Also, since I had had a long-term interest in the subject for which this object was evidence, the discovery was especially gratifying.


  3. I worked in the Secret Vatican Archives once. The name alone gave me a bit of a thrill. Plus, for secret agent bonus points, one has to manoeuver through the Swiss Guard to get past the first check point. There’s a dress code and a league of disapproving priests. And a secret café hidden in a crumbling former chapel.


  4. My favorite, from this past research trip:

    1. Enter cloister of gothic cathedral through the tourist entrance. File in with tourists until you reach corner chapel.

    2. Stop just inside the entrance to corner chapel, in front of incongruous door to phone booth-sized elevator.

    3. Press intercom buzzer. When someone answers, request (in your best approximation of Target Language) that you’d like to use the archive. Do so as quietly as possible, so as not to disturb the tourists taking pictures, or the locals using the chapel as a prayer space.

    4. When buzzer sounds, open now-unlocked door to elevator. Ride up two floors and emerge in the sunlight of the roof of the cloister. Exit elevator into outdoors, make two quick lefts, and enter door marked “Archivium.”


  5. Awesome! Having a cup of Swiss Miss (or Cryptacchino, as it were) with the Swiss Guards. Love it!

    Alas, North American archives are so professionalized that there is little intrigue. This is not all a bad thing–I have to say that I don’t have a single story about wasted trips or wasted days because a quirky or poorly funded archive turned out not to be open when I was visiting. I still wish I had become an Italian late medieval/early modern women’s historian. I think I would have had the chance to visit unforgettable archives, secret caches of family documents in old castles, etc. Maybe I’ll do that in retirement.

    Sq., one of these days you’re just going to have to tell us what your academic work is about! I’m eager to read it, especially now that I know about your material culture finds, although it’s not my field (as far as I can tell…)


  6. Sometimes Americanists have to settle for more mundane out-in-the-open mysteries, which are still pretty satisfying for all that. Like at Major Central Park West Repository, years ago, where a ms. chief notorious for being difficult with demanding readers suddenly starts lavishing you and your team with all sorts of privileges. Moving tables out of the way so you can photograph documents on the floor in an era way before digital. Or at Big Philly Manuscript Castle, where if you were plausibly clueless enough about a citation, they would sometimes say, “why don’t YOU come upstairs with us and see if we can find it.” Suddenly you were in the inner sanctum itself, saying oh yeah, that ALSO looks interesting. No strange flickering corridors or magic incantations, but it made for savory “that’s nothing…” stories at the scholarly receptions.


  7. Indyanna–yes, good points. Didn’t a few friends of ours find an unpublished 18th C woman’s diary in that “why don’t YOU come upstairs” fashion? Or am I conflating HSP stories?


  8. Does a castle count? Nothing romantic or exotic once I got in, but it was a genuine castle. And they charged mucho money to do it.

    My favorite place to do research, though, is the Duke Humphrey Library at the Bodleian. If I were clever, I’d find a photo and put it in. But the old books are still on some shelves, there’s a painted ceiling, and when I go in I *feel* as if I’m a scholar!


  9. The most ‘secret’ archive I ‘visited’ was the one I briefly worked in and that was mainly because it was so badly catalogued and inaccessible. The archive was the county archive and held the archives of the local regiment but it was only partially catalogued so you had to phone or email the archivist asking if they had any relevant material and as most of the archive was in his head, he would say yes/no and then you made an appointment to come and see it. On the day, you came to the offices where you were placed in a room about a foot wider than the desk where the archives would be given to you to view. But, they were very flexible and happy to have you – you could photograph and use their photocopying facilities for free.

    Plus the actual archives, which were offsite, were truly secret and only shown to the chosen few. They were unmarked- one was in an old school-building and another was in a very rough area in an very modern, warehouse. The latter they kept a very low-profile on as they didn’t want to encourage break-ins (seriously when I first went, they looked all around as if waiting to be mugged before unlocking the door). But, they were truly amazing- the warehouse held large items such as 19th century fire engines, big furniture items, a rock and coal collection, and the seats from the now non-existent cinema; while the other archive held a large collections of costumes, ceramics, paintings, and over 30,000 uncatalogued photographs, as well as large collection of letters, business records, etc. I practically skipped around it- it was so exciting.


  10. Squadrato, it actually makes perfect sense, at least to me (if that’s at all helpful).

    The coolest place I’ve found myself was in the old storage facility of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard. I went to photograph a small box of local artifacts, and was overwhelmed by the thousands of years of artifacts around me. These were the sorts of artifacts I’d only ever seen in photos (obsidian blades, steatite bowls, clay pots, carved smoking pipes, casts of South American friezes). Seeing pictures and being in their physical presence, however, are entirely, ENTIRELY, different things.


  11. The Egyptian National Library is impressive in an Egyptian bureaucratic sort of way. However, my best stories come from others. A member of my MA committee chickened out of going to an archive when told by the authorities he would need to bring a gun to help protect against Tuareg raiders. My advisor has a few stories, though since I’m under my own name I won’t share them. One involves off-roading for a week in Sumatra to reach a mosque archive. Heath Lowry’s book on Ottoman origins also has a funny bit about dodging security guards while trying to clamber around the roof siding of a Bursa mosque to see an inscription.

    Since part of my motivation in visiting Buraimi/al-Ain is that it comes up in my dissertation, I can say that it represents the only place I have snuck across an international border illegally.


  12. I think I once managed to convince an archivist I was a spy. Exactly what kind of spy spends her days reading 16th century manuscripts I don’t know, but here’s how it went down. While I was researching my dissertation in Western European Country’s state archives, a friend was doing her research at the British Museum. She asked me to transcribe a letter one of her subjects sent to someone in Western European Country. The letter was in the University Library Special Collections, so I had to apply for a reader card. In order to get the reader card, I had to submit a letter of reference from a faculty member at the university. No problem. There was also an application form, which included a section on which collection one wanted to see and why. So, I explained that this was a favor for a friend.

    I received the card the next week, and went to transcribe the letter. When I submitted the request to see the document, the lady at the desk looked at my card and said I would have to speak to the head of Special Collections first. I was escorted to her office, where she wanted to know exactly what I was doing there. She pulled out a thick file, which turned out to include copies of:

    my passport
    my visa application from the Los Angeles consulate
    my official residence permit
    my application for an official residence permit
    the receipt showing I paid for the permit
    my Fulbright application
    letters of recommendation from my committee
    my dissertation abstract
    the photo included in my application
    the photo taken when I arrived in the country
    my high school diploma
    my BA and MA transcripts
    my rental agreement
    my application for a bank account
    my application for my reader card at the state archives.

    That’s what I could identify in the file, as Scary Head Archivist was slowing going through the papers. There were other papers in the file that I couldn’t see.

    Scary Head Archivist wanted to know what I was doing in her archive. She didn’t see how the document I requested was relevant to my research on the Reformation. I explained the whole story again about doing a favor for a friend. After going over this story, and explaining my friend’s research, she finally approved my request to see the one letter. Of course I also had to fill out a reader card application for my friend, even though I couldn’t answer all the questions.

    By now, the whole interview process has taken over an hour. I got the letter. They assigned me a work space in full view of the ladies who worked at the front desk. It took me about 10 minutes to type out a transcription. The letter was a request for more information about a certain kind of plant found in the region. By this time I was wondering if the whole thing was some kind of code for state secrets. 18th century state secrets of some kind? What kind of plant was this, anyway? I finished that letter and hightailed it back to the state archives, trying to remember what _Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy_ said about how to know when one was being followed. Where’s George Smiley when you need him?

    My friend has never been to Western European State, but I’m reasonably sure they have a file on her by now. What I do know is that my friend still owes me a beer for this one.


  13. Historiann, good question about the unpublished woman’s diary and an unofficial bid to visit the stacks. It vaguely rings a bell. I was heading over the river this evening to the Tylenol Institute for Juicy Gossip and thought I might run into somebody there who could throw light on this matter, but no luck. I’ll keep it on file for reference. These are great archival anecdotes, and I’d like to hear more of them. The last one is pretty amazing.


  14. Exile~ That’s a hella story! Perhaps they’d suffered visitors with sticky fingers, and it was all a performance about how stealing wouldn’t get you very far, because they knew where you lived and what your passport photo looked like! And if all your friend owes you is a single beer for that, could you look something up for me?? 😉


  15. I don’t have any particularly dramatic stories about visiting archives, but I actually kind of like the somewhat formal, old-fashioned atmosphere at places like the Massachusetts Historical Society. That’s kind of what I imagined that a historical archives should be like, so it almost feels comfortable. Of course, I’m probably horribly biased by the fact that I enjoy working at a different archival institution that has a somewhat similar atmosphere – neo-classical building, lots of old portraits, etc. (We actually have sort of a friendly rivalry with the MHS.) I certainly hope that the atmosphere doesn’t make anyone feel unwelcome.


  16. Paul, I love the MHS! I just thought Vowell’s description, as a non-professional and as a Westerner, was funny. I’ve always been warmly received and treated kindly–the staff at the MHS are incredibly helpful and professional.

    And I do adore that Copley portrait of M.O.W., which doesn’t let on at all what a troublemaker she would become.


  17. I’d like to second Duke Humfrey’s reading room at the Bodleian: I’ve been twice, on single-day visits in 1997 and this past summer. Both times I looked at a particular manuscript, where one must sign one’s name in another book which is a permanent record of everyone who’s ever looked at the manuscript in the library–when I asked for the book from the librarian, he said “I guess you last looked at this in 1997, is that right?’ Between 1997 and 2009 about one page worth of scholars had consulted the book–and frankly, I was surprised it was so many!

    The Parker Library at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, is undergoing renovations, I guess. But I do recall working with early medieval manuscripts there at one point when the windows were open to help keep readers cool.


  18. Pingback: Secret Agent Historians, part deux: “Day Rider” attacks! : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

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