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Early modern archiving – two conferences

A quick heads up about two conferences on early modern archiving, definitely worthy of a quick post to share links, considering the content of my last piece.

CFP: ‘Early Modernists and the Archives, 1400-1800’, 10 June 2014, The National Archives, Kew

http://emarchivesconference2014.wordpress.com/

From their website:

‘This conference will bring postgraduate students and academic historians together with staff from the National Archives in order to showcase research with archival sources, facilitate open discussions on the use of archives, and create networks between postgraduate students and archival staff. Subject areas covered by the conference will include (but are not limited to):

  • Economic history (including the Exchequer, account books, building records, etc.)
  • Military history
  • Religious history
  • History of literature and drama.
  • Gender and family history (through diaries, household account books and family papers)
  • History of the monarchy
  • Imperial history (including exploration and colonial history)
  • Studies of particular individuals and families (through family papers)
  • Legal history (including crime, punishment and legal disputes in early modern society)
  • European Renaissance through art and architecture
  • Methodological approaches/problems to archival investigation’

‘Tranforming Information: Record Keeping in the Early Modern World’, Wednesday, 9 April 2014 to Thursday, 10 April 2014, British Academy, London

http://www.crassh.cam.ac.uk/events/2483/

From their website:

‘Scholars of the early modern world rarely pause to consider how and why the archives upon which they rely came into being, despite the fact that these processes have fundamentally shaped both our knowledge of the past and the technical and specialist skills we must acquire in order to recover and interpret it. This interdisciplinary conference will bring together historians, literary scholars and archivists to explore the phenomenon of record-keeping between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries and to assess the impulses underpinning it against the backdrop of wider technological, intellectual, political, religious and economic developments. It endeavours to focus fresh attention on the assumptions and constraints behind the creation, control, preservation and use of records in an era of significant change.’


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Archives, practices and paper: thoughts from Munich

I’m writing this blog on the plane home from Munich, where I’ve been at a conference for the last few days. I was invited by the lovely Prof. Markus Friedrich, who was on the same panel as me at The Permissive Archive, to give a paper at the ‘Frühneuzeittag’, or annual meeting of Germany’s early modern historians (not where I expect to find myself on a Friday afternoon).

The panel was, you guessed it, on archives, but the conference itself took the theme of ‘practice/s’. My co-panellists were Randolph Head of Riverside, California, talking about registers and registries in Innsbruck’s multiple chancelleries, and Megan K Williams of Groningen on the role of the dramatic growth of the paper industry in making possible, even in causing, the development of (particularly residential) diplomacy and the increasing bureaucracy of the early modern world. I’ve always considered myself to have a very material eye when it comes to historical sources, but will now pay more attention to the procuring of paper, all too often taken for granted.

This related to one of Markus’ opening points, about taking the archives for granted, in a plea that historians pay more attention to the archive as historical object itself. Another of his points that I found interesting, and perhaps challenging, is his argument that archival history needs to go beyond the evident subject areas of their role in knowledge production and administration: studying early modern archives and archiving can take us to other areas too, including economic and social history, where we find theft, forgery, avenues for social mobility, and much more.

As well as cataloguing and the technology of the codex, Randy also spoke about a proto research network and project in development. This was at a workshop/dinner on his ‘Global archivalities’ project later that evening; he’s in the process of forming a scholarly group of interested archival historians, encompassing but going beyond Europe, in order to recover the methods of keeping and organising in societies globally.

Going neither beyond England nor beyond administration and knowledge production, but in my humble view a useful topic nonetheless, my paper explored the practice of archiving political and diplomatic papers in the government of late Elizabethan England. I returned to particular manuscripts that appeared in my doctoral work – manuscripts that suggest the organisation and indexing of collections of early modern state papers, of letters – though here in the context of ‘practices’, and, my own pet interests at the moment, the internet and networks.

The term ‘practice’ suggests to me two main things: firstly the relationship of reality to theory, of activity to ideal – this is where ‘practice’ is set up as the physical instantiation of or opposing force to ‘theory’. It is what actually happens. Secondly, practice is habituated behaviour, where activity becomes ingrained by repetition to become systematised; individual activity becomes the system. It is the way things happen, the norm. My paper was about both of these things. It concerned the theory and action of early modern archival preservation, during a time when the sheer volume of letters and treatises received by the Elizabethan governing elite caused the formation of a system. The repeated practice of receiving, keeping and re-using letters itself created the system that held it.

Archiving is a necessary and even inherent aspect of what you could call an information age: it allows you to keep things by allowing you to let go of them; it allows the individual to forget without losing the knowledge. Today, people use the term ‘information age’ regarding the internet and this is sometimes seen as comparable to the printing press in the early modern period; however, I wouldn’t relate the ‘information age’ to print alone – it is also due to the growth in the humble letter, whether within the ‘Republic of letters’ or concerning the diversification of state apparatus and increase in travel (whether for leisure, trade, exploration, diplomacy).

Like the invention of writing itself, archives and libraries are a particular step in the evolution of a society; they permit the further expansion of knowledge by taking the immediate ownership of it out of the hands of the individual. By introducing a middle stage, a holding area, whether that is the codex, the catalogue or the computer, the individual (and importantly, perhaps any individual) can reach far further than their hand or mind could otherwise stretch.

But – to make use of these holding stages you need two things: you need to be able to access them and you need to be able to navigate them. The ideas of searchability and accessibility, and their relationship to meaning, value and use, are highly pertinent at the moment. Less than thirty years after Tim Berners-Lee christened the World Wide Web, we know we’re in an information age and we’re in the process of working out ways to cope with it. One new way could be the idea of ‘distant reading’ (as opposed to ‘close reading’) in the humanities: it’s a way of using technology to find out what something says without having to read it; it’s about determining what’s relevant.

Adam Crymble talks about Big Data and Old History in the 2 minute thesis, from PhD Comics

Without at least some of these navigation methods, our jobs as historians and scholars, even as readers, would be very different and very difficult. Equally, without a way to keep, process and refer to the many letters the Elizabethan elite was sent, they would have no political afterlife: they would be read once and then forgotten. Instead, they are kept. Even this first action is telling. Then, they are endorsed, and often they are either collected in a bundle or even in a book. As anyone who has studied Elizabethan (or any other I should think) government will know, this makes for a lot of information, a lot of paper.

The practice I saw being developed was in the keeping, in the archiving, that because of sheer mass grew into habitual behaviour: it was the norm to keep everything. I also saw attempts at organising and indexing this paper world (or worlds); manuscript lists that pointed to codification (in the literal sense), alphabetical bundles and browsable indices. But, if this kind of new behaviour (the navigating, the helpful, overt organising) was so useful, allowing access and turning amorphous mass into user-friendly resource, why did I not find more of it?

As much as I love the manuscripts that I found, mainly for showing me exactly what I wanted to see, part of the this excitement was because I did not find it everywhere – it was not common. What was common was ream after ream of endorsed but otherwise apparently unnavigable Elizabethan letters. It took me long enough to find something I wanted, with the addition of British Library catalogues and free-text searches, lord knows how such masses could be used otherwise, and the question then presents itself of why they bothered keeping it all? Indexing and organising was growing practice perhaps, but it wasn’t the norm – I suppose my wondering now is why it was growing but not grown.

The ultimate example of control and hierarchies of knowledge.

The ultimate example of control and hierarchies of knowledge…

I think there are two explanations as to why there wasn’t more of this overt organising. The third sly point is that there was some, but its traces aren’t always easy to see. Otherwise, I think one reason is cost – of time and money. The other reason is perhaps located in the very advantage it offers. Perhaps such papers weren’t easy to navigate because they didn’t want to make them accessible. If the collection is otherwise owned, controlled and navigated by only one or a few individuals, unlocking it may be the last thing they want to do. Keeping the key, the knowledge, in their heads, they are an integral part of the archive themselves: why would they welcome replacement or relinquish control?

As Bill Sherman says, writing about the library of celebrated polymath John Dee: ‘the apparent disorder and inaccessibility of the library were quite possibly part of its design, since they served to make the librarian indispensable for unlocking its secrets and bringing it to life’. If you can’t navigate something – if you’re not initiated – even if you are permitted to, in reality you do not have access.

Theoretical access is only the first step. The next is enabling by the sharing of ownership, a releasing of the chains; the reverse of which is the obfuscation of knowledge, and the mystification of education.

Part two to come, when I have that third thing that permits work, thought and knowledge: time.


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Networks, case studies and the big picture: some reflections

Re-blogging (?) of a piece I wrote for the News Networks in Early Modern Europe project.

Early Modern News Networks

Following on from our successful conference last month, News Networks is busy once again, this time in producing a two-volume edition that aims to re-evaluate the history of news in Europe. The aim of the project overall could be summarised as forging its own network in order to link and so affect scholars working in the field, discussing shared problems and different methods in order to come up with genuinely new approaches and cast light on the old.

One of the minor difficulties involved in writing about the News network project has been the proliferation of the word network. We’re a scholarly network looking at early modern news networks, with some using the ideas of network theory and some the technology of network analysis to make sense of them. This is not just a stylistic coincidence, and it’s provoked me to reflect a little on the importance of the term…

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Early modern handwriting

Early modern handwriting

Snippets and links from a conference by Oxford’s Centre for Early Modern Studies (CEMS), on 25 April 2013. What follows is a collection of thoughts and tweets from the conference, to gather them together and preserve them as an interesting summary of the day, and as a resource.

  1. Panel 1 – Problems

  2. Jonathan Gibson on early modern handwriting, theory and practice. He spoke about writing manuals by Palatino and the revolutionary Cresci, and how you can sometimes detect their influence on the page. Could such identification assist in dating a piece?
  3. Interesting start by Jonathan Gibson on influence of writing manuals. Angular v rounded italic styles #emwriting
  4. Gibson – use handwriting manuals as a sort of ‘control’ for hand analysis #emwriting
  5. Carlo M Bajetta on Elizabeth I’s scribes, suggesting that when we’re thinking about handwriting analysis, we look at more than just individual characters – could digital projects take in ‘mise en page’ too? Could such wider factors be automated?
  6. Carlo bajetta – look at the mis en page, grids and image analysis rather than comparing vast quantities of text. #emwriting #dh
  7. Bajetta – we should move from ocr to more textured analysis in digital attempts at hand id #emwriting
  8. One question that cropped up was whether hand-writing manuals created or reflected practice. Gibson suggested it was fair to say that they – and the jobbing writing masters that went with them – helped to create practice in England at least. Maybe it was different for Italy, though.

    One ‘problem’ question that came up was: what was the significance of writing in different hands? ‘Problem’ because it was uncertain whether there was any significance in it at all, that it must surely remain conjecture and therefore perhaps unhelpful, and because no-one was able to answer it!
    Guillaume Coatalen did, however, suggest that there were typical changes depending on the language one was writing in – and that Italian was often similar to Latin, and English often not dissimilar to French. Perhaps this could be connected to writing manuals again…
  9. Panel 2 – Solutions

  10. You can see the inimitable Tom Davis’ paper on forensic hand-writing analysis (and a trove of other fascinating stuff) at the link below. His paper was great for questioning the typical humanities response of not explaining how one learns to identify hands – it’s the secretive skill of the expert – by discussing his background in forensic handwriting analysis. If you have to defend your identification to a jury, you need to be sure ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ and show your workings.
  11. Steve May offered a paper that would be a ‘test case’ of Davis’ type of handwriting identification, with some tips about making it difficult for ourselves rather than falling for the too-quick identification that may be erroneous: search for contrary examples, go for the unusual not the generic similarities. And remember: professional scribes and your average writer didn’t always write in the same hand – a different style doesn’t mean it’s not them.
  12. Steve May – hand analysis is a craft not a science. Be impartial. #emwriting
  13. Lots of great resources and #dh techie ideas from Julia Craig-McFeely – will blog soon… #emwriting
  14. And following on from that tweet, here are some of the resources mentioned:
  15. One for music:
  16. And one for art:
  17. Round Table

  18. Discussion chaired by Gabriel Heaton of Sotheby’s, with Peter Beal, William Poole, Heather Wolfe and Henry Woudhuysen. Some thoughts that occurred during the discussion:
  19. Key q – how far do scribes (un)consciously copy traits in the original? #emwriting
  20. Big common theme today – advantage of collaboration and open data #emwriting
  21. Interesting point by Will Poole on looking to our precursors – what did C16/17th historians and record keepers ask? #emwriting
  22. Gabriel Heaton taking us through mss – not sure this works well as practical exercise – conc is handwriting alone is not enough! #emwriting
  23. What is our motivation for looking at handwriting? Authorial id, or whole new cultural history of scribal practice and writing? Both pls!
  24. Open Project Planning Meeting

  25. Giles Bergel took us through some of his ideas of where to go next, and asked for more… This remains an open question – if you have a thought to add, please comment!
  26. Open question at the end of the day – where do ppl want to go next in dh palaeography projects? What should we focus on? #emwriting
  27. Some of the suggestions offered:

    – A shared Zotero bibliography on early modern handwriting.
    – A wiki to pool knowledge and settle on some shared definitions for this topic.
    – create a monitored and self-correcting collection of identified hands – a wiki dictionary of identified writers or scribes…


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News and the Shape of Europe, 1500-1750

This is a re-blogged conference announcement from the two-year Leverhulme project ‘News Networks in Early Modern Europe’

(aka me/my employer – my project profile can be found here: http://newscom.english.qmul.ac.uk/staff/networkfacilitatorprofilepage.html)

Early Modern News Networks

Conference at Queen Mary, University of London, 26-28th July 2013

Registration open: http://newscom.english.qmul.ac.uk/events/items/83801.html

Join us this July for the final event in the News Networks calendar: a three-day symposium on ‘News and the Shape of Europe, 1500-1750’.  This major news history event will feature 40 speakers from across Europe and the Americas, and will contribute to a new pan-European history of news, which has been the driving force behind and ultimate aim of the Leverhulme international network, News Networks in Early Modern Europe.

How did news cross Europe, and how did news make Europe? News in early modern Europe was a distinctively transnational phenomenon; its topics were international in scope; the forms and terminologies of news, as well as the news itself, crossed national boundaries; practices of news-gathering relied on networks of international agents; it was widely translated; it travelled along commercial routes, or through postal networks that were…

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The problem with the history of news?

Early modern news networks: workshop in Venice.

A couple of weeks ago, I went to a fascinating workshop on early modern news networks. If you’re wondering what ‘news networks’ actually means, or you’re interested in news history and are annoyed you weren’t there, read on and I’ll try to give a sense of (in this post) one of the discussions that filled the three days.[1]

The workshop was part of the Leverhulme Trust-funded project ‘News Networks in Early Modern Europe’, which has brought together five leading scholars from around Europe, and many other guests and associates, in order to re-think the history of news. The project will result in co-authored volumes of essays, and is culminating in a 3-day symposium in London in July.

I’m actually going to start in the middle, with the final paper of the second day, because this paper goes some way to explaining the larger project; why it’s needed and what it’s trying to achieve. Professor Joad Raymond delivered this one, entitled: ‘News Networks: putting the ‘news’ and the ‘networks’ back in’ – so you can see why it’s a good place to start.

What the Victorians did to us[2]

Taking a British (or rather English/Welsh) perspective, Professor Raymond first discussed how we got to where we got to where we are, historiographically, by taking us through the legacy left to us by Victorian historians. He suggested that ever since, this narrative has only ever been expanded on and added to in terms of detail; the shape of it hasn’t really been questioned, let alone rewritten. It is this rewriting of the whole narrative that Joad wanted to spur us to think about.

He qualified this with the recognition that some of the Victorian ideas of newspaper history not only still stand but remain significant and valuable. Further, he stressed that of course much important and influential work has been done to add to and affect the development of this narrative of the history of news; it’s just that he sees this as still being held within the grand Victorian narrative.
He listed some of these key influences (though you’ll have to forgive the imperfection of memory):

  • great bibliographic resources that have supported the historiography. He was primarily referring to the Wing STC, which makes life so much easier for British historians.
  • Roger Chartier, and theories of books and texts
  • microeconomics
  • the history of reading, as a field. Here he was thinking about the analysis of material marks, and attention to demography and literacy rates, replacing the assumption of an implied reader.
  • the growth in interdisciplinary research. Thinking about history, bibliography, politics, literature, sociology, manuscript studies, the linguistic turn, social history and orality, anthropology, even maths…

The point is that despite all this great work and new influence, we still haven’t moved past the Victorian legacy. A big part of the blinkered-ness of the current picture is that it is at its core nationalistic – and this problem is not confined to the British perspective, rather it is persistent in the writing of the history of news everywhere. The perseverance of ‘residual national interests’ is something that the News Networks in Early Modern Europe project explicitly works to overcome. National interest and national focus are often so deeply rooted that they silently constrain the rewriting of this history; a pan-European perspective could change this.

But, he offered, how do you know when you need a whole new narrative? And, if the grand nation-based story is replaced with an appreciation of the many details of different histories, can you ever form an encompassing narrative: or put another way, how many case studies make a big picture?

Network Theory

Those were two big questions. For now, however, Joad was going to spend an hour or two shaking the Victorian narrative up with a little maths and IT from the 21st century. My maths AS-level reared up in my memory, ready to screw its brow and try to remember that graphs and equations are not the enemy. This was Network Theory.[3]

Kevin Bacon - centre of the universe

Kevin Bacon – centre of the universe

Networks have become rather fashionable in history and early modern studies of late. And as with any sexy new idea, there have been variations in what it is understood to mean, accusations of misuse, and accusations that it’s just another fancy word for something we essentially did before. In this context, as well as being a way to describe a connected bunch of people, the term network also has more complex theoretical and mathematical meanings, and this is what Joad wanted to recognise in his paper.

Network theory can show us when a group of connections is not random, as it might first appear, but actually is organised. Nodes, points in the network, have connections, or edges, and if a node has many connections it is a hub, i.e. a key point through which many others are connected (the Kevin Bacon of the network theory world). When a small number of nodes in a network have many of the connections, and a large number have very few, the pattern displayed is something called a ‘power law’. This is that all important sign of self-organisation, rather than randomness; and guess what – early modern news networks would seem to present this pattern.

Power Law distribution

Power Law distribution

So, the implication is that early modern news networks are self-organising. A key aspect of this is the importance of hubs in the networks of postal routes: places like the economic and mercantile centre of Antwerp, a city connected to so many others by virtue of this status. Hubs, being helpful connectors, make the world smaller: connectivity is the thing that means that letters can travel more quickly, even to the extent that the connections in the postal network(s) can be more important than geographical distance in determining how fast a letter could travel from A to B. Mapping the routes by which a letter could travel across early modern Europe, and the connections between all these places, can give us fresh insight into the history of news: it can identify hubs, and can respond to and reflect the changes in the relationships between different cities and countries.

This way of viewing Europe, as a series of interconnected points in a network, can be useful, but one could question how far people on the ground actually abided by the logic of the network that they’re part of; by its nature they can’t see the whole structure and so may not perceive the most direct route. It would appear, however, that skilled and experienced individuals (as the writers of newsletters were) often did seem to navigate the network with impressive ability and knowledge.

Joad suggested that network theory can defamiliarise our evidence, so we can look at the world anew: we can finally see the wood for the trees.

This was an important gain in the context of his earlier comments. He questioned the approach that he saw much recent research undertaking, that is, a case studies approach, asking what we needed to do with the case studies we had in order to create the bigger picture. Can they be joined up, or compared, or used as representative of something beyond themselves: at the end of the day, will they add up to what we want them to?

In the question time afterward, the case study was defended: Professor Carmen Espejo commented that one should see the approach as microhistory rather than ‘case study’, and that the aim was to find symptoms rather than singularities. Discussion moved to what modern technology could offer, with Professor Paul Arblaster commenting on the potential that large data sets present – historians and large archival projects often have the data; what we need to do is utilise the technology in order to reveal the patterns.

A collaborative sketch of European news networks from a previous meeting – perhaps man and machine together is the way forward!

I don’t have the space here to report all the responses, but invite you to add your own thoughts in the comments section. I think there’s a risk sometimes of the assumption being made too readily that a computerised element can be added to a historical project, that number-crunching is straight-forward or that programming or data analysis just happens. I wonder also whether complicated network analysis, with its time-consuming IT requirements, wouldn’t end up confirming what we as historians and scholars have already determined: isn’t the human element – our ability to assimilate large amounts of data and identify patterns and networks – always going to be better than machine? Saying that, there’s no denying the huge promise of this kind of approach, and personally I think it has an important role and could refresh the larger picture, providing that we don’t see the digital as panacea.

Does network theory offer a way to find a new and encompassing narrative to explain the history of news? I don’t know, but the subject sparked a lot of debate, with champions and sceptics, and that space of debate seemed an excellent place to start.

In the next blog post, I will return to the beginning, and cover some of the papers delivered by other members of the group, ranging from censorship to privileges, manuscript versus print, and Roman cardinals who like a good party.


[1] My post doesn’t aim to be exhaustive, so to see an excellent recap of the day you can check out the official blog of the project, here. Instead of giving a run down of everything, I’m going to pick out one paper in this post, and discuss a few of the others a little more briefly in the next.

[2] If you’re thinking this is a catchy title, you’re right – but I should point out that it isn’t mine: it’s taken from a panel title from CELL’s Permissive Archive conference in November 2012 (see my previous posts), and was thought up by the talented Helen Graham-Matheson (@helenjgm). Thanks, Helen!

[3] Important disclaimer! I’m far from an expert on network theory, so these are my musings rising from scribbled notes during Joad’s paper; any errors are most likely mine, from misunderstanding, misremembering, or misreading aforementioned scribbles.


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Running a conference and learning by doing

This blog post, as promised, is about some of the practical, behind the scenes details of the Permissive Archive conference, which was run by the graduate students of the Centre for Editing Lives and Letters in November 2012. It doesn’t promise to show the only or even the best way of doing things, but aims to give a snippet view of the good, the bad and the ugly, as we experienced it.

As with a lot of things in early career academia, part of the impetus behind organising this conference was our desire to learn how to do it, quite apart from its intellectual content. Running a successful conference is a concrete skill, and though you can get advice, you only really learn by doing.

The learning process shouldn’t be forgotten in this; these things don’t just appear by magic, and I think that (especially considering recent changes in the UK university system) we need to shout more about these valuable marketable skills that are part of research careers and PhDs.

Anyone who thinks that PhDs and researchers grow grey-haired writing in isolation about obscurity is just plain wrong.

I learned a huge amount by being involved in this process. The intellectual content of the day was extremely high and, I think, valuable and original. But as well as this, I learned a lot about teamwork, project management and, yes, myself: though this may sound like buzzword waffle, I really do mean it. Forget your team building days and leadership courses; if you want to develop yourself, get stuck into a big project, and learn by doing it, don’t wait for someone to teach you.

Planning

Home-made cakes: a conference must-have

Home-made cakes: a CELL conference must-have

Although I said in the previous post that we spent a year planning this, it was actually a year from its inception, with a varied amount of work required at certain intervals (sending the call for papers, choosing speakers etc), and most of the work was done in the final couple of months.

We were quite a large organising team, and the size had both its strengths and weaknesses. It meant that there were enough of us to stage-manage the day well, meaning we were able to pay attention to the details, and that some of us could listen to (and deliver!) papers whilst others tidied, shepherded and arranged food and coffee. If you were a smaller group, I’d recommend begging some friends/colleagues/students to help the day flow well. You never know which bit is going to go wrong (something will).[1]

The down side of this is that inevitably some organisers will see more of the day than others, which is not fair but probably necessary, since if proceedings are going to be published, there should be an attentive listener in each session. We could have done better at making this fairer, as it meant that some people integral to its success missed out on the intellectual content of the day, kind of like this.

Being a large team, we would have benefitted from taking strong roles earlier on – though we did adopt a more systematic way of doing things, from clarifying roles to minuting meetings, it would’ve saved time to do this from the start.

My amazing colleagues worked so well and in such an organised fashion on the day – the team had a dry-run earlier in the week and had a list of tasks and designated responsibilities both before and on the day – ensuring that all in all everything ran very smoothly!

Style:

Now this is where I think CELL and its grad students really come into their own. I headed this section ‘style’ because that’s what I think a conference needs, in its detail and in its attitude, and that’s what I think can easily be missing from a lot of academic conferences. To think that attention to the stylish detail takes something away from the academic substance of the event is, in my humble opinion, completely wrong. Let’s have our cakes, decorate them, and eat them.

Beforehand – mainly we have Kirsty Rolfe to thank for this one. Our resident cartoonist-meets-academic, Kirsty drew us an amazing visual version of our call for papers.

Kirsty_schedule

Excerpt from Permissive Archive schedule

On the day – Again, Kirsty drew us simply the best conference schedule, to go on doors and in people’s conference packs. And a little bit of merchandise is not a bad thing – we had good quality conference folders printed, little CELL badges made, and branded cloth bags so that delegates could tote their notes in style. And in case anyone forgot a pen for jotting notes, questions and contacts, we dropped one in each bag. These things cost much less than you might imagine, and are (on the whole) practical and useful as well as fun.

CELL only works as a scholarly group because students want to study with us and people come to us with research projects and opportunities. Self-promotion here is about making a small but vital research centre survive, and I reckon with things like the delegate bag we promoted our name and something of our personality.

There were also fresh-cut flowers on the panel tables, home-made cakes for afternoon tea (far cheaper than professional catering), and pastries with the morning coffee for those who arrived early.

Digital Humanities:

I was keen to promote the online presence of the conference, especially considering the vitality and number of early modern scholars and ‘twitterstorians’ on twitter and in the blogosphere. We made sure that our hashtag #permissivearchive was on the conference schedule, and set up a guest account for wireless internet access at the university. Since I was giving a paper, I included the hashtag with my personal details on my powerpoint presentation.

I was overwhelmed by the online buzz about the conference, and the real digital conversations it sparked: all told we had several hundred tweets on and around the day.

Here’s a link to a ‘topsy’ page with the tweets recorded (but this won’t last). And here’s a link to some stats data about the tweeting (I love this stuff). I may blog in more detail about this aspect of the conference. TOP TIP: aggregate your tweets early, soon after the conference, as twitter searches only go back 10 days. Use Snapbird to search further back, Topsy to export data, and Storify to collect everything together into one visual record of the event.

That’s going to have to be all for now, as it’s my first day back after Christmas and I’ve got a list as long as my arm of things to do. Do comment on the blog if you think I’ve forgotten something important. Once more, none of the above would have been possible without the support of our department, the incredible organising committee, our brilliant speakers and chairs and our attentive delegates. Thanks all, and a Happy New Year to everyone!


[1] Special mention goes to those who literally ran to a shop to buy vegan lunches, as we’d been let down by our caterers – as well as being a bit short on the quantity of food, they didn’t supply the vegan food we’d ordered…


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The Permissive Archive – a review

In November 2012, the graduate students of the Centre for Editing Lives and Letters put on a one-day conference to mark CELL’s ten year anniversary. ‘The Permissive Archive’ was the result of a year of planning, 24 speakers in four parallel panels, one keynote lecture by Lisa Jardine, and the most wonderful set of organisers, colleagues and delegates you could hope for.

This post was going to say a little bit about what the conference was about, and a little about what I learned from the process, but this ended up being, well, on the long side. So, here’s a bit about the intellectual content of the day, and IOU one blog post on the practicalities!

What is a Permissive Archive, anyway?

We were intentionally open-minded about what the enigmatic ‘permissive archive’ might mean. Bar limiting the period focus of the conference from 1500-1800, we left it to our speakers and delegates to explore what they thought the archive permitted, forbade, complicated and provoked. How does information reach us, what is preserved and what is lost, and how does this affect the questions we ask and the answers we find? We wanted to take a new look at the ‘archival turn’, at the intersection between archivists, historians and literary scholars, and at the history – and future – of archives. Ambitious? Probably. But what was covered in an expansive and open way on the day can hopefully slim down into something more directed in any future publication (watch this space on that one).

The papers

The audience wait expectantly for the first panel.

The audience wait expectantly for the first panel.

Being one of the organisers, I wasn’t able to attend all the panels, but the papers I did see impressed the socks off me. I was also presenting at the conference, alongside two fascinating papers that together made up the first panel, on the ‘original context’ of the early modern archive.

In brief, my paper was on the ‘afterlife’ of letters – that is, in the diplomatic arena particularly, what happens to letters after their initial sending and reception, and how do they become the sources of ‘History’ with a capital ‘H’? Do aspiring diplomats write with this use in mind? Who kept and preserved daily diplomatic letters, and why? I argued that such letters could become the substance of government, used not just as an epistle to convey information, but in their immediate ‘afterlife’ preserved and re-formatted to become political resources in their own right.

Christopher Burlinson discusses early modern filing.

Christopher Burlinson discusses early modern filing.

This fit well with my co-panellist Christopher Burlinson’s paper on early modern filing, examined alongside Spencer’s The Faerie Queene. One really interesting point (among many made) was that filing and archiving can be ways of allowing one to forget as well as allowing one to remember – a really fascinating tension that I need to think more about. Our third member was Markus Friedrich, who explored the difficulties and possibilities of accessing archives in early modern Europe. We heard stories of the wining, dining and bribing of individuals in order that scholars could get their hands on materials, suggesting that the archive’s power dynamics lay less with princely display and politics, and more with local and social barriers to be navigated.

Parallel to my panel was a group of speakers on the future rather than the past of the archive – the ubiquitous but potentially ill-defined ‘digital humanities’. Unsurprisingly for a panel of tech savvy folk, you can find much of their material online already. Take a look at Samuli Kaislaniemi’s paper here, and his postscript that cheered in its conclusion that the audience were already reasonably au fait with the risks and complexities of the digital medium. Perhaps we’re now getting used to both the advantageous access and problematic filtering and misrepresentations of digital sources. If you weren’t there, you can find notes and slides from Paige Morgan’s talk on her Visible Prices project here.

The issue of how old and new methods of access affect our work was reprised in Helen Graham-Matheson’s paper on the under-studied counselloresse Elizabeth Parr[1]. Where the nineteenth century Calendars of State Papers excised this influential woman almost completely from history, the State Papers Online’s mass digitisation of original documents has allowed Helen to recover her story.

Amanda Vickery chairs the panel on 'What the Victorians did to us'.

Amanda Vickery chairs the panel on ‘What the Victorians did to us’.

This aptly named panel, ‘What the Victorians did to us’, was also made up of Eleanor Collins’ brilliant paper on the mediated nature of the Caroline Revels accounts, and Pete Mitchell’s inimitable presentation on the India Office records, the remaking of Colonial history and a particularly well illustrated kind of Victorian antiquarian pride.

Eleanor’s discussion of lost and manipulated originals tapped into something that threaded through the whole day – that we do not need to treat the problematic archive with pessimism or with reverence, but with a careful use that maps and explores what’s both there and not there.

This was seen in panel 5, which explored the relationship of the life of the individual to the life of ‘their’ archive. Noah Moxham took us through the biography of Robert Hooke and the Royal Society, challenging us to think about the overlap between the individual and the institution, and asking what leads to the preservation of a collection. Kelsey Jackson Williams, on John Aubrey, reminded us how donating a collection is a projection of the self, but one that is always fragmentary and incomplete.

Sarah Broadhurst shows us Isaac Rand's name inked onto the book edge.

Sarah Broadhurst shows us Isaac Rand’s name inked onto the book edge.

Towards the end of the day, this idea was revisited in a very physical form by Sarah Broadhurst’s deeply provenance-focused survey of the books in the Chelsea Physic Garden. Here we had the archivist’s approach, materially tracing the inscriptions of names down the sides of bookcases and books, as well as touching on networks of knowledge and friendship amongst such luminaries as Hans Sloane and John Ray. I only wish that I had some more images to put up here, both from this paper, and especially from Arlene Leis’ paper on a collection of eighteenth century visiting cards and from Anna Marie Roos’ wealth of Lister ephemera from earlier in the day.

The last paper was delivered by Ian Cooper, and discussed the finding of the Seymour of Berry Pomeroy manuscripts which reveal the role of Plymouth during the Armada years; a paper by Ian on a similar theme, published by James Daybell and Andrew Gordon in a special edition of the open source journal Lives and Letters can be found here.

The day was rounded off in excellent style by a stimulating lecture by Professor Lisa Jardine, which doubled as the keynote lecture and the launch of the impressive Annotated Books Online project. If you didn’t manage to catch her then, I strongly recommend going to her inaugural lecture at UCL on 15th January next year, titled ‘Temptation in the Archives’.

There were, of course, more excellent papers that I’ve not room to mention – otherwise this would be an article rather than a blog post. This is no reflection on the papers themselves, and if you were there I’d love it if you wanted to share your thoughts in the comments section below – especially on the half of the day that I didn’t see.

Once more, a massive thank you to my colleagues for organising, the chairs for presiding expertly over the panels, and all the speakers for their hard work. In my humble opinion, you’re all awesome.

The Permissive Archive organisers were: James Everest, Helen Graham-Matheson, Daisy Hildyard, Nydia Pineda, Kirsty Rolfe, Will Tosh, Elizabeth Williamson, Clare Whitehead.


[1] The term ‘counselloresse’ was found by Helen in a letter describing these kinds of powerful women around Elizabeth I’s privy chamber. I know Helen would love to hear from you if you’ve encountered its use elsewhere.


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The end of the beginning

Yesterday, I had a conversation with a friend of mine about where I am now, post-phd, pre-job, early career, whatever you want to call it. Post-phd can be a difficult time: you’ve spent the last few years on a single project, embedded in a community of like-minded people who just by their presence give what you’re doing real worth, and then, suddenly, you’re cut adrift, having to make huge decisions about where you want to go next. What makes that worse is that any decision you make is 100% dependent on someone else; I may decide what career I want to go into, but it is someone else who will give me the job (or not!).

I’m also moving away from my department, which makes the cut feel sharper. However, as my friend pointed out, I’m really lucky in that once you are part of CELL, or the Centre for Editing Lives and Letters, you are always part of it. I think this is the real measure of a community; if they continue to embrace you after any ‘official’ connection has ended.

My life is following two streams at the moment: I am trying to get a job out in the real world, and I am continuing my association with CELL. The great thing about both doing the PhD and being an active member of an academic community is that it’s given me so many useful skills that range far beyond knowledge of sixteenth century politics; if an application form wants evidence of project management, team work and communication skills, a PhD provides it.

A concrete manifestation of this is the upcoming conference that myself and my CELL/QM colleagues are organising. I’ve mentioned this already in a previous post, but now – excitingly – the day’s schedule is settled, so I thought I would post it here too. If you want to come, please do – just register at http://permissivearchive.wordpress.com/registration/.

So it’s the end of the beginning of my career, and I can’t wait for the meat of the next step, wherever that ends up being. I also feel that the end of the beginning is an appropriate tag for the Permissive Archive conference itself. The title was chosen because we wanted people to think about what archival research permits, what archives make happen and what they limit. It was a question – what is the permissive archive? For a truly inspired visual representation of this question, see the excellent ‘Avoiding the Bears‘ blog by Kirsty Rolfe. I think that plenty of historians and literary scholars understand the point of archival research, and web 2.0/the digital humanities etc have increased access to primary sources hugely. But what’s the next step? What are we taking for granted and how does the way we access our sources and the archive affect our research? How does it affect the questions we ask and the narratives we write? Where do we go from here?

The Permissive Archive

*A CELL/Queen Mary initiative, to be held at UCL, 9th November*

DAY SCHEDULE

8.30-9.15 – Registration, coffee and pastries

9.15-9.25 – Welcome and introductions

9.30-11.00 – Session 1

Panel 1. The Original Context: the Early Modern Archive

a)      ‘The Early Modern Archive and the After-Life of Letters’ – Elizabeth Williamson (Centre for Editing Lives and Letters)

b)      ‘The File and the Early Modern Letter’ – Christopher Burlinson (Jesus College, Cambridge)

c)       ‘Permissive Archives, Secret Archives: Producing Early Modern Historiography Between Courts, the Republic of Letters, and the Repositories of Writing’ – Markus Friedrich (Goethe-Universität, Frankfurt am Main)

Chair: William Sherman (University of York)

Panel 2. The Digital Archive: Practice and Problems

a)      ‘“Liable to much fallacy”: Order and Disorders in an Eighteenth-Century Medical Archive’ – Jennifer Bann (University of Glasgow)

a)      ‘Visible Prices: Archiving the Intersection of Literature and Economics’ – Paige Morgan (University of Washington)

b)      ‘The Permissive Digital Archive’ – Samuli Kaislaniemi (University of Helsinki)

Chair: Jenni Thomas (Rothschild Archives)

11-11.25 – Coffees and teas

11.30-1.00 – Session 2

Panel 3. The Later Context: What the Victorians Did To Us

a)      ‘Cutting and Pasting in the Archive: the Caroline Revels Accounts’ – Eleanor Collins (Independent Scholar)

b)      ‘“To bring Antiquities, smothered and buried in dark silence, to light”: the Hakluyt Society, the India Office Records, and the Remaking of Colonial History’ – Pete Mitchell (Queen Mary, University of London)

c)       ‘Trapped in the Archives, Freed by a Camera: The Role of Digitization in Understanding Early Modern Women in Politics’ – Helen Graham-Matheson (Centre for Editing Lives and Letters)

Chair: Amanda Vickery (Queen Mary, University of London)

Panel 4. Listening to the Archive: Reconstructing Voices

a)      ‘Voices in the Archives: Socio-Stylistic Approaches to Sixteenth-Century Confessional Manuscripts’: Mel Evans (University of Birmingham)

b)      ‘The Letters of the Knyvett Sisters’: Gillian Weir (University of Glasgow)

c)       ‘Permitting an Intellectual Biography: the Archive of Robert Baillie (1602-1662)’: Alex Campbell (Trinity Hall, Cambridge)

Chair: Nadine Akkerman (Leiden University)

1-1.55 – Lunch

2-3.30 – Session 3

Panel 5. The Personal Archive: Shaping an Identity

a)      ‘The Archive as Mask: Looking Behind John Aubrey’s Donations to the Ashmolean Museum, 1692-1695’ – Kelsey Jackson Williams (Balliol College, Oxford)

b)      ‘A Discovery of Lister Ephemera’ – Anna Marie Roos (University of Oxford)

c)       ‘Writing Lives out of Registers and Registers out of Lives: ‘The Life of Dr Robert Hooke’ and the Royal Society Archive’ – Noah Moxham (University of East Anglia)

Chair: Ruth Ahnert (Queen Mary, University of London)

Panel 6. Writing in the Marginalized: Gardeners, Widows and Common Soldiers

a)      ‘’’The Garden Books’; un-covering the gardens of Arbury Hall, Nuneaton, in Warwickshire from 1689 to 1703’ – Sally O’Halloran (University of Sheffield)

b)      ‘Widows at Law: Searching for ‘Sole Female Plaintiffs’ in The National Archives’ – Katy Mair (The National Archives)

c)       ‘Narratives of Old-Regime Common Soldiers – A Tip of an Iceberg’ – Ilya Berkovich (Peterhouse, Cambridge)

Chair: Hannah Crawforth (King’s College, London)

3.30-4.10 – Afternoon tea

4.15-5.45 – Session 4

Panel 7. Read All About It: Manuscript and Print

a)      ‘Joseph Mead and the ‘Battle of the Starlings”’ – Kirsty Rolfe (Queen Mary, University of London)

b)      ‘The Unsought Privacy of Zachary Boyd’s Dramatic Poems’ – Peter Auger (Merton College, Oxford)

c)       ‘Vellutello’s Petrarch and Tottel’s Wyatt: From MS to Print and Back’ – William Rossiter (Liverpool Hope University)

Chair: Joad Raymond (Queen Mary, University of London)

Panel 8. The Archive in Motion: Fugitive, Networked, and Reassembled Collections

a)      ‘Rethinking an Eighteenth- Century Archive: ‘Miss Bank’s Truly Interesting Collection of Visiting Cards and Co.’’

– Arlene Leis (University of York)

b)      ‘“Out of old bookes in good faith cometh al this new science that men lere”: Locating Provenance and Networks of Learning in the Books of the Chelsea Physic Garden, pre-1740’ – Sarah Broadhurst (Centre for Editing Lives and Letters)

c)       ‘An Exciting Rediscovery in Wiltshire: the Seymour of Berry Pomeroy Manuscripts’ – Ian Cooper (Plymouth University)

Chair: Alan Stewart (Columbia University, New York)

6-7.30 – Keynote lecture

Professor Lisa Jardine (University College, London)

A place at this lecture is automatic for those registered and attending the conference. Those not registered are strongly advised to contact thepermissivearchive@gmail.com to book a place.

7.30-9 – Reception

9-late – Knees-up


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Freelance research and the sixteenth century CV

This blog has been the oft-ignored ugly sister to my ADD PhD, the latter always clamouring for more and more attention, and probably pulling the blog’s hair when it thought no-one was looking. Being busy with writing up said PhD, and teaching, and working on projects to make ends meet, was an unarguably excellent excuse for not writing more blog posts.

However, as I confessed in the last post over two months ago, I’ve now finished my PhD. And as you can see from the sub-clause, finishing it hasn’t led directly on to a whole lot of free time.

So, what happened? Like with any all-consuming project, I think you make a deal with yourself that in exchange for ridiculous working hours and vein-popping stress levels, once the project is over you will have free time and instant bliss. And like any promise you bribe yourself with, it never quite works out like that.

The bottom line is, I’ve finished my PhD, and whilst that’s brilliant, I’m now unemployed, and I find myself at the bottom of another mountain to climb. It can take a little while to get your head around that, whilst simultaneously dealing with the real-world demands of paying rent and feeding oneself.

That’s what I’ve been doing since finishing: meeting real-world demands and scoping a route up the mountain.

I’ve been lucky enough to get a bit of freelance work to help with both of these (researching the plague in early C17th London for an American academic – you’ll have to wait for his next book for that, though). That, thankfully, was straightforward paid work; it’s the other time-consuming occupation that I want to talk about today, the route planning and ground-laying for the next step in the academic career – planning that isn’t paid but that amounts to very real work and takes a heck of a lot of time.

To get an academic job, I’m going to have to publish an article or two, and maybe try to publish my thesis as a book, which will absorb a huge amount of work and time, but will not be (in the first instance) remunerated. I will have to keep giving papers at conferences, and review books, to keep my foot in the door and my face recognised. In the academic world, as far as I know, none of these activities are paid, but are rather expected aspects of your full-time, well-supported university post. If you have one.

At my level, the idea is that all this work will be for deferred favour, for an increased chance of a job in the future. And – because this is another mental side effect from doing a PhD – this made me think of one of my thesis chapters.

If you were of a reasonable background in the sixteenth century, an educated gentleman, say, then you might be looking at the church or the law for your livelihood. One possibility would be to get noticed by a patron, and move into politics and crown service. If you were really skilled and really lucky, this might open further opportunities and sinecures. One way of getting noticed was to travel abroad under the encouragement and approval of a patron (not least to get your passport for you), and to send them news and intelligence of foreign lands. In a pre-multimedia, even pre-newspaper, world, the access granted by travel and the skills of researching and writing were valuable, and could land you a job in the Elizabethan polity: to scale that mountain you needed both a patron, and to demonstrate your skills.

Demonstrating your skills and pitching for favour could be done in the form of transmitting regular news, and by writing reports and topographical accounts of the host court and country; like the Venetian relazioni (diplomatic reports), but without the diplomatic salary. Travel and information gathering by the gentleman and nobleman essentially acted as both training for the next generation of political figures, and as an ad hoc intelligence service for the crown, and the best thing was, the crown rarely paid for it.

The problem, for the aspirant at least, was needing to secure patronage in the first instance – they would need to move in circles where they could build such contacts – and of course needing to support oneself whilst essentially working for free, or for unreliable or irregular returns.

Your young gentleman abroad was either supported by well-off kin, or commissioned by a patron, like the earl of Essex supporting Francis Davison in his travels in Europe. If the ‘commission’ was encouragement and instruction, but no money – i.e. deferred favour – then the traveller would be at risk of slipping from information gatherer to intelligencer-for-hire, from gentleman abroad to prison spy. If there was no encouragement and no money, then movement, whether physical or social, was impossible. Elizabethan society was far from meritocratic, but there was sometimes space for accession if one had the right contacts, experience, brains, and luck.

I am certainly not saying that we’re in the same state now – in fact, I just got some freelance work from asking around on twitter (the ultimate example of a move from patronage and closed elites to widened access and opportunity). However, working for free – building and displaying your experience – is still expected if you want to enter certain careers, and no more so than in straitened times. There’s no shortage of recent news stories highlighting the unfairness and social disparity in requiring incomers to an ever increasing number of careers to work for free; you need that well-off kin or patron. Internships and doing unpaid work to benefit your CV is all very well if a) you have support from elsewhere, and b) there’s actually a job at the end of it. I’ll keep you posted.