Early Modern Post

Archives, practices and paper: thoughts from Munich

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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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One thought on “Archives, practices and paper: thoughts from Munich

  1. Interesting stuff! (Still gutted I missed the filing panel at Permissive Archives..) Two thoughts re contemporary organization and filing: catalogues and indexes are only useful as long as they reflect the order the papers are in. So I’d assume outdated lists of documents get discarded. (And I say this even though I’ve come across a number of surviving examples). And the other is about compiler’s fatigue – how lists start off beautifully (both in terms of clarity of handwriting and amount of information given) but then degrade into incomplete scribbles. Here’s an example of that in a letter-book of Sir Charles Cornwallis’s letters. (The same phenomenon is also evident as dictionary-makers’ fatigue: letters A-G often represented in much more detail than T-Z.) Which I guess is in some ways a reflection of what you say about cost: creating and updating lists and indexes takes time and effort, and the results can be easily disturbed with the simple addition of a single item that belongs in the middle rather than at the end of the list/bundle/book.

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