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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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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.