archive iniquities

In an archive that shall remain unnamed, I have recently encountered iniquities. Many, many of them — O it is an archive corpulent with iniquity — and I shall inflict four of these iniquities upon you, so that historians among you may know how good you probably have it in pretty much any other archive, and non-historians among you may know not to become historians, at least in certain regional specialisms. And that you may also know what soul-disfiguring things have been occupying me these past weeks.

Iniquity #1: Dress code

I registered at the archive with the usual administrative fussing. Before being allowed to enter, I was told that the smart grey office skirt I was wearing, which came down to the middle of my knees, was indecent. I was then presented with a woven wrap-skirt that tied high on my waist and came down to below my ankles, and asked, with impeccable politeness, to change into it.

Iniquity #2: Photography

You cannot take photographs in the archive. You may only order hundreds and hundreds of photocopies. In this day and age of digital progress, environmental consciousness and archive fires, this is really unacceptable.

Iniquity #3: Declassification

Pretty much anything interesting is “secret” or “classified” — even if it could already have been declassified because it is 30, 50 or even 70 years old. This arises mostly from lack of initiative, and an admittedly reasonable fear of Official Secrets Acts. Furthermore, if a box of, let us say, Lord Tennyson’s Papers (LTP) contains a single letter classified as “secret”, the whole box cannot be ordered.

Iniquity #4: Document (Dis)ordering

This is the most iniquitous of the iniquities — so iniquitous that it has sub-iniquities. You see, the archive has an online ordering system. This is a great improvement, I’m told, from five years ago, but it has proven thus far to be magnificently retarded — though, ingeniously perverse.

Iniquity #4 (a): Firstly, documents within any file are given an electronic ID according to when they were acquired by the archive (say, 2006-00003 – the third file acquired in 2006). This means that while the electronic ID corresponds in no way to the file or institution that produced the document, it is nonetheless the only way to identify an individual file on the ordering system. You cannot search for a file in the way, say, you would cite it: for example, you could not search for LTP 6/5/300.

Iniquity #4 (b): In fact, the search function allows you to search in three singularly unhelpful ways. You can perform the electronic ID search — if you could know it in advance. You could search for a keyword, but this search does not handle boolean queries, and treats all search terms as an exact string. For example, if you searched for “lord tennyson king arthur” you would not get any results, even if there may be a file called “Lord Tennyson: The Legend of King Arthur”. You can search for the source, or the institution from which any given set of documents were issued; so you could search for “Lord Tennyson Papers”. This is useful, perhaps most useful. But you cannot refine that search; you couldn’t then search for “king arthur” within the Lord Tennyson Papers. You can’t even search within a date range. Instead, you must go through pages and pages of Lord Tennyson Papers results to find the documents you want.

Iniquity #4 (c): The clincher is this: you can only order up to a maximum of ten documents at a time. This would be fine if “document” meant any sensibly organized box or folder into which similar documents were filed, e.g. LTP Box 1. It does not. For much of the archive, it means document in its most perversely precise sense: one item within such a folder or box. This means that in order to view Lord Tennyson’s papers, and not knowing its contents in advance, you must order ten random and unhelpfully titled documents, and wait an hour or more. You might then receive a deeply important letter he wrote to his mother detailing his thoughts on a first draft of the legend of King Arthur. Or you might receive a note he wrote to book a room at a hotel. There is no way to order a box from Lord Tennyson’s Papers helpfully categorized as “Letters, 1850-1860”, so that you can browse and quickly discard the obviously irrelevant. No. Under this perverse system, you must order, and wait for, each and every irrelevant item in order to discover that it is, in fact, so.

Iniquity #4 (d): Also, the system does not allow you to queue requests, in order that you might request 20 or 30 items, and have the request automatically go through once you return one of your allowed ten items. No. You can only have ten items on order at any time. At times I’ve collected my ten documents at the counter, and returned seven of them before even getting back to the table, because they were completely useless. The archive staff must then scan them back into the system to return them. Sometimes they fail to do so for over half an hour. This is truly awful. For only when they have scanned them back in can I order the next seven, and until they do so, I may have returned all my documents, but will still be unable to order any new ones. And finally, ordering the next batch takes more browsing and more searching on the retarded online order system, for apart from being unable to refine searches, it can also not save them.

O the iniquities! I weep, and grind and gnash my teeth, but the archive is so frustratingly full of interesting things, & so day after day, in these final days of my year abroad (a year that has vanished like dust in a thunderstorm) I continue to plod morosely, resentfully back. (I have also been packing, booking tickets, meeting people, and staging the long overdue resurrection of my beloved website).

What, I wonder, does it take to run a competent archive? one that facilitates, rather than obstructs, research? My best model so far is the beautifully run Public Records Office in Kew Gardens, London; but I have not used so very many archives in my short & fledgling career, and I wonder to what extent the PRO has spoiled me. I’m told Russian archives are notorious, but I do not suppose I shall ever know them.


10 responses to “archive iniquities

  • Jonathan Jarrett

    Your reference to the Official Secrets Act presumably means this is in the UK! In which case I find the dress code the most jaw-droppingly incomprehensible. The rest could be sufficiently explained by incompetence, but someone had to deliberately decide on the dress code. Not that this makes the incompetence any easier to bear, I realise.

    Also, you are the first person I have ever heard praise the PRO. It must have got a great deal better since I had to use it, long ago.

  • Buster

    Agreed that the British National Archives–I’m leading the charge to stop old historians from this whole “It will always be PRO/Madras/Leningrad” business–is the easiest place to get research done. Only close runner-up was working with the Labadie Collection at U Michigan, where they have a camera mount and lamp set up at the desk for you.

    The Russian archives do, however, completely outdo these stories with their wonderful mixture of completely arbitrary rules and arbitrary enforcement of them. My favorite moment was when the archive specialist corrected me on the pronunciation of my own name, which had been erroneously transliterated on my ID. It seemed to perfectly sum up the bizarre way some of the workers abandoned reason for adherence to the written rules.

    Another great Moscow moment was discovering that an entire collection (87 linear feet) was misfiled. I ordered a few items and noticed that I was getting stuff from a different collection. Archivist’s solution, serenely delivered, “Nu, order the same boxes using the collection number from the collection that you are getting, and see if you get the collection that you want.” Of course.

  • Simon

    “In this day and age of digital progress, environmental consciousness and archive fires, this is really unacceptable.”

    I love how taken in the context of the entire post, this reads as a veiled threat 😉

  • Michael

    “magnificently retarded — though, ingeniously perverse”

    hahahahaha ><

  • Robin

    This DOES sound like a deeply iniquitous situation, and therefore no laughter or even smiling is allowed whatsoever.


    But if was WAS allowed one might crack a tiny smile (before being reprimanded by the librarian) at this:

    “This is the most iniquitous of the iniquities — so iniquitous that it has sub-iniquities.”

  • Rachel

    I remain 100% silent on where this archive this is or isn’t — all speculation welcome 🙂

    @Buster: The Russian archives do sound spectacular & in a class of their own — I have to say, reading your very amusing & droll comment, I came to a sudden small epiphany about Bulgakov.

    An idea: I want to see a big centralized archive review website — a kind of one-stop wiki-lowdown to all major archives in the world, as experienced firsthand by researchers. I feel like, done right, it could do a lot to up the standards — comparisons, online naming and shaming, & all that.

    For what it’s worth, @Jonathan, the PRO has been utterly excellent for me ever since I first began using it in 2007 — perhaps you should make another trip back!

  • Jonathan Jarrett

    If it had anything very much related to what I now work on, I would; I love walking along the Thames round there.

    There are various horror stories with Spanish archives (out of which I now work) but so far I’ve not met them; the only problem is that so far only one out of, er, the five I’ve used, can answer e-mails to let you know whether such and such a document is available. Of the ones that don’t, one has a web service but I still fear turning up and being turned away because my shoes are dirty or something, or finding out this is one of the national holidays they shut for which isn’t mentioned on the website…

  • Belle

    Oh, the woe! Once upon a time, I was trying to search the BN at Paris, searching for dissertations/these d’etat and happened upon not one system but four that come semi-close to the archives you describe above. None were cross-referenced by any other system.
    1 – filed by the university from which the student graduated (period d-f)
    2 – filed by the professor with whom the student worked (period a-c)
    3 – filed by the name of the dissertation (period f-v) – not the topic, but the precise name
    4 – filed by student/author name (period w-z)

    it was painful.

  • Rachel

    while on the topic of iniquitous/perverse/arbitrary/painfully-French archive categories, this seems a good time to dig up that old Foucault-Borges card:

    “This book first arose out of a passage in Borges, out of the laughter that shattered, as I read the passage, all the familiar landmarks of my thought—our thought that bears the stamp of our age and our geography—breaking up all the ordered surfaces and all the planes with which we are accustomed to tame the wild profusion of existing things, and continuing long afterwards to disturb and threaten with collapse our age-old distinction between the Same and the Other. This passage quotes a ‘certain Chinese encyclopaedia’ in which it is written that ‘animals are divided into: (a) belonging to the Emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) suckling pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies’.”

    –Michel Foucault, The Order of Things

  • Chris

    On iniquity #2: there are archives that allow photography but charge you to use your own camera at a rate per image more expensive than they’d charge if they made photocopies for you. We’ve been spoiled by the PRO; I’ll agree.

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