Archival Love

The last time that I was in an archive was at the Archives of Ontario on York University campus in December of 2019.  The GMM Project had received a grant from Concordia University’s Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies in Society and Culture that let me travel up to T.O. and walk away with about 4,300 photographs and PDF pages of nineteenth-century material on the Provincial Lunatic Asylum and Rockwood.  It was a very good trip.

Obviously, I had no idea that, eighteen months later, I would be remembering that last archival time so keenly.  I have been very lucky in the number of amazing places I have been able to visit for my research, both as a PhD candidate and, later, a tenured academic.

While much of Canada seems to be somewhat (maybe?) ‘back to normal’ with vaccine passports in place in most provinces (and open borders again between Montreal and Toronto), I still am not sure when I will be next in an actual archive – and I really miss them.  Research travel is still fairly haphazard, especially now that the academic term has begun and no one really knows when/if another COVID wave might arrive.

So, as a bit of Canadian Thanksgiving Weekend-filler, I thought I would make a completely-subjective-and-not-at-all-scientific list of what I love most about archival research.  Let’s begin… 

  • The smell.  You know what I mean!  It’s that lingering scent that surrounds you when you go into a library with stacks that have withstood the test of time, or long card catalogues and filing cabinets with cue cards or microfilm or 1980s-era binders with finding aids.  It’s not musty, because then everyone would be sneezing.  It’s not too dry (unless you’re in a specific temperature-controlled reading room like at Kew).  It’s the academic equivalent of freshly-mown grass or twilight chimney smoke when the leaves are turning red.  It’s joy.

  • Depending on where you are, the food.  I mourn the old cafeteria at PRONI before it moved to the Titanic Quarter in Belfast.  Back when it was on Balmoral Avenue – complete with the crazy guard house and barbed wire – the tea and scones in the cafeteria (read: portable/trailer) were so restorative.  The new PRONI – and I will always refer to it as ‘the new PRONI’ even though it’s been there for over ten years – was very state-of-the-art and shiny and the cafeteria was inside the same building, so you didn’t have to run through the rain to get there, and yet…. It’s very nice, but it’s not the same.

  • The little victories.  For example, the day that I realized microfilm could be downloaded as PDF pages instead of me needing to balance a laptop somewhere between my knees and a corner of a desk holding the microfilm reader (especially back when they weighted A LOT) while turning my head at an odd angle to read a particularly old newspaper.  The British Newspaper Archive is an absolute treasure-trove, but the old Colindale site – and, more specifically, their microfilm reading area – was so, so painful.  My wrists have never quite recovered.  But at the Archives of Ontario, everything was suddenly connected to a computer and memory sticks/USB drives/whatever-they’re-called could be used and it was WONDERFUL!  And that is the difference between archival work in 2006 versus 2016.  Bliss.

  • The unexpected discoveries, like when someone from the 1830s has actually written out exactly what you needed someone to say in order to justify your entire hypothesis about memories of the 1798 Rising.  James Buchanan, I would hug you…or maybe just smile vigorously from further away.  But I also miss the crazy and fun things that I’ve stumbled across, like discovering a very unexpected love affair between an unexpected romantic and his cousin’s supposedly-beyond-reproach wife, or realizing that the superintendent of an asylum was not only a grave-robber, but also randomly treated Napoleon on St. Helena before arriving in North America.  Archival surprises can give you fodder for a thousand cocktail parties, should we ever be able to have relaxed large gatherings again.

  • Time.  Time is so slippery in an archive.  Maybe it’s a bit like IKEA or Las Vegas – there often are no windows or easy-to-find clocks, so you have no concept of the passage of time (and perhaps also a bizarre desire to buy spoons you don’t need or play a machine that you know will be a loser, but the pictures of safari animals are just so cool).  An entire day at an archive often gives such a positive glow of accomplishment, even if you know there are still many boxes to tackle the next morning.

  • Touching actual history.  This is maybe what I miss the most: opening a file or box of papers (with gloves on, obviously!), and slowly laying them out to see what’s there.  It’s a detective story, searching for clues and secrets, piecing together the past with actual bits of paper so that, eventually, a story reveals itself.  I know I’m not alone in feeling that the writing process is often like trying to uncover words that are already there – I just need to keep searching for them, like a paleontologist slowly brushing away the dirt from a skeleton.  At some point, you’ll realize if it’s only a single bone or an entire dinosaur, but the rush of actually doing the discovery yourself, with your own hands, is something that digitization just doesn’t quite deliver to the same degree.  I find archival research to be very similar: not quite sure what I’m going to find, or knowing that I’m looking for a particular fragment, and then the excitement when things I never expected to see start to appear.  It might be awkward in the moment, but ever so satisfying in the end.

So here’s to the day when the archives are really open again, and we can float through their columns of desks or stacks of material or happily saunter up to the circulation desk to see what’s happened to an order made earlier that morning.  It might be independent, quiet work, but it’s also the social backbone to our field.  And I miss it, very much.

~ JMcG

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