Tag Archives: Roy Dilley

Session 4: Making the Archive Last: Storing and Retrieving your Sources

20 November 2015
St Andrews: Buchanan Building (room 306), Union Street
Dr Sarah Easterby-Smith

Our fourth session on storing and retrieving archival material, led by Sarah Easterby-Smith from the School of History, suitably tied in with the practical advice given by Julia Prest, Guy Rowlands and Roy Dilley during our first session on planning trips to French archives. Besides reviewing how best to organise our archival records when returning home from these trips, we also looked at broader discussions—both past and present—of how to store and organise information.

The early modern archive

Michel Foucault’s 1966 book Les mots et les choses: Une archéologie des sciences humaines served as a springboard for a discussion on the different épistémès or systems of understanding according to which people have organised knowledge throughout history. The prototypical repository for knowledge in the Renaissance (c. 1450-c. 1650) is the Wunderkammer or Cabinet of Curiosities in which information was stored on the basis of symbolic ‘resemblances’ (see image 1 and header image). Items were ordered so as to reflect the divine order of the universe.

38041800063257 Double page illustration from Museum Wormianum..; by Ole Worm (1588 - 1654); published by Lugduni Batavorum : Apud Iohannem Elsevirium; Dutch (Leiden); 1655.

Image 1: Frontispiece of Museum Wormianum … by Ole Worm, published by Lugduni Batavorum: Apud Iohannem Elsevirium, Leiden (1655). © National Art Library, London

According to Foucault, the ‘classical’ period (c. 1650-c. 1800) marked a shift towards language as the primary grid of all things, inasmuch as verbal signs came to represent and hence order thought. The museum vitrine or glass cabinet typically illustrates this shift, as it allowed the viewer to observe things from a distance, detached from the world they originated from, and neatly arranged on the basis of similarity or genus (see image 2). The ‘modern’ age (from the 1800s onwards) finally witnessed a reflexive approach to knowledge. Language was no longer privileged, but widely regarded as a historical construct. In other words, language became an object of study (i.e. epistemology) itself.

Cabinet de Bonnier de la Mosson (1744), Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle, Paris

Image 2: Panorama of the eighteenth-century Cabinet de Bonnier de la Mosson at the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris.

Sarah pointed out that public archives are products of the 1790s. The French Revolution introduced a way of thinking that regarded historical consciousness as the basis of national unity. Before that time, archives primarily served administrative and personal needs and were thus mainly owned by private individuals, governmental organisations or businesses such as insurance companies. The modern archive served a different function, namely diffusing the historical consciousness of a nation among a wide public.

Roy Dilley from the Department of Social Anthropology suggested during our first session that it often proves useful to retrace the history of archival collections: why did precisely these records end up in this particular archive? As is well known, inventories of European archives usually favoured a white and male dominated history, thus leaving out marginalised groups of people and other controversial matters. Reflecting on how and why archival material has been compiled may prompt us to re-evaluate certain episodes in history.

Archiving in the twenty-first century

The remaining part of our session focussed on modern tools and ways of archiving historical material. Recurring themes concerned the accessibility, ordering and sustainability of our personal archives. We agreed that Zotero and iPhoto are particularly useful in organising and storing sources. Zotero is a free and open-source reference management software that allows you to easily manage bibliographic data as well as related research material, such as PDF files and personal notes (see image 3). It offers the added possibility to share data with others. iPhoto enables you to organise photos by adding descriptions and tags, which makes it easier to search for particular documents.

Interface Zotero

Image 3: Zotero’s user interface.

Sarah revealed that she always keeps hard copies of her most important documents, such as transcriptions of manuscripts. We agreed that digital repositories like Dropbox and Google Drive offer essential, cloud-based backup storage, but we also raised concerns about their long-terms sustainability. Project management applications such as EverNote and Scribenote can greatly assist with organising research, but can become unwieldy because they take up a large amount of space on computers and other devices.

Crucial for managing your sources effectively, is thinking how best to order them. Personal notes can be structured by using Zotero (you can create text fields for each bibliographic reference) or MindManager (a software application for the creation of mind maps). Depending on the focus and scope of your research, you might want to use an alphabetical (e.g. using a person’s surname) or chronological order (e.g. using the chronology of particular historical events or the time period during which you’ve worked on a research project). If you plan to reuse the collected material, it might be helpful to refer to archives and collections instead. By all means, don’t have too many ordering systems at the same time!

A question that has entertained people for centuries is how best to preserve knowledge. We found that most twenty-first century technologies are in fact rather poorly equipped to store information. This seems counter-intuitive at first sight. New areas of study, notably the digital humanities, put much effort into the digital preservation of a wide variety of sources, both analogue and digital. At the same time, it becomes increasingly difficult to keep track of the growing number of languages used to programme digital archives. And what to think of such widespread communication tools as e-mail and social media? When taking into account their ephemeral nature (most people will store only their most important messages), it may seem that the physical, strong paper of the early modern period is more capable of standing the test of time.

Reading tips:

Derrida, Jacques. Mal d’archive: Une impression freudienne (Paris: Éditions Galilée, 1995).

Foucault, Michel, Les mots et les choses: Une archéologie des sciences humaines (Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 1966).

Steedman, Carolyn. Dust: The Archive and Cultural History (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2001).


Written by Bram van Leuveren

Session 1: Visiting and Plundering French Archives

9 October 2015, 2-4pm
St Andrews: Buchanan Building (room 306), Union Street
Dr Julia Prest, Prof Guy Rowlands and Prof Roy Dilley

Our first session—entitled ‘Visiting and Plundering French Archives—was devoted to the practicalities of doing archival research in France and French-speaking countries (especially Senegal). An interdisciplinary team of experts in the field, drawn from the School of Modern Languages (Julia Prest), the School of History (Guy Rowlands) and the Department of Social Anthropology (Roy Dilley), gave a detailed introduction to the ‘best practices’ of planning, undertaking and making the most out of your time at the archive.

Julia set out to explain that archival research should only be carried out when you really need to. A thorough reading of the secondary literature should precede any visit to an archive and prevent you from delving into historical material that has already been exhaustively discussed, digitized and/or transcribed. Moreover, having a clear understanding of what you’re looking for helps you to conduct your research at the archive as effectively and pragmatically as possible. Depending on how much time you have, you may find it useful to search for collections rather than separate items, as you might find something that you don’t know yet. By all means, don’t go to the archive too soon, but also don’t go too late.

Guy noted that it’s important to plan ahead, not in the least because there is often a maximum to the number of items you can order. Also, don’t forget to carefully read the rules for handling archival material (laptops almost never constitute a problem; pens are often strictly forbidden). Inventories of French archives regularly give only a bare outline of their sources. In this case, you should ask the président de salle (a qualified archivist) to help you finding a more detailed inventory. S/he is often glad to answer your questions. The people who hand out the material to you are the magasiniers. Please treat them respectfully (as some other readers not always do!); they might be more likely to speed up the process for you.

Guy and Julia then shared several anecdotes about the eccentricities of some of the archivists and magasiniers they met during their archival trips in France, especially in the province—ranging from refused entry because of ‘inappropriate’ clothing to difficulties with requesting a photocopy of a four-page fold-out image. Although amusing in retrospect, they might confront you with unpleasant surprises. Make friends with the people that work at the archive! They are also well-plugged into the French university system, which comes in handy.

Julia continued to demonstrate how to search for sources on the website of the Archives nationales d’outre mer (Anom) in Aix-en-Provence, using her current research topic, theatre in Saint-Domingue, the French Caribbean colony that became Haiti in 1804, as an example. See image 1 and 2. This proved to be particularly difficult, as the archive uses twenty different classification systems—not uncommon for French archives, especially in the province. So, don’t be afraid to ask if you can’t find your way in the catalogue! Guy suggested that the sometimes confusing cataloguing standards and slow wifi at archives resulted, in part, from France’s relatively late connection to the World Wide Web.

Recherches, Archives nationales d'outre-mer
Image 1: IREL, the online research tool of the Archives nationales d’outre-mer.

Instrument de recherche, Par territoire, Archives nationales d'outre-mer
Image 2:
Searching ‘par territoire’, using the archive’s ‘instruments de recherche’.

In his excursion on working in French-language archives in Senegal (the Institut fondamental d’Afrique Noire and the Archives Nationales du Sénégal), Roy made the useful observation that archives are often moulded by institutions and individuals, especially in the case of ‘colonial archives’. In other words, they are not ‘natural’ or ‘neutral’ repositories of knowledge. Their inventories and overall organisation are informed by political decisions and institutional constraints, which frequently involves practices of ‘exclusion’. Hence, it’s important to ask yourself not only what but also for what reason particular historical sources are available in an archive.

We ended the session by fiddling around on the websites of several French archives.

Our next session on October 23 will focus on ‘The French Book World in the Renaissance’ (Graeme Kemp and Shanti Graheli, School of History).

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