Research in the archives: Considering a key historical practice in the pandemic world

One of the most important experiences in the process of historical research is archival work. Working in the archives can be painstaking and cumbersome work, sometimes bordering on the endless. It is not difficult to become bogged down by the enormity of the experience and the sheer vastness of available resources. In these instances, it is important to take a step back and take in all of what the archives have to offer.

Let’s take a step back. Picture Rome and its tourist-filled restaurants. Picture the age-old cobblestone paths and bustling piazzas. These sites date back centuries—older parts, millennia. It is among the oldest continually inhabited places in continental Europe, an ancient city of rich and storied history.

As much as Rome proper is worth discussion, for sake of arguments, let’s look south.

South of the bustling, center of Rome is a quieter city district called EUR, acronymized from Esposizione Universale Roma, originally intended for the 1942 World’s Fair that would never take place. EUR is a district marked with several fascist-era landmarks as well as contemporary architecture markedly different from that of the older, tighter, storied, and romantic districts of Rome to its north.

This Roman district, founded on fascist ideals and architecture, still thrives today and remains a site of international interest. On the corner of the Via Cristoforo Colombo, the main thoroughfare of the district, and the Viale Europa sits the convention center that served as the site of 2021’s G20 Rome Summit.

Turning left on the Viale Europa from the Via Cristoforo Colombo, one becomes immediately aware that the road hits a dead end. An imposing complex grows ever closer as the road nears its end. That complex is the Archivio Centrale dello Stato, or the Central Archives of the State (ACS), a commanding edifice that stands out even among the many landmarks of EUR. It is, of course, a site of paramount importance to scholars of Italian history far and wide.

During the first week of November 2021, I found myself on the Via Cristoforo Colombo for the first time, on my way to the ACS on a research visit in service to my master’s dissertation at the London School of Economics. It was just days after the end of the 2021 G20; the conference center on the corner of the Via Cristoforo Colombo and the Viale Europa was still clad in G20 advertisement. I was behind the wheel of a Toyota CH-R, somewhat hobbled by a bout of tendonitis in my foot brought on by an exhausting weekend at an academic retreat at Cumberland Lodge. It was not my first trip to an archive, but with it being my first time in Rome I had very little off which to base my expectations. What I encountered there was very much beyond any expectations.

Don’t get me wrong, the ACS is a complicated place. In more recent years, the archive has moved toward online tracking systems and attempted to reign in what appears to have been a rather unruly and disorganized collection. To some extent it remains so, with some documents randomly scattered in the wrong collections or missing altogether (probably scattered in more obscure collections). As imperfect as the ACS is, though, researching there is a one-of-a-kind experience.

The ACS was the first large-scale archive I’d ever visited. I had perused smaller and virtual archives previously, self-contained collections whose size limited the possibility of becoming unruly and disorganized (by archival standards). To sit with ACS documents was sobering, exhilarating, and fear-inducing all at the same time. It is easy to get lost in the perusing and scanning of such documents and, indeed, I did find myself lost in the text frequently. Moreover, working constantly in a KN95 mask provided its own difficulties. Conducting such research in the pandemic era is challenging and makes an already exhausting process seem even more so.

In times such as these, I found it necessary to maintain a sense of perspective. No matter how much time is spent in the archives, it is important to keep in mind that one will never leave the archives with the documents they expect to find. Working in the archives is a dynamic rather than a static process; one will find documents they are looking for, and even helpful documents they did not intend to find. Keeping an open mind about such documents can and will serve as inspiration for future research projects. It is also likely some documents will never be found, no matter how hard one tries—understanding this provides a sorely needed sense of peace in the tumultuous flood of papers.

It is also important to maintain a sense of appreciation for the effort that goes into collecting and maintaining archival collections. Archivists go to great lengths to ensure that the vast majority of documents remain where they are supposed to be while also ensuring that they are not subject to degradation in their day-to-day storage and use by sometimes careless patrons. To expect an archive to be 100% complete or 100% accurate would be beyond unrealistic, and researchers can be further at peace recognizing this and acknowledging the painstaking and mostly behind-the-scenes work of their archivists.

Working in the archives in the pandemic era is a sometimes more difficult analog of archives in regular times, and even then archives can be difficult beasts to reckon with. Keeping an open mind while in such spaces is paramount, as is the importance of taking breaks and time outside of the structures themselves to reflect on the documents that have already been unearthed.

It is most definitely counterintuitive to believe and expect archives to hold all the answers before arrival, and such thoughts represent a great recipe for disappointment and frustration. In the pandemic era, as with before, it is especially important to keep a level head and a sense of perspective about the work one does and the work that goes into making it possible.

After all, Rome wasn’t built in a day.

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