Cities, records, archives

I’ve often toyed with the idea of becoming an archivist as a career. In fact, I almost applied to the dual history MA/Masters in Library and Information Science at the University of Maryland in 2019, but I had a change of heart when I visited UMD’s campus and found it absolutely awful. It was perhaps the most unattractive university campus I’ve ever visited.

But this is not a polemic against the otherwise great institution of Maryland’s premier public university—this is my reflection on working in the archives.

I grew up in an archive, of sorts. My mom was the ceramics and glass curator in the National Museum of American History for all of my childhood, and I used to spend many hours (during summer vacation, many days) every week in the museum. I frequently played with 200-year-old marbles, toured collections filled with pottery and artwork from late-19th-century Louisiana, and frequently wandered among the museum’s document archives.

When I was 18, I did my high school “senior project” in the form of a one-month internship on the team designing the forthcoming “American Enterprise” exhibit at the museum. For that, I spent the majority of my time in photo collections, patent libraries, and advertisement archives in the museum. My job during this month was to design a scale model of a typical Nebraskan wheat and corn farm from the 1920s, featuring period-correct patents and design on everything from windmills to agricultural machinery (this model, and other labels I helped write, are now on display in the museum!). I learned a great deal about the evolution of the combine harvester during that month.

But I am not a student of cultural or material history, and while these experiences did show me the magic of historical collections, they also left me with some mixed feelings. The archive can feel like—and frequently, is—a cold, stuffy, and antisocial space. It’s amazing to me that a place that contains so many historical voices, recorded on so many different media, feels so lonely and deprived of community and interaction—like being alone in a megalopolis.

It doesn’t have to be exactly like that. The archive particularly feels like a lonely place if it doesn’t contain work that really moves you as a historian. American cultural and material history may not be my cup of tea, but many other types of history are: modern political and diplomatic, medieval European monastic, or borderlands history certainly all are. As an undergraduate student in Chicago, my classes frequently did field days to the UChicago special collections and the archives of the Newberry Library; seeing an original copy of Abraham Ortelius’s Teatrum Orbis Terrarum rolled out of its archival wrappings in the Newberry remains one of my most excited moments ever as a student.

Later on, as a graduate student, I spent a great deal more time in the archives. I collected photos in the Columbia Rare Books and Manuscripts library for this book on Australian novelist Shirley Hazzard. I also collected and processed letters and other documents in the same RBML for a follow-up [forthcoming] to this article on the advent of social security in early-20th-century America.

For my own MA/MSc thesis on German merchants in London in the late 16th century, I spent two days in the London Metropolitan Archives and one day in the UK National Archives at Kew, handling original letters, bills of sale, and court proceedings from the 16th-18th centuries. However, as my friend and colleague Zach illustrated in his piece this week, the researcher often does not find the documents they seek within the archive. Unfortunately for me, I found literally no documents of use to my project during these visits (the documents I did use ended up being from digital collections).

But what stands out in my memory of these experiences is not the failures (in London) or even the successes (in Columbia’s RBML); what stands out is the physicality of the archival journey, as Zach also argued.

Nearly every day for two months during the summer of 2021, I would wake up and take the 2 train or walk from my apartment to Columbia’s campus, settle in to the 6th-floor archival reading room in Butler library, and sift through hundreds of documents or photographs for many hours. Despite my ancillary role on both projects for which I did research in that library, I found myself growing deeply attached to the ‘main characters’—of the stories—both of which took place in part in Manhattan—that played out in front of me as I was reviewing materials. I felt real joy seeing the NYC addresses to which 1920s social security crusader Abraham Epstein sent thousands of letters, outlining his work in and movement across the city. Likewise, I found myself empathically projecting myself into novelist Shirley Hazzard’s shoes while looking at photos of her and her husband in Bryant Park or the Upper East Side. I loved these stories: because I traveled to the archive in person every day, because I often sat in Riverside or Central Park, because I went to Lower Manhattan every weekend, these stories came alive. The same is true for my own research in London, albeit with much less time spent in-archive there.

These stories, and millions more of their kind, can’t come alive if you as the historian don’t live them. Being a historian is not about reading or modeling history after yourself, it’s about entering into a genuine conversation with past voices and, in a sense, modeling your own life after those of your main characters in order to understand them. History is not a science, and it does not contain within it any universal models or philosophies; history is dialogue and community. If you don’t put your human self in the same (or in some sense similar) position of discomfort and awe and stimulation that your ‘heroes’ and ‘villains’ felt, then you can’t really feel the humanity of the story you’re telling, and your work won’t add much value to the world. Traveling to the archive—its city or town or countryside place and being there—is the most readily available method by which we as historians can ‘speak’ with those whose stories we seek to tell, and let them speak to us.

On learning history – Aidan’s introduction

Hello! My name is Aidan. In 2022, I graduated from the MA/MSC program in international history at Columbia University and the London School of Economics, where I focused on medieval northern European commercial history and, very unrelatedly, British and American diplomacy and empire in East Asia in the early 20th century. I really just threw everything at the wall, and those are what stuck. I also studied history at the University of Chicago, where I wrote my bachelor’s thesis on British and Japanese isolationism in the 19th century. Anyway, this isn’t really supposed to be a cover letter, but where I’ve gone to school and the people I’ve met continue to be really important to me.

When I was 8 or 9, I remember showing Fire Emblem (a medieval fantasy tactics game) on my Nintendo Game Boy Advance to my grandmother, who studied medieval history at Barnard College in the 1950s. This is one of my first memories of caring about world history (to the extent that a medieval fantasy video game can be considered ‘world history’), or being aware that others around me cared about it. Ironically, I continued to have a mixed relationship with the field all the way through the end of high school. I got my worst AP exam grade in history (a 3) and got a lot of Cs and Bs on history exams generally. I did do well on research papers—in my American studies class, I wrote one research paper on taverns as political organizing points in pre-independence America, and another on barbed wire as the commodity that brought an end to the American West as the FJT “frontier” space.

But really, what always had me coming back to this field was video games and fantasy books, and I think this is quite appropriate. There is no ‘objective’ view of history, because there are as many voices and perspectives and narratives of history as there have been people. So, the study of history really isn’t so different from books and video games: it involves heroes and villains (any good academic adviser will ask you who these are in your thesis), world-building, subjective extrapolation, and a colorful imagination.

I fell in love with the academic study of history at Chicago. I took classes across nearly every historical field I could find, from the Carolingian Renaissance to the Islamicate ‘gunpowder empires’ of early modern Asia, from 19th-century European diplomacy and empire to the evolution of Greek identity over the past 3,000 years, to Japanese science and foreign learning in the 18th century, and the list goes on.

During this time, I also started playing the early modern history video game Europa Universalis IV. I ended up writing about this game for my personal statement to my graduate program, and then I wrote about it for a paper at Columbia, and now I’m giving a conference presentation on it at Virginia Tech in spring 2023.

I’m not precisely sure where I want to take my work next. My stock answer, when people ask, is that I’d like to continue studying early 20th century British and American diplomacy in East Asia. Something particularly about the period of 1894-1914 sticks with me. It’s such an absurd global twilight zone, right before the apocalypse of the 20th century, that I keep going back to.

As time goes on, I’m also becoming more interested in post-WWII Japanese and American history. I currently work as a reporter at the Japanese daily paper The Asahi Shimbun, which is a sort of stepping stone/window for me into that mid-late 20th-century world–a world so close to me and still so evident today and yet, because I was born in 1995, still infinitely far away.

My goal on Project Edinburgh is to continue exploring, and bringing humanism into history. Thanks for following along, and see you around.

Project proposal: Rehumanizing history

This proposal/abstract was submitted for the 2023 Global History Conference at the Weltmuseum in Vienna, Austria

“Scientification.” “Objectivity.” These words miraculously distill many of the most pervasive flaws of global history-telling. Historians are taught that we pursue the absolute truth of grand, civilizational narratives. This can be seen in innocuous cases like Twitter accounts that highlight common misconceptions about history, such as that medieval people didn’t bathe. But it emerges most prominently, and dangerously in magisterial works of academic global historiography as well. Annales school champion Marc Bloch, in his The Historian’s Craft, entreated historians to practice more like scientists; 60 years later, Jürgen Osterhammel tried to reduce almost to an encyclopedic science the profound diversity of 19th -century humanity in his The Transformation of the World. Historians operate under the fallacious pretense of
objectivity to the detriment society—one need only look to McNeill’s The Rise of the West to see teleology and western exceptionalism disguised as ‘objectivity.’

What these historians fail to understand is that history contains as many truths as it does people. The craft of academic history must evolve to address rather than obfuscate this multiplicity. After a review of examples of global history-telling across the spectrum, this paper will argue that subjectivity should be centered in historiography—whether the historian sets out to write a history of a martyred woman mystic in the hills of 16 th-century Kham, or a history of the diplomacy of the late-Victorian Foreign Office.


The challenge is supremely difficult: academic rigor and honesty remain paramount principles in the field. But by returning humanism to the craft, as Walter Mignolo began to in Local Histories/Global Designs, we can add light and depth to the many truths of the past—not with a false scientific hardness, but with a melting-pot of narratives as personal and subjective as we know history itself to be.

Aidan Lilienfeld