Cities, records, archives

I’ve often toyed with the idea of becoming an archivist as a career. 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.

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.

On Approaching the Practice of History: Reflections on Dialogue from Project Edinburgh Co-Founder Zach Phil Schwartz

It was late 1944. Allied forces had landed on France’s shores and begun a cascading series of operations that would ultimately spell the end of the Third Reich and its Axis partners. While partisans engaged Nazi occupiers in Paris as the Allies steamed toward the city, political figures from the alliance met in Washington, D.C., to discuss what would come next. The conferences that would follow at Dumbarton Oaks, the Harvard institute and former home of benefactors Robert and Mildred Bliss (who gifted the property to the university four years earlier) would eventually give rise to the United Nations.

Even in times of war can we see the human spirit, stubborn in its pursuit for peace, justice, and progress, peek through. In the decades that followed those discussions at Dumbarton Oaks, dialogues within international networks have been instrumental in maintaining global peace and security, particularly behind the scenes.

It is with this in mind that I have embarked on my path as a historian, researching international networks in the modern era, both overt and covert, to better understand how and why important political actors exerted influence in their respective states, for better or for worse. This has taken me from the monumental 1873 visit of Shah Naser al-Din to Europe to 1940s/1950s attempts to build an International Penal Court at the Long Island (and later New York) home of the United Nations.

Much of this research has involved investigations into interwar fascist networks with Italy at their core, in efforts to better understand how mid- to low-level bureaucrats exerted influence within the fascist party structure. To research this becomes all the more important given the resurgence of the global right and the unfortunate reappearance of the fascist scourge.

As the study of history moves forward, it remains important to understand how the events of the past may be studied to better understand what is happening today. This is one of the principal ideas motivating my work and that of Project Edinburgh.

We began Project Edinburgh as an endeavor in writing to find and workshop novel approaches to the practice of history. On this website you will find pieces commentating on history as it pertains to current events. You will find research proposals seeking to advance the way we approach and frame our craft. You will find ideas and commentary on the practice of writing in history itself.

You may encounter thoughts you find insightful and conceptions you disagree with. You may even encounter both things in the same piece. This is, I believe, the true essence of the historical craft. In taking this approach to the writing and framing of history I hope to channel this essence into the same type of dialogue that is embodied in the human spirit and to contribute to the development of our craft as we move deeper into the twenty-first century. Perhaps through this dialogue we can build upon old ideas and construct new methods for working with and writing on history, and perhaps through this dialogue we can promote a more equitable and just field of study.

Welcome to the continuing conversation on writing in history. Welcome to Project Edinburgh.