Finding the way to the archive

Preparing my stay at the Literature Archive in Marbach, spending the week there working off mountains of information and then, when I came back. taking care of all that had remained pending didn’t stay clean of collateral damages. I haven’t blogged in a month: it is a shame, really. To make things worse, this infidelity to my blog happens precisely when I am trying to get more active within the editorial board of hypotheses and when I am organizing my first hypotheses workshop. I am not sure about the credibility I will bring to the workshop. “Hello, youngsters, let me give you the right recipe: blogging 6 times a month is a good average”. And then I will proceed explaining it is totally doable. Or so I intended to say a month or so ago – I might consider revising that part of my introduction…

I have missed blogging. A week ago, I set up in my handwritten, hypotheses-made carnet de recherches a list of themes I want to blog about. Writing about all the things I am doing at the same time is usually one of the greater benefits of blogging, because it allows me to see how lines that seem to go in very different directions actually draw a somewhat coherent map.  For today, I won’t write about all of it, I won’t write about preparing the next Digital Humanities Berlin Workshop, I won’t write about the blogging workshop on Friday (hope to do so on the week-end though) and I won’t write about the conference on ontologies I organize in May and I was hoping to issue the CfP of today (will have to postpone for a few days).

No, I want to write about one thing in particular and its declination in my professional life during this last month of blogging abstinence: I want to write about how you find the way to the archive – the institution, the document, the work with or on it.

The first experience is from December and took a definite shape last week. The paper I gave in November dealt in the third part with the cooperation between Dorothea and Ludwig Tieck (see this blog post for the general outline of this part of the paper). One of the invited speakers came to me after I gave the paper and said “so for this part, you used the manuscripts from Görlitz, right?”. I had not the slightest idea that the manuscripts were still preserved – I had been working all along with one of these 19th-century editions I keep loathing for their censorship on the auctorial text. My bad: actually, the information was contained in a CD which I had been using ten years ago. But while my research questions changed, I had stupidly assumed that the information from the CD were of no added value compared to what was to be found online otherwise. What with the linked data and all. Lesson to be learned: don’t, really don’t rely on online archive catalogs. Go there.

So my MA student Sophia did. Went there. Found the originals. Found in the originals tons of information that had been censored for the publication. Found an archive, and found an archivist very much willing to work with us. I have experienced this paradox of small archives for the second time now: you have to go there to know what documents they have, because they lack the money for a proper online-indexing. Once there, they are thrilled to put up the type of cooperation I personally consider ideal. In a month’s time, we have set up a memorandum of understanding. I still can’t really believe how fast we have found our way to an extremely productive work relationship with the Oberlausitzische Bibliothek der Wissenschaften.

Apart from editing the documents, I offered that we would index them in the central kalliope database (also because kalliope is based in Berlin together with the Tieck papers these letters closely relate to). This certainly reflects my idealism regarding collaborations between scholars and archives as well as my gratitude towards the archivist after less fruitful contacts with other institutions. I was a bit unsure at first whether he wouldn’t consider my offer a bit too forward – after all, we who will do this work are “just” scholars, not trained archivists. But he was very enthusiastic about it. Considering he can modify or enrich the datasets as he finds suitable (he only needs to find the manpower to do so), I would consider it a good decision from his point of view (note that it still means letting go off his power over archival data in a rather uncommon way – I don’t often see people give up the smallest percentile of their personal Deutungshoheit to anyone else). From my point of view, as I said, it is sheer idealism. It will be lost money in the sense that indexing manuscripts (like we did in our Boeckh Nachlassverzeichnis or will do for this one index of 35 letters by Dorothea Tieck) will bring me absolutely nothing in terms of academic recognition. This will be one of the many things I simply should not be spending time with in order to be eligible for a professorship, but concentrate instead on solid scholarly work. But finding the way to the archive, to opening up the archive, is just too beautiful (although I cannot really define the nature of the aesthetic pleasure there is to it, I am sure it is intellectual as well as aesthetic).

So, last week, I went, myself, to find my way to the archive, to Marbach. Once more, I had to draw the conclusion that orientation is definitely not my thing at all. It took me forever to climb the hill in the right direction (“plus à l’ouest!”), to identify the different buildings, to find the entrances. The fog was amazingly thick, I considered the archive gods were just testing me. But I found everything on time.

I had some ideas, but not too many. I had time, but not too much. I wanted the pleasure of being the first to discover but I wanted it not to be too much of work. When I realized that I entered the archive with that kind of expectations, I thought I was too demanding and might, after all, be disappointed. But as much as books never seem to give me what I want from them, archives magically open up. Now I know that my problems with finding the right book comes from not having been taught how to bibliography properly during my MA and PhD time. I consider this a real handicap and I am not very satisfied to have to rely on my co-workers, who are much better at it, to get it done properly for me.

The strange thing is that I have never been taught how to find archives systematically either. The learning process was empirical and it was mostly anarchic. And yet, there, I find. Even in Marbach, where everything is online, which means that you have to know what you are looking for in the first place (unlike the “Findbücher”, descriptions (on paper) of the general structure of an archival entity, as I have found them almost systematically in Berlin institutions so far). I did not really know what I was looking for and yet I found it. Talking with local librarians, archivists, etc., I found my way to the archive and to what I was expecting from it.

And with that feeling, I came back home, only wanting to spend more time in archives, like I did ten years ago, looking at this, and at that, and wondering about the paper, the ink, the irony, and the texts being written.


Anne Baillot

I studied German Studies and Philosophy in Paris where I got my PhD in 2002. I then moved to Berlin, where I have been living & doing research ever since. My areas of specialty include German literature, Digital Humanities, textual scholarship and intellectual history. I am currently working at the Centre Marc Bloch in Berlin as an expert in digital technologies for the humanities.

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