Confusion in (and around) the Archive

British Library

British Library

Last week, the CMU History blog went on a short hiatus. The reason was my journey to London, where research in the British Library and the National Archive in Kew waited for me. This second part of our double feature on archival research is a loose collection of experiences in and around the archive.

 

Sad Catalogues, or: A Thief in the Night?

Microfilm could be such a great resource. It can contain a rather large amount of copied source material, doesn’t take up much space, and exudes a certain flair of actual research that reading sources on a computer thousands of miles from any archive just doesn’t have. Microfilm also must be catalogued carefully, ordered, and put into neat boxes for future examination. The downside is, however, that anyone who might want to use microfilm has to look at a lot of material before that hoped-for slide might come up.

Please notice the right side of the screen: absolutely nothing to see here

Please notice the right side of the screen: absolutely nothing to see here

In my case, nothing came up. While looking for an early 18th century London newspaper, I thought I had finally found the issue in question, when it dawned on me that the actual page was missing. The curator who had created the microfilm had surely been aware of that, since he or she had left a neat space in-between the other pages. Perhaps they had hoped that the page would be found one day, and subsequently added to the film. That day seems very far away, however. Since the librarians of the British Library are helpful and very nice, we spent at least an hour going through the catalogue and two separate backup collections to find the missing page. In the end, the librarian had to politely admit that the catalogue had perhaps been a bit boastful in announcing that the British Library held the most important, complete collection of early English newspapers. On top of that, while doing some further research online, the creeping suspicion came over me that the newspaper’s originals were actually held by the Library of Congress all across the ocean where I had initially come from for the purpose of finding those very originals! Now, I don’t know why anyone would take a whole host of early 18th century newspapers and smuggle them over the ocean to the new world, but if that person could please step forward and hand over that missing page, I would be very grateful.

Of course, as we all know, if I went to Washington and found that page, all it would tell me would be things I already knew from other newspaper entries. That’s how 18th century sources always are, you just can’t trust them.

 

An Insistent Donor?

If you are lucky enough to find yourself at a library or archive with an attached museum or exhibition, take the time to rest your brain (and eyes) a little and take a stroll. Often you might see or hear things that can make your day much better.

Shortly after quietly cursing the widespread crime of newspaper theft, I ventured into the heart of the British Library for a nice visit to the Magna Carta. Sadly, the museum didn’t have it on display at that time (and I must be honest in saying that I completely forgot to ask why), but there was a very chipper tour guide who gladly told the interested visitors about another, recently discovered Magna Carta. Apparently, some (very rich) guy had found a box in the attic of his newly acquired (ancient) house (well, palace). He had taken its contents, among them a massive scroll, to the local public library of the town of Sandwich, where the astonished librarians realized that the scroll was in fact a 1217 version of the Magna Carta. According to the British Library guide, the librarians told the lucky finder that he could offer the scroll to the British Library, which would give him 20 million pounds for it. He could also, however, give it to a private collector from America or China, who would surely give him over 100 million pounds! The owner of the scroll, shaking his head, declined both suggestions and simply gave the Magna Carta to the public library – for free. What a man!

The story remained in my head for a couple of days, before I decided to do some more research on it. Strangely, the only article I could find about a newly found Magna Carta in Sandwich dated from 2015 and described how a 1300 version was found in the archive… Which only goes to show that you can’t trust museum guides either.

 

123 Years of Adwa

Celebration of the victory at Adwa, March 1st 1896

Celebration of the victory at Adwa, March 1st 1896

While daydreaming about finding my own treasure worth 100 million pounds, I ventured out into the courtyard of the library for some air, when I was suddenly confronted with a rather large group of people dressed in white and waving Ethiopian flags. Singing and dancing, they made their way towards the library. I decided to walk with them, because I had just researched the Ethiopian-German relationship in the First World War, and out of sheer curiosity. Inside the building, the group visited the “Treasures of the British Library” exhibition, where they gathered around the priceless Ethiopic Bible, the 17th century Octateuch of Gondar. Feeling as if I should know why they celebrated this day, I still had to ask one of the Ethiopian celebrants about the significance of their visit. Beaming, he told me that Ethiopia had never been colonized, and that it had decisively defeated the Italian invasion at Adwa, on March 1st, 1896. Of course, it wasn’t such a coincidence – after all, the day is celebrated all over the world by people of the Ethiopian Diaspora – but I felt as if my struggle in the archive for this day was somehow vindicated. 123 years of Adwa matter, as a sign for the struggle of people all across the world against colonialism, and as a symbol that this struggle hasn’t yet ended.

Reminded of the ongoing validity of historical research, the need to comb through every attic in search for new documents, and the connections between historical study and living commemoration, I went back into the bowels of the library. I still needed to find that page, after all…