archival work: like a virgin

Peeking into this blog to write some about my first archival trip to France.

As a student of early music, it doesn’t take long before one is confronted with the mysterious world of archives. It begins by references to them in secondary literature, footnotes full of mysterious document numbers. Then one finds oneself asking questions that only the archive can answer. Learning how to get from that point to actually sitting down in a reading room in Europe is a massive learning curve in and of itself (which I’ve already written about). So I learned how to find French archive inventories, I made a travel plan, got a place to stay, bought a plane ticket, and ended up in a small town in the middle of France. I didn’t know anything. I had one call number of one document and a small <i>Guide des Archives</i> with general inventory information. I spent the better part of two weeks calling dossier after dossier, never quite knowing what I going to get. Sometimes it would be massive sheets of vellum with nearly illegible church fondations. Sometimes it would be scraps of paper from the 17th c with one 15th c document thrown in for good measure. I sat in the reading room of the archive, surrounded by grumpy old, white, male French scholars, or an old couple coming in to look up genealogical information.

Everything about the experience felt like a mystifying rite of passage. While the archivists were very helpful and friendly, sometimes I didn’t know what to do. It took me a few days before I realized how to call up a document; the first day, they just brought me stuff, and then later they explained how to call up things. And then later they explained how I’d have to look at this one series in a separate office. And then my crappy French speaking skills made every interaction all the more fraught. Just getting out the door, to the archive and back, finding meals–all of these, the simply daily things–made every day feel like an Everest. (though, to my credit, my comprehension skills improved dramatically while I was there.) I have traveled some in my college years, but I’m not a highly experienced world traveler.

I didn’t find anything awesome in the archives. I didn’t expect to, but there was a part of me half-hoping that I’d find another document with Ockeghem in it. I enjoyed the actual work of looking through pile after pile of document. When I was in work mode, the rest of the frustrating life was shut out. I was in my own world. I actually listened to some music on headphones, to block out the noisy silence or the French chitchat that would waft over to me, finding myself less capable of tuning out the language sounds I was less accustomed to hearing. Having the music on helped to create a more familiar work space (especially since I have a sort of general “worky” playlist that already felt familiar).

As I neared the end of the list of relevant documents, I realized that there wasn’t going to be anything of major awesomeness to musicologists. It was disappointing a little. I have some good things and interesting things, to be sure. But nothing that will make me famous. This is okay. And probably more realistic. The archive did have a good library, which I made use of, and as I began reading secondary literature, for the first time in weeks, I began to be able to truly see how archival documents undergird historical writing. It is something I’ve known in the abstract for a long time, but never have quite seen until now. It is kind of an emotional experience—of vulnerability, of awe—understanding with new reverence what it means to write history.