Researching Early Modern History

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Saving Sources – RBE 21, TD Jacobs

I recently completed another research trip to London – this time to the British Library and the National Archives at Kew. I’m going to have to make further trips to Kew in order to obtain, among other things, the state files concerning relations with France in the 1650s. However, my reason for going to the BL at least once again in a few weeks is rather more interesting, and unexpected.

Sometime during the nineteenth century, an unknown historian or archivist – possibly Henry Duncan Skrine, or someone working on his behalf – made copies of the correspondence produced by two of the Florentine ambassadors to London during the seventeenth century. Namely, Amerigo Salvetti and his son, Giovanni Salvetti Antelminalli. The records (Add MS 27962: A-W) fill approximately twenty-one volumes (each in two parts, something that has been left out of the catalogue) and span the years 1616 to 1679.

There are quite literally thousands of folios. And they were copied by hand, which would have been a Herculean effort – maybe even a lifetime’s work. I’m photographing them using my iPhone at a rate of approximately one volume every 1.5 hours. Considering the low lighting level in the Western Manuscripts reading room, and the inability to use a camera stand there, this is not a sinecure, but it isn’t anywhere near the level of effort required to locate and copy documents in the nineteenth-century – of that I am certain.

Which makes the tragic gutting of Brazil’s Museu Nacional in Rio at the start of September all the more obscene. I was thinking of that the entire time I was standing in London, clicking away. Undoubtedly, museums and archives would much prefer to have the resources to make professional digital records of all of the objects and documents they house. But they do not. The museum in Brazil apparently could not even afford a fire protection system, let alone a large scale digitalisation project. Nor are they likely to obtain the kind of funding required to make this possible. Some institutions, such as the British Library and the National Archives at Kew, are partnering with private companies to produce digitalized databases of their records. While this no doubt has led to an additional layer of protection against the devastation of fires, or floods, or earthquakes, I do not think that it has led to an increased circulation in knowledge – as I have written elsewhere on this blog.

Institutions such as the National Archives in Spain are digitizing documents on demand. The initial cost is thus borne by the individual making the request, and the document images are then placed online where they can either be downloaded for free or at a nominal fee. This piecemeal approach is better than nothing, but it may often remain cheaper for researchers to photograph things themselves rather than to make use of the archive’s services. That is certainly the case with regard to the document series I go to London for. And who knows, the images I have may one day be important to someone other than myself. The Museu Nacional is now soliciting photographs of its collection from the general public in order to attempt to preserve something of it for future generations. And what I would like to know is, why not do this before disaster strikes?

I have thousands of images of seventeenth-century documents. Are they the greatest images? Well, it depends on where they were taken. At Kew, and at the National Archives in Den Haag, camera stands are available to help ensure proper placement and image clarity. So naturally, those photographs are better than the ones that I am able to take in the British Library. But even those are sufficient to share with other researchers. And indeed, historians working within the same periods do share image files – but haphazardly, and in private. Would it take so very much effort to set up a file sharing program via important research institutions so that such exchanges could be facilitated, and work made more efficient?

The more copies there are, the less fear there need be of losing such knowledge. And given the ease and speed at which an individual researcher can now copy files – time now measured in hours and days, rather than months and years – it seems to me almost criminal not to do so.

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