Almost a year has passed since I had a chance to dig deep into archival material. Back then, it was in the British Library in London. Now, finally, I have an other opportunity to dive into the fascinating world of nineteenth-century manuscripts. This time, it is in the John Rylands Library in Manchester. What has remained the same is, first of all, the goal of my research – to explore the relations between historians and publishers and the various ways to use paratexts – and second, the excitement of reading these nineteenth-century letters.
While I am well aware that I am not the first historian to read the Papers of Edward Freeman, it remains thrilling to read these letters. Some bits and pieces in them are familiar, for they have become popular quotes in historiographical studies. However, the most relevant material for me is buried in between the already well-known content of these documents. And it is precisely that, what makes historical research so exciting: by slightly altering the perspective sources can lead to hidden side-streets and scenic byways. The change of scenery often discloses something unexpected contributing to a more nuanced picture of history.
Archives and the search for hidden archival gems were important topoi for nineteenth-century historians in their attempt to construct a new scholarly persona ever since the “archival turn” in the middle of the century. The study of primary sources came to be the foundation of modern historical inquiry and historians’ archival experiences became a fundamental element in their modern scholarly ethos. The searching of hidden manuscript treasures, tracing leads, bearing uncomfortable conditions in the archives as well as relishing the discovery of hitherto unknown manuscripts were all essential elements in historians’ accounts of the archival experience. All this helped to create an archetype of a professional historian who was diligent and hard-working, and willing to bear unimaginable physical conditions and hardships in order to advance the discipline and contribute to the pool of historical scholarship.
Although the physical conditions in archives have improved significantly since then, the sense of adventure and enthusiasm of discovery have not, I dare to argue, disappeared. Perhaps historians today use a more sober language than their predecessors did, but the essence of archival research has remained unaltered: to discover something which provides a fresh approach to history – whether this is by coming across previously unused material, or by posing new questions to already well-known documents.
While I do not associate myself with bloodhounds, there is a seed of truth in the description of archival research published in the Edinburgh Review in 1879. The reviewer is impressed by the industry and skills of Mr. Bertolotti, an Italian historian, who clearly served for the reviewer as a perfect example of an earnest historian of his time. Thus, the reviewer writes about Bertolotti: “It is clear that he is a practiced hand in the examination of archives; and those who have ever attempted work of this kind know the value and the necessity of this qualification. He has the true archivist’s flair, sure as the scent of a bloodhound, and absolutely regardless as to when and where he may run down his game, he is eager to follow the trail accurately and surely through every doubling and baffling covert.” Indeed, that is what archival research often has been – and continues to be.