Surprise and disbelief can sometimes best describe my feelings when reading the letters of nineteenth-century historians. Coming across a letter where a historian asked an archivist abroad to loan and send him a few sixteenth-century records, was certainly one of such moments of bafflement: Send! For loan! The original documents! The same original documents which historians routinely described as fragile, one of a kind historical treasures! I read and reread the letter over and over again to make sure that I understood it correctly. Only when I discovered more letters containing similar requests to other archivists, I was convinced that indeed, in the late nineteenth-century Europe records were zigzagging between archivists and historians and across the various national borders.
This episode of mail order manuscripts came back to my mind when I read Pieter Huistra’s interesting article about archives as an important part of historians’ disciplinary identity. Using the Groningen archive as an example he unravels how the role of archives and archivists changed during the nineteenth century. He also writes about how common it was that documents were sent from one archive to another so that historians could consult them close to home. All this was possible because the network of archivists, who were instrumental in mailing and ordering the manuscripts for historians, was built on trust. Archivists, by professional virtue, were expected to be careful, honest and treat the records with care. For such men – men they were – it was possible to trust the packaging, sending, and receiving the centuries old documents. This circle of trust was occasionally tested by unfortunate accidents during the delivery of the records. Huistra shows how one parcel of documents suffered during the transport between Groningen and its original location in Marburg. Only after the Dutch had been able to convince the archivists in Marburg that they would treat the documents more carefully from now on, a new batch of documents was sent to Groningen.
But trust was not only needed within the circle of archivists and historians. Mailing manuscripts required trust also on those who were responsible for transporting the valuable packages. This, of course, applied to everything that historians sent out – including the manuscripts of their books. Authors, who wrote their manuscripts by hand, only rarely had a second copy of their text. If they could not personally deliver the results of their lifelong research to a publisher – or find a reliable agent to do this for them – they were left with no other option than to post the piles of paper to the publishing house. It is not hard to imagine how anxiously they waited for a confirmation from a publisher that the manuscript had safely arrived at its destination.
John Lothrop Motley (1814–1877) was one of the many historians who were troubled by a prospect of sending his manuscripts via mail. Motley lived in Switzerland at a time when he completed the first three parts of his The Rise of The Dutch Republic. His publisher John Chapman was in London. The first part of the manuscript was delivered to Chapman by an American diplomat who was travelling from Bern to London, but when Motley had completed the next parts, he could not find anyone who was heading to England. He then turned to his publisher to ask advice about the best way to dispatch the manuscript to London. Motley was not only concerned about the risk of the package getting lost, but he also needed to know how the customs might treat such a parcel of paper. Evidently, the manuscript reached London safely, and once the printers had set the text in type, proofs and corrected proofs began to circulate between London and the small Swiss village of Vevey. Thanks to the efficiency and cautiousness of mid-nineteenth century postal services, all the necessary parcels of paper reached their destinations and the volumes of Motley’s history were published in 1856.
John Lothrop Motley correspondence in the Syracuse University Library, Syracuse, U.S.
Huistra, Pieter, “The Documents of Feith. The Centralization of the Archive in the Nineteenth- Century Historiography”, The Making of the Humanities, vol. II. From Early Modern to Modern Disciplines, eds. Rens Bod, Jaap Maat & Thijs Weststeijn. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2012.