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Archives. They are something that capture historians’ imagination and perhaps no one has depicted historians’ complex relationship with archives more elegantly than Arlette Farge in The Allure of the Archives. But even we less eloquent ones circulate fascinating, if not bizarre, stories about our archive experiences. Who has not heard detailed accounts of archival anxieties and adventures? About getting ready for a day in an archive. About the excessive bureaucracy that is needed for obtaining a reader’s permit. About the restrictions and rules that prevail in the reading rooms. About each archive having its own regulations and incomprehensible routines. About the dark, cold, unheated reading rooms. And then there are, of course, the stories about the records themselves… But as those stories about dusty piles of papers belong to a somewhat different branch of archive lore, let’s instead get to one of the main themes in the archive tales: the desk, the spot, the precious space where the consultation of records physically takes place. As I recently raced through three archives in two days, I kept thinking about Farge’s vivid description about the “seat number I” and how historians are ready to fight for that seat day after day because “a good seat in the archives is one of the most precious things there is.” There are several reasons for why a seat matters so much for a historian and the three different seating arrangements in the archives I visited last week hopefully makes historians’ obsession for a good seat more a little bit more comprehensible.

Public Record Office, London (image from Walter Rye, Records and Record Searching. London: George Allen, 1897)

The first stop on this tour to reading rooms is a reading room that comes to near perfection. It is spacious, bright, and has large desks. But even here it is possible to detect risks that a first-time visitor must assess in a split of a second that remains for making an informed decision after entering the room and collecting the pre-ordered material. Since in this specific manuscript reading room each desk has three seats both next to each other and facing each other, the first and foremost concern is to find a place with no neighbors. With a bundle of nineteenth-century letters and a laptop, it is crucial to have enough space to spread everything freely around. For the sake of comfort, it is also important to avoid a seat that is directly facing another reader. The reasons for this should be obvious. In short, it is vital to identify a desk with a minimum number of readers. After this main issue, there are then the questions about the closeness to a source of heating, light, and a socket. The flow of traffic in the reading room is also a factor that should be taken into account. No one wants to work in a busy intersection of coming and going readers. Hence, to conclude, even a reading room that appears perfect demands cautiousness because a hasty choice of a seat tends to cause distraction from the real deal, the sources.

Public Record Office, London (Rye 1897)

The second type of a reading room is what could be described as a designated corner in a special library. A reading room like this tends to have only a small number of seats that are positioned right next to the archivist’s desk. This kind of a set up provokes disquieting thoughts: how far away from the archivist is it acceptable to sit without appearing suspicious or rude towards the archivist? Is the second last row an acceptable compromise between the urge to keep distance and the appearance of trustworthiness and sociability?

British Museum, London (Rye 1897)

Let’s then move on to the third and last reading room, which is this time in a venerable national institution that attracts so many visitors that a long queue of anxious researchers forms every morning in the courtyard before the opening time. Farge provides a fascinating account of the “merciless battle” that takes place when the doors of such a national institution open and scholars race to score the ideal seat in the reading room. There is, however, more to this story than the daily competition because an institution of this caliber can store a set of surprises and challenges to a visitor due to its complex rules and regulations. It may very well be that the selection of available seats is predetermined for instance by the type of material you wish to see. Unbound and bound manuscripts have been assigned their own areas of consultation and those records that can be photographed must be perused in yet another location. The reader must make the best out of these circumstances and, taking into account – once again – the conditions of space, light, heating, and the flow of traffic, make a cautious decision about where is the most optimal spot for doing what should be done here: get lost in the maze of historical documents.

Since each archive sets its own rules and designs its own reading room, there are endless variations to these three examples. Of course there are also those archives that allow no freedom whatsoever to their customers granting the archivist the power to designate a seat to each reader. In a way this custom uncomplicates the process of settling down into work as it rescues one from taking responsibility of a possibly unfortunate choice of a seat. But at the same time, for example getting a desk with too little space to accommodate both the pile of unbound letters and a laptop is just simply irritating. The unavoidable conclusion of this all is that there must be a little Sheldon Cooper inside every historian.

Sources:

Farge, Arlette. The Allure of the Archives. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013.