Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Repeated lessons from the archives

I'm calling these repeated lessons because they seem to occur to me anew every time I get to an archive.
  • When I'm reading letters, I'm struck every time not only by the graceful way in which the letter writers express themselves (even when they're obviously annoyed) but also by how much of the language of the standard forms (congratulations, thanks, condolences) seems to be a lost art. It makes me want to seize my fountain pen and go forth and write--if only there were anyone who wouldn't think I'd taken leave of my senses to do so.
  • It's surprising, too, how much the pattern of a person's handwriting lodges itself in your brain, so you can pick it out immediately even if you're scrolling slowly through microfilm.
  • Along with pattern recognition, there's something else that happens: sometimes a phrase or word will puzzle me because of the handwriting, and I'll type two different possibilities for the transcription. If I look away or look at something else for a minute, though, and then look back--boom! The actual meaning of the phrase comes through as clearly as though it were typed.
  • The more I read, the more I start to feel as though archives of letters are a vast text in themselves but that I can only find out the narratives of the characters and their relationships if I keep reading and reading. If Mr. F is a mutual acquaintance of Miss Y and Mrs. Z, I can play "guess the context" better with every letter that I read.
  • It does no good to rant silently to myself about conventions of dating letters that range from "Saturday" to "July 17" with no hint of a year in sight. Sometimes the year is clear from the context (mentioning an event, a dinner,a visit, or a work in progress) and sometimes from the paper or handwriting. Still, when I find a correspondent who puts an actual year on the letter, I applaud. And I have it easy, comparatively speaking. I can't even imagine what you medievalists and early modern scholars go through between the handwriting, the abbreviations, and the various orthographic and language barriers.
  • When I'm working in an archive, I don't want to stop, or eat, or go home. There's always just one more source, isn't there?

    (I'm trying a new template, but that's not a lesson from the archive.)

    Arbitrista said...

    When I think about how much we've learned from diaries and letters, it makes me sad that those forms just aren't common anymore. I think the old pen and paper letter is so much more formal than typed letters, much less email (don't even ask me about texts). There's something beautiful about the well-crafted sentence, and in my more luddite moments I wonder about the price we're paying for all this fancy communications tech.

    undine said...

    I wonder about it too, Arbitrista. The set of letters I was reading recently had a number that were congratulating the author on book publications and art exhibitions; they were beautiful, detailed, and complimentary without being gushing in a way that's hard to describe. If someone now says "congrats on the book" in an email, that's a big deal.