Thrills in the library stacks

The fourth winner in last month’s library contest is Beth Anne, whose piece offers insight into the richness and humanity of archival research.

Archival research usually consists of long stretches of boredom punctuated by tedium, until bits of evidence start to tumble out of the documents. There is nothing like this sense of discovery, which one eminent scholar described as akin to “the feeling of having sat on a cat.” I was fortunate to experience this many times while carrying out my dissertation research at Oxford. But strangely enough, the things that stick in my memory almost more than the discoveries that were so important to my work were little glimmers of the personal and corporate lives of the fellows and scholars I was studying.

In the documents from one college archive, I followed the career of a clerk called Walter. I read that he cleaned windows, tidied the chapel, helped with the music books, and performed other myriad tasks across a span of several years. And then one day I read the entry in the accounts paying for his funeral. I was shocked. What, Walter dead? I felt rather foolish when I reminded myself that Walter has been food for worms for five hundred years. But I was still sad for the rest of the day; it was like losing a friend who had accompanied me on part of my journey.

Other things also caught my eye, glimpses of what kind of people the college inhabitants were in life, and how they lived. In addition to their studies and religious duties, they had fun: one college had an annual outing on Midsummer’s Day to hunt for strawberries and have a picnic. They cared for their animals, buying medicine to treat a sick horse. They ate things I recognized as food, like mustard and mutton, and things I probably wouldn’t touch if you paid me, like lampreys and herons. (Well, maybe I would eat heron. But definitely not lamprey.) One scholar complained loudly about the Lenten fare in a letter to his elder brother, saying, in effect, “If I have to eat one more piece of salt fish I swear I’m gonna barf.”

And then there were the fingerprints. Every so often, in the margin of a scroll, there is a perfect pattern of whorls and ridges left by a long-ago scribe. Fingerprints were always a joy to find, a unique trace of the living, breathing person who had penned those documents, someone who had had friends and a family, who ate and slept and worked and walked the streets of Oxford, someone who was more than a historical statistic for me to incorporate into my dissertation.

Archives and libraries are grand things, vast repositories of knowledge that can lead to discoveries that change the world. But they also hold many smaller treasures that for all their seeming inconsequence are equally powerful as reminders of our common humanity.

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