By Lisa Smith, W&M Contributor
A year ago I went to Paris on a week-long research trip. My goal was to look at eighteenth-century impotence trials, part of the Série Z at the Archives Nationales. I planned to compare them with English impotence trials that I had already examined.
There were the standard research problems, of course. The handwriting was unusually terrible. The boxes were unsorted and contained few, if any, impotence trials, which were challenging to find. But the biggest difficulty was entirely unexpected. Série Z closed for maintenance every second day during that week.* This mystified the counter-staff as much as me. Each time, they were unaware of the closure.
Previously, my research method had been to transcribe notes by hand, then review them afterwards. To the growing number of historians who prefer to take photographs of archival documents, this seems a bit quaint. On this rapidly passing trip with its two fruitless days, I certainly did not have the luxury of time. Instead, I photographed the trial records like mad, writing brief outlines of the cases. Each night I organised the photos and turned them into pdf files, hopeful about the possibilities for my new use of photography. I thought how nice it would be to have images of the documents to hand.
But a year on, I’ve realised a key problem in this system: much of my work in archives is tied to physical memory. Looking back at my notes over the years, I can remember the way in which documents looked or smelled at the time. More importantly, I can remember where to find specific points in my notes. I recall in detail the stories from the English trial records, but the French ones only fleetingly, even though I have since read through the files a couple times. It has become clear to me that I need another French research trip – this time simply to sit in my office transcribing the files stored on my computer – if my knowledge of the trial records is ever to become potent.
How do you internalise your material when doing research?
*Admittedly, this allowed me to have leisurely lunches and sightsee, so all was not in vain.
Lisa Smith is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Saskatchewan. She writes on gender, family, and health care in England and France (ca. 1600-1800).