Saturday, January 20, 2007

In the Archives

The latest issue of Common-place (a free and generally interesting e-journal of historical interest) contains a short but fascinating essay by James Fichter, an assistant professor at Lingnan University, Hong Kong. Fichter's research into American shipping during the late eighteenth century takes him archive-hopping from The Hague, to Capetown, to Mauritius, to Jakarta and beyond, and in this piece he describes his experiences in each repository.

Fichter recounts researcher nirvana in the digitized super-efficiency of the Dutch Nationaal Archief and the exasperating state of affairs in Mauritius, where - due to little financial support and hence sub-part storage methods - "some volumes turned out to be little more than cover and binding, others a maddening Swiss cheese of fragmentary layers, the shreds of one page intertwined with the remnants of the next, too fragile to disentangle, too jumbled to read." (All is not lost, however; the day is saved by the arrival of ... an ice-cream truck).

A recommended read.