One of the underappreciated perks of attending a university like Edinburgh is the impressive collections in its archives that allow us a glimpse into the past, and to physically engage with historic materials. However, in our age of the internet, research can be conducted solely online; more and more, a student’s only reason to visit the library, let alone the archives, is for the study spaces or IT support. In the face of this, we must ask ourselves if we are losing a vital part of our research when we ignore physical, historical documents in lieu of their scans and transcriptions.
Approaching The Past
When we are studying history, it is easy to forget the humanity of the subjects we are researching. One of the most simple, but perhaps the most profound benefits of interacting with the physical material is to touch what they touched, see the intricate details of their handwriting, and what that may tell us about who they were.
Even the material that a text is printed or written on may tell us something important, like if the document was meant to last, to be a private communication, or a hastily-jotted note. Even the way a piece is bound, or it’s lack of binding, can give us insight into what it was intended for, how it was viewed, and how it was meant to be experienced. All this valuable insight and context is lost through digital media.
Bindings And Presentation
Experiencing a written work as it was meant, by the author, to be experienced, is an important consideration that is too often overlooked. Much like how a play is differently experienced on the stage versus when read, experiencing a text as it was meant to be experienced may provide different insights that would otherwise be lost.
Speaking from my own expertise, as an avid collector of Victor Hugo, it is interesting to note that the first French edition of Les Misérables was originally published in ten volumes. However, if you go to buy yourself a first edition today, you might be surprised to find that many of them have magically turned into five volume sets. How has this happened? It was frequently re-bound with utmost care into new gilt, leather spines and marbled covers. By examining this disparity in the age of the paper versus the age of the covers, we can surmise that these copies are highly regarded, and the text itself holds cultural significance, as so many people have gone to the trouble of preserving them through the years.
Les Misérables is also a great example of how reader reception is reflected in material culture through just how many beautiful variant copies have been produced across the centuries and the world. If one was to simply look at the text online, instead of visiting the library or archive, they would miss out on just how many vastly different and beautifully-crafted editions have been produced. This, too, can tell us about how the text itself was regarded, as well as alterations in the binding to highlight certain aspects of the text — for example, certain imagery, colours, materials, etc.
Secrets In The Details
The examination of physical documents has also led to incredible breakthroughs. The Archimedes Palimpsest is perhaps one of the best known examples of this. A Byzantine prayer book from the 13th century was found to have been written atop an earlier copy of the work of Archimedes, which had been scraped from the parchment to make way for the prayer book. In 1906, a scholar realised that the barely-visible treatise beneath the prayers were the work of Archimedes, meaning that the parchment has originally been a 10th Century copy of his work, making it the oldest surviving copy of the work of Archimedes. This realisation was made before the use of technology, meaning that the most important thing is not technology, but the close examination of the document by a researcher.
The Rare And Unpublished
Without the close engagement with these physical texts, these important discoveries would never be made. One may get lucky and find a digitised version of a manuscript with high resolution that allows them a close look but, more often than not, archives are home to texts that simply are not available anywhere else. They house the rare and the unpublished, making them an absolutely invaluable resource to researchers. A visit to the archives can expand your research into areas you may have never expected, simply through the exposure to materials that are not otherwise available. This is especially true of documents that are local to an archive. A great example of this is Edinburgh University’s extensive collection of documents relating to alumni, theses from the university, Edinburgh, and Scotland at large. The university boasts a prestigious list of past students, and not all of the student records are available online. This means that there is much to be discovered in the archives yet, pertaining to many important figures in history, and even the lesser known students who equally have something to teach us from the past.
We Shouldn’t Leave The Past In The Past
Ultimately, there is nothing quite like a visit to the archives to help one come face to face with what they are studying. There is no better way to approach figures of the past than to touch the very paper in which they inscribed their thoughts, experiences, and stories. The many iterations of bound texts tell us so much about how they were received, and their cultural importance. These texts also hold secrets, too, that are lost in transcriptions that strip away their physical form. The archives contain all of this and more, which is why, in the age of the internet, we must not forget the importance of being hands-on with our research, and continuing to utilise these vital institutions.
Written by Andie Saint-Rouge.