For the past two years, Dana Wessell Lightfoot has been training a graduate student to help us for two weeks at the archives in Girona, Spain. During that time, Larissa Clotildes studied Catalan, Latin, and paleography to be able to help located documents dealing with Jewish women and conversas at the historical archives in Girona (Arxiu Històric de Girona). Below is her first impressions of the archives, originally published at my blog:
Until this week I had never done research in an archive. Being a history student, I have done plenty of primary source research, but it has usually consisted of locating published documents, or digitized databases. I have never worked with original documents in a formal archive. It is definitely different from the research I am used to, though pinning down the exact point of divergence is difficult—it’s more emotional than intellectual.
I was surprised to find myself far more interested in the materiality of the registers rather than their contents. The shape of the letters, the texture of the pages, and the cracking, crumbling, and creaking spines fascinate me. I find myself wondering, “why is that word smudged? Why was this page left blank? What possessed the notary to doodle that image? What could have caused this damage?”
Every page is a moment in the lives of several people, and by holding the book where they recorded that information, I feel like I am becoming part of a chain stretching back five hundred years. Especially when there are later annotations on the pages, such as a note dated 1595 next to a contract from 1401. These registers not only record history, they also are history, because they have accumulated marks, imprints, and wear throughout time. These experiences accumulate to create a document that holds evidence from many different moments in its personal history, though its written contents may only cover a couple years. While these experiences leave marks, they do not necessarily leave historically legible nor historically significant marks, however—the written contents fill that role. If I was actually reading the documents I would probably find their content more interesting, but since I am working on locating and photographing specific pages, I find myself more focused on the physical characteristics of the registers than their recorded content—because their very physicality is a history in itself.