Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Paleographical Passion and Archivist Angst

  Much of the basic groundwork in paleography and in the study of archives was done a long time ago. That is not to say that good work is not still going on, but to get back to the roots of it, it is necessary to ferret out some rare old books. That has had me ratting around in The Internet Archive and printing out great tomes at painful speed, or more recently downloading bad scans of imperfect copies of old books to my Kindle. It all has deficiencies, but better than not being able to get your hands on things at all.
  A noticeable feature of academic writing of earlier times is that authors were allowed to express their passion, and by crikey did they get passionate about their subjects. The following is a series of quotes from Hubert Hall 1908 Studies in English Official Historical Documents Cambridge University Press. This is a working guide to the English Public Records, with a bit of concise history about the various classes of records and what happened to them over the centuries. Pretty dry stuff, you might think, but the following decontexted grabs express some of his feeling about how the records were treated during the 18th and 19th centuries:
  “... we have to deplore almost incalculable losses through premature decay and systematic abstractions. These losses are chiefly due to the deliberate neglect of later official custodians and to the still more wanton refusal of the parliaments and ministries of the 18th and even the 19th century to adopt the simplest precautions ofr their safekeeping.”
  “...the anxiety displayed by enlightened antiquaries to save some specimens of historical evidence from these putrid heaps of parchment ...”
  “By dint of groping on his hands and knees amidst the dust and corruption of the low-roofed cock-lofts of the Exchequer treasuries  ....”
  “Almost within living memory the public Records have been sold for glue by the soldiers and workmen employed to remove them from one pestilential vermin-haunted den to another...”
  “... after a further period of official procrastination, illumined by various destructive fires, the Records are still found in festering heaps...”
  “... the officials who should have been engaged in their jealous preservation were employed as sub-commissioners in preparing worthless texts, imperfect calendars, and misleading indexes...”
  Hubert Hall would no doubt be much delighted with the way in which the Public Records are now housed, and made available for study; another subject on which he expresses strong opinions. He would also, no doubt, be pleased that since his time local record offices have acquired back vast numbers of records that were in private hands, another area that he laments. Not much to be done about the glue or the rats though.
  Perhaps the main point is that modern writings tend to be laden with jargon and complex conceptual baggage, and nobody want to be caught out having an emotionally charged opinion about such matters. After all, Hubert doesn't give the impression that archivists were the dull sort of people of their (probably unfairly ascribed) reputation. We can never convince governments about the importance of educational matters if we just jabber in tongues among ourselves, and never let rip with our angst and passion.


Anonymous said...


Thanks for sharing this link - but unfortunately it seems to be down? Does anybody here at have a mirror or another source?


Dianne said...

Sorry, what's down? Everything of mine seems to be up and running. Can't do anything about sites that belong to somebody else.