A First Foray into the Archives…
It feels as though it’s taken me an absurdly long time to get around to doing any archival research. Not that I’m labouring under that old Rankean delusion that the archive is where true historians are forged – I’m not really a historian by training, and have never learnt enough of those misconceptions that I need to unlearn them now. But when I began my PhD a little over a year ago, I did assume that I would be beginning my primary research earlier than I have. Throughout my first year, the feeling that I was treading water was exacerbated when some of my fellow doctoral students, whose primary material was either literary or simply nearby, started producing fascinating, original work, while I sat there embroidering my literature review. At long last, however, I’ve begun my struggle with the sources, and am now nearly halfway through a five-week trip to the Bundesarchiv (Federal Archives) in Berlin.
We’ve previously discussed the nature, role and value of archives in quite a theoretical manner, but I should make it clear that this post will not offer anything so reflective. This is essentially the product of my inability to decide whether I wanted to write a diary of my archival experiences or some sort of practical guide, and so it will, with any luck, contain elements of both.
First, an introduction to my research is probably in order. For mercy’s sake, I shall keep it brief – though a more detailed post on my and other HTTPers’ research interests may well be imminent. My PhD focuses on the social history of the former German Democratic Republic and communist Poland. More specifically, I’m interested in how Polish-East German relations, on a popular level, developed over the Cold War, and the ways in which certain communist propaganda projects influenced them. As I’m currently envisaging it, the research will touch on such fields as nationalism under communism, postwar memory studies and (thematically if not methodologically) the history of everyday life.
The last of these in particular has dictated the sources I plan to use: for the project to work, and have any chance of originality, I’ll need to draw on a blend of archival resources and oral history. The archival research comes first, though, as it should provide much of the contextual information necessary to allow me to select my case study sites and plan my interviews. Ultimately, I hope to consult archives and interview people in both Germany and Poland. As I’m still in the process of rapidly (some might almost say belatedly) acquiring Polish, however, it makes most sense to start with Germany – hence my trek to the Bundesarchiv.
I’ve started with the Bundesarchiv mainly because it’s the key repository of all the files relating to the political parties and mass organizations of the former GDR. The few genuine opinion surveys the communists carried out are contained here, as are the mood reports and ‘special incident’ documents produced by most of the mass organizations. It’s my hope that some of these will touch on the popular East German opinion of Poland, as well as the results (cordial or hostile) of any interactions between East Germans and Poles.
My involvement with the archive actually began back in May of this year when, on my supervisor’s suggestion, I popped over for a brief two-week trip to get to know the institution a little. I’d registered with the archive a good month beforehand, sending off their registration form and emailing one of the archivists about the material I was interested in. I’ve since been advised to consult with the archivists a lot more, rather than rely on my own rough and ready searches through the online file directory, but I’ve not yet taken the time to try.
The archive’s main holdings are housed in a fortresslike facility in Lichterfelde, a cosy and wonderfully tranquil suburb in south-west Berlin. Much of my reconnaissance trip in May was taken up with getting to know the peculiarities and procedures of the Lichterfelde buildings: the need to sign in (at the security gate and at the desk in the reading room) at the start of each visit; the use of the lockers; the list of what may and may not be taken into the reading room; and so on.
I also had to grapple with the archive’s various competing systems for ordering files. Presumably for reasons of flexibility, files can be requested using either a paper form or one of two different online systems – neither of which is terrifically user-friendly. Whichever method is used, the crucial point is that files must be ordered between half a day and a day in advance, and can generally be viewed only one at a time. I’ve got this wrong on a number of occasions, and my repeated requests for files that have not yet been delivered, along with my rusty spoken German, has not endeared me to the archive staff. I’d normally consider it a positive sign when people know my name without prompting, but in this case I’m too busy worrying about which blunder they remember me for.
The files I’ve perused so far have been a mixture of original documents and so-called microform collections: miniaturized files stored on negatives, and provided in either microfilm or microfiche format. To be honest, and for the feeblest of reasons, these microfiles appeal to me far more. The old-school sci-fi fan in me loves the clunky, retro sophistication of the reading equipment, while the speed with which I can wind past irrelevant material gives me a greater sense of progress than the paper files can provide. The only real downside is that the microfile reading room has a further assortment of procedures and idiosyncrasies to get to grips with, particularly regarding photocopying.
The only other room I have much cause to visit is the break room, a relatively small space lined with lockers and boasting a couple of vending machines and a handful of tables and chairs. I was warned by my supervisor in advance to bring my own lunch, and indeed the food vending machine’s wares are both expensive and unimpressive. Astonishingly though, the 35-cent coffee offered by the other machine is perfectly serviceable, even delicious – a fact that’s led me to question whether my palate really deserves proper coffee ever again. In any case, most of the breaking that goes on in the room is fairly solitary. Every reader there is working on their own projects, to their own schedule, and generally seems content with their own company.
The person I’ve spoken to most since my arrival is actually a fellow Anglophone, an American intrigued by the English-language fantasy novel I was reading over lunch. This interaction was initially as awkward as all my others, beginning as it did with a few minutes’ chat about the book in German before we both realized we had another language in common (well, more or less). That hurdle overcome, we moved on to talking about history, our research interests, our doctoral supervisors (both internationally famous, coincidentally), and the like. Now our conversations bring a very welcome change of pace, and give my visits a much-needed dose of levity.
As for the files themselves, for the most part they consist of two or three intriguing incident reports or popular opinion surveys nestled among several hundred pages of stultifyingly dull material. They are also dishearteningly numerous; there seem to be hundreds of files I should at least skim over, and precious little time in which to race through them.
My favourite discovery so far is probably a two-page file I found on a microfiche during my first trip to the archive. The file was a report concerning a gift of a flock of sheep given to the GDR by Mongolia (also a socialist state at the time), and the harassment experienced by East German officials trying to transport the sheep through Poland. Recorded in the po-faced, officious and pedantic style that marks most communist writing, the incident seems doubly farcical. I’ve no idea whether it will ever make it into my thesis, but it serves as a useful, and even slightly amusing, reminder of the variety of material the archive has to offer – and of the countless ways in which the tensions of the East German-Polish relationship were played out in everyday life.
That aside, however, my finds have generally been more useful than inspiring – and very well spaced out between reams of irrelevant paperwork. In that respect at least, the research process is indeed the painstaking excavation of knowledge that I was expecting. Knowing that brings a very particular sense of satisfaction, a satisfaction almost dependent on the tedium of the work. Above all, though, I’m filled with the exhilaration of simply having started. This is the first part of my project that will, potentially, yield original and interesting results, and it’s a relief to have finally begun my search.
In short, my first real stint in an archive feels as though it’s going rather nicely so far, though it’s proving to be a constant learning process. I’m not at all sure as yet of how I ought to be ‘engaging with’ or interpreting the files I read. I also have almost no idea whether I’ll leave Berlin with any sizeable body of usable information. The questions about what I’ve found and what I may not find proliferate daily. Overwhelmingly, however, it’s a thrill finally to be sitting down and searching for the answers.