Tuesday, 22 May 2007

and what is it that you do, exactly?

When I tell people I'm a historian they usually nod knowingly, and often they then look at me rather blankly as with a sudden afterthought and say: so what do you actually do? I mean, what does a working day entail?

Stop laughing at the back, brother mine, I can see you from here.

You go to archives, you order up original documents, you read them and make detailed notes. Repeat. Until you have assembled a body of material which comes together to give you new ideas, to confirm or disprove old ideas, which fits in with secondary material you've been reading, with other peoples' arguments, with your own previous work, and you write it all up into an article or a thesis or a book or whatever. That's broadly the theory.

In practice, you go to the archive, you consult the 2 volume catalogue which lists all the categories of the archive's holdings. It was typed out in 1972 and is loosely bound and falling apart round the edges. This will indicate which volume of which series of the main catalogue you need to consult. You find this volume and it *may* give you the reference for the location of the documents you want. Or it may not. It may refer you to a card catalogue. Or to another series of typed and bound catalogues. The card catalogue may then refer you to a fourth set of bound catalogues. Which elicits a page informing you that there are 44 boxes of documents pertaining to the issue at hand. But doesn't give you any information on where or any kind of reference number. You have spent maybe an hour and half, two hours to get to this point.


You ask the staff for assistance. The first 5 people consulted have no idea whatsoever. They are all very very keen to help. They call up various senior staff and have misleading and confused phone conversations. People emerge from upstairs offices to help, or not. Eventually the locate someone who knows where the documents in question live: off-site. In the deposit down the road, about 3 km away. Ah. Ok. It's open on Thursday mornings 9-1, if you go along then
you can consult it there. Er... what, all 44 volumes? you want me perhaps to whizz through 11 volumes an hour? Ah... well it's not normally possible to consult those materials here. Or to expand the opening hours there. But if you go along on Thursday and have a chat with them, they might have some ideas.

This is basically a full morning's to-ing and fro-ing. It may well be - indeed is often the case - that some (please God not all) of these famous 44 boxes of material may be totally useless. They may have been mislabelled, misfiled or mislaid, they may contain endless duplicate copies of a solitary document, they may contain cuttings from newspapers I could easily have read somewhere else, they may contain copies of documents I've read in other archives, they may be the right material but just be not terribly interesting or relevant to the work I'm doing. Or they may, just maybe, be totally useful and riveting and wonderful. You never know until you open each box and start working through it. You can spend a whole week working through box after box and they all turn out to be irrelevant. Or each box can take a week to work through cos it's all so interesting.


codazzo said...

reminds me of the legendary scene from Nanni Moretti's Ecce Bombo:

Faccio cose... vedo gente

:) historians rule yo!
geologists rule too, but slightly less (i swear i once saw a sticker on a car in milan... "i'm a geologist". awesome.)

Aussie Romanista said...

and someone pays you for this??
Why don't you get a real job, like making holes in donuts or something!!

Aussie Romanista said...

Here are some questions for you that you probably don't need to go to the archives for...

Before the Man Utd - Roma 2nd leg, my Romanista cugino in Sicily sent me a text which read something like "sono di merda... no trip for cats". Which I recognised from banners I've always seen in the curva which say "Non c'e` trippa per gatti". What the hell does this mean?? I think he meant tripe instead of trip, but I don't get it.

Also, what's the significance of the sign beneath the big screen/scoreboard behind the curva which reads "Brigate Renato Rulli". I assume it's an ultras group, but who is/was he?

Lastly, for now, what is Giuseppe Giannini's current standing with the club? To your knowledge, does he come to many games, and is he much sought after for his opinions on the current Roma etc? Any word about him joining the club in some capacity? What is he up to since his coaching stint in Romania?

Spangly Princess said...

nun c'é trippa pe' gatti means lean pickings, nothing to spare, or in a political context: the end of the gravy train. Tripe being a luxury in Roman cuisine, so basically there's no goodies for the undeserving. In the case of the striscione "Mancesta trippa pe' gatti" [I love the romanizzazaione of Manchester] the implication was 'you are goodies for us to feast on.' Or in your cousin's case, we aren't going to roll over for them.

Apparently the saying dates from English-born Jewish mayor of Rome (01907-1913) Ernesto Nathan, who put a stop to the traditional trip ration issued to the cats who kept the municipal archives rat-free.

The Brigata Roberto Rulli are a sub-group or splinter group of the Fedayn, who stand immediately to the left of the tabellone as you look at it in a photo. The Fedayn also hang their Quadraro flag in the corner of the Roberto Rulli bannner. (Quadraro is a quarter of south western Rome, not far from me, where the Fedayn started). Roberto Rulli was a founder and leader of the group which was born in 1972( shortly after the other main ultras group, Boys). In 70s photos you can pick him out easily, a mass of curly blond hair, a communist activist who was a key figure both within the group and in the Curva as a whole (CUCS etc) until his early death in 90/91. The Brigata is, to the best of my knowledge, a seperate but very closely related entity: I *think* that the Fedayn put the banner up (in '99) and then the splinter group formed around it.

As for Giannini, he does some tv & press work now & again, yeah they ask him his view on things, he tends to get interviewed in the run up to the derby, stuff like that. Also been getting involved with Forza Italia. Dunno what he's up to apart from that though.

t-test said...

So what era of Italian record keeping is your current research based on?!

I found my way here from OTF, I thought I best say hello.

die grosse linke hand.

Martha Elaine Belden said...

wow. i think that sounds like a fun job!

i love history.

Aussie Romanista said...

Thanks for the history lesson Princess.

Just wanted to say before tonight's final:

Patrick Porter said...


reminds me of some of the obscure little places I had to travel to in Germany to get my hands on documents.

us historians have to get our hands dirty and role up our sleeves, but the glory comes in the morning.

what an appalling piece of prose that paragraph was.

hey are we going to see u in the uk soon?


Spangly Princess said...

hi DGLT nice to see you here. I'm working on the First World War and its commemoration/aftermath.

PP I will be in the UK for a good while in the summer, I shall mail you.

ginkers said...

My wife is a librarian so I should not be too disloyal but when I was trying to research a local history book my experience was very similar. Nothing seemed to be where it should be but that, in part, was the charm I suppose.