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.