These Aren’t the Docs You’re Looking For

Rachel Herrmann concludes our roundtable on James Merrell’s article, “‘Exactly as they appear': Another Look at the Notes of a 1766 Treason Trial in Poughkeepsie, New York, with Some Musings on the Documentary Foundations of Early American History” from the most recent issue of Early American Studies.

You watch your language

You know the feeling: that moment when, in the midst of crafting a sentence, you realize that the notes you made in the archive are…incomplete. I’m a transcriber, and not one to take digital photographs. I just know myself well enough to recognize the fact that transcribed words are more useful for my writing than image after image of manuscript pages that I will procrastinate from analyzing. This preference, however, means that I’ve encountered more than a few errors in my transcriptions of manuscript sources and secondary works alike. I catch my mistakes from the latter when I’m proofing a piece of writing before I submit it; I’ll go back to the book or article, read it and my quotes side by side, and discover that I’ve left out a “the,” or transposed two words, or typed part of the same sentence twice. Preventing all of my blunders on manuscript transcriptions is another matter entirely, and it is to manuscript research that I’d like to turn in my response to James Merrell’s article in Early American Studies.

Historians, and early career scholars especially, are strapped for the time and the cash to write history solely from manuscript sources—a point that Merrell gamely acknowledges.[1] Printed, edited collections of manuscript sources, he argues, inevitably contain errors (insignificant and egregious ones), but I’d like to suggest that because of our equally inevitable propensity for human error, manuscript sources are little different.

Let me be clear: I am a manuscript fiend. I was lucky enough to win time and money from various libraries and archives to fund my dissertation research because as a food historian, I was suspicious of edited collections in ways that were quite different from Merrell’s concerns. In my grant applications, I argued that I needed to look at manuscripts because food history had only recently become an accepted field of study. I worried that too many documents that dealt with food—with the exception of cookbooks and medical pharmacopeias—hadn’t made it into edited collections at all, because editors assumed that historians weren’t interested. In other words, I am less concerned that the documents Merrell cites have been carelessly transcribed, and more worried about the hundreds of thousands of documents that never get included in such collections in the first place.This is madnessWhen I began my research, I wanted to read the letters of military officers to see how much they talked about foodstuffs from a logistical and diplomatic perspective. I also knew that I’d be dealing with the problem of studying food: the fact that it can be everywhere and nowhere. And so, my solution was to adopt a needle-in-the-haystack approach, read as much as I could, and transcribe it all.

It turned out that of course, edited document collections did contain mentions of food—but that letters about food exchanges peppered manuscripts to such an extent that I’m still reeling from the amount of material I collected. For one wacky year, I spent a month in a U.S. city speed-reading and -transcribing manuscripts like a madwoman, and then rinsed and repeated until the year was through.

It just so happens that some of the things I transcribed, I transcribed sloppily. Prime example? I belatedly realized that I had a great quote for a book title, and then panicked about the capitalization in my transcription. The document was in London, and at that point, I was back in the states. I was fortunate enough to get to come back to England, and it turned out that I’d transcribed it incorrectly the first time. explode

Approaching edited document collections with more care and skepticism may get us a bit further toward the goal of better scholarship. But what are historians of newer topics to do when they realize that manuscripts should form the majority of their source base? In another article that reflects on how far scholars of Native American history have come in the last two and a half decades, Merrell observes that even if scholars don’t locate Natives “behind every bush, Indians do seem ubiquitous.”[2] I can’t yet say the same for the history of food in early America—but I’d bet on the fact that nearly every single manuscript collection deals with food in some way.

So difficultSo what’s a usually fastidious, but sometimes rushed, and occasionally careless early career scholar to do? I don’t have all of the answers to Merrell’s critiques. But I would like to offer a speculative (and somewhat opinionated) road map for how historians can encourage beginning researchers to make it easy on themselves when they find they must confront the prospect of manuscript research.

1. Advisers need to sit down with students before they go off to do research to talk about common practices and to strategize. What are some of the most common abbreviations your students will encounter? Will they recognize that “Do.” is “ditto,” “&c.” means “etc.,” and “ye” is the equivalent of “the”? Will they know where to look to find the addressee and the sender of a letter? If they’re reading sources that date before 1700, are they prepared to read the quite different handwriting? If students are using non-English sources, they also need to decide how to deal with the foreign language and the creative spelling. Most guides I’ve read strongly recommend against translating as you type, but researchers will need to be extra careful with their words and transcriptions.

2. Researchers need to figure out a transcription shorthand system and try to be consistent from start to finish. When you cite folio numbers, what will your practice be if only part of the collection is numbered? What if one set of documents has one folio number for every two pages, and another set uses a number for each page? How will you keep track of place names? If the sender misspells the place name, will you retain their spelling in your citation of the document, or will you substitute it for the commonly-accepted one? Will you try to transcribe all superscripts? What about corrections to the text? And how will you indicate when a word or phrase is unreadable?

3. Researchers should be on Twitter. In the past week or so I’ve answered two separate questions from people in the archives who used the #twitterstorians hashtag to ask about indecipherable handwriting and abbreviations. Being on Twitter gives you an immediate way to snap a photo, pose a quick query about an archival puzzle, and to get on quickly with your transcribing or note-taking.

4. You must write as you go, because doing so will help you figure out if you need to check a quote or a date—ideally before you’ve left the city that contains the archive. This practice doesn’t mean putting together cohesive, beautiful paragraphs, but it does mean trying to work the quote or the source into a sentence so that you know immediately if something is missing.

5. And finally, you may want to come up with a system for cataloguing your data before you start to collect it. Obviously, this system will change as you go, but thinking about how you’ll keep track of your sources ahead of time may save you many headaches down the line. I’ve written about my very old-fashioned methods; you can also check out Michael Hattem’s 21st-century approach.

Please feel free to weigh in in the comments sections to share any ideas for dealing with manuscript sources or edited collections. And may the source be with you. Always.

Roundtable Contributions:

GIF credits

You watch your language: via wheninacademia

This is madness: via navygirlproblems

Exploding AT-AT walker: ronoroa18

So difficult: via witwereckstein


[1] James H. Merrell, “‘Exactly as they appear’: Another Look at the Notes of a 1766 Treason Trial in Poughkeepsie, New York, with Some Musings on the Documentary Foundations of Early American History,” Early American Studies 12, no. 1 (Winter 2014): 236.

[2] James H. Merrell, “Second Thoughts on Colonial Historians and American Indians,” The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series 69, no. 3 (July 2012): 453.

12 comments on “These Aren’t the Docs You’re Looking For

  1. Brian Bouton says:

    The Force is strong with this historian. :) What a wonderful article with some fantastic advice for beginning scholars like myself. I had no idea there was a Twitter devoted to providing quick archival questions. I will make sure to follow steps one through five when I hit the archives later this spring. Thank you!

  2. There is a lot of great advice here, but I think your point about advisors talking through what students might encounter in the archive is a great one. From there follows all else, because I know that as an undergrad and Master’s student, I had no real idea what I was doing with manuscript sources short of just transcribing what they say. When I got into my Ph.D. program, my advisor gave great advice on shortcuts (like speaking to archivists and librarians), cataloging, and picking out what was significant about a given document. I’ve since discovered that even other students in my program with different advisors don’t get the same advice, and I think that’s a shame. We’re trained from the very first moment we enter graduate school to critique scholarship, but we don’t spend very much time at all learning to interpret manuscripts, which ultimately is the more important activity.

    A final point, as someone who prefers transcribing sources myself, I’ve learned there’s no harm in also taking a high-quality photograph of said sources after you’ve taken down what you need. That way, you can proofread at your desk in the United States rather than fret about what a manuscript housed an ocean away actually said.

    • That’s a good idea, Craig. This one particular source was at the British Library, where taking photographs is much trickier–but I’ll keep it in mind for the days I’m at Kew, where photography is free, free, free!

      • Yes, the BL’s policy on photographs is rather prehistoric. I haven’t yet mustered up the bravery to try and sneak a photograph myself, but as you say, there are ways to get your hands on copies if need be. I suppose it opens up a new range of questions about how to figure out which sources are absolutely crucial and which aren’t while you’re sitting in the archive, something that is nowhere near as easy to do as it is later with the benefit of perspective and hindsight.

  3. Dallett Hemphill says:

    Thanks to Sara, Michael and Rachel for a discussion that added a great deal to James Merrell’s already useful article. Now I might actually use twitter!

  4. Christopher J. says:

    This series has been great. Thanks, Rachel, Michael, and Sara.

  5. Ian Saxine says:

    This was a great series, thanks! So I have a question that this series has nudged me to think more on: as I write up my dissertation, I’ve got many quotations that I found in the archives, and then found later in a published collection, and they’re identical. So…do I 1) cite the archival version to show off that I flew halfway across the country to look at the original myself, and expect the reader to do the same if they want to verify/challenge me, 2) cite the published version so that it is easier for readers to verify my claims or 3) cite both (or more!), letting my footnotes creep like kudzu across the page?

  6. Hi Ian. I usually cite the original, and somewhere at the beginning of the chapter, I note in a footnote that many of the letters I’m about to cite are available in such and such edited collection. If there are any discrepancies between the original and the printed copy (or in the way a historian’s interpretation of either differs from mine), I note that in the individual footnote. But then, I’m a footnote person.

  7. Kathleen (Kata) Bartoloni-Tuazon says:

    Rachel, I’m assuming that you didn’t photograph or photocopy that document that you transcribed without accurate capitalization. As a result, another trip to the faraway archive was the only solution, which you were fortunate enough to swing. Were digital photos or photocopies forbidden?

  8. Kathleen (Kata) Bartoloni-Tuazon says:

    Oh, I see that Craig and you discussed this. In addition to his points, I have found that I sometimes focus more deeply on one part of the content of a document than other parts. And then later, as my understanding of the topic evolves, a different part of a document becomes important, more important than I realized. Having a version of the original that I can revisit is a tremendous help.

  9. […] Rachel Herrmann, These Aren’t the Docs You’re Looking For […]

  10. […] Speaking of primary sources, the Church History Library has recently made available hi-res scans of the minutebook from the Nauvoo Lodge of Freemasons (1841-1846). And for those interested in such issues, the folks over at The Junto: A Group Blog on Early American History posted a three-part roundtable on the trustworthiness of published editions of primary sources. Given the countless such sources central to the study of Mormon history, readers might want to check out Parts 1, 2, and 3. […]

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