Of Mice and Elephants. Different Types of Archives in Times of Corona

— Simone Wagner

Archives are like animals. They belong to the same biological entity but may vary considerably in shape and form. Some archives are very small like mice and some huge like elephants. All of them are needed in the archival ecosystem. This (bio)diversity makes archival work so interesting. No archival visit is the same and especially during a pandemic archival work can feel like exploring the depths of a jungle. In this contribution to the blog I focus on these different types of archives, how the pandemic reinforced their differences  and which tips are useful when visiting them.

My PhD project focuses on the authority of abbesses and abbots or priors in southwest German collegiate churches. It primarily deals with conflicts between the religious superiors and their chapters as well as city representatives. Consequently, the most important archives for me are southwestern state and city archives, but I also have to visit parish as well as diocesan archives and those of noble families. Actually, I have to visit a whole zoo of archives, to stick with our animal metaphor, some with plenty of documents and lots of staff, others open only on arrangement with a volunteer archivist. Therefore the working atmosphere can vary considerably. While I was quite lucky that all of “my” archives reopened during the summer, when the corona virus was temporarily restrained, corona measures amplified these differences of the archival zoo.

The different types of archives preserve a variety of sources. Archives can thus be home to quite different sorts of wildlife. After the secularization of the collegiate churches their written records were transferred to state archives. However, the representatives of the new states didn’t take all written records. Some, deemed irrelevant, stayed in parish archives. Corresponding to state archives, diocesan archives function as centralized repositories for documents of the church administration – mostly the bishop’s. In some cases, they incorporated documents originally preserved in parish archives. As my project deals with conflicts I also have to check the archive of the superiors‘ opponents. The written records of the municipal administration are often preserved in the appropriate city archives. Yet, as the imperial cities were mediatized in the 19th century, part of their archive could also end up in state archives. While it is sometimes logical, which archival document went to the state archives, in other cases it remains unclear why they ended up where they are now. Generally speaking, state archives took what the state needed to administer their newly acquired territories, i.e. jurisdictional documents. The minutes of city councils on the other hand generally remained in the city archives, as they weren’t needed to defend legal claims in the 19th century. Often overlooked, parish archives are places were interesting non-jurisdictional sources can be found. For instance, Birgit Kata, a historian at the city archive of Kempten, was able to locate a historiographical manuscript of the religious community in the parish archive St. Mang in Kempten. While researchers knew of its existence, its repository had been forgotten.

Ultimately, however, the dissolution of monasteries and especially their archives was often quite chaotic. For example, as the new Bavarian administration took possession of buildings in Lindau, the archive of the former collegiate church had to relocate several times. Presumably, during this time, archival material just disappeared instead of being consciously sorted (“kassiert” in German). Taking away archival material was also not always systematically organized. For instance, the historiographical accounts preserved by the civic authorities in Kempten are split between the city archive and the state archive in Augsburg. While the legal successors of the collegiate churches were not necessarily interested in necrologues, those still were sometimes brought to the state archives and in other cases remained in possession of the church.

Archives do not only preserve different sources, but are organized differently. The state archives I visited (Karlsruhe, Stuttgart, Augsburg) are big enterprises with a lot of staff. They rather resemble elephants as they are the heavy weights among the archives. Hence, division of labour is quite pronounced. Being well organized made planning a visit relatively easy after the state archives reopened again at the end of May. Though they restricted the amount of people using the reading room and expected us to register a seat beforehand and to wear a mask while working, it was usually enough to ask for an appointment one or two weeks in advance. In contrast to what Martin Christ experienced in Munich, the state archives visited by me allow visitors to stay for a day and don’t restrict the amount of time spent in them. Naturally, this policy helped me tremendously to plan my visit efficiently. Even before the pandemic, the organization structure influenced my visits. The state archives of Baden-Württemberg have had especially good digitization programmes. Many finding aids are online, which facilitates preparing for a visit enormously. As a downside of their well-organized and service-based character, state archives can feel a bit impersonal. This was amplified by the corona measures as some state archives understandably asked to keep contact with their staff to a minimum. Furthermore, it can be difficult getting a glimpse of the original archival material since users sometimes are obliged to use microfilm and digitized texts instead. While preserving the inventories is extremely important, in many cases historical research depends on experiencing the materiality of archival documents.

City archives are often only medium-sized or even small. How they are organized depends on the amount of preserved written records as well as on the resources the municipal administration is willing to invest in them. They mostly can’t be compared to a hive of honeybees resting upon a complex division of labour but rather to the more solitary wild bee. As city archives are smaller and have less staff than the state archives, getting an appointment can be a bit trickier. It’s best to allow some extra time for (organizing) a visit. For example, before the pandemic the city archive of Lindau was open twice a week. When I went there in February it brimmed with visitors. Due to the Corona measurements, the archivist now distributes the appointments over the course of the week so that ideally only one person uses the reading room. But, of course, he hasn’t got time to supervise visitors every day. Many city archives only open half a day, but are willing to adapt their opening hours, if a researcher comes from far away. Therefore, it is highly advisable to ask for adapting the opening hours in advance. City archivists generally understand researchers’ need to make the most of their time. Planning the visit ahead of time is also necessary due to the occasional lack of online or edited finding aids. Visitors have to communicate their project well in order for the archivists to know which inventories might be useful. Working in smaller archives can thus feel much more personal as archivists and their colleagues often actually engage with a user’s research. Many municipal archivists also researched the specific religious community and/or are responsible for scientific communication of their archival material to the citizens. Thus, I could also discuss my project with them in terms of content.

The smallest archives I visited were parish archives. In many cases, parish archives don’t have a webpage and are managed by volunteers. Hence, it takes some time to find out who is responsible for them, how to get an appointment and sometimes even if they exist at all. Mostly, it helps to ask the archivist of the nearby city archive who to contact. If state archives are like elephants nobody can overlook, parish archives rather resemble shy creatures roaming in the covert. Their size has its advantages. For instance, the parish archive of Säckingen is located in the church (Säckinger Münster) which makes researching especially atmospheric. It consists of a room in the closed part of the church filled with all the remaining documents. How often does it happen that historians can work at the place where their subjects spent time centuries ago? Furthermore, having volunteers managing the archive’s affairs can mean that they are very passionate about my subject. For them, my PhD project resonates with their regional identity. In Säckingen, the volunteer toured the church building with me and called the sexton on short notice in order to show me material remnants of the religious community (chalices, croziers,…) still kept there. (This was possible as it happened before the so-called lockdown.) Parish archives might be like shy animals but if one successfully makes contact with them, wonderful relationships can develop.

The main church of Säckingen, where the cathedral archive (Münsterarchiv) is also located.

Archives are like animals. They belong to the same entity but can vary considerably in shape and form. Some can be compared to elephants and some to mice. State archives are the biggest while parish archives are often very small. Their varying size and resources influence what researchers have to consider before visiting. Visits to smaller archives need to be planned a bit longer in advance, especially during the pandemic. It is also important to communicate the project well to the archivists in order to be informed about all the useful inventories. Furthermore, the archival working atmosphere can range from more familial to service-oriented. This difference was also somewhat reinforced due to corona measures. Asking for help is always advisable as archivists can give valuable tips. However, how researchers can and should communicate their project depends on the archive. There is a difference if researchers need one of many inventories or rather the most important documents of a smaller archive. Adapting to different circumstances can be demanding. However, all types of archives are needed and their differences also make every visit exiting.

Simone Wagner is a doctoral research in the KFG “Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations”. She specialises in late medieval religious history, especially that of southern Germany.


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