The first time I ventured into a European archive was in 2001. I was in the middle of my Ph.D. program at the University of Arizona, and was starting what would become a three-year research stint in the Netherlands and Belgium. My dissertation topic was religious persecution in the 16th century Low Countries (modern day Netherlands and Belgium). I had imagined archives as damp, cave-like recesses in the basements of old libraries, staffed by old curmudgeons with missing teeth and shabby cardigans. What I encountered in the Royal Archive in Den Haag was none of those things. It was a newly-renovated, state-of-the-art facility, staffed by well dressed, friendly archivists. Nevertheless, I was a newbie with little idea of what I was doing, so I was quite nervous. My nerves were not helped by the fact that when I explained to the lovely archivist woman that I was interested in the Inquisition in the 16th century Netherlands, her response was: "Hahahaha! We didn't have one my dear. You'll have to go to Spain for that!"
It wasn't the most auspicious start to my academic journey. But I knew she was wrong. I returned the next day with some specific document requests, lifted from the footnotes of reputable scholars. And sure enough, within half an hour, I was sitting at a well-lit table with my first acid-free folder of documents lying in front of me. Slowly and carefully I opened it, only to reveal pages and pages of 500-year-old parchment filled with indecipherable squiggles that could just have easily been calculus. After staring at them for about 10 minutes, during which time I failed to find a single word I could read, I cried, returned the folder and went home. Later, a senior scholar confided that he too had cried for the same reason, in the same archive, 20 years earlier! His advice? "Don't worry. It will take eight months, but then you'll be fine!"
Seventeen years later, I found myself facing a new, equally intimidating archival foray, this time in Münster, Germany. Now I'm a professor with a book and a bunch of articles under my belt, and I'm no longer intimidated by a trip to the archives—in the Netherlands at least. Germany, however, is an entirely different story. My problem there is language. My German is horrible. I can get by in normal life. If you completely disregard correct grammar, I am probably good for about an hour of pleasant conversation. But it is abundantly clear to my conversation partner that this is not my linguistic comfort zone. I know this because whenever I tell someone that I am a professor, a completely perceptible look of disbelief quickly passes over the face of the person with whom I'm talking. I see it every time. So you can perhaps imagine my reticence at the idea of exercising my linguistic prowess in a new, German archive. But they had documents I needed to see. So off I went.
After a short conversation with the archivist-at-large, who was manning the desk in the reading room, I was introduced to Dr. Reich, the archivist most familiar with the early modern holdings of the Münster Landesarchiv. He and I had a very pleasant (if rather painful) conversation about my current topic (Mary of Hungary's dealings with Münster during the uprising in 1534-1535). He was unsure what holdings they had, but he promised to take a look and let me know what he found. Already, I was thrilled. Not always are archivists willing or able to get access to un-cataloged materials, and even when they do, they are not always willing to unleash random, linguistically-challenged foreign scholars upon them. But Dr. Reich knew that I was in Münster for just a couple of weeks, and it was probably clear that I needed more help than his average visitor!
Needless to say, when I received an email that he had found some documents, I hoofed it over to the archive in short order. What met me there blew me away. He had found two enormous bundles of documents (about 18-inches deep in total), and had gone through every single sheet of parchment, and pulled out those that pertained to my particular topic. How he had time to do that in just two days, I have no idea. It would have taken me months. He literally saved me months of work. Because of his kindness, I was able to swoop in, read quickly through the documents he had identified, and then return to the U.S. with about 120 photographs of documents I can now read at my leisure (with a big, fat dictionary in front of me.) It was a true archival coup!
There are lessons to be had in this little anecdote, about determination, overcoming insecurity, taking risks and so on. I think my favorite takeaway, though, is the simple fact that this world is filled with some pretty wonderful people. There's a good argument to be made that on balance, we stink as a species. But now and again, I run into an example of a kindness and generosity of spirit that helps me, at least, maintain some hope for the future.